The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary

By E. Neville Williams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
LOCAL GOVERNMENT

One sentence from the Webbs' great work on local government graphically brings out the difficulty of adequately illustrating this subject, except in a number of volumes. 'If a single highly evolved organisation had, at all the various stages of its development from the Lord's Court of a rural Manor right up to the most fully developed Municipal Corporation, been successively photographed for the information of future generations, these different pictures could hardly have represented the several stages more strikingly than do the hundreds of distinct local authorities simultaneously existing in the eighteenth century.'1 This teeming variety was the result of a number of circumstances. Firstly, the organs of local government had originally been superimposed on the medieval ones without abolishing them; secondly, the Civil War and the Revolution had freed them from central control; and, thirdly, they were thus able to adapt themselves as the economic and social changes of the eighteenth century gave them new tasks to perform. The result was, as Halévy said, that ' England was a museum of constitutional archaeology where the relics of past ages accumulated'2--as well as a building-site for new structures. The principal units alluded to in this chapter, the parish, the county, the manor and the borough, carried out the tasks set them by the common and statute law free from any control save that provided by action in the courts, initiated by the crown, or by a private person, or by another local government unit. For, of all the institutions of the period, local government was the least characterised by Montesquieu's separation of powers. Administration and legislation were carried out under judicial forms by presentment and indictment. Roads were repaired, bridges maintained, the poor relieved, drunkenness suppressed, grazing regulated, factory smoke abated, markets run and streets scavenged by a process whereby duties were imposed by law on private individuals, public officials or local communities, and punishments meted out by the courts for neglect to carry them out. Thus local autonomy, though great, was not complete, and it was further modified by the very real control exercised through the social homogeneity of the men who ran all the eighteenth-century institutions; and by the delicate nexus of interests typified, for example, by the importance attached by the First Lord of the Treasury to the instructions sent (by the Bishop of Winchester as Lord of the Manor of Taunton) to the

____________________
1
S. and B. Webb, The Manor and the Borough ( 1908), p. 203.
2
E. Halévy, History of the English People in the 19th Century ( 1949), vol. 1, p. 111.

-256-

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The Eighteenth-Century Constitution, 1688-1815: Documents and Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xv
  • Abbreviations xvi
  • Chapter 1 - The Revolution 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Central Government 67
  • Chapter 3 - Parliament 136
  • Chapter 4 - Local Government 256
  • Chapter 5 - The Church 325
  • Chapter 6 - Liberties of the Subject 383
  • Index 445
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