Winchelsea Corporation – Questions and Answers

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1883 sought to rationalise local government throughout England. As part of this exercise it abolished the old Corporations, their judicial powers and their special rights, such as the raising of local taxes. A special clause was added to this Act in order to preserve Winchelsea. The town’s role as part of the Cinque Ports Confederation was felt important enough to merit an exception in this one instance. The clause states:

‘Saving as to Winchelsea. … the property of the Corporation of Winchelsea shall continue to be held, managed and enjoyed as heretofore… and for that purpose the Corporation of Winchelsea shall continue undissolved … and Winchelsea shall continue to be entitled an Ancient Town of the Cinque Ports.’

The Corporation continues to exercise its responsibility for the care and maintenance of a group of the town’s historic buildings, and to fulfill Winchelsea’s function as a Head Port of the Confederation of Cinque Ports. The current legal framework is regulated by the Charities Act 2011.

Questions and answers regarding Winchelsea and the Corporation

What is Winchelsea Corporation?

Winchelsea New Town was established on Iham Hill by Edward I in 1288 to replace Old Winchelsea which, lying somewhere off Camber, had been swept away by the sea. By 1292 Edward had granted the town the right to its own Mayor and Corporation – a form of medieval democracy at a time when the monarch was more or less the source of all power.

Later Winchelsea was also accorded the status of Head Port as one of the two ‘Antient Towns’ within the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. The Mayor was elected annually on Easter Monday by Winchelsea’s Freemen, from whom he appointed Jurats to help administer the town.

What are the Cinque Ports?

The Cinque – traditionally pronounced “sink” – Ports is a confederation of medieval towns granted many rights and privileges by the King in exchange for supplying ships and sailors in time of need long before England raised its own Royal Navy.

The Head Ports are Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, together with the two Antient Towns of Rye and Winchelsea. Other local towns joined the Confederation of the Cinque Ports to assist the Head Ports in fulfilling their duties.

Today the Corporation is responsible for representing the Winchelsea at meetings of the Confederation of Cinque Ports. The seven Head Ports each in turn provide the Confederation’ s Speaker, who is the Mayor for the time being of the duty port. Winchelsea’s Mayor was speaker in 2012-13.

The ancient office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is currently help by Admiral Lord Boyce.  Previous holders of the office include Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Robert Menzies.

What political power comes from being a Cinque Port?

In the mid-14th Century Edward III granted all seven members of the Cinque Ports, including Winchelsea, the right to elect two members of Parliament. These members were elected by the Freemen, a system that later led to corruption and eventually to the town’s status as a ‘rotten borough’.

The 1832 Reform Act deprived Winchelsea of its two MPs. Its status as a Municipal Corporation remained intact until later in the 19th century when it lost its judicial and local government functions.

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports today has a purely ceremonial role in the nation’s life.

How has the Corporation survived to the present day?

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1883 abolished all Municipal Corporations (about two hundred of them) with the single exception of Winchelsea. Local MP, Frederick Inderwick, Freeman, Jurat and six times Mayor of Winchelsea, persuaded his Parliamentary colleagues that it was unthinkable that the Confederation of the Cinque Ports should lose one of its Head Ports.

As a result a special clause was written into the Act (Section 14) which allowed Winchelsea Corporation to remain in existence, while removing its judicial and local government functions and all its responsibilities save for the care and maintenance of a group of the town’s historic buildings, and the fulfilling of Winchelsea’s function as a Head Port of the Confederation of Cinque Ports.

What property does the Corporation hold?

The Corporation has responsibility for maintaining a number of properties, most of which are classed as Ancient Monuments:

The Court Hall
This is probably the oldest building in Winchelsea (Listed Grade 1) and it functions as the Town Museum and venue of the annual election of the Mayor on Easter Monday.

Strand Gate, New Gate and Pipewell Gate
The three town gates are all classed as Ancient Monuments.

The Town Well in Castle Street,

Queen Elizabeth’s Well along Spring Steps.

The Lookout
adjacent to the Strand Gate (kindly maintained by long term arrangement with Icklesham Parish Council)

The Corporation also owns

  • an area of land between Strand Hill and ‘Tower Cottage’ garden
  • the site of the electricity substation adjoining ‘Pound Cottage’
  • part of the garden of ‘Beckett’ in German St, and
  • a small part of Greyfriars Park, all of which are presently leased

More recently, in association with the Millennium Artefacts Society, the Corporation has taken responsibility for

  • the Town Sign
  • the Millennium Beacon
  • the Millennium Tapestry

How does the Corporation relate to the Museum?

The Corporation runs the Town Museum which is open throughout the summer in the Upper Court Hall. Founded in 1950 its collections and displays offer a unique insight into Winchelsea’s life and history. It is staffed by a volunteer curator and by other volunteers and members of the Corporation.

What are the Queen’s dues?

When Queen Elizabeth I visited Winchelsea in the late sixteenth century she was apparently horrified by the state of the town, by then in serious decline due to the silting up of the harbour and the loss of its function as a port.

In a fit of generosity she not only granted land to the Corporation but also passed on the income from her dues – a sort of ground rent paid to the monarch since Edward I purchased the land on which New Winchelsea was built.

Sadly neither she, nor her successors, allowed for inflation and today the Queen’s Dues, which are levied on certain of the town’s properties, amount to approximately £19.

How does the Corporation finance its responsibilities?

The Queen’s Dues are the Corporation’s only income as of right, but it also receives about £30 per annum from leased properties, as well as profits from the sales of the Town Guide.

Fortunately, through its own prudence, the Corporation has built up an invested fund, income from which covers most day-to-day expenses. Additionally there is some income from the Museum which is spent on the Museum and its upkeep, and some income also from donations and legacies.

How does the Corporation cope with major expenses?

Though the Corporation has sufficient funds to tick over, it cannot on its own finance major repairs to the historic buildings which it maintains.

In the mid 1980s grants of up to 75% were available from government agencies for such works. Subsequently the figure fell to a maximum of 50%, administered via English Heritage. As a result the Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum of Winchelsea (FOAM) was formed in 1991 as a Registered Charity, No. 1001486, dedicated to helping the Corporation fulfil its duties by raising funds.

The generosity and assistance of the Friends has subsequently played a significant role in funding the maintenance of the Corporation’s property. The Corporation has received grants and support from Winchelsea’s local authorities in the past, and has received a number of generous, mainly anonymous, donations to support various projects that are the responsibility of the Corporation.

In 2008 the Corporation applied for and received a substantial grant from English Heritage for 50% of the cost of restoring the Strand Gate. The total cost of the works carried out was approximately £48,000 with the remaining 50% being raised through a major fund-raising campaign by the Friends (FOAM).  The Heritage Lottery Fund has since taken over responsibility for such public grants.  An application to them in 2016 for funds to restore the Pipewell Gate was not successful.

Who elects the Mayor?

The Mayor of Winchelsea has been elected annually on Easter Monday for over 700 years and the system has apparently never changed.

The Mayor is elected by the Freemen of the Town at a ‘Hundred’ and at the same time an ‘Assembly’ may also appoint further Freemen, who must be residents of the Town. While this may have appeared democratic in 1292 it is patently not so today.

However, historical precedent, the Corporation’s complete lack of power, its obligations and responsibilities and its membership of the Confederation of Cinque Ports mean that Winchelsea Corporation can be changed only by Act of Parliament.

Who and what are Jurats?

By the Corporation’s original royal grant of powers, the newly elected Mayor appoints a Deputy and up to eleven Jurats from among the Freemen.  ‘Jurat’ is from legal French – ‘someone who has taken an oath’ – and in the Cinque Ports corresponds to the old English office of alderman.

Jurats are appointed to help the Mayors with their responsibilities and functions within the Town and, together with the Mayor, form the Corporation. In a nutshell, the existing Freemen elect new Freemen; the Freemen elect the Mayor; and the Mayor appoints a Deputy and the Jurats.

Who else is involved in the Corporation?

At its ‘Hundred’ on Easter Monday the duly elected Mayor nominates a Common Clerk, usually known as the Town Clerk, who effectively acts of the Secretary to the Corporation.; a Chamberlain, a sort of major domo to the Corporation; a Sergeant-at-Mace; and a Chaplain, usually the incumbent Rector of St Thomas’ Church.

These officials fulfil various roles, some of which are purely ceremonial, others of which are crucial to the work of the Corporation. Every Mayor and Deputy Mayor appoints a consort whose status is marked by a special badge and chain of office.

What is the role of women in the Corporation?

Men and women are equally eligible to be Freemen, Jurats and Mayor.

Who are the current members of the Corporation?

Mayor 2016-17
John Spencer, elected in 2016 for a second year in office

Deputy Mayor 2016-17
Cynthia Feast

Freemen and Jurats 2016-17
Anthony Moore
Donald Cameron-Clarke
Graham Alexander
Michael Melvin
Stephen Turner
John Rodley
David Page
Gillian Alexander
Robert Holland

Freemen
Michael McFadyean
David Merrifield
John McKendrick

Freemen and Past Jurats
Henry Dormer
David Bourne
Dominic Leahy
Roger Neaves
John Dunk
Alam McKinna
Melvyn Pett
John Freeman MBE
Michael de Smith

Honorary Freemen
Malcolm Pratt MBE
Stephen Rumsey OBE
Bernard Dibble

Town Clerk
Angela Hill

Chaplain to the Mayor
Revd Canon Robin Whitehead

Officers
Neil Clephane-Cameron Chamberlain
Eric Streeton Sergeant-at-Mace
Jack Brown Cinque Ports Cadet
Max Crocker Cinque Ports Cadet

Is the Corporation a self-perpetuating club?

The Corporation could be regarded as a self-perpetuating oligarchy and most definitely was so in the past.

During its days as a rotten borough corruption was rife and Freemen were paid or bribed for their support in electing members of Parliament. But while Lord Acton said that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” without power there is no place for corruption.

Today’s Freemen are elected for their contribution to the life of the town, for the contribution they can make to the work of the Corporation, and for their suitability, if required, to act as Mayor.

Who is invited to the Mayoring?

Because of the limited space in the Upper Court Hall the Mayoring ceremony is sadly not open to everyone. The Mayor-elect has some choice, but the vast majority of seats are pre-allocated to some of the Mayors of the Cinque Ports, to other local dignitaries such as the High Sheriff of the County, the local member of Parliament, the Chairs of our local authorities.

Room has also to be provided for any Freemen and their partners and for the partners of serving Jurats, the Chairs of the larger local societies, the Headteacher of our local school and for a limited number of relatives of the incoming Mayor.

Local residents may also request an invitation and if possible a few seats are left free for members of the public, though early arrival is advised.

Who pays for the Corporation’s ceremonies and events?

The Corporation has little income with which to fulfil its significant responsibilities.

It does, however, make a small contribution to the annual Mayoral expenses, although other expenses are borne personally by the Mayor.

Should residents consult the Corporation about local issues?

Essentially no, as most issues are the responsibility of other agencies, notably Rother District Council and Icklesham Parish Council. Some issues are the responsibility of higher authorities, such as the A259 (Highways Agency), Roads in the Town (East Sussex CC), flooding (Environment Agency) and utilities (e.g. BT and EDF Energy).

Though the Corporation has neither power or authority, other than concerning its property, it is happy to advise residents on an informal basis from the experience of its members, many of whom have lived in the Town for a considerable number of years.

Being an unelected and non-political body, Winchelsea Corporation seeks publicity only in exceptional circumstances and then only in support of worthwhile Town projects.

Is it true that the Mayor can confine a person to the stocks?

Sadly, the Mayor’s and Jurats’ functions as magistrates, which would have included imposing gaol sentences and other punishments on residents, were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1833.