This pdf of the minutes of the Committee Stage of the 1859 Bill for Improving, Policing, Draining and Lighting the Burgh of Falkirk is being placed on line to make available to the public one of the most important documents in the history of the town. It provides first hand evidence of the sanitary and political conditions in Falkirk at the end of the 1850s. Readers are welcome to make use of the material contained in the document, but we would be grateful if they made due acknowledgement of the source. The source for this introduction to the document is the relevant chapter of Ian Scott’s “Falkirk: A History” to which readers are recommended along with two articles in the journal of the Falkirk Local History Society, ‘Calatria’: that on the Stentmasters in volume 5, pages 25 to 44, and that on the Feuars in volume 15, pages 1-69, both written by John Reid.
At the time of the introduction of this Bill before Parliament the municipal organisation of Falkirk was incoherent. Responsibility was divided between the Stentmasters, the Feuars, and the Town Council. The Stentmasters were the oldest body of the three and from the 17th century they had represented the merchants and tradesmen of the town in a body composed of four merchants and two representatives from each of the trades of the town: masons, wrights and hammermen, weavers, tailors and shoemakers, brewers, fleshers, bakers and whipmen. From 1788 one member was chosen from each of the four quarters of the town—‘East Bridge, Westburn Bridge, Vicar’s Loan and the Randygate (Kerse Lane)’. These twenty-eight men met to ‘cast the stent’, to fix a rate or assessment which the inhabitants were expected to pay for common services, particularly the supply of water. They were also responsible for the erection of the new town steeple in 1814.
After 1807 the Feuars arose as a body with a share in municipal organisation. They were a committee of nine, representative of about two hundred men who held land on which the town was built. As a body they held one acre of land at what is now Callendar Riggs where the Horse Market was held, as well as the right to levy customs on the sale of grain and stock at the town’s markets. Some of the money thus raised was used to contribute to the Stentmasters’ installation of gas lighting in the town. They also erected ‘shades’, covered sites in what is now Newmarket Street, to accommodate those buying and selling in the grain and stock markets. Later, in 1858, they raised a loan to construct a proper corn market.
In 1833 the provisions of the Reform Act of 1832 erected Falkirk into a Parliamentary Burgh and provided the town with a new municipal constitution. This allowed for the election of a provost, three bailies and eight councillors but gave them very limited powers to raise money by assessing the property-owners in the town.
From 1833 until the 1859 Police Act whose Committee stage is minuted in the following documents Falkirk was run, in the words of the ‘Falkirk Herald’, by ‘an anomalous triarchy’ of Stentmasters, Feuars and Town Council. As the population of the town increased with the growth of industry it became clear that its needs were not being met by the powers given to its local government. From its founding in 1845 the ‘Falkirk Herald’ began to agitate for municipal reform, urging the adoption of the 1850 Police Act and later, a Special Police Act tailored to the needs of the town. There was some response to the criticisms of the local press: between 1851 and 1859 the High Street was laid with granite blocks and supplied with pavements and a drain; the Feuars gave £300 to help the Stentmasters maintain the gas lighting in parts of the town, and over £100 to help look for new water supplied in place of the unsatisfactory source in local coal workings. This was far from enough for those seeking thorough reform of municipal government, especially in relation to the sanitation of the burgh: in 1857 the ‘Falkirk Herald’ wrote,
“Were we to enter into details respecting the nuisances which exist in different parts of the town, those of our readers who are only in the habit of walking on the principal street would scarcely believe that a state of matters could exist in Falkirk, which would almost disgrace the lower portions of Constantinople, and other Eastern cities famous for their filth.”
Between 1848 and 1852 three attempts were made to persuade electors to support the adoption of a General Police Bill which would have provided powers to raise money. These attempts were rejected by those who did not wish to pay higher rates. In 1859 ‘An Act for Improving, Policing, Draining and Lighting the Burgh of Falkirk, and for Regulating the Supply of Water within the Burgh and for Providing the Transference of the Property of the Stentmasters and Feuars of Falkirk to the Magistrates and Council’ was brought before Parliament. As the Minutes of the Committee stages printed here show, its passage was fraught with violent disagreements between the parties involved. When the Act was passed by Parliament, however, Falkirk had, by 1860, a unitary municipal body with the power to raise moneys adequate to the needs of a population which almost doubled in size between 1851 and the end of the century.
Allan Ronald (2017)