Between the two towns of Shrewsbury and Ludlow lies Much Wenlock. When the borough of Much Wenlock came into being England was a feudal society and the Borough came into being in 1468 with the support of the king, Edward IV. In 1889 the borough was reduced to half of its previous area. Society had become more democratic and power had passed to industrialists who began to dominate Parliament in the 19th century. The borough’s end in 1966 and its inclusion within Bridgnorth District Council illustrates the ascendancy of the industrial area to the south east. By the 1960s Wenlock was in economic decline. In this process Much Wenlock may be said to be a microcosm of the country as a whole, rather in the same way that the Coliseum in Rome may be said to be a microcosm of the Roman empire. What follows below relates to the two principle administrative units relating to the area historically: that of the municipal Borough and the Parliamentary Borough.
Borough of Much Wenlock 1468-1966
Unlike Ludlow and Shrewsbury, where the towns may be said to have their origins in the castle, Much Wenlock’s beginnings may be seen to be ecclesiastical. Much Wenlock Priory owned a number of manors, each one of which would be controlled by a bailiff responsible to
the prior. Most of these estates by 1080 had already belonged for four centuries to the church of Wenlock. The bailiff was the most senior official subsequently responsible to the lord of the manor and for the conduct of the court. The last bailiff was William Anstice, who became first Mayor of the new reformed borough in 1835. The borough’s real beginning however comes in:
“…1468, a few weeks after the first successful royal appointment of a prior of Wenlock and at the instance of Lord Wenlock, chief butler of England (an official of the crown who looked after the wine and had access to the sovereign) Edward IV, recalling the ‘laudable and acceptable services’ of his ‘liege men and residents of the town of Wenlock’ in his gaining of the crown, granted them a charter conferring on the town the status of a ‘free borough incorporate forever’. A bailiff, burgesses and commonalty were to have a liberty extending ‘over the parish of Holy Trinity’. Among the franchises granted to the new burgesses were some that had already been long enjoyed by the prior and the inhabitants of his hundredal liberty: such were Much Wenlock’s Monday market and June fair, the exemption from various dues throughout the realm, and freedom from serving with jurors from outside the liberty. The exclusion of the sheriff and other Crown ministers from the borough was new, but pre-eminent among new privileges were the rights to elect a member of Parliament and to have its own gaol and sessions of the peace. The bailiff and recorder were to be the king’s justices of gaol delivery and of the peace to the exclusion of others and a borough coroner was to exclude the county coroners and the sheriff.” (Baugh, G.C. ‘The Liberty and Borough of Wenlock’ in The Victoria County History of Shropshire Volume 10: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Whether Much Wenlock deserved this borough status on its own merits is another matter though this could, presumably, be something that could be said of any town at the time. There are historical parallels here: it could be argued that Manchester’s growth in the 19th century similarly benefitted from the plutocracy of textiles and political power.
A further charter followed in 1631, which confirmed that of 1468, amplifying the corporation’s powers of government and peace keeping by giving them fuller legal definition. Power to make ordinances was vested in the bailiff, a majority of his peers and the burgesses and commonalty.
The corporation governed the borough in accordance with its charters until 1836. The 1835 Municipal Corporation Act brought about the change from bailiff to mayor and then in 1842 the borough had to begin paying contributions to the newly formed county constabulary. The Education Act in 1870 and then the 1872 Public Health Act both impacted on the borough and in the period between 1889 and 1966 the borough was halved in size and then abolished. One could argue that the main cause of destruction of the borough in 1966 was that its functions had increasingly been placed with other institutions. The final death knell of the borough was, perhaps, sounded by the new Labour government of 1964 who had new ideas about local government.
The Parliamentary Borough 1468—1885
Wenlock’s charter of 1468 allowed it to elect one Member of Parliament but by 1491 writs to elect two were being issued. From 1544 to 1629 the representation was mostly dominated by the Lawleys. Unrepresented from 1646 to 1659, the borough returned a Lawley in 1659 and thereafter the Welds of Willey from 1618 and the Foresters of Watling Street dominated the borough’s representation until 1885. Interests based on the Lawleys’ property and the Much Wenlock manorial estate would have profited politically from a restriction of the parliamentary boundary to Much Wenlock itself: legal challenges were periodically threatened but never pushed to a conclusion. The Foresters easily met the cost of defending their interests and creating and treating large numbers of burgesses in the 18th and early 19th centuries. After 1826, however, they were concerned to hold only one seat; the other was occupied by men (Peelite from the 1850s, then Liberal) connected with the manorial estate and the Lawleys’ interest. After 1832, despite the electorate’s increasingly industrial character and its population growth in 1868 to 3,445 people (including many rural labourers) there were few contests despite the growth in population of the borough to 3,445 people. This couldpossibly be a consequence of the balance of power and influence between the Conservative Weld-Foresters and the Liberals.
Much Wenlock’s electoral history tells the story of its demise: that it had three MPs and Manchester one was always going to be unsustainable.
The Parliamentary Borough survived the 1832 Reform Act remarkably intact: its survival meant the persistence of its ancient boundaries until the wholesale redistribution of seats in 1885. In more recent times the modern constituency of Much Wenlock has become a ’safe’ Conservative seat.
Like the story of any community there are many factors that contributed to its success but also perhaps to its decline. There were economic causes behind the town’s growth and also behind its decline. Much Wenlock’s decline in importance is also the story of the growth of industrialisation and central government. The arrival of county councils in 1889 simply accelerated this decline. By Victorian times the situation had changed and local customs and idiosyncracies had given way to codified laws and regulations.
Daniel has been working with Volunteering for Shropshire’s Heritage since March 2012. His interests include local, national and international history.