When the inaugural members of Lancashire County Council met for the first time 130 years ago this week, the authority’s geographical spread was almost as boundless as its responsibilities.
Back then, the council area encompassed Liverpool, Manchester and the Lake District – a definition of Lancashire for which some, of course, still yearn.
Across its 1,700 square miles of territory, County Hall touched almost every aspect of the lives of its residents.
Like the other county authorities created across the country in April 1889, Lancashire was in charge of everything from the police and public health to food and farming. The council was also handed the power to levy taxes to pay for the services which it had to deliver.
Responsibilities have come and gone – and, in some cases, come back again – in the intervening years, but the countless decisions made in the committee rooms of County Hall are all recorded in the authority’s archive.
To mark the 130th anniversary of the formation of the council, a series of small exhibitions will run for the rest of the year, each charting a different area of work in which the authority has been involved.
“Some of it might surprise people,” says the county’s senior archivist, David Tilsley, as he stands next to the first of the displays – which reflects the council’s role in building the first stretch of what is now M6.
“It’s the scale of the ambition and of the organisation itself which is striking. Here you had a county council taking the lead in pioneering a nationally-important infrastructure project,” David says.
It was during the post-war years when the county council’s power seemed to be at its peak. Leaflets from the 1950s and 1960s display the dizzying array of domains in which the authority seemed proud to be involved – with its colour-coded pamphlets covering areas as diverse as dentistry and home help.
Some of the documents seem surprisingly advanced in their themes. One boasts that the council will ensure that a midwife is available “for any woman who chooses to have her baby at home”. It also reveals that many midwives come equipped with a car and a phone – long before anybody had imagined that it would be possible to combine the two.
The language occasionally belies the time from which it originated – with one public information leaflet talking about “mental health”. But another is more reflective of the era in its description of disabled people in need of assistance as “handicapped”.
The fact that health runs through so much of the county council’s archive is no accident. Prior to the creation of the NHS in 1948, hospitals were another key area of the authority’s responsibility.
Park Hospital in Davyhulme – now known as Trafford General – is famed for being the first NHS hospital in the country. But it had existed for two decades beforehand as a Lancashire County Council creation. The authority gave the keys to the then health minister, Aneurin Bevan, is a ceremonial handover now regarded as marking the beginning of the NHS.
Even after losing control over hospitals, the county council remained a significant force. As the 1970s dawned, the authority employed 100,000 people – but change was on the horizon.
The Local Government Act of 1974 saw Lancashire lose 40 per cent of its administrative area, as the conurbations around Merseyside and Greater Manchester – along with the Lake District – waved goodbye. However, Lancashire did gain some land in West Riding from just across the then Yorkshire border.
The two-tier system of local government saw district councils play a greater role in delivering services which had once been the preserve of County Hall. Then, in 1998, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen were carved completely out of the county’s responsibilities, when they decided to go it alone as unitary authorities.
Only last month, three councils in East Lancashire – Pendle, Burnley and Rossendale called for a breakaway from County Hall and a merger with each other and Blackburn to form a standalone authority.
Whatever the future holds for Lancashire County Council as an organisation, David says it is important for it to retain a “corporate memory” – and that includes a nod to the thousands of elected members which it has had over the last 130 years.
Varying degrees of biographical information are held about each county councillor to have graced the corridors of County Hall – and the first cohort of 114 form part of the archive’s anniversary display.
The members – who had considerable power and influence as pioneers of a new form of local politics – were overseen by the first chair of the authority, J.T. Hibbert.
Mr Hibbert, a barrister by profession, proved a long-lasting incumbent, holding on to the top job for 19 years until his death in 1908. His portrait glances across the at the doors of the council chamber where decisions are still being made more than a century later.
Who knows how much he and his colleagues have much in common with the current crop of councillors – but that first cohort did share something with each other.
“They are all white men of a certain age – and nearly all of them have got facial hair!” David laughs.
PRESERVING THE PAST IN THE FUTURE
Senior archivist David Tilsley says 130 years of county council history – along with collections held on behalf of other organisations – have left the authority’s archive “nearly full”.
“We’re trying to squeeze a few more shelves in here and there,” he explains.
But he warns that a shift to digitising the documents which will comprise the archives of tomorrow is not as simple as it may seem.
“There’s not a minute book recording the meetings anymore, everything is on-line.
“Digital presents lots of opportunities that traditional archives don’t, but in terms of predictability and certainty, it is much more precarious. There are lots of caveats about formats changing and the need for servers to back everything up.
“With the minute book, we can just put it in a room and know that it will still be there in 500 years.”
Sometimes the archive service does have to make decisions about what it is practical to keep.
“Our job is to think hundreds of years in advance – stuff that might not seem particularly important at the time might be seen differently 200 years later,” says David.
“Decisions that were taken in 1889 can still have an effect – particularly when it comes to things like rights of way or drainage.
“When you come to the point of throwing stuff away, it does give you pause for thought.”
LOOKING BACK ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT HISTORY
The 130th anniversary displays will rotate in the coming months and can be viewed at the Lancashire County Council archive service on Bow Lane. The building is open Tuesday to Friday between 9am and 5pm and on the second Saturday of every month between 10am and 4pm.
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