Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


City Government 1889–1974

The city of Oxford became a County Borough on 9 November 1889, and at the same time its boundaries were extended to include Cowley St John, Grandpont, and New Hinksey.

There were now four City wards, with 36 councillors and twelve aldermen selected by councillors from their own number.

Members of the University took part in the management of city affairs as members of the Corporation for the first time. The University formed a separate ward, with three aldermen and nine councillors, thus forming a fifth of the new council: this arrangement survived until 1974. These university councillors had no political affiliation. Three were elected by Convocation (the dons’ parliament); six by the heads and senior bursars of colleges; and another three aldermen were elected by the nine university councillors.

The Council took over the duties of the Board of Health, the Market Committee, and the Police Committee.

In 1894, a decision was taken to divide the principal officer posts on political grounds: the post of Town Clerk was given to the Conservatives, and those of city accountant and solicitor to the Liberals.

Until 1945, the large wards to the east (Cowley, Iffley, Headington, and Marston) came under the county seat of Henley, and did not elect Oxford city councillors.

In 1958 Labour became the largest party on the council for the first time, but they did not achieve overall control until 1972.

In 1967 the city was reorganized into 15 wards, each with three councillors: North, South, East, West, St Clements, Wolvercote, Cherwell, Marston, Headington, Quarry, Wood Farm, Blackbird Leys, Cowley, Iffley, Donnington. As a result, 30 out of the 45 councillors came from east of Magdalen Bridge, compared with 18 out of 42 previously.

In 1970 18- to 20-year-olds got the vote, and a Court of Appeal ruling in 1971 declared that students (previously regarded as “visitors”) could vote where they studied.

Olive Gibbs summed the situation in the early 1970s thus:

There were sixty-eight members of the Oxford City Council which was then a County Borough: forty-two were elected councillors from the seven wards of the City: West, South, North, East, Summertown & Wolvercote, Headington & Marston, Cowley & Iffley. In addition there were nine councillors from the University: six elected by Heads and Bursars of Colleges and three by Convocation. For each three councillors there was one Alderman, the Council itself electing those from the wards and the University representatives electing their own. The Aldermen all served for a six-year period of office but they were eligible for re-election and tended to be a self perpetuating body. One of the few advantages arising from the reorganisation of local government in 1974 was the abolition of University representation, the Aldermanic Bench and other forms of undemocratic government. (In 1967 the Privy Council, on a “prayer” from the City Council, had already reduced the number of University representatives from twelve to eight: six councillors, all to be elected from Congregation, and two Aldermen.

In those early years the Conservatives, ably led by their formidable Leader, Lady Townsend, were in overwhelming control of the Council and yet many of their major committees, such as Education, Watch (Police) and Estates, were chaired by University members.


©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 2 April, 2013

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