The history of yeovil
the need for town improvements
The Improvement, Special and Town Commissioners
While the Portreeve and Burgesses, the Commonalty or ancient corporate government of Yeovil, had usually done their best for the town but, for a combination of reasons including limited powers, limited ambition and general inefficiency, they were failing to respond adequately to the needs of the rapidly expanding town. By the beginning of the nineteenth century it was becoming obvious that drastic reforms were required and in 1830 parliamentary authority was sought and granted for 'Improvement Commissioners' whose prime purpose would be to attend to the lighting, watering and cleansing of the town. A Bill was passed in June 1830 and the body known as the "Commissioners for Improving the Town of Yeovil" were created. The Commissioners comprised the Yeovil Division Magistrates, the Vicar of St John's and thirty nine other resident £40 householders.
A clerk, treasurer and surveyor were appointed and meetings of the Commissioners were held in the Vicarage Street Sunday School room although attendance was invariably poor. One of their first acts was to introduce an unpopular "Improvement Rate" in order to fund their activities and, of course, there was opposition to the rate, led by the Portreeve Robert Jennings, and difficulty in collecting it.
During this time of social reforms Robert Jennings, in his role as Portreeve, received an open letter from thirty gentlemen and manufacturers of the town, twenty-three of whom were new Town Commissioners, requesting him to call a public meeting to petition Parliament to create an enquiry into the Old Yeovil Corporation and its workings. Jennings, however, refused claiming that the burgesses would "preserve their rights and privileges". According to Hayward "Thomas Fooks, a Commissioner and glove manufacturer, immediately took the lead in convening a public meeting in spite of the Portreeve's obstruction. A group of leading townsmen stage-managed this meeting in March 1833, securing proposers and seconders for four resolutions to be put to the meeting under the chairmanship of a prominent banker and solicitor, WL White. The first affirmed the need for an enquiry into Yeovil Corporation, the second proposed a petition to the House of Commons so that the abuses of the Old Corporation could be investigated by the newly appointed Royal Commission on Municipalities; the third laid the petition before the meeting and the fourth set up a Corporation Committee to further its object. Twelve members were appointed, nine of them Commissioners, of whom one was their chairman (John Ryall Mayo) and another a solicitor (James Tally Vining, a partner of Slade and Vining of Church Lane)."
The Corporation Committee, headed by solicitor John Batten who was Clerk to the Commissioners, prepared a report which was presented to the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations in London. It outlined the poor management of the town by the Old Corporation, denigrated Robert Jennings' tenure of the position of Portreeve for ten years as highly irregular and attacked the five burgesses of Yeovil as being unrepresentative of the people and completely unable to provide even the basic services now required by the growing town. The report recommended an elective body replace the Old Corporation, with full municipal powers over the whole town rather than just the small medieval Borough.
In June 1835 the Municipal Corporations Reform Bill was discussed in the House of Commons although Yeovil was not included. The Yeovil Corporation Committee immediately petitioned Parliament for Yeovil's inclusion in the bill and called a public meeting in the town to outline and discuss the proposed recommendations put forward to Parliament. Portreeve Jennings, however, incensed and in fear of losing his power, ordered the Town Crier to read aloud the following notice throughout the town "The rate-payers of this town are reminded that a meeting will be held at the Three Choughs Inn at 11 o'clock this morning: every rate-payer is expected to attend as his rights and privileges are in danger: at the same time the inhabitants must prevent the Yeovil Town Commissioners from nominating themselves as a Town Council, or they will be saddled with a Corporation Rate far worse than the present Town Rate." Nevertheless the public meeting demonstrated the town's full support for the action of the Corporation Committee and in July a petition was presented to Parliament by the two oldest burgesses, both of whom were former Portreeves, John Greenham and George Wellington.
In August it was discovered that Yeovil had again been deleted from the list of boroughs covered by the Bill. Yet again Jennings refused to call a public meeting although one was quickly convened by leading townsmen, supported by the radical Yeovil Political Union. A further petition was organised and both Parliament and the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, were lobbied once again by two Somerset MPs. Yeovil's case for political reform was further hindered when, at the beginning of September, the House of Lords agreed that Yeovil should be omitted from the Bill. It transpired that Jennings and the Burgesses, in order to selfishly protect their own out-dated institution, had been carrying out lobbying of their own and in October 1835 the Western Flying Post reported that "The Portreeve of Yeovil has shown more dexterity than all the blunder-headed Town Clerks who spent their money in endeavouring to lead the country by the nose. The Portreeve only took the two noble lords that we have named (Lords Devon and Buccleugh) between his fingers and they have certainly answered his purpose admirably." For the time being Robert Jennings' self-serving actions had prevented Yeovil from achieving municipal status and had firmly quashed the desires of the majority of the townspeople for political and social reform.
In 1835 the Portreeve's Almshouse was completely rebuilt, costing over £500 which included the rent for temporary accommodation for the four poor women during the rebuilding works. Jennings made a claim against the Corporation in the sum of £436, having already paid the contractor's bill for the rebuilding of the Almshouse, plus a solicitor's bill for £100. When payment was not forthcoming Jennings took it upon himself to advertise the sale of a property owned by the Corporation. An injunction was brought against Jennings by George Wellington to prevent the sale.
But Jennings was far from finished and a scandal over his shady dealings came to a head when, without consultation, he decided to sell off all the properties belonging to the Yeovil Corporation in the summer of 1835. These comprised some thirty dwellings throughout the town as well as the Court House, also known as the Church House, in the Borough and plots of land in Goldcroft and Horsey Lane. Jennings produced a handbill advertising the sale of the properties by auction which duly took place on 28 September 1835 despite Jennings receiving legal advice against the sale. The whole of the properties were bought by his son William for the sum of £2,610 (just under £2 million at 2017's value) although the sale was eventually vetoed by two burgesses who claimed the value of the properties to be at least £25,000 (about £19 million at 2017's value). William Jennings later claimed not to have brought the properties and even wrote a letter to the Western Flying Post denying his involvement in the affair.
In October 1835, at the Court Leet, three nominations were received for the office of Portreeve with one of the nominées to be selected by the Lord of the Borough. Despite being asked twice to attend, Jennings refused to attend the Court Leet and James Curtis was sworn in as the new Portreeve. Jennings, however, refused to hand over the Borough seal, mace and other insignia claiming that the Leet's election of Curtis as Portreeve was illegal since he, Jennings, had not been present. Curtis then began legal proceedings against Jennings and in May the following year the court issued a writ demanding the return of the insignia. The case, suffering delay after delay, dragged on for years. In 1840, during the court proceedings, attempts were made to settle the matter once and for all. Town Commissioner Josiah Hannam, an ironmonger of the Borough, proposed to the Corporation a settlement of £750 to Jennings in order for him to return the mace and seal. Although the settlement was agreed by the three surviving town Burgesses, Jennings refused the offer. In fact at this time Jennings, unknown to the Burgesses, was negotiating with solicitor John Batten who offered Jennings and immediate loan of £100 and a further £650 providing Jennings stopped the Chancery proceedings and agreed to Batten being appointed Portreeve. Nothing, however, came of these secret negotiations.
Late in 1840, Jennings finally agreed to meet with the Corporation. He and his attorney, John Batten, met with the other Burgesses and their solicitor, James Tally Vining. At long last Jennings promised to resign the office of Portreeve and return the Corporation's mace and seal in return for the sum of £750. All the legal formalities were finally completed in 1841 and Jennings received his money although Vining reported that Jennings was "a man of little or no available property after payment of debts".
Despite these protracted on-goings, the Commissioners nevertheless concentrated their efforts in improving the condition of the streets, lanes and alleys and the surveyor's expenditure in 1835 for cleaning, lighting and watering the streets was £766. Gradually improvements were made in the form of rudimentary sewers that discharged into the river Yeo, 123 gas lamps were installed in the streets and lit from dusk until midnight for eight months of the year, and Middle Street was widened in a couple of places. Their powers were generally restricted to within the confines of the relatively tiny Borough of Yeovil although the function of policing extended to the whole of the parish.
In 1846 William Phelips of Montacute wanted to sell the lordship of Yeovil and an Act of Parliament was passed which included "the exclusive right to the franchises and privileges of keeping and holding two fairs and also three separate markets" resulting in the Act being called the 'Market Act'. The Act enabled the Improvement Commissioners to be combined with the old Corporation to form a new body called the 'Special Commissioners of the Town of Yeovil', also known as the Town Commissioners. They were "authorised to purchase from Mr. Phelips, or his representative, Mr. Harbin, all existing rights of holding fairs and markets within the borough, and to erect a Market House, Town Hall, and other suitable buildings, to take tolls, and to borrow money to the amount of £12,000."
In order to enable the Special Commissioners to carry out these projects, another Act was passed later in 1846 called the 'Estates Act' which enabled them to sell properties, formerly properties of the Portreeve and Burgesses. According to Vickery "Under these Acts the Commissioners immediately sold dwelling houses in High-street, South-street, the Church-yard, Vicarage- street, Middle-street, and Wine-street (Grope-lane), an acre of arable land in the manor of Kingston-juxta-Yeovil, a piece or parcel of land situate in Huish, in the parish of Yeovil, containing one acre, and some quit rents."
In 1846 the Commissioners bought a site between High Street and South Street and in 1849 the Town Hall opened and behind it were built a Corn Exchange, Meat Market and a Cheese Market, the whole complex extending from High Street all the way to South Street . In 1849 the Commissioners built the building in Union Street now known as the Town House to provide a Police Station and a residence for a 'Superintendent', who was also the town surveyor and rate collector. This was later taken over by the County Constabulary in 1857 and the building remained a police station until 1938.