History of town hall elections in Preston

Look back at the changing face of democracy in the city with local historian Keith Johnson

Two hundred years ago, in 1821, Preston was governed by the mayor, who was also the chief magistrate, two bailiffs, two sergeants, 24 capital bailiffs and others of high rank who had served in high office previously.

The usual time for inauguration of the mayor, bailiffs and sergeants taking place on October 12, Feast Day of St Wilfrid’s, after their election a week earlier.

Back in 1821, when the town’s population was 24,000, the privileged few chose Nicholas Grimshaw to be Mayor as they had 20 years earlier, ensuring he would be Guild Mayor for a second time in 1822. The role of bailiffs being taken by William Clayton and Edmund Grimshaw.

Outgoing Mayor Herbert Rhodes hands the staff of office to William Beckett in November, 1946. Also present are past mayor Alderman Margaret Pimblett and at far left, the Town Clerk, W Lockley

A decade later these arrangements were on course to change following the introduction of the Municipal Reform Act of 1832 which would give the residents more say in who governed them.

In truth the elected officials were reluctant to adopt the new procedures and it took a public meeting held in the Chadwick’s Orchard in August 1835 to finally get the new election process underway, although the Mayor Thomas Troughton was conspicuous by his absence. In accordance with the new regulations, the vote was extended only to qualifying males who were small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers, householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers.

The first election of councillors took place on Boxing Day 1835 with the voting commencing at 9am and ending at 4pm. In the various wards a poll clerk was in an attendance to record the votes cast and there was an air of excitement with bands of music on the streets and eagerness among those eligible to vote.

The voting took place in the St John’s, Trinity, Fishwick, Christ Church, St George’s and St Peter’s wards all of which had six candidates for office and generally between 2,000 and 1,000 votes were cast in each ward.

By early evening a great crowd had gathered at the Town Hall to hear the outcome and speeches of acceptance. Among those successful in becoming councillors were Thomas Monk the surgeon, John Lawe the banker, Joseph Mitchell the draper, Jonathan Bulman the druggist and a number of cotton manufacturers the likes of Paley, Miller, Swainson and the young John Horrocks of the Horrockses dynasty all being elected. However, the most popular successful candidate was the young Joseph Livesey the cheese factor successful in St John’s ward who was given rousing cheers as he spoke.

Within days the members of the council met behind closed doors and they had the authority to elect a Mayor, Aldermen and bailiffs as they so fit and not necessarily from those elected by the public ballot. Those elected came from within two groups the Established Church and the Catholic or Dissenters body which were equally divided.

The outcome included the election of Thomas Miller as Mayor and of John Horrocks the younger, Thomas Monk, Charles Swainson, John Lawe, John Paley junior and William Taylor as Aldermen who would serve six years.

At last the voices of the people would be heard within the council chamber with annual polling taking place to replace or re-elect 12 councillors in rotation. At the election of November 1838 Joseph Livesey declined the opportunity to be re-elected having decided his time was best served campaigning for the fast growing Temperance Movement and his desire to promote that organisation.

The number of those eligible to vote remained very restrictive throughout the 19th century and it took those pioneering Suffragette campaigners to get things changed. Only in 1918 did the universal franchise come into operation and even then it was restricted to men aged 30 or over.

In Preston in November 1920 the Lancashire Post headline read, ‘First Lady Member Of Town Council’ bringing the news that Mrs Avice Margaret Pimblett had won the Fishwick Ward seat for the Municipal Representation Association against her Labour Party opponents.

She would go on to win four contested elections in the decade ahead and in June 1931 she was elected as the first female Alderman of Preston. In November 1933 Alderman Pimblett was selected as the first female Mayor of Preston.

The battle for control of the Town Hall has continued relentlessly down the decades and the factions having gradually grouped themselves with the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, with the odd independent candidate being elected.

After the Second World War elections which had ceased during the war years were resumed and an amazing turn out for local elections of more than 50 per cent saw Labour take control under leader William Beckett. They would remain in control throughout the years ahead, although in 1951 they had the Labour Mayor John William Taylor to thank for his casting vote on occasions with the parties in deadlock.

By the dawn of the 1960s Preston Town Council was still in the grip of the Labour Party which held a massive majority with 33 seats including 10 Aldermen. At the time the Town Council consisted of 12 Aldermen elected by the councillors, and 36 councillors chosen by the electorate. Aldermen usually holding office for six years and a quarter of the councillors being up for election each year.

As that decade progressed the Tories began to chip away at the Labour majority and in May 1967 they emerged from the local political wilderness of 22 years. Following an astonishing series of results they took seven of the eight Labour seats up for grabs. Only Coun Cyril Molyneux was able to stem the tide as he scraped home in Ribbleton.

It was a chance for Alderman Fred Grey to put the Tory plans into action. The shift in power left the Tories with 26 seats, Labour with 20 seats and two Independents completing the line up. And they would end the decade in an even stronger position with 38 Conservatives in the council chamber.

In May 1972 the Lancashire Post headline read ‘Labour Sweep To Power’ as five years of Tory rule came to an end. A year later in 1973 sweeping changes to the Preston landscape with Fulwood and other rural districts being included in the electoral area gave the Tories hope, but Labour held off the challenge comfortably gaining 38 of the 57 seats up for grabs as the role of Aldermen disappeared.

It was a different story though in 1976 when all the seats were once more contested and as Labour supporters protested at the rocketing rates bills Coun Joseph Hood took the Tories to power with 43 seats. It was also celebration time for the Liberal Party with Ron Marshall becoming their first ever successful candidate in Ingol.

Four years later though in 1980 the tables were turned as Labour took control again under leader Ian Hall. It was the start of a 27 year dominance of Preston City Council which only ended in 2007 when despite have the most councillors they were replaced by a Tory/ Liberal Democrats alliance. During that period Valerie Wise become the first woman elected to be the leader of the Preston ruling party in 1994.

After the 2010 May election the Tory party led by Ken Hudson were still reliant on the Liberal Democrat and Independents support in a council chamber where they held 22 seats, the Lib Dems had seven seats, Labour held 25 seats and Independents numbered three.

Unfortunately for them, the local elections of 2011 saw the Labour Party move back into control of the city council after gaining four crucial seats. Further gains in 2012 consolidated their position and their support has continued steadfastly.

Following the May elections of 2018 when Labour had a couple of gains the 57 seat council chamber had Labour with 35 seats, Conservatives 17 seats and the Liberal Democrats five.

Recent changes through the Local Government Commission implemented in 2019 reducing the number of councillors from 57 to 48 left the City Council still in Labour control after the most recent elections in 2019.