The Court Leet
From the date of the later charters down to the year 1835, the affairs of the town were governed by the Court Leet, which met twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas. It is not clear how it evolved, for its records go back only to 1690. However, we know that Aberystwyth had a Mayor - the presiding officer of the Court Leet - as far back as 1584 in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The government of the corporation was vested in these courts, which appointed the town officers and admitted burgesses. The Court Leet was summoned and held by the Mayor. The jury consisted of 12 or more burgesses, selected and sworn in by the Mayor. In 1833, the members of the corporation were the Mayor, coroner, chamberlain (treasurer), town clerk, two sergeants-at-arms, two scavengers and an indefinite number of burgesses. The Court Leet met in the Guild Hall, built by order of Cardiganshire Quarter Sessions about the year 1690 and rebuilt in 1770. The hall stood at the junction of Great Darkgate Street and Pier Street, the spot later occupied by the Town Clock. Sometimes the Court Leet adjourned its meeting across the road to the Lion Hotel (now Padarn Hall).
The first charter of Aberystwyth in 1277 established the right to appoint burgesses. During the time of the Courts Leet, they possessed at least four privileges: a vote in the election of an M.P., a right of trading, exemption of market and corn tolls within the Borough, and a right to pasturage on the common or marsh. The original intent of the Courts Leet was to view the frankpledges of the burgesses who had given mutual promises for the good behaviour of each other. The only way a burgess could be admitted to the freedom of the borough was by presentment of the jury at the Court Leet. In 1833, the fee for admission was 10 shillings and sixpence.
It must not be supposed, however, that this was a democratic institution. For hundreds of years the control of town affairs lay in the hands of the Pryse family of Gogerddan, the chief landowner. Pryses were frequently appointed mayors. Two were M.Ps. for the borough's constituency in the 18th century and the family held the seat continuously from 1818 to 1855. The town affairs were bound up with the fortunes of the Pryse family, especially in the closing years of the Court Leet.
The Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations in 1833 explained how the Pryse family would maintain complete control. A ruling few filled the office of Mayor in rotation. As the Mayor selected the jury, he made sure he selected men who would continue the system. "A majority of the jury has been commonly composed of non-resident burgesses, the tenants of Mr. Pryse, the sitting member, who is of the same political party with the ruling few," said the commissioners' report. "It was admitted that all persons entertaining opinions opposed to those of the ruling party in the corporation, are systematically excluded. The promotion of the political influence of this party seems to be the chief practical purpose for which the corporation has existed for a considerable number of years." In fact, the jury had become just a rubber stamp. At the end of each Court Leet, the jury and officers dined together at the corporation's expense. In the 1830's this was costing the town at least £2 a year - quite a sum in those days.
It would be wrong to assume, however, that the Court Leet neglected its duties in other respects. The records show that they were very much the watchdogs of the town in respect of trading rights, the appearance of the town, public order and any other encroachments which affected "the town, borough and liberty of Aberystwyth." It was the duty of the jury to bring public attention to such matters and they did so by making "presentments." A record of these was published by the Welsh Gazette in 1902 in a book entitled "Aberystwyth and Its Court Leet" by the Rev. George Eyre Evans. The officers were appointed annually, but some were re-elected annually for many years.
The Mayor was always presented at the Michaelmas Court Leet. An almost - complete list of mayors dating back to 1659 is in existence, with the addition of the isolated names of Richard Phillips in 1584 and Richard Pryse in 1615. Many served as Mayor several times, the record apparently belongs to Job Sheldon, who was Mayor 12 or 14 times between 1804 and 1833. Alexander Gordon, inn keeper of the Lion Hotel, was Mayor four times between 1730 and 1745, 12 times a bailiff and 30 times the coroner. Apart from holding the Court Leet, selecting the jury and generally keeping an eye on other officers and the constables during the year, the Mayor was also deputy returning officer for the borough in parliamentary elections. The vote counting itself was always held at Cardigan, the shire town. The Mayor was not paid in any way.
The Coroner for the borough was appointed in the same way as the Mayor. He also received no salary from the corporation but could claim the same fees as the county coroner for holding inquests.
The Chamberlain was the treasurer of the corporation. His duty was to collect the rents and other dues. The Commissioners of 1833 reported dissatisfaction in the town that the accounts were never published, and did not appear to have ever been audited. Although the books were produced at the annual Michaelmas Court Leet the jury never inspected them.
This officer was appointed annually like the other officials but in practice he was Town Clerk for life. He was the secretary to the Court Leet and received a two guineas fee for each attendance, plus legal fees. William Jones held the office from 1808 to 1832 and was succeeded by John Parry, who was later Town Clerk to the Borough Council until 1872.
Their duty was to summon the Court Leet and attend the Mayor. They were unpaid but received a suit of livery for the year. In the 18th century and early 19th century, one of them was always the Bellman or Town Crier, an office which continued until after World War One. The Bellman's uniform is still in existence.
This was a very lucrative office and the persons usually selected were the churchwardens and overseers of the poor. The town was divided into three parts, based on Bridge Street, Great Darkgate Street and the rest of the town. The two scavengers paid a £10 fee to the corporation each year for the privilege of their office. Each householder was responsible for removing their own refuse and paid the scavenger to do the work. However, the scavengers employed the paupers to do the work for which they were paid themselves by the townspeople.
Trading and Markets
The burgesses were very concerned to protect their exclusive trading rights, both in the Monday markets and the fairs. Courts Leet frequently drew attention to unauthorised persons trading in the town. Anyone who was not a burgess was forbidden to trade without the consent of the burgesses. The Court Leet kept a close watch on the administration of the market stalls and on all weights and measures and tolls. The burgesses' rights over the common and marsh were also jealously guarded. The records are full of warnings to unauthorised persons who allowed their animals to graze on the common or who took turf from it. The common included the Maesglas, where High Street, Prospect Street, Penmaesglas Road and Custom House Street now stand, plus other areas below the town wall. The marsh covered lowlying areas now occupied by Park Avenue, Alexandra Road, North Parade and Queen's Road.
One of the most valuable assets of the town, right up to the present day, is the Corporate Estate, the land owned by the town and leased to householders and others. For more than 160 years the corporation has been receiving a good income from the ground rents and this had undoubtedly helped to keep down the rates. In the 1960's there was an attempt in the Borough Council to sell the freeholds, but after long discussion the idea was rejected. However, the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 gave most householders the right to buy the freeholds. Some hundreds of householders have done this. The money from the sale was invested, and the interest, together with the ground rents, provides a continuing income, which amounted to £35,000 in the Borough Council's last year.
Aberystwyth therefore, owes a tremendous debt to the Court Leet, which between 1813 and 1834 let much of the old common and allowed the town to expand greatly. Land for houses was let for 99 years and land for 40 years. At first the leases were granted on payment of "fines" and the ground rent was really only nominal. But as the Commissioners of 1833 found, some prominent burgesses came off very well as a result of this policy. Before 1808, the common was unenclosed land over which the burgesses enjoyed special rights. These rights were also claimed by the inhabitants, householders and landowners in the borough. The corporation disputed the claims of the latter, and after litigation which cost the town £3,729, the right of the corporation to the exclusive enjoyment of the lands was established. To raise this money, the Court Leet decided to let the land on long leases on payment of "fines." The ruling few and the town clerk decided the fines and rents. Job Sheldon obtained two very valuable plots, one extending below Mill Street and including the area that is now the Corporation Yard. The 1833 Commissioners said, "The transactions were not conducted in such a way as to be altogether free from suspicion. In most instances, no valuation appears to have been made, nor any public competition invited." Both the town clerk and Sheldon received the money from the fines and used it to pay off debts which the corporation owed to them.
The Town Wall
In the 18th Century, the Court Leet were concerned that the town walls, the castle and the town gates were often in disrepair. They also attempted to stop people taking stones from them to build their own houses. There are many cases of the jury pointing out "common nuisances" in relation to the walls, which finally disappeared at the beginning of the 1800's. The dirty state of the streets was frequently a cause of complaint, and many times householders were accused, and even fined, for allowing dung hills or rubbish in the street. Before the Harbour was taken over by trustees in 1780, there were cases of the Court Leet complaining of nuisances such as old hulls left to rot. It is interesting to note that parking was a problem even in the 18th Century￼ - when the problem concerned horses, left in the main street and interfering with the passage of carts. Roads and Trefechan Bridge were occasionally out of repair and the Court Leet ordered the inhabitants to repair them.
The Court Leet had jurisdiction over certain minor offences, but generally the law was administered by magistrates through the Cardiganshire Quarter Sessions. The Court Leet was told on many occasions that the town stocks near the Guild Hall were out of repair. Troublesome women were sometimes branded common scolds by the Court Leet and the jury more than once demanded a ducking stool to be provided - but it never was. The Court Leet also had to deal with vagabonds and beggars and the constables appointed at the Court Leet were told to take a stern line with them. In 1833 the constables numbered six, but were said to be very inefficient. Most were unpaid, for this was a few years before a Borough Police Force was established.
With the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, the Court Leet ceased to exist at the end of 1835.