In 1897 Cradley Parish Council called a meeting to discuss a proposed public building commemorating sixty years of Queen Victoria's reign. Peter Barnsley reports on the uproar that resulted.
First published in The Blackcountryman, Autumn 2001, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 20-23.
0n the evening of Tuesday 16th February, 1897, Cradley Parish Council met to consider how they should commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The sub-committee of the Council that had considered the problem had dismissed the suggestions of a recreation ground or a parish clock, and decided that what would be most appropriate (and what Cradley most needed) was a "parish building" of some sort. And to finance the building, it was proposed to raise a loan of £2,000, which was a considerable sum of money in 1897.1
The chairman of the Parish Council at the time was the Cradley vicar, the Rev. R. H. Edmondson, and he suggested that one advantage of a parish building was that it would provide a room where Conservatives and Liberals could meet on neutral ground.
"If there is a public meeting in High Town Ragged School," said Mr. Edmondson, "only Liberals attend". (A cry of "No" from one of the council members (unnamed) greeted the vicar's remark). Undeterred, he continued: "Only a few of the opposition turn up to create a diversion. If a meeting is called at the Church Schools, it is almost entirely attended by Conservatives and Liberal Unionists".
Mr. Edmondson suggested further uses of a parish building: it could be used for lectures " ... on the history of the county, the coal trade or the iron trade ... there is no place in Cradley where there is any chance of educating the people after they leave school".
During the following discussion, Henry Clift, an anchor-smith, said that the repayment of a £2,000 loan (and the interest on it) would impose too great a burden on the poorer ratepayers, who were already hardly able to pay their rates. He moved that the matter be postponed.
Answering Ben Southall, a local grocer, Mr. Edmondson said that a loan of £2,000 would enable them to erect a building that contained a reading room, public offices for the Parish Council and a large hall for public meetings. The loan could be repaid by means of a twopenny or threepenny rate at most (i.e. just under, or just over, a modern penny).
After some discussion, it was decided to accept the sub-committee's suggestion of a public building - but also to follow its recommendation to call a public meeting to seek the approval of Cradley's inhabitants (or more accurately, its ratepayers).
As chairman of the Parish Council, the vicar had the duty of summoning the public meeting. Presumably, he was also responsible for the wording of the notices announcing the meeting that were displayed at various places in Cradley. Unfortunately, the notices were so worded as to give the impression that the Parish Council had already contracted for the loan (though it was clearly stated in the Parish Council's minutes that the whole project was subject to public approval). Feelings were aroused.
As chairman of the Parish Council, Mr. Edmondson also chaired the public meeting, which was held in Cradley Church Schools in the evening of Tuesday, 9th March. The prospects for a meeting that already threatened to be acrimonious, were not improved by the vicar's opening remarks. Surprisingly, he again brought politics into the matter: "The parish has long suffered from a party spirit", he said. "I don't think there is another parish in England where there are more parties, each more bitter against the other". ("Cries of "Shame!" and "Query") The vicar was presumably referring to factions as well as political parties.
Mr. Edmondson repeated the remarks that he had made at the Parish Council meeting about the advantages of a public room and a reading room, and further pointed out that a public building would be a suitable place to pay the rates (at the time, Cradley ratepayers paid their rates at a public house). "The reason for this meeting" the vicar continued, "is to test the feelings of parishioners, and not to force anything on the parish" ("Hear, hear" and applause). "The Parish Council recommends a building comprising a hall, a parish office where the rate collector can receive the rates, and a reading room for the men ... I would like to see some place where a man can spend an evening without having to buy a pint of beer or a glass of whisky. The proper way to raise the money would be by public subscription" ("Hear, hear" and applause) "but we have just called on our large ratepayers to pay £1,500 towards the schools, and they have responded to that" (though he admitted that not all the money had yet been paid)2. "I don't think a public subscription would have the slightest chance to carry at the present time, and the only other way is by loan". The vicar had estimated that a loan of £2,000 at 3½%, repayable over thirty years, would mean a 1½d. rate (say £9 or £10 for the large ratepayers; one or two shillings (i.e. fivepence or tenpence) for others.
One of the earlier objections from the floor was political: "What is the Queen's Jubilee to do with us? She is no more to us than what our own parents are". (This rather ambiguous remark drew cries of "Order! Order!" and created what the County Express described as a 'Disturbance').
The chairman (rather tartly one imagines): "We are here to do honour to the Queen, not to insult her". (Applause).
"She is sovereign of this land, but she gets a good salary for it". (Disturbance, and renewed cries of "Order.")
George Davis, a printer and a member of the Parish Council, admitted that he had seconded the motion to seek a loan (a voice: "Shame" and cries of "Order!") "There is no need for excitement", Mr. Davis continued, "It's simply a question of saying yes or no".
Mr. Hartley King, a Cradley colliery-owner (and therefore one of the large ratepayers) briefly summarised the recent increases in the rates, and pointed out that of Cradley's total rateable value (about £19,000 at the time) the mines represented £4,200. "You all know" he added "that mines are exhaustible, and when they are worked out, Cradley's rateable value will fall to about £14,500, exclusive of the fall in the value of the many works that are dependent on the mines. When this occurs, it will require a rate of five shillings and fourpence (i.e. about 26 pence) to produce the present sum".
George Bissell, a land agent, supported Mr. King: "What right have we to borrow money to put a burden on the backs of our successors for the next twenty or thirty years? If we want to do anything, let us put our hands in our pockets, and pay for it". (Applause).
The discussion became more general, and Mr. Edmondson had to appeal to the meeting: "Please speak about the public building". (Disorder, and cries of "Order! Order!") The appeal had no effect. James Hingley, a farmer, referred to other burdens on the ratepayers. "The proposed £2,000 loan" he concluded, "will be the last straw that broke the elephant's back". (Laughter). "The Parish Council has caused a lot of unpleasantness". (Laughter, applause and uproar). "At a recent meeting, the vicar made an elaborate statement about the insanitary condition of the parish".
Mr. Edmondson: "And is it not necessary? I appeal to ratepayers present". (Disorder, cries of "Stick to the point" and "Order! Order!")
Mr. Hingley, speaking amid general hubbub, was understood to say that he thought the vicar had been making enquiries himself, but at one place where he (Mr. Hingley) had been, they had not seen the vicar for two months.
Mr. Edmondson: "Sit down. You shall not attack me personally."
Mr. Hingley: "I shan't."
Mr. Edmondson: "Sit down."
Mr. Hingley: "I shall not sit down."
Mr. Edmondson: "Then you will go out of the room."
Mr. Hingley: "I shan't until - "
Mr. Edmondson: "Sit down .... I won't be attacked personally by anyone."
By this time, many people were on their feet, all taking at the same time, with the chairman and others appealing for order. Mr. Hingley at length sat down, and the meeting became quieter. Solomon Auden, an iron-plate worker, said he believed a building was required. (A voice: "You pay for it then.")3
The working men, said Mr. Auden, were willing to pay their share ... Half the houses in Cradley were not fit to live in ("Stick to the point" and "Order!") "We have two or three large ratepayers who will pay two thirds of it", Mr. Auden concluded.
James Hingley: "Why should they?" (Disorder.)
A Mr. Cooper pointed out that the estimated cost of the proposed building did not include the cost of the cleaning and upkeep of the place. The population did not want an elaborate building - and a school could be used for rate collection. There were monied men in Cradley (a voice: "They won't loose it though. " - Laughter.) and it would be a shame and a scandal if a scheme involving £500 or £600 did not receive their full support.
Mr. Edmondson said that he had never believed that the parish would consent to the loan, as he knew the burdens that they already had. The vicar's premonition was borne out; only four people voted in favour of the loan. A "perfect forest of hands" - from what was described as "a large attendance" - was raised against the loan. No further suggestions were forthcoming.
After the public meeting, Fred Cutler, a Cradley publican who was also a member of the Parish Council, wrote to the County Express, regretting that "so much bitterness had prevailed". He had no doubt that tradespeople and working men would have subscribed towards the cost of a public building, liberally and willingly, if the large ratepayers would have subscribed to the list in the same spirit. He suggested a building of more modest pretensions, and he pointed out that Lye and Halesowen had public buildings that were well-patronised - as he was sure would be the case in Cradley. He hoped that the matter would not be allowed to drop.
On the same page that carried Fred Cutler's letter, the County Express commented rather acidly: "A decision come to in a calmer atmosphere would have carried more respect than one arrived at in a whirl of fireworks language".
Fred Cutler's hope was not realised; the subject of a parish building - however financed - was dropped. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated by a treat for Cradley's schoolchildren "and older scholars", and a dinner for the old people. Flags and bunting bedecked the streets in greater profusion than for the Golden Jubilee ten years earlier.
Joseph Jaquiss, the headmaster of Cradley Church School, was elected secretary of a fund-raising committee. In May, a newspaper advertisement appeared under Mr. Jaquiss's name, inviting tenders for (a) a brass or reed band, and (b) tea for about 2,500 children.
So Cradley had a beano instead of a building. But the ratepayers weren't hit in the pocket. Money for food and music was presumably raised by subscription, with perhaps a contribution from the Parish Council.
During the heated public meeting of the 9th March, the voice of Charles Clewes was heard at one point, lamenting that "The voice of Cradley is taken very little notice of". Charles Clewes was at various times a member of Cradley Parish Council, Halesowen Rural District Council and Worcestershire County Council, as well as representing Cradley on the Board of Guardians. A prominent member of Cradley Liberal Party, and of Cradley Baptist Chapel, he was one of the best-known and most politically experienced men in the parish. When he complained about Cradley's being ignored, he merely voiced a common belief among its inhabitants. During the thirty-one years of its existence, Cradley Parish Council - rightly or wrongly - frequently complained that its voice and its needs were ignored by higher authorities.
The noisy public meeting on 9th March, 1897, was not unique. Noisy public meetings were by no means rare in Cradley. Its voice might or might not have been ignored, but it was certainly heard.
Footnote: The above article is compiled from contemporary reports in the County Express. The reports contain more detail than I have used.
1 According to the Unofficial Prices Index, it would be worth about £134,000 today.
2 The local schools were funded - at least in part - by a voluntary rate that was levied on the richer ratepayers.
3 This is the newspaper version. Almost certainly, the voice would have said "Yo pay for it then".
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.