Wight Life

An Ancient Borough in Retrospect

By Walter Roberts

Drawing of the Great Mace of Newport

ORGANISATION, whether in the world of business, politics or education, can often destroy much that has given good service, and this may well happen soon as a result of drastic changes in our system of local government. Whatever advantages there may be in the reorganisation, there will be regret that so much that we have valued will disappear. One victim of change will be the mayor and corporation of Newport. No doubt our Island capital will continue to flourish as the centre of administration of the Isle of Wight. The geographical factors which gave birth to the town 800 years ago, when the Lord of the Island granted a charter to 'my new borough of Medina' will, no doubt, enable it to play an important part in the new local government district to be created in the north of the Island, and which will probably be called Medina. Yet it is sad to think that there may only be one more mayor-making ceremony in Newport, and that the curtain must soon go down on a most important stage in the town's long history. Perhaps what a clerk wrote in 1835 in the `Corporation Proceedings' of the borough could be repeated in the Council Minutes of Newport in 1973 — together with the marginal note 'the Mayor, Aldermen and Chief Burgesses went out of office and their whole powers and duties ceased.' And the marginal note was brief but to the point: 'Demise of an Old Corporation.'

This then seems an appropriate moment to look back on the sources of the authority that Newport Corporation wielded, to describe some of its old documents and other possessions and assess its achievements in recent times. Until the Guildhall was sold to the County Council five years ago for £30,000, all Newport's valuable records and insignia were able to be seen in this fine Regency building erected in 1816 from designs presented, free to the corporation, by John Nash. It is fortunate that the internal reconstruction, necessary to convert our town hall into the Island's courts of justice, has not unduly altered the grandeur of this building with its classical lines and its good taste and excellent proportions so much praised by early 19th century writers. Unfortunately, however, the borough, having lost its home has been forced to house its archives and other treasures in a confined space, a carefully prepared strong room in their Quay Street Offices. Though, as this article proves, it is still possible to use material required for research, Island historians look forward hopefully to a new home for this fine legacy of the borough's interesting history.

The authority of the corporation rested primarily on the sixteen or so charters only a few of which were lost. The first, granted by Richard de Redvers from Carisbrooke Castle about 1180 is a very small document (6" x 71/2 ") but still has part of the green seal of its donor intact. The first burgesses were granted economic benefits, judicial privileges and the right of electing their own Reeve. Later charters granted by English sovereigns, to whom the Island had been sold, extended or confirmed the rights of earlier charters. For example, that of Henry VII gave the borough the petty customs of all the ports and creeks of the Island.

The longest and most important of these royal charters, were those of James I and Charles II. Newport gained incorporation under James I in 1608 when its bailiffs were replaced by mayors and its 24 chief burgesses formed a Common Council, empowered to make bye-laws and impose punishments for breaking them. By the end of Charles ll's reign, with its officers, officials, including a town clerk and a recorder and aldermen and chief burgesses, Newport had all the characteristics of an 18th century closed corporation including the exclusive right of returning two members to parliament. From 1835, however, the more demo- cratic spirit of the 19th century, as we have seen, brought radical change and from that date until the present day, Newport has had its elected council, presided over by the mayor himself chosen by the six aldermen and 18 councillors.

The corporation has also preserved numerous other docu- ments, deeds dating back to 1327, petty customs and wharfages, licenses of victuallers and many other bundles of papers. The most famous of its bound manuscripts is the so-called 'Old Ligger' or ledger book begun after Elizabeth I and continued with varied success until George III's reign. The quaint old spelling of 1567 introduces this collection of charters and documents to us: 'The contents of this Book gathered out of divers olde ancient Recorder by the industrie and labourious travayle of William Porter and John Serle, balives.' The last entry was made on the occasion of the visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 and Prince Philip to the Guildhall in 1965 when they added their signatures to the page beautifully inscribed to commemorate their visit.

This drawing of the great mace is a reminder of the insignia of the mayor and corporation. The mace, the emblem of the royal authority wielded by the mayor as our chief citizen, is always carried wherever lie goes by the town sergeant, and it is placed on the table before the mayor at all council meetings. It is one of the four oldest in the country and one of the longest, bearing the royal arms of William III, the name and arms of Lord Cutts, the donor of the mace, and the coat of arms of the borough as well. The smaller mace is 200 years old and has upon it the royal arms of George III.

One of Newport's distinguished line of MPs gave to Francis Pittis, mayor in 1863, a very distinctive mayor's chain. It is of gold and has a central badge which is oval and bears the arms of Newport. There is also a mayoress's chain presented in 1910 by Alderman Francis Templeman Mew JP, and a deputy mayor's badge of more recent date. Mention must also be made of the set of standard measures linking the civic life of Newport with its market and fares, particularly the Winchester bushell of 1791; and of the wooden ballot boxes, with red and white balls, first used according to our famous ledger book in 1621 for the election of mayor. Perhaps this was the first recorded use of voting by ballot in England.

In recent decades, Newport's mayors, aldermen and councillors aided by the loyalty of experienced and well qualified officers have not only done their best to preserve the historical traditions of the borough, but have given progressive and efficient administration. Many new housing estates have been developed, over 1100 council houses have been built and maintained, better lighting, the provision of more car parks and ambitious road schemes have had Council approval, and the burden on the ratepayers has not been unduly heavy. This effective government has not been out of touch with the people of Newport, for unlike some municipal borough elections, those here have usually been lively with most wards contested. This liveliness at the 'Listings' has been reflected in the debates in the council chamber. We hope that this democratic spirit will be in evidence when the new authority takes over in April 1974. Though it would seem that 'demise of an old corporation' must again be pronounced in Newport, no people in the Wight can have more pride in their homeland than the burgesses of this ancient borough, and the strength of local government, if it is to be really local, must be derived from such local patriotism.