The Book of Molesey
Rowland G. M. Baker, 1986
'Local Self-Government leads necessarily on, by|
its own inherent force, to steady progress'.
J. Toulmin Smith, Local Self Government and|
The machinery of English local government has its roots back in the Anglo-Saxon age and even beyond. A continuous historical thread extends from the folk moots of ancient times through to the borough councils of today. Its earliest form consisted of a grouping together of all the householders in one locality for the mutual maintenance of law and order. Each member pledged to be answerable for the conduct and behaviour of all the others. Probably the group originally consisted of one hundred families, hence the division was known (at least in this part of the country) as a hundred. The hundred as an administrative unit is far older than either the county or the parish. That is why some parishes — Thames Ditton for example — extended into more than one hundred.
In the 10th century a Royal ordinance enjoined that a meeting of the men of the hundred was to be held every four weeks, and all were to attend to do justice to their fellows. In those days, of course, there were no palatial town halls in which to meet. The gatherings originally known as moots but later as hundred courts were held on some mutually convenient and prominent piece of open territory towards the middle of the district. It was usual for the hundred to be named from the place where the moot gathered. In this district it was by a crossing over the river Mole — then known as the Emele — and was consequently called the Emely Bridge or Elmbridge Hundred.
Over the years the hundred was gradually superseded by other forms of local administration. Nevertheless, it retained some authority, especially in the realm of justice, right up to the present century, during which it has shed all significance.
During the Middle Ages local government devolved mainly into a manorial function. By the 14th century the lords of both Molesey manors claimed the right to hold a local court — called a leet — for the trial of offenders caught within their domain, to search out suspected malefactors who had decamped to other parts and bring them back for trial, and to fine those found guilty and confiscate their goods. All of this was a source of considerable profit. In 1334 it was estimated that the 'perquisites of the courts' of Molesey Matham amounted to six shillings and eight pence a year. They also held separate courts — called courts baron — for the registration of land transactions, for which a charge was also made. The last court baron held in Molesey was as late as 1916.
The manors were also responsible for maintaining and keeping in good order the roads which ran across their land. By early Tudor times, however, the manorial system was in decline. In 1555, to revive the rapidly degenerating highways, the responsibility for their upkeep was transferred to the previously purely ecclesiastical parishes. Each was to appoint a surveyor of the highways, who was to organise their repair and present to the magistrates anyone who caused hindrance.
Thus in 1661 Anne Beckford, a widow living in East Molesey, was accused before the Quarter Sessions at Kingston of allowing a ditch to be so blocked up that it overflowed into the highway. In 1668 Newdon Cole, 'late of West Moulsey', was likewise charged 'that he encroached upon the common highway near the churchyard' for a space of six feet by six feet, which he admitted. He was fined one shilling.
The parish gradually became the most important territorial unit. The system worked through a series of local officers appointed at an annual parish meeting at Easter: churchwardens, surveyor, overseers of the poor, constable, aletaster, and so on. They were unpaid and untrained, and the work was generally unpopular and perfunctorily performed. The meeting was originally held in the church vestry and was thus called the Parish Vestry. In later times they preferred a more convivial atmosphere — in West Molesey of the Royal Oak, and in 18th century East Molesey of the Castle, King's Arms, Swan, and Bell each of which was visited in turn.
The officers recovered the expenses they had laid out by a rate levied on all property owners. To encourage reluctant parishioners to serve, they were allowed to charge for their subsistence while on parochial business. Some did not stint themselves: the churchwarden of West Molesey, going to Kingston in 1797, charged £1 9s 3d for his dinner.
The officers entered their accounts into books, and these volumes, together with the minutes of vestry meetings, form the basis of parochial records. Some records exist for both the Moleseys from the 18th century. They tell a fascinating and human story of the times, and especially of the trials, tribulations, distress, and suffering of ordinary folk, who were forced to apply to the parish to exist.
After the Napoleonic Wars there was great hardship among the poor. Claims upon the poor rate soared, and it was kept down only by administering relief with ever-increasing harshness. In 1822, to reduce costs, the two Molesey parishes established a joint workhouse in what is now known as Old Manor House in Bell Road. Here the paupers, orphans, mental deficients and aged were all lumped together and accommodated more cheaply on a communal basis, and relief was generally denied to any who refused to enter the workhouse.
Even so, the cost of poor relief developed beyond the resources of small parishes like the Moleseys. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act removed the responsibilities from parishes and grouped them together into Poor Law Unions, each with a central poorhouse. The governing body of the union was a Board of Guardians, elected on the basis of one per parish, irrespective of size. The Moleseys were combined into the Kingston Union. Henceforth the local poor were required to apply for assistance at the union workhouse in Coombe Lane, Kingston. This system continued until it was abolished by the Local Government Act of 1929. The Kingston Workhouse was then converted into a general hospital.
The 19th century was dominated by much economic, political, and social change, inevitably posing new problems and producing new solutions in the field of local government. A series of devastating outbreaks of cholera in the 1840s prompted the passing of an act in 1848 which precipitated the preservation of public health into the realm of local government, and for about a hundred years became its foremost function. The act provided for the setting up of local sanitary districts, whose duty it was to oversee and control various insanitary aspects contributing to the spread of disease. The Moleseys came within the jurisdiction of the Kingston Rural Sanitary Authority, which was virtually the Board of Guardians wearing a different hat.
In 1866, after the population growth of East Molesey had brought much new blood into the village, especially professional and commercial men, all demanding a greater say in the running of local services, the parish applied for and received permission for the setting up of a Local Board. This consisted of a locally elected council having paid officials and staff, combining all the functions of the parish vestry, the rural sanitary authority, and the highway board, in one body. East Molesey was, therefore, the first — and for nearly thirty years the only — part of the Borough of Elmbridge to have its own elected council.
The first meeting was held on 13 September 1866, when Mr Frederick Bedwell of Matham Road was elected chairman; Mr John Cann, a solicitor living in Vine Road, was appointed clerk at a salary of £25 a year and Mr John Bent surveyor and inspector of nuisances, at £20 a year. It was resolved that meetings should be held every month at the Bell Inn, although within a short time Mr Cann reported that he had added a room to his own house, 40 feet by 20 feet, suitable for meetings of the Board, which he offered for their use at a rent of £20 per annum. This was accepted and used for some 20 years.
Mr Cann's clerkship to the Board was on a part-time basis only and he continued in private practice. In 1887 due to the increase of his business Mr Cann asked the Board to find alternative accommodation. It moved to new premises on the corner of Walton and Matham Roads. For the first time the Board had its own accommodation, with offices, vehicle depôt, store, and fire station, all at one location, the site of which is now the Walton Road Garage.
The Board soon became involved in street lighting and highway maintenance. The first report of the surveyor stated that: 'The main road is in a very bad state, and requires immediate repair from one end to the other'. However, the main reason for setting up the board was said to be 'The improvement of the health of the Parish by an improved system of surface drainage', a laudable object indeed, but one which, because of certain traits which bedevilled the board throughout its existence, notably parsimony and eternal petty bickering between the members, was put off and put off, and not finally achieved until almost 30 years had elapsed.
Meanwhile, West Molesey, where the population growth was much slower, continued under the administration of its vestry. Its health was tended by the rural sanitary authority, its roads by the Highway Board, and its school by a school board.
Towards the end of the 19th century local government — which had become immured in a prolific welter of various authorities, boards, unions, ad hoc bodies, and so on — was entirely reorganised and rationalised.
In January 1889 the poll for the first popularly elected county councils took place. The candidates for the Molesey Electoral Division — which initially included the parish of Esher (much to the chagrin of the latter) — were Mr John Cann, the clerk of the local board, and Mr J. W. Sumner, a stone mason and builder, of Walton Road. Although not standing as official party candidates, it was well known that Mr Cann, who was elected, was a committee member of the local Conservative Association and that Mr Sumner was the secretary of Molesey Liberal Party — so much for politics in local government being a 20th century innovation.
The success of county councils led in 1894 to a second tier, of district councils. The East Molesey Local Board became the East Molesey Urban District Council, with virtually the same powers as before. West Molesey became a parish with a parish council, inside the Kingston Rural District. Even before the reorganisation, however, East Molesey had tried desperately to embrace its western neighbour into its local board area, mainly because it had at last embarked upon the sewerage disposal scheme and wanted West Molesey to help pay for it. The latter wanted nothing to do with it, resisted tenaciously, and succeeded for some time. Nevertheless, the government eventually succumbed to pressure and, by an Order in Council dated 1 October 1895, forced West Molesey to amalgamate, to form the Urban District of East and West Molesey.
With the extra work this entailed, the Council's premises became woefully inadequate, and in 1902 a large house called Dundee Villa in St Mary's Road, with grounds extending back to Walton Road, was purchased and opened as offices, depôt and yard.
It seems that the average span between major local government reorganisations is about 40 years. The East Molesey Local Board was formed in 1866, in 1894 it became an urban district, in 1933 that united with Esher and the Dittons, Cobham, and Stoke d'Abernon, to form the Esher Urban District, which in turn, in 1974, was merged with Walton and Weybridge into the present Borough of Elmbridge. The next move ought, therefore, to be early next century; one wonders what that will bring forth.
ISBN 0 86023 251 4
The Book of Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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