Edward Watts was the second son of James and Hannah Watts, born in 1804, and became a solicitor, in partnership with a Mr Brockman. They had offices in Great Conduit Street, Hythe. In 1829, he was appointed Master Extraordinary in the Court of Chancery (responsible for taking affidavits for the court). At home, he became a town councillor, and like his father before him, a staunch Conservative. Like his father, too, he could expect to remain a councillor for the rest of his life. However, he was living in interesting political times and this was not to be his future.
The Whig government of Lord Grey, having carried out reform of parliamentary constituencies in 1832, turned its attention to local government. A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate municipal boroughs. The Commission comprised eighteen men, nearly all Radicals, members of a loose political grouping who wanted to reform the way in which Great Britain was governed. They came also to be known as Liberals. They investigated 285 towns, most of which were found wanting. As a result, the Municipal Corporations Act became law in 1835, requiring 178 town councils to reform their practices. Hythe was one of them.
Edward was by this time Town Clerk as well as a councillor. The Act specifically forbade this combination of offices and Edward resigned the councillorship. In January 1836, an election was called, the first in Hythe in which voting was along party political lines, Conservatives versus Liberals. 178 men were allowed to vote, and they voted in a Liberal majority. The Liberals also fielded a candidate for the post of Town Clerk, one George Sedgwick, another solicitor. He won the post, but the council were now faced with the fact that according to Edward’s contract, they had to buy him an annuity for life, which would, reportedly, use up all their funds for the next four years. Rates would therefore have to increase substantially.
In May that year, Edward presented his claim for compensation. It was for £3306. 15s. 2d., about a quarter of a million pounds today. Voting had been close in the election, and there were claims that some men had been excluded from the list of voters erroneously. Edward acted for those among them who were Conservatives, and although the case failed he announced his intention of seeking a mandamus from the Court of King’s Bench to force the issue.
At the next annual election of councillors, late in 1836, Edward was voted in again as a town councillor. The council, however, for reasons which remain obscure, refused to accept this election as legal, and when Edward arrived at the council chamber to take his oath of office, the Mayor refused to hear it and told him to leave. Edward refused. The Mayor then instructed his constable, who was also the town gaoler, to eject him by force, and Edward was manhandled from the chamber.
Whether or not Edward sought a mandamus, we do not know, but he would not give up on the question of the Conservative voters who were disenfranchised in January 1836. He got the MP for East Kent (a new constituency created by the Reform Act of 1832) to petition the House of Commons stating his case. There was no point in asking the Hythe MP to do this. Sir Stewart Marjoribanks was a Liberal himself.
Sir Stewart Marjoribanks, MP for Hythe 1829-1837 and 1841-1847
Eventually, Edward won. Two Liberal councillors were charged with having ‘unlawfully, corruptly and designedly’ altered the borough’s rate book in no fewer that 300 cases to disenfranchise some men and give a vote to others (eligibility to vote was dependant among other things, on having paid all your rates). Their counsel’s only defence was that they were ‘ignorant and illiterate men’. They pleaded guilty and spent four months in Maidstone gaol.
Edward was reinstated as Town Clerk in May 1844 when George Sedgwick was removed from the post for failing to attend council meetings (1). He stayed in the post until his death over twenty years later.
On 30 September 1840, in Reigate, he had married Amelia Bunn, and the first of their nine children was born almost exactly a year later.
Legal matters aside, Edward was also very interested in the railways. He was one of the founder members of the Elham Valley Railway Company which wanted to run from Canterbury to Folkestone and worked tirelessly to bring the railway to Hythe, although he did not live to see the opening of either line.
The site of part of the Elham Valley Railway which operated from 1887 to 1947 and is now a pleasant footpath.
The opening of Hythe Station. The line from Sandling was open from 1874 to 1951
Edward steered clear of further controversy, and now seemed to be living the respectable life of a small town solicitor and family man. Except that in 1855, he was declared bankrupt, owing over £90,000. This he attributed in court to heavy losses in the building of his new house, described in the local press as ‘a mansion’, the depreciation of property and debts owing to him amounting to £27,000. The new family home was put on the market. It had an acre of land, coach house and stabling, drawing room, dining room, library and eight bedrooms. Edward, rather than being sent to a debtor’s prison was given bail with sureties, presumably from his brother James, and went to live in Islington though his family stayed in Hythe, in Marine Parade.
He seems to have been under enormous stress at this time. In November 1855, he was reported as having ‘suddenly left the council chamber’ during a meeting, taking with him all his papers and books. He was removed from his post, but would not let the council have their papers back until a formal legal notice was served on him. The council was in dire financial straits and needed a summary of all their land transactions over the previous ten years, which only Edward could provide, but he refused absolutely to do this (2).
He was reinstated as Town Clerk when he was discharged as a bankrupt the following year. However, the bankruptcy would not go away. In 1855, Edward had arranged a mortgage for a Mr Green, in which the vicar of Hythe, the Rev’d Richard Formby, advanced the money. Formby passed the cash to Edward, who delayed before passing it to Green and when he was declared bankrupt, the money was included in his assets. His brother, James, repaid Formby, but in 1858 the Reverend gentleman applied to the Court of Chancery to have Edward struck off.
This had unfortunate consequences. Edward’s supporters orchestrated a well-publicised protest outside the vicarage, in which they burnt an effigy of the incumbent. Not everyone thought this an appropriate response, especially as Mrs Formby and her children were in residence at the time. An address to Formby, signed by over a hundred people said it was a ‘disgraceful act’, but the vicar himself forgave the perpetrators, only hoping that the ‘precious souls of the poor committed to my charge may not be endangered by so sinful and sad an example.’
The Lord Chancellor did not strike Edward off, but awarded costs against him. On his return to Hythe, the horses were taken out of his carriage and it was pulled through the street by delighted townsmen while the town band played and cheering crowds lined the streets. The Rev’d Formby left Hythe the following year.
The rest of Edward’s life was, as far as we know, quiet, though not without sadness. Two sons, Ernest Edward and William Benjamin, died young at eleven years and a few months respectively. Asthmatic all his life, an attack of bronchitis eventually proved fatal for Edward and he died on 1 June 1867 aged sixty-two.
His family erected an impressive obelisk over his grave, with space enough for all his family’s names. It is, however, badly weathered, and only Edward’s name and the names of the sons who died as children can, just, be deciphered.
Of his three daughters, Matilda remained single; Josephine married Horatio Case and Alice married firstly Sir Edward Hay Drummond-Hay, the former Governor of St Helena and secondly Henry John Maxwell. The second son Albert became a solicitor in Wimbledon; the third, Percy, went to Ceylon as a tea planter and died there at the age of thirty-six; and the two youngest, Montague and Herbert became clerks in the Metropolitan Water Company and lived in Surrey.
After his death his widow moved with her youngest children to Westminster. She lived latterly with Matilda in Putney where she died in 1897
- Kent Archives Hy/AM/2/1
- Kent Archives Hy/AM/2/2