The Perils of Public Office

Life might have provided some luxuries for the middling sort, but the other side of the coin was that it fell upon them to provide most of the composition of the corporation and its various offices.  Gentlemen, too, played a part, but there were far fewer of them.  Hythe corporation  had a mayor and deputy mayor, up to twelve jurats; up to twenty-four commoners, a chamberlain (treasurer),  a town clerk, the warden of St Bartholomew’s Hospital;  a constable; two leather searchers; two market searchers, two flesh searchers,  the town sergeant, the mayor’s sergeant; the chamberlain and an attorney. The mayor was chosen annually from the jurats, who were themselves chosen from the common council composed of the freemen. Men became freemen either because their father was a freeman, or because they had married the eldest daughter of a freeman or by invitation and paying the asking price, usually about twenty shillings. The other posts were filled by the jurats and freemen, except that of attorney, who was legally qualified and employed on a retainer. Acting as a jurat was a double-edged sword.  Prestige was the principal reward, especially if one became mayor, but a reputation could be forever sullied if it became known or was believed that one had abused that authority. The jurats were amateurs at government, with many temptations to take advantage of their situation and little in the way of guidance to avoid pitfalls. It could be an explosive combination.

Honour and reputation were important and dismissal could mean ruin. In the early 1620s an ugly situation developed between Thomas Browning and David Gorham, both jurats, but of very different backgrounds. The Brownings were gentlemen; Thomas’s uncles had been mayors, his sister had married into the influential Tournay family of Saltwood, and in 1620 Thomas started his own campaign to become mayor by wining and dining his colleagues, an unsubtle tactic which did not go unnoticed by his opponents. Nevertheless, it proved successful, and he became mayor in 1621, and again in 1625. In the meantime, David Gorham, a fisherman, had been made mayor in 1623. He was the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth in the year of Browning’s second term of office and created mayor again himself in 1626. However, that year Browning trumped him by being selected to be one of the Cinque Ports ‘barons’ to carry the canopy at the coronation of Charles 1 in March.

The beginning of 1627 saw Browning’s downfall. He was dismissed as jurat ‘for divers misdemeanours and for telling the secrets especially about the election and choosing our burgesses to Parliament and telling lies about them many times in a gross and ill manner’. This was uncompromising language, and Browning had no intention of letting it pass.  He petitioned anyone and everyone he knew, starting with the Lieutenant of Dover Castle, Sir John Hippisley, who passed the matter up to the Duke of Buckingham. The corporation were required to explain themselves. While awaiting a decision, Browning took his case to the Cinque Ports’ Brotherhood and Guestling – and won his suit. They judged that the case against him was ‘weak and feeble’ and ordered that the corporation and Browning ‘reconcile themselves’ and reinstate him.  However, in 1628, the Lord Warden concluded that the real reason for Browning’s dismissal was ‘his contemptuous behaviour towards Mr Gorham’.

That has the ring of truth. Twenty five years earlier, another gentleman, Ambrose Warde (later mayor of Hythe himself) had taken a similarly arrogant attitude towards the mayor of New Romney, a tradesman. During a court hearing he deliberately jostled him and commented ‘in skoffynge wise’ and loud enough for all to hear that any pedlar or butcher could be mayor of New Romney.

Whatever their station in life, jurats were expected to maintain high standards in their personal lives. In 1662, Peter Philpott was dismissed as a Hythe jurat.  for ‘begetting a bastard child and other misdemeanours well known to this assembly’. Since the facts of this case were incontrovertible, Philpott stayed dismissed.

The jurats’ amateurism could also land them in hot water. As a Cinque Port, Hythe had, among other privileges, the right to any vessel, goods or fish washed ashore within the port’s jurisdiction. In February 1656, when the corporation was flat broke, it seemed that fortune had smiled on them by providing just such a gift: a Dunkerque sloop, on a mission to seize English ships, was driven onshore by the English navy and its captain and crew arrested. The fleet sailed off westward, leaving the prisoners in Hythe, where, almost inevitably, given the town’s record in this area, they escaped. They were recaptured and sent to Dover Castle (where the Lieutenant had no idea what to do with them). Not missing a trick, Hythe corporation asked the Lord Warden to reimburse them for the cost of keeping the prisoners and then seized the sloop, which had been abandoned on the beach, for the town.

A couple of months later, they sold the sloop to some of the jurats, on condition that they did not sell it on to any ‘foreigners’ ie anyone who did not live in Hythe. The jurats failed to find a local buyer, so the corporation gave them permission to offer it to all comers, which resulted in a sale a few months later. The jurats had promised to give any profits to the town, but found that after their expenses in the matter were taken into account that the total profit was exactly two pounds, fifteen shillings and tuppence

Even this slender profit was to be challenged when the sale came to the attention of the naval authorities, who were of the opinion that the sloop did not belong to Hythe at all, presumably because it was not, strictly speaking, a wreck. An emergency conference was held at the home of the mayor, Michael Lushington, attended by everyone who had been involved in the sale, and the hapless mayor was despatched to London to plead with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, on the town’s behalf. Cromwell may have listened, as no action was taken immediately, but the navy was not so easily discouraged, and in 1661 Hythe corporation paid to the Commander of the Navy an undisclosed sum in compensation.

It was a hard lesson, but one well learned. The next time a ship washed up on the beach, in 1692, the town clerk, Thomas Tournay, prudently went to Dover to the Admiralty Court to check the situation. The ship, the Dorothea of Stockholm, was wrecked above the low water mark and Tournay asserted the town’s right to it but the court considered it was not a wreck at all, as its crew had been saved. Another disaster for the corporation was, however, averted.

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