Go to the Labyrinth of East London Lore

The First Triennial
Town Council
1873 - 1877

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The East London municipality had an ignominious start. The 1st Triennial Council even bungled its leadership. One would have expected John Gately to have been elected to the Chair but it was in fact Major William Lee who was given that honour.

Why? Nobody knows because no minutes were kept. Nevertheless, it was probable that Lee's military rank impressed his colleagues. His place on the Council, however, was dubious and he resigned almost immediately.

The problem was that he lived in Park Avenue bordering on North End, and these German acre lots -- as well as those at Southernwood -- were not part of the municipality. Lee was therefore not eligible to be a councillor. The irony is that he had helped draft the regulations and should have known this.

John Gately then became Chairman. He misunderstood the regulations, however, and believed four councillors were needed for a quorum whereas three were enough. It became impossible therefore to reach any decisions because someone was always absent.

The first public meeting to replace Major Lee as councillor was itself a fiasco. Only three people attended: the Civil Commissioner who had called the meeting, the Chief Constable to maintain order, and a reporter from the Dispatch.

"After waiting fully fifteen minutes," the newspaper commented sarcastically, "his worship declared that there was no meeting, and accordingly the crowd dispersed. The municipal prospect has a cheering appearance."

Finances were the Council's biggest headache. They started with no money in the municipal coffers and, until some funds were collected, absolutely nothing important could be done.

They attempted to force Government to repair the town streets -- after all, the residents had been paying quitrents all these years and surely some of that could have been used to upgrade the town? Government, however, was not moved.

The appointment of a Town Clerk also foundered. John Venn was chosen but there was no money to pay him and he soon resigned. He also left no financial records because the Council could not afford to purchase stationery.

It took the Council itself eighteen months before it began to record its own minutes. The early records were not lost. They simply did not exist. Indeed, it was left to the Dispatch to report on the meetings but, if space was short, the minutes did not get published.

The quickest way to obtain funds was through the sale of town land. In 1874, therefore, the Council sought to carve up part of the commonage east of the Quigney River and use the profits for street construction.

Government, however, refused permission on the grounds that the municipality owned no commonage. No land had ever become the property of the municipality, the Commissioner for Crown Lands wrote, "either by title, transfer or otherwise".

Although his letter was a gross misrepresentation of the facts, land sales were nevertheless placed on hold until an amended municipal regulation could be published -- which happened a full two years later.

Finally, there was the question of rates -- something which all municipalities collect. This had been set at a penny in the pound but the strange thing is that no attempt was made to bring in the money. The municipality was therefore still broke after three years, when its 1st Council stepped down.

"It certainly cannot be said that it is the pace that has killed," the Dispatch reported. "The genius of procrastination ruled over their deliberations and the demon of delay dogged even their faintest attempts at progress."

The next Triennial Council scarcely did any better.

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