Newtown Land Use etc. 1862-92

CHAPTER 4

NEWTOWN COUNCIL : COMPOSITION, PROCEDURE, ACHIEVEMENT.

The council (nine members until 1885, then twelve) met twice monthly. Throughout the thirty year period, only forty-seven individuals served on the council, one for twenty-six years. Seventeen were elected mayor, and served terms of between one and six years. Page 116. Table 9 records the occupational breakdown of the forty-seven aldermen. 1

Builders: ………. 9 Doctor: … 1 Coachbuilder: …. 1
Butchers: ………. 3 Teacher: .. 1 Coal Merchant: … 1
Hotel Proprietors: ..3 Brickmaker: 1 Building Society Manager: . 1
Chemists: ………. 2 Woolbroker: 1 Grocer: ………. 1
Painters: ………. 2 Clerk: …. 1
Bakers: ………… 2 Undertaker: 1 Commission Agent: 1
Drapers: ……….. 1 Contractor: 1 Decorator: ……. 1
Unknown: ………11
Table 9.

From this distance it is difficult to judge the social standing and prestige of individuals, but bald statistics can be misleading : the ‘painter’ Joseph Jolly had a well established shop in King Street. Thumbnail image The ‘baker’ David Bedford had 16 houses in 1685. 2 All councillors, of course, had property in Newtown, as the property vote for borough elections was not abolished until 1892. 3 Page 117. Conspicuously absent from their number, however, especially in the early days, were men of the greatest wealth and influence, Sydney identities who resided in the borough : Holt, Josephson, Breillat, as well as local luminaries. The councillors recognised that they were not Newtown’s most important citizens, for, when they wished to form a vital deputation they frequently requested that such men of influence accompany them. In 1877, unhappy with work on the railway bridge, they invited Messrs. Baldick, Donohoe, Gibbens, Hamblin, Harrison, Smith, Taylor and Tye to a special meeting, where it was decided that they, together with Messrs. Melville Snr. and Wildman would join the council’s deputation. 1 Later, they called on the local members for the wider electorate. Fortunately for the borough, a number of members resided within the borders eg. Josephson, Molesworth, Foster and S. C. Brown, as did members who then or later represented other electorates : Ninian Melville, Henry Copeland. 2 Some councillors eg. Frederick Gibbes and John F. Smith were also members, so knowledge of Newtown’s problems was not confined to current representatives. An implicit prerequisite for council membership was time to devote to council duties, for they involved much more than fortnightly meetings. Page 118. The council was subdivided into committees, the most time consuming of which was the Works committee, which selected priorities and inspected work before contractors were paid. 1 Frequently when difficulties arose, the whole council met ‘on the ground’ to seek a solution. 2 Councillors could be appointed to other bodies eg. the Municipal Assoc- iation or Fire Brigades Board, or be required to attend meetings called by other councils eg. Woollahra regarding the unsatisfactory suburban water supply; Leichhardt regarding a system of sewerage for the suburbs. 3 Deputations often waited on government departments in the city. 4 The week of 9th May, 1887, for example was a busy one for the councillors : the fortnightly meeting was held at 7.30pm on the 10th, a conference with Marrickville council about drainage at 7.30 the following night and a deputation regarding the wood- paving of Cook’s River Road waited on the Minister for Works in the city at 11.30am on the 13th. 5 Not typical, certainly, but nor was a fortnight in which the sole council activity was the regular meeting. The business of being a council alderman was not for those who had little time. It was definitely a middle class activity which demanded quite a lot in return for the ‘perks’ it allegedly offered. Page 119. Local councillors are frequently accused of being the happy recipients of such perquisites. This is difficult to either substantiate or disprove from existing records. However, some observations can be made. Books were audited twice yearly by elected auditors and the balance sheet published in Sydney newspapers. Endowment cheques were paid directly into the bank. Rates were assessed annually by the council clerk and one other, often a property agent. Uniformity of allotments and business sites decreased the likelihood of dishonesty, and the council questioned a reduction received by one of its members. 1 Appeals courts were held annually. The council prosecuted for arrears, though as late as 1887 was uncertain as to the ownership of some land. 2 The council was subdivided into six committees : Finance, Works, By-Laws and Library, Nuisance Prevention, Lighting and Water. They each had one member from each ward. The Finance and Works Committees presented reports at every meeting. The inspector of nuisances submitted a monthly report. A general pattern in ordering priorities, in roads and public works, was in response to letters of complaint or petitions to the council about certain conditions. Very often, work on the area complained of was incorporated in the recommendations of the following week’s report. This was the rule rather than the exception. Needless to say, it was the Page 120. wealthier property owners who most frequently wrote in with complaints, but in the case of road-work, the whole streets were attended to. With kerbing and guttering, the council, pressed for funds, had a policy whereby a ratepayer could pay 25% towards costs and the council would attend to the work. 1 A similar decision was taken in 1874, whereby “provided the ratepayers pay to the council the full cost of the materials, this council hereby agrees to pay the whole cost of paving the footpath in front of the premises occupied by such rate- payers”. 2 As new methods developed, eg. tar paving and asphalt, the same terms applied, and a moiety system was applied to the blue metal cubing of gateways in 1885. 3 Once again, it was the wealthy citizens who applied for the work to be done. Do doubt convenient paving graced the newer terraces and a sea of slush flooded the doors of the poorer people. However, the work was not done for the former instead of the latter – no work of this kind was attempted unless contributed to. Might prospered, certainly, but in the wider social framework – not because the council saw fit to alter its policy to serve the wealthier at the expense of the poor. 4 Page 121. As subdivision proceeded, more and more houses were built. Old drains which had traversed properties for years had to be reallocated. The wealthy were building the houses – they again appeared to have been placated. On two occasions landowners made deals with the council, in one case offering a road (Wilson Street) of 60′ and in the second case £200. 1 However, they both involved a guarantee that the council would immediately commence road-work, which had to be done, even if more slowly, upon dedication and alignment. There were two Associations in the borough which kept an eye on council activities : the Newtown Ratepayers Association and the Enmore Progressive Association. It could be argued, of course that their very existence speaks volumes for the need which existed to monitor the council’s actions. Relations seemed cordial however. The latter’s accusation, in 1885, that a bribe of £5 was paid to secure a contract was greeted with much consternation in the council. It demanded the name of the accuser so that it could take •-, steps to “vindicate the honour of the council and its officers”. 2 It is not claimed that altruism governed the acts of the Newtown councillors. Nor would it be feasible to suggest that BO advantages accrued from council membership. Page 122. It is likely that some councillors did form pressure groups within the body, as they attended the same Churches (Smith and Bailey; were Anglicans; Tye and Goodsell Wesleyans); were next door neighbours (Whately and Bellemey in Brown Street); had business dealings (Whately and Draper; Lane and Salmon); lived in the same street (Medway and Weeks) and were members of the same clubs (Smith and Lane both Masons). No doubt external pressure was also exerted upon them but, on occasion, they refused the request or suggestions of the most influ- ential citizens including Josephson, Copeland, Hinchcliffe, Molesworth, Holt and Bruce Smith. The first three instituted legal proceedings against the council. 1 They held positions on other bodies which could have influenced their decisions eg. Gibbes was a director of the St. George’s Hall Co. which the council considered purchasing in 1890; Smith was a director of the Building Society which subdivided part of Camden College Estate in 1888 (Refer back to plate 3 ); Melville and Smith were on the local school board; Lane was a member of the Volunteer Fire Brigade and, of all incongruities, three councillors were, or had been members of the Cooks River Trust – a division of loyalties indeed! It must be kept in mind that Newtown, though its population density was 36.7 per acre in 1888, 2 had many aspects of a village community. Though the Minutes show that the council adhered to the proper format, including points of order, it can be presumed that many decisions were made out- side the council chambers and merely ratified at the fort- nightly meetings. Page 123. Councillors appear to have been interested in the good of the borough. Very few meetings lapsed for want of a quorum, and Special Meetings were often held to discuss important issues. Two councillors who travelled to Europe returned with the latest books on municipal government in Britain. The councillors kept an eye on legislation which would affect the borough, and twice published unfavourable government letters in an attempt to apply pressure. 1 They worked amicably together except for a few outbursts. The council minutes, albeit a biased source, present a picture of middle class men endeavouring to run a borough with problems as enormous as funds were small. Some credible recognition, outside the usual laudatory jubilee publications, should be accorded their efforts. It is rather unrealistic to expect that an isolated body of men – not even the community’s real leaders – should have stood alone against the forces of capitalism which were supposedly plotting to keep the worker in his place, especially when most of them had recently stepped up from that very enslavement. Most of the period was an era of optimism and expansion. The council’s problem was not the philosophical one of whether this was the best mode of living but rather to ensure that people went on living, by looking after such death related problems as drainage, sewerage and water supply.

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