When considering Evesham’s history, the things that come to mind tend to be the obvious ones: the founding of the Abbey as a result of Eof’s vision, the battle of Evesham, the ongoing dispute between the Abbey town of Evesham and the castle town of Bengeworth (which the Abbey won), and finally the destruction of the the Abbey leaving us with just the Bell Tower standing. But I thought it might be interesting (to fellow politics nerds, anyway) to look at some more recent history and trace how Evesham came to have its current form of local government.
Local government as we know it in Evesham started in 1605 when the town was granted a Royal charter by James I. Town charters were by no means new – the very first was granted to the City of London in 1075 – but they were only granted as and when the townsfolk could persuade the king to grant one, and it wasn’t until 1605 that Evesham got theirs.
Records show that Evesham’s Royal charter was granted on the request of Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son and heir to the throne. The young prince in turn appears to have been influenced by his chaplain, the Reverend Dr Lewis Baylie, who happened to be combining his royal duties with serving as the vicar of Evesham at the time.
Henry never lived to ascend to the throne, dying of typhoid fever at the age of 18 in 1612. But his name lives on not only in the town’s charter (and his emblems on the town’s coat of arms) but also in one of Evesham’s most distinguished institutions. The charter also formally united the neighbouring towns of Evesham and Bengeworth as a single government entity, and thus marked the end of Bengeworth’s independent existence.
Grant of joint incorporation of the towns of Evesham and Bengworth, under the name of the Mayor, &c., of the borough of Evesham; with confirmation of their former liberties, and grant of new ones, including license to have a schools called “The Free Grammar School of Prince Henry.”
As well as subsuming Bengeworth into Evesham and giving one of the region’s most prestigious schools its name, the charter created a town council comprising several aldermen and headed by a mayor. The council was exempt from certain levies paid to the king, and had the right to raise its own taxes and operate a market (the charter market, of which today’s market is the direct descendant).
That gave Evesham, for the first time, a measure of control over its own finances, with income from taxation and the market available for the council to spend as it saw fit. The first Mayor of Evesham was Robert Allen, of which we know little other than the fact that he was a “Gentleman”, that is, a member of the upper classes and a landowner.
In fact, the majority of Evesham’s early mayors were Gentlemen, interspersed with the occasional Esquire (in social terms, ranking slightly above a Gentleman), a few Reverends and even a Baronet – it wasn’t until 1762 that the first occupational title appeared on the name boards, and not until 1836 when occupational titles became predominant.
These early members of the town council were not elected. The very first members were appointed by the charter, and subsequently appointed their own successors when necessary to fill a vacancy left by retirement or death. So, although Evesham had a certain amount of self-governance, it was not democratic self-governance. For more than two centuries, Evesham was governed by a self-perpetuating clique consisting predominantly of the upper classes with a smattering of clergy and wealthier tradesmen. The thing which changed that was the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.
Following on from the Representation of the People 1832 (better known as the Great Reform Act), which had abolished the “Rotten Boroughs” in the process of taking “effectual measures for correcting diverse abuses that have long prevailed in the choice of members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament”, the Municipal Corporations Act aimed to do the same to local government.
178 town or borough councils were reformed immediately by the Municipal Corporations Act, and another hundred followed over subsequent years. Evesham was one of the initial 178. The changes brought in by the Act were far-reaching and created a body which, for the first time, would be clearly recognisable as the predecessor of that in which I serve today.
The newly-reformed municipal boroughs, or corporations, were obliged to publish their accounts, and were subject, for the first time, to external audit. They also had to employ a salaried town clerk and treasurer, who could not be a member of the council. But the most significant change was that all members were now elected, representing a system of local wards which also still persists to this day.
As you might expect, this significantly changed the composition of the council. Previously, the mayoral name boards had been overwhelmingly dominated by members of the upper classes. From 1836, occupational titles started to become more common. By the late Victorian era, Gentlemen and Esquires had become as rare as non-gentry had been earlier. The last member of the gentry to appear on the boards was Henry Smith Esq in 1904. And Evesham’s first female Mayor, Amy Nightingale, held the office in 1944.
Following the Municipal Corporations Act, the Victorians would continue tinkering with local government until the turn of the century. Most of what we now consider “traditional” local government was, in reality, a Victorian (or immediately pre-Victorian) invention. But this was predominantly at county and city level, market towns such as Evesham avoided further reform until well into the 20th century.
The Representation of the People Act 1948 had a relatively modest effect on Evesham, with the only significant change being the timing of elections – these were switched to the now-familiar first week in May. Other post-war legislation was, again, concentrated on county level and left Evesham unscathed. It wasn’t until 1974 that reform again meant changes to the town.
The Local Government Act 1972 was certainly the biggest change to local government in England since the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and arguably the biggest ever. Whereas previous reforms had addressed the composition and constitution of local government, the Local Government Act reformed its boundaries. And some of the new boundaries were radically different from what had gone before.
The legacy of the Victorians was essentially a county-based overall structure, with an ad-hoc system of boroughs, towns, cities and parishes beneath it. Evesham, as a major market town in Worcestershire, had more local autonomy and more power than, for example, Pershore, but less than Worcester. The new legislation aimed to create a uniform two-tier system across the country, with counties at the upper level and districts below them. Both counties and districts would be based on population geography rather than traditional geography. And Evesham, being a medium-sized market town, bigger than a parish but smaller than a city, fell fairly and squarely into the gap.
The outcome was that Evesham, for the first time since 1605, was reduced to the status of a parish. The borders of the new Evesham Town Council were much more tightly drawn than its Borough predecessor, and most of its powers were transferred to the newly created Wychavon District Council.
Fortunately, the Royal charter granted by James I was not rescinded, and remains the charter of the new Evesham Town. We retain our coat of arms, including the crown and the Prince of Wales feathers, as well as the right to operate a market. We still also have limited tax-raising powers, and we still have to employ a town clerk. But, apart from the property we own or manage, we have no direct powers over the administration of the town.
Probably the best illustration of the difference between the powers of Evesham council then and our powers now is to look at our bridges. Workman Bridge, named after the Mayor who oversaw the project, was constructed by the town and funded from within the town. The first Abbey Bridge, opened in 1928, was built by the county and Evesham Corporation working together. The new Abbey Bridge was built by the county without any input from the town, and if we want to as much as put a banner on a lamppost on the new bridge we have to get permission from Wychavon.
It’s all a long way from the height of Evesham’s powers in the late 19th century. But we’re still here to do our best for the town. And there’s plenty of potential still for the future.