By the numbers: How Waters Upton’s doors got their digits (Part 2)

< Back to Part 1.

An important development in the history of house numbering outside London was the enactment of the Towns Improvement Clauses Act of 1847. This legislation “comprised in one Act, sundry provisions for paving, draining, cleansing, lighting and improving towns and populous districts.” Sections 64 and 65 of the Act gave greater control over house numbers and street names to certain commissioners.

The commissioners in question were those of the towns and districts to which this legislation applied, typically those appointed under Town Improvement Acts. They could have other titles, such as trustees. Section 64 allowed them to “cause the houses and buildings in all or any of the streets to be marked up with numbers as they think fit, and […] cause to be put up or painted on a conspicuous part of some house, building, or place at or near each end, corner, or entrance of every such street the name by which such street is to be known”. Section 65 then stated that the “occupiers of houses and other buildings in the streets shall mark their houses with such numbers as the commissioners shall approve of”.

Eleven years later, many of the provisions of the above Act were incorporated into the Local Government Act 1858, which was deemed to form part of the Public Health Act 1848. The powers granted under this combined legislation were adopted by a number of Shropshire’s towns. The county’s newspapers, copies of which I have perused at the British Newspaper Archive, show that eventually, discussions about street naming and house numbering in those towns took place. (In the following paragraphs, ESJ means Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal; SC, Shrewsbury Chronicle; and WJ, the Wellington Journal.)

On Monday 18 June 1866 at a meeting of the Local Board for Oswestry, “Mr Bayley called attention to the desirability of putting up the names of the streets and numbering the houses. (Hear, hear.)” Six months later, on Monday 10 December, “The Chairman proposed that all the houses of the town should be numbered.” This was approved, but the work was not carried out. It was not until 1880 that new proposals were put to the Town Council and adopted. In supporting them, councillors referred to the large volumes of mail – including election addresses – that went undelivered because addressees could not be found. (Oswestry Advertiser, 20 Jun 1866, p5, and 12 Dec 1866, p7; WJ, 8 May 1880, p7.)

At the beginning of 1871, Shrewsbury Town Council discussed “the plates of the names of the streets” which were being put up. In addition, “The numbering of the houses, for the purpose of aiding the Registrar General in the taking of the census” was to be considered by a committee. Confirmation that this work was about to begin was given at a meeting of the Shrewsbury Improvement Committee in October that year. (ESJ, 15 Feb 1871, p8, and 18 Oct 1871, p6.)

Also in 1871, at the annual meeting of Wellington’s Improvement Commissioners in June, “An application was considered from Mr. Boyd, postmaster, praying that the Board would consider the question of numbering the houses, on the ground that it would facilitate the delivery of letters.” The matter came up again at later meetings, but each time was deferred. A decade passed before it was agreed that the town’s houses should be numbered; plans were finalised in December 1881. (ESJ, 28 Jun 1871, p6; SC, 20 Oct 1871, p8; ESJ, 26 Oct 1881, p9, and 28 Dec 1881, p6.)

By the time some of Shropshire’s urban representatives had gotten their collective acts together over street naming and house numbering, provisions enabling these improvements in country districts were in place. The Public Health Act of 1875 (according to volume 16 of The Laws of England) conferred the provisions of the Towns Improvement Clauses Act on all urban districts. Crucially for this story, it also allowed Local Government Boards to use the Act’s powers in rural districts. As we have seen however, having those powers granted and having them applied were two very different things.

To say that it took a while for house numbering to become widespread in rural areas would be an understatement. I think that the benefits were accepted, but there was a reluctance on the part of parish officials to make and carry through the necessary plans, or spend the money that was required, or compel local residents to play their part.

In the end it was neither concerns over census-taking nor issues with mail delivery that swayed the smaller settlements of Shropshire. The threat of names being struck off voters’ lists was what finally got numbers and names displayed in reluctant rural parishes.

On 7 July 1905, the Shrewsbury Chronicle reported that Mr J W St Lawrence Leslie had been appointed a revising barrister on the Oxford circuit. Prior to this his name had appeared in the Shropshire papers as Deputy Recorder (from 1899) and then ‘full’ Recorder (from 1904) of Shrewsbury. (WJ, 1 Jul 1899 and 27 Feb 1904.) Much greater prominence in the county’s press lay ahead for John William St Lawrence Leslie.

Mr Leslie’s duty as revising barrister was to hold ‘courts’ for revising and signing off the lists of those entitled to vote in parliamentary and local elections. He had to consider applications made by people who wanted their names added to these lists, and objections made against the inclusion of these names or of any of those already on the list. After weighing up the legal pros and cons he would confirm additions, and strike off those not eligible to vote. (A short guide to Electoral registration and the registers before 1918, in PDF format, is available from the Surrey History Centre; the full legislation – the Parliamentary Registration Act 1843, as it stood, with amendments, in Mr Leslie’s day – can be read in The Statutes of Practical Utility.)

A revising barrister could also bring their judgement to bear on the lists before them without being prompted by objectors. After he had settled into his new role, Mr Leslie did just that. On 25 September 1908, the Shrewsbury Chronicle reported as follows:

THE revision of voting lists in Shropshire has proceeded this week […]. The Revising Barrister has repeatedly commented upon the vital necessity of having houses numbered or identified in some way in the now famous column 4, but has been content for the most part to pass lists imperfect in this particular with the intimation that they must be made perfect next year. The remarks Mr. Leslie made on the subject last year rather led one to expect some drastic measures, but doubtless the fact that in many parishes an earnest effort has been made to carry out his wishes had some influence in inducing him to give a further period of grace in those cases where the task of numbering or naming houses – by no means an easy matter in rural parishes – has not yet been carried out.

The difficulties experienced in one of those rural parishes, Lydbury North, were raised at a revising court held that same month (Ludlow Advertiser, 26 Sep 1908, p7). The assistant overseer said he had done his best, but the scattered nature of the houses across the 9½ mile width of the parish made numbering impractical. Neither the parish council nor the owners could see how to start the work asked of them. Mr Leslie’s solution for this issue was to give the houses distinctive names, adding: “If the owners and residents would not carry out the idea then the Parish Council could apply to the Local Government Board for powers to do it themselves and charge the owners.” If a scheme was not implemented, Mr Leslie said, he would “strike off the people not properly described” from the voters’ list.

On 5 October 1909 it was the turn of the seemingly immovable Waters Upton to meet the unstoppable force of John William St Lawrence Leslie. The Shrewsbury Chronicle of 8 October (page 9) reported:

Mr. Leslie held a court for the revision of the local voters’ lists on Tuesday at Newport. […] Each parish with the exception of Waters Upton had complied with the request that the houses should be numbered or named. Mr. Leslie said the landlords in Shropshire had mostly fallen in line with his suggestion. […] With the exception of Wem and Shifnal, which places he had not yet visited, he could say Shropshire was in perfect order. Only in about half-a-dozen cases was the numbering not done, but it would eventually be carried out as required.
When dealing with the Waters Upton list, the Assistant Overseer stated that at the Parish Meeting they declined to have the houses numbered. Several questions were asked by Mr. Leslie who asked why the Parish meeting was ruled by the Rev L. Vernon Yonge, who had first made himself secure by giving a name to the house he occupied. He then encouraged the parishioners not to number the houses. […].

Numbers, and more house names, came to Waters Upton soon after Mr Leslie’s court concluded. Evidence for this can be seen on the household schedules of the 1911 census (and probably on the electoral rolls of course, but I have not yet viewed the registers for that timeframe). Only a small proportion of the householders gave specific addresses, but it is clear that a house numbering scheme was in place. In addition to 39 Harebutts, 43 Waters Upton, and No 45 Terrill Farm, there was “27 High Street”. This, the address given for the Rectory, is the only time I have seen the village’s main street named (albeit unofficially).

The ‘new’ house names given were The Beeches, The White House, and Clematis Cottage. The first two of these also appeared on household schedules when the 1921 census was taken. Almost every home had a name or a number given on that year’s census, and as Clematis Cottage was described as number 31 it appears some or all of the properties with names, also had numbers assigned to them.

Although this is the end of the story of how house numbers came to Waters Upton, it is just the beginning of my research relating to the properties they identify. For one thing, I need to identify exactly where each of those numbered and named houses stand (or, for those which are no more, where they stood). If my research generates results, there will be lots more stories (perhaps that should be house histories) to come…

Picture credits. 5, © Eva the Weaver (Flickr), adapted and used under a Creative Commons licence. Six, public domain image from HippoPx. 7, © Duncan Cumming (Flickr), used under a Creative Commons licence. Nummer 8 by Liza, public domain image from pixabay. Number 9, a mashup of a public domain image from PeakPX and a photo © Kirsty Hall (Flickr), used under a Creative Commons licence.

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