In 1835, Parliament passed two Acts which completely changed the local government of Aberystwyth. The first Act was the Municipal Corporations Act, which set up borough councils elected by ratepayers in 178 towns and cities in England and Wales, of which Aberystwyth was one. The second Act was a local one which setup Town Improvement Commissioners to improve the town and supply it with water.
Originally it was intended that the new borough councils should take over the functions of all improvement commissioners, but in the haste of the day, and to ensure the controversial Act's passage through Parliament, this provision was omitted. As a result, the councils were given little powers, and in Aberystwyth they were confined chiefly to the management of the corporate estate. Improvement commissioners could hand over their powers to the councils if they wished, but this was not done at Aberystwyth until 1873.
Aberystwyth in 1835 was flourishing. The town was already a popular resort for "the fashionable set" who could afford to travel by stagecoach. The harbour ranked third in Wales for at this time it was an important lead-exporting port. The town had grown considerably since 1800, with the population approaching 5,000 compared with 1,758 in 1801. New streets were built, including North Parade, Terrace Road and Marine Terrace.
The local improvements Act received the royal assent in July 1835 and contained powers for paving, lighting, removing obstructions, sea defence, and most important of all, providing a water supply.
Aberystwyth was among the first towns in Britain to supply its own water. Formerly, water carriers brought in barrels at 6d. a time from the mill leet of which Plas Crug Brook was a part. The improvement commissioners immediately set about providing waterworks, and spent £5,000 in 1837 in building a reservoir at Brynymor Dingle and tapping springs at Brynymor. Cast-iron pipes were laid along Marine Terrace to the town. There was a drought in 1844 and the commissioners decided to obtain more water by tapping the springs near Plas Crug. A steam pump and engine house was erected at the town end of Plas Crug and water pumped to Brynymor. The system served Aberystwyth until the 1880's.
Early action was also taken to light the streets. The commissioners gave permission to W. M. Stears of Stroud Gloucs., to erect gasworks and agreed to pay £3 a lamp for 80 public lamps. The gas company was formed in 1838 and the gasworks built on land now occupied by the Wales Gas showroom and adjoining buildings in Park Avenue. In 1851 the commissioners thought that the town should own its own gas works and four years later offered the company £1,622 for their works. However, nothing came of this and the gas company remained in private hands until the industry was nationalised in 1949. The borough council was urged in the 1870's and during World War One to take the company over.
During the 38 years that the commissioners were in existence, they spent £12,000 on drains and sewers to ensure that the town was as healthy as possible. Formerly, the drains were open, but in the 1860's a sewerage scheme was undertaken,with the effiuent being piped out to sea. Much was done to keep the beach free from all drainage. At the end of the commissioners' period, the town was said to be in "a very favourable sanitary condition" - at any rate by the standards of the time.
The Commissioners had a duty to pave the town and began to replace the cobbled pavements with flagstones. The cobble stone forecourt of the Old Black Lion in Bridge Street is the only remaining one of its type. Flagstones were brought to Aberystwyth by sea. From the first, the commissioners were concerned to keep the streets clear. In 1835, at one of their first meetings, they decided that stalls around the old market place centred on the Guild Hall should be removed to the new market in St. James's Square. However, in the face of opposition from traders, they soon changed their minds. Later they established a fish market below the Guild Hall.
Although the commissioners were elected, so few people were entitled to vote in the elections that they were virtually a self-perpetuating body. The Mayor and the Curate of St. Michael's Church were ex-officio members (Aberystwyth did not have its own vicar until it was made a separate parish from Llanbadarn in 1860). Most commissioners were professional or business men in the town. They included Edward Locke, the Custom House officer, Dr. Rice Williams, a noted physician who lived at Bridge Street, Mathew Davies (father of Lord Ystwyth), Thomas Jones, a shipbuilder who lived at Sandmarsh Cottage and reputed to have died worth £250,000, John Roberts, the tanner, who as a boy saw men hanged in London for sheep stealing. The first clerk was William Henry Thomas. He was paid £10 a year.
Borough Council 1836-1873
Much ofthe above work was accomplished with the co-operation of the Borough Council, who first met in January, 1836 and elected its first Mayor, James Hughes, Glanrheidol, attorney-at-law. The original council consisted of 12 councillors and four aldermen, later increased to 18 councillors and six aldermen. The rate payers elected the councillors, who in turn appointed the aldermen. This was the first introduction of democratic local government into our area.
It was the magistrates at Quarter Sessions who decided in 1841 that the Guild Hall was unfit and should be replaced with a new County Hall. They offered the Borough Council £800 towards building the new hall. However, the borough council were not keen to build a hall mainly for use by the county. They wanted it to be partly a county hall, and partly a town hall and this is what happened. The foundation stone was laid in 1842 and in 1855 the Guild Hall was pulled down. The Town Hall was not completely finished until 1870. It was partly destroyed by fire in 1957, was rebuilt in grand style and re-opened on May 2nd 1962, later winning a Civic Trust Award.
Borough Police Force
The Borough Council was empowered to form a Watch Committee. In September, 1837, it set up the Aberystwyth Police Force with only two full-time officers, a head constable paid 22s. a week and a junior constable paid 14s. There were 33 petty or special constables paid 2s. a day when on duty. The House of Correction with two cells was in Great Darkgate Street, opposite the present Post Office. Cardiganshire Constabulary was formed in 1844 but the two forces were not amalgamated until 1857. The constables wore tall leather hats, long-tailed coats and white trousers in summer. By this time, the town had its own magistrates' court, of which each Mayor was an ex-officio member during his term.
A Growing Town
Meanwhile the town continued to grow. Civic pride was reflected in the building of the Town Clock by public subscription on the site of the old Guildhall in 1856. This was a landmark until demolished for safety reasons exactly 100 years later. With the coming of the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway in 1864, and the Manchester and Milford Railway (from Carmarthen) in 1867, every effort was made to make our town live up to its claim as the "Brighton of Wales," a term used as early as 1797. More boarding houses were built on Marine Terrace, and in 1866 the Queen's Hotel, with more than 100 bedrooms, was completed.
Another large hotel was begun near the Castle, around the old Castle House. However, funds ran out and the promoters of the University College of Wales bought it unfinished for £10,000. This ensured the presence of the U.C.W. in the town, which is its biggest asset and the largest employment unit it possesses today. Without the college and other units it attracted, Aberystwyth would be similar to other small resorts. After the Queen's Hotel company built a sea wall in front of the hotel, the town authorities agreed to extend it to the foot of Constitution Hill, and later approved plans for building Victoria Terrace.
A Bathhouse on rocks near the Queen's Hotel split the promenade in two, but after pressure by the authorities it was removed in 1892. With the granting of leases on the promenade and elsewhere, the council's income from ground rents increased significantly. Although the railway brought in a new era of prosperity in general, it led to a decline in the Harbour.
In the 1850s, the council had difficulty in establishing the ownership of the Castle and only after protracted negotiations finally bought the ruins and grounds for £254 in 1881. To cater for the farming community, the cattle market was moved from the Queen's Road area to Park Avenue when the railway arrived, and the council built a £2,000 slaughterhouse adjoining it.
Going to school is now taken for granted, but it was not until 1875 that school was made compulsory for children in Aberystwyth. The important Education Act of 1870 gave local councils the right to ask for a School Board to be set up to build schools. The borough council exercised this right almost at once, and Aberystwyth was the first town in Wales to elect such a board. A Board School (now Ysgol Gymraeg) was opened in Alexandra Road in August 1874 and shortly afterwards the board made school attendance compulsory for children aged five to 13. Before Board School opened the census showed that 943 children were attending the National and other schools but 229 were "running the streets." In 1904 Board School and the National Schools were handed over to Cardiganshire Education Authority.
Aberystwyth can also be reckoned the pioneers of the public library movement. The town adopted the Public Libraries Act in 1871, though the council did not open a library until 1874. The 1871 decision was made so that the council could receive a gift of paintings from George Powell, of Nanteos. After much wrangling the council decided to build a museum and library behind the Town Hall but the proposal fell through for various reasons. The first free library was in Pier Street, later being moved to the Old Assembly Rooms in Laura Place. The library in Corporation Street was opened in 1906, and in 1947 it became part of the new Cardiganshire Joint Library.
Ratepayers did not have a secret ballot until 1872. When the Aberystwyth School Board was elected in 1870, there were charges of bribery and even of gifts of tea and blankets and it was obvious the secret ballot was now essential. Parliament passed the necessary legislation and the first borough council secret ballot was held on November 1, 1872. But we have now come to the start of a new era in Aberystwyth's story.