The Mayor and Corporation of Winchelsea
There has been a mayor of Winchelsea for over 700 years, with records dating back to 1295.
The mayoring ceremony takes place annually on Easter Monday, and since 1665 it has been held in the Upper Court Hall.
The ceremony recognises the continuing existence of the last surviving unreformed Corporation of England and Wales, and comprises an ‘Assembly of the Freemen of Winchelsea’ followed by the ‘Annual Sitting of the Hundred’, the principal business of which is to receive a report from the Mayor of the previous year and to install the Mayor for the coming year. In this sense the ‘Assembly and Hundred’ is the equivalent of an annual general meeting.
Winchelsea Corporation – Some Background
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 Corporation continues to exercise, through the office of the Mayor, its resultant statutory responsibilities as a member and Head Port of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. In addition, members of the Corporation, acting as an executive board and as charity trustees, continue to exercise their responsibilities for the care and maintenance of properties within their charge and to run the Town Museum for the public benefit.
Winchelsea Corporation History
Winchelsea New Town was established on Iham Hill by Edward I in 1288.
It replaced 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 ‘Ancient 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.
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 the 1883 Municipal Corporations Act. This Act abolished all Municipal Corporations (about two hundred of them) with the single exception of Winchelsea. This happened because the 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 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.
The clause in the 1883 Act 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.’
Winchelsea Corporation and the Museum
The Corporation is responsible for running the Town Museum which is open from the beginning of May to the end of October.
It is located in the Upper Court Hall and was founded in 1950. Its collections and displays offer a unique insight into Winchelsea’s life and history. It is run on a totally voluntary basis, managed on a day-to-day basis by a committee chaired by a Curator, who is also a volunteer appointed by the Corporation. Click here to find out more about the Museum.
When Queen Elizabeth I visited Winchelsea in the late sixteenth century she was apparently horrified by the state of the town.
By then it was in serious decline due to the silting up of the harbour and the loss of its function as a port. Accordingly, the Queen passed to the Corporation the Town Gates, along with the revenue from their use, as well as the right to charge ground rent on certain land and properties in the Town, known as the Queen’s Dues.
Unfortunately, inflation was not allowed for, road tax and a bypass eliminated income from the Gates, and Council Tax rather took over from the Queen’s Dues. Today the latter are collected on a totally voluntary basis and the Corporation benefits by about £30 per annum.
Over the years, the Corporation has built up a small invested fund, income from which covers normal running costs, while admission charges from the Museum and revenue from its shop covers the Museum and its upkeep. However, there is clearly inadequate funding to finance major projects, such as repairs to the historic buildings in its charge. The Corporation attempts to bridge the gap through fundraising and bids to grant giving authorities.
The Corporation contributes to the cost of the Mayoring ceremony, with other Mayoral expenses being borne by the Mayor. It also pays a small honorarium to the Town Clerk, Chamberlain and Sergeant-at-Mace.
Winchelsea Corporation and its Friends
The Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum of Winchelsea (FOAM) was formed in 1991 as a Registered Charity, dedicated to helping the Corporation fulfil its duties by raising funds.
Chiefly this money would support the care of the three Town Gates and the Court Hall. Click here for more about FOAM.
In 2001, The Millennium Artefacts Society was founded, with a similar remit to raise funds for the maintenance of the three artefacts in the charge of the Corporation, namely the Town Sign, the Beacon and the Millennium Tapestry.
The generosity and assistance of these Friends has played a significant role in funding the maintenance of the Corporation’s property. In addition, the Corporation has, from time to time, received grants and support from Winchelsea’s local authorities, as well as a number of private donations to support various projects.
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 FOAM. However, an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2016 for the Pipewell Gate was not successful and so restoration work was funded by FOAM, the Corporation and the local community.
Winchelsea Corpration and its 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. Freemen are selected on the basis of their contribution to the life of the town, for the contribution they can make to the present and future work of the Corporation, and for their suitability, if required, to act as Mayor. Jurats are selected from among the Freemen by the Mayor to help them with their responsibilities and functions within the Town. Together with the Mayor, they form the executive board of the Corporation.
Members of Winchelsea Corporation 2018-19
Deputy Mayor 2019-20
Freemen and Jurats 2019-20
Anthony Moore, Donald Cameron-Clarke, Michael Melvin, Stephen Turner, John Spencer, Cynthia Feast, David Page, Robert Holland, David Merrifield, Carol Scoines, Berenice Scott.
John McKendrick, Peter Cosstick.
Freemen and Past Jurats
Henry Dormer, David Bourne, Dominic Leahy, Roger Neaves, John Dunk, Alan McKinna, Melvyn Pett, John Freeman MBE, Michael de Smith, Gillian Alexander.
Malcolm Pratt MBE, Stephen Rumsey OBE, Bernard Dibble, Philip Laverton
Chaplain to the Mayor
Revd Jonathan Meyer
Neil Clephane-Cameron Chamberlain
Eric Streeton Sergeant-at-Mace
Winchelsea Corporation and the Local Authorities
As it has no revenue raising powers, the Corporation has no responsibility for local services.
These are vested in other authorities, namely East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council, Icklesham Parish Council and the Highways Agency.
The Corporation is a strictly non-political body, with considerable practical local and national experience vested in its members. It is responsible for the care of properties in its charge and is also very happy to advise residents, on an informal basis, on any issue that may arise. The Mayor or any other members can be approached at any time. You can also email us via the Town Clerk.
Annual Mayoring Ceremony
At the Mayoring ceremony, the Mayor appoints up to twelve Jurats from among the Freemen of the Town.
They run the business of the Corporation, as an executive Board and as Trustees of the charity for the year ahead. New Freemen may also be chosen.
The Mayor is also assisted by four volunteer office holders, namely a Town Clerk, a Chamberlain, a Sergeant-at-Mace and a Chaplain.
Winchelsea and the Cinque Ports
The Cinque – traditionally pronounced ‘sink’ – Ports are a confederation of medieval towns granted rights and privileges by the King in exchange for supplying ships and sailors in time of need.
In this sense the Ports were a step in the evolution of the Royal Navy. The Head Ports are Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, together with the two ‘Ancient Towns’ of Rye and Winchelsea. Other local towns joined the Confederation of the Cinque Ports to assist the Head Ports in fulfilling their duties and were known as ‘Limbs’ of the Head Ports. Today they comprise of the Towns of Deal, Faversham, Folkestone, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate and Tenterden.
Today the Mayor is responsible for representing Winchelsea at meetings of the Confederation of Cinque Ports. The seven Head Ports each in turn provide the Confederation’s Speaker, an office taken on additionally by the Mayor for the time being in that Town. The Mayor of Winchelsea took over as Speaker from the Mayor of Hastings in May 2019 and will hold the post until May 2020 when it is handed on to the Mayor of Rye. Click here to go to the official Cinque Ports website.
The Seal of Winchelsea
The Seal of the Corporation is as ancient as the corporate seal of any port. It dates from the early part of the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).
The Obverse of the seal shows an ancient ship with a poop and embattled forecastle and the royal arms three lions passant. The translation of the legend is ‘The seal of the Barons of our Lord the King of England of Winchelsea’.
The Counter Seal (lost in the 18th century and recovered in 1907) shows parts of three public buildings of the town – the church of St Giles and a representation of St Giles, a tower, possibly the Town Hall with a warden holding a lantern and representations of the Annunciation and the Virgin Mary, and the church of St. Thomas with a representation of the martyrdom of St Thomas. At the base are representations of the religious houses of the town and of the sea. The surrounding legend is an invocation to Saint Giles and Saint Thomas for their protection although the precise meaning is not clear.