On 29 November, the Town and Manor (T&M) held its first ever open forum at which a number of the trustees explained the work that the organisation does in the town. The meeting was also addressed by Jed Ramsey, its first ever CEO, who talked about the various grants which the Town and Manor has made to local organisations. The second part of the meeting involved some questions from the floor which raised a number of issues about the reality and, more importantly, the perception of the T&M in Hungerford.
The purpose of this article is not to record what was said but to reflect on what these exchanges might tell us.
The first difficulty with considering the T&M is that it is unique, as are most of its ceremonies, officers and traditions. The reasons for this are discussed elsewhere – I’ve written about this with regard to Hocktide here and anyone wanting more detailed information can do no better than visit the excellent Hungerford Virtual Museum – but the result is that there are no standards by which to judge its role, ambitions, finances or conduct. The only comparable example that springs to mind is that of Hull which, in the pre-privatisation days, had its own telephone network, with visible evidence in the form of its cream (rather than red) phone boxes. Why this was I can’t recall but it must have given the inhabitants of the town, and perhaps also the people who ran the telephone company, a slightly different take on the world. (Since its foundation in the early 1900s, at almost exactly the same time that the T&M’s independence was confirmed, KCOM, formerly Kingston Communications, formerly Hull Corporation, has regularly re-invented itself and has a reputation as one the the UK’s most innovative telecom companies. Hull was, for instance, the first city to have fully digital exchanges.)
The T&M is clearly not a telecoms company. So, what is it?
An easy definition would be that it’s a charity: and, of course, it is a charity. Such a bald statement, however, overlooks the T&M’s history, which long pre-dates any charity still in formal existence, and also its role as a protector of rights. It has evolved into this charitable role, something that was formalised in 1908.
The T&M has much in common with a local estate: indeed, it is a local estate, with land, property and waterways in and around Hungerford. However, most estates are not run by trustees and, even if they are, these would probably not be elected. Nor do estates have any administrative officers with titles like ‘Constable’, ‘Overseer’ and ‘Bailiff’ which look at first glance like municipal roles from a bygone age. An estate will probably rent out property in its local town but this will generally be on normal commercial terms without ancient rights and obligations. Certainly there is no estate in the country which owns the town’s main municipal building (and no other town whose town hall is privately owned).
The T&M is sometimes confused with the town council. In some ways it used to be a sort of town council, long before such things ever existed. Similarities remain, some of them confusing. The trustees, like the councillors, are not paid, although its staff – like Jed Ramsay, and Rob Starr and his assistant Jimmy Hill who look after the fishery – are, as are Town Council’s staff. The role of HTC Clerk Claire Barnes is in some ways similar to Jed’s at the T&M. The Constable and the Mayor both wear ceremonial chains of office. Both organisations have similar names, use the same logo and have responsibilities which extend over roughly the same area. Both use the Town Hall for meetings. In a certain light the T&M looks strangely and, to some, uncomfortably like another tier of government.
Both the Town Council and the Town and Manor have aspects and functions that are mysterious to many people. The advantage the Town Council has is that it can be compared to others of its kind. In West Berkshire alone there are 62 parishes, each of which has an identical formal relationship with West Berkshire Council and with its own population. The activities, finances and public perceptions of these can be contrasted. No such comparisons, however, can be made between the T&M and any other body. As a result everyone tends to draw their own conclusions, based on whatever criteria or standards they choose.
Also, by law, most of the Town Council’s meetings are public and are reported on, by Penny Post and others. The T&M, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to have public meetings or tend to issue regular reports (though this may change). This could lead to accusations that the discussions are secretive, perhaps to conceal some element of self-interest.
I very much doubt this is the case. They are probably technical, time-consuming, prosaic and, to an outsider, faintly tedious, as most discussions about DEFRA regulations, property maintenance, grant applications and approval of minutes tend to be. However, on the occasions when the T&M does operate in public, most notably at Hocktide, the events are eye-catching, colourful and often spectacular. The problem with these – which is perhaps not the T&M’s fault as the traditions have a complex history – is that few people will be sure what exactly is going on. This can lead to the idea that the body is exclusive and that the ceremonies are deliberately baffling. What are the alternatives? Any attempt to modernise them would create endless debate and also largely negate the point of doing them at all. To stop them altogether would be to provoke an outcry and raise further questions about what the T&M actually does. In some ways the T&M can’t win.
The responsibility for managing all these activities, visible or otherwise, falls on the Constable (who is elected annually by – and to represent – the Commoners, of whom there are about 80 in Hungerford, mainly those who own houses in the High Street), Jed Ramsay (the T&M’s first ever CEO, who was appointed in January 2017) and 10 trustees. Each of these serves for three years at which intervals there is an election, with any adult resident of Hungerford living south of the River Dun being entitled to vote. Current trustees can put their names forward again. The next election will be in May 2019. At the last one (in 2016) there were 14 candidates while in 2013 there were 13.
None of this looks like the democratic vacuum that some have suggested, although it’s probably true that the elections, the criteria and the responsibilities could be more widely publicised to further increase the pool of candidates. There are, however, only a limited number of people who have the time, the will, the experience and the skills to perform such a role (which is, remember, unpaid). Moreover, whoever is elected will still be operating the same machinery which is constrained by a number of factors, including the T&C’s self-appointed role to protect the interests of the Commoners and the regulations of national organisations such as the Environment Agency and the Charity Commission.
Extending the electorate to cover the whole of the parish, rather than just living south of the River Dun, would perhaps be a useful and inclusive reform and one which would do nothing to undermine the status or role of the T&M. There may, however, be massive legal obstacles in the way of this.
Accusations have also been made that the trustees are all over 50 and some have served for a long time. Many would say these are not inherently bad things. For all the reasons mentioned above, the same situation applies to most parish and town councils and to many other trusts and charities.
Any organisation that has members, traditions, costumes and ceremonies that are conducted in public is by definition to some extent exclusive: some people are involved in it, others are not. The same could be said of organised religions, livery companies, trade unions and Oxbridge colleges. All these, the T&M included, are long-established but now exist in a world very different from the one that shaped their foundation. To some extent, their ceremonies celebrate that the organisation has survived. This is particularly the case with the T&M as it’s the only one of its kind in the country to have done so.
Traditions and ceremonies are preserved for other reasons. They provide a sense of significance which justifies (even if they don’t always fully explain) the body’s existence and functions, as well as providing some occasional public spectacles. More importantly if less obviously, they are a reminder of why the organisation came into being at all. This were often for reasons that were vital at the time – the protection of rights, the education of scholars, the maintenance of standards, the safeguarding of workers or the saving of souls – which are often worth recalling. Other battles against oppression, injustice and, ignorance and other evils are still being fought so it’s worth reminding ourselves that many others have been waged, and often won, in the past. The meeting also pointed out some more recent battles which the T&M had fought and won, for instance with Greene King which had long held the lease of the John O’Gaunt pub. The benefits of this are likely to filter through the the town as a whole as more money will as a result be available for grants to local charitable and community groups
In conclusion, the T&M is, like Hull’s former telephone company, sui generis. Individual aspects can be compared with other organisations but, overall, it has no peers. To understand it therefore requires extra effort. Extra effort is also required by the T&M to ensure that there’s no possibility that its workings can be seen as anything other than honest, consistent and correct and in the interests of the whole community.
As in so many cases, perception is at least as important as reality. For the T&M fundamentally to change what it does would be complex and probably pointless. Two things that are now demanded of all bodies, however, is that they be transparent and that they communicate effectively what they are doing. Without this, all the good things they accomplish are likely to be overshadowed by controversy, inaccuracy and negative publicity. In this respect at least, the T&M is no different from any other organisation – in Hungerford, in Hull, or anywhere else.
This article was written by Penny Post. Every effort has been made to provide a balanced and dispassionate view but any opinions are those of Penny Post and not necessarily those of the Town and Manor or any other organisation or individual. We are happy to correct any errors of fact and also welcome comments on this article, which can be made by using the box below.