Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors

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City government 1551–1835


By the sixteenth century a pattern of government had developed in Oxford which was to last for another three hundred years, until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. It was based on the closed system under which the only people who were allowed to practise trades within the city boundaries were the Freemen of Oxford (known as Hanasters), plus “privileged persons” matriculated by the University.

Freemen belonged to a Guild, and the following shows all the Guilds that are known to have operated in Oxford:

Bakers

Cordwainers

Mercers/Woodrapers

Barbers

Fishmongers

Musicians

Brewers

Glovers

Skinners

Butchers

Goldsmiths

Smiths

Cappers

Hosiers

Tailors

Carpenters/Joiners/Slaters/Paviours

Locksmiths/Gunsmiths/ Farriers

Watchmakers

Cooks

Masons

Weavers/Fullers

The assembly of Guild members formed the body of the Freemen, and the Freemen of the City of Oxford met as the Commons.

Steps to become Mayor

A typical Mayor would have worked his way up through the following positions:

  1. Constable (although it was possible to pay a fine and avoid this step)
  2. Freeman (by inheritance, apprenticeship, or purchase)
  3. Councillor (24 Councillors were elected for life by the Freemen on to the Common Council, or Consilium commune)
  4. Chamberlain (two were elected from the Common Councillors each year, or the rank could be purchased. Included in this body were all those who had ever held the office)
  5. Bailiff (two were elected from the Chamberlains each year, or the rank could be purchased. Included in this body were all those who had ever held the office)
  6. The Thirteen (the Mayor, the four Aldermen, and eight Assistants forming a Cabinet)

The Mayor could only be chosen each year from The Thirteen (the Consilium majoris). As all members of The Thirteen held their positions for life, many Mayors held office more than once, and when a vacancy for an Assistant was filled, the person chosen was often immediately seized upon as Mayor the following September. For most of this period, the Mayor himself could not be re-elected until after a period of six years.

As the council comprised not only the 13 members of the Mayor’s Council and the 24 Councillors but also all the former Bailiffs (40-50) and Chamberlains (15–25), it could reach over a hundred members in all.


Corrupt practices and Municipal Corporations Act

Corrupt practices were rife in the eighteenth century: the council met in secret sessions, its books were no longer audited, and the council even sold its parliamentary seats to the Earl of Abingdon and the Duke of Marlborough (the latter paying £6,000, then a massive sum).

The Parliamentary Commission of 1832 stated that “The mode of electing corporate officers in Oxford is peculiar”, and Oxford was a “rotten borough”.

The following extact is taken from the Monthly Supplement of The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, December 1835, shows how the Mayor was then chosen:

The municipal institutions of the city of Oxford are described by the Commissioners, who visited it during the inquiry instituted in 1833. The form of election to the office of mayor was quite peculiar to Oxford. At a special meeting of the Council Chamber, two persons were nominated to the office, and the members of the council gave their votes at the time. The result was then declared to the freemen assembled, after which the council left their chamber and, with the freemen, elected one of the two individuals who had been previously so nominated and announced. The votes of the council were computed in both cases, which consequently gave them a double vote. This was technically termed “an election by scrutiny in the house, and by the commons”. But as the right of nomination belonged exclusively to the members of the Council Chamber, it was clear that if two candidates were presented equally objectionable to the freemen, they had not the power of rejecting either; one of them was necessarily forced upon them by the self-elected ruling body. These elections were besides conducted in a manner calculated to produce a general depravation in the morals and habits of the lower class of freemen.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 removed the stranglehold that the local tradesmen and guild members had had on the city for the previous seven centuries.

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 11 September, 2012

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