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Edgbastonians, Past and Present
No. 124- MR. JOSEPH POWELL WILLIAMS, M.P., J.P.
THE history of Birmingham during the past twenty years is interwoven with the careers of the most active and important members of the City Council. In that time the face of Birmingham has been changed. Every municipal institution now existing has, during those twenty years, been either established, or so completely extended or reformed as to constitute a new feature in the life of the city. There was much to be done, it has been done thoroughly, and Birmingham has a municipal government which other towns take as a model. If we scan the reports covering the period, we shall find many memorable names. The owners of some have been taken by death, others are now serving the city in the higher assembly of Parliament. Among these will be found that of Mr. Joseph Powell Williams, M.P. for the Southern Division of Birmingham.
The parents of Mr. Powell Williams were natives of Shrewsbury, but it is a matter of interest that his father was himself early connected with Birmingham, for in his boyhood he came to the historical Hazlewood School, in the Hagley Road. A reason for this probably was that Mr. Rowland Hill, who afterwards became the originator of Penny Post, was his first cousin. Mr. Matthew Davenport Hill, afterwards Recorder of Birmingham, was another cousin, and a cousin to Mr. Powell Williams's mother was Mr. W. P. Frith, the artist of the L' Derby Day." After a boyhood at the Hazlewood School, in Birmingham, Mr. Williams removed to Worcester, where he became partner in the firm of Hill, Evans & Co., of the Vinegar Brewery. In the cathedral city, in the year 1840, Mr. Powell Williams was born, and passed his life till he became thirteen years old. At that time the Proprietary School in the Hagley Road held a unique position. It was the only great public school in the Midland Counties from which religious teaching was excluded. His parents being Dissenters, were not anxious that young Williams should receive his education where a particular creed was taught, and at the age of thirteen the young Powell Williams was sent to the Proprietary School. There he stayed for six years, five years of which period he was under Dr. Badham, who afterwards became Principal of Sydney University.
On leaving school, Mr. Powell Williams entered upon life in the office of Mr. Councillor Graham (then Graham & James), Ludgate Hill, Birmingham. He had not been in their service long when, by them and several other firms, he was entrusted with business in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, he travelled to Boston, where he was becoming acquainted with some of the principal men of the city, when the North and South War broke out. The incident of that war' changed the intentions of the young Englishman. He had been gradually forming a resolve to make America his future home, but the stagnation produced by the war persuaded him to return to England. He settled in London, and accepted an appointment under Sir Rowland Hill, the Secretary of the Post Office.
In his new office he had a share in establishing the Post Office Savings Bank scheme throughout the country, and acted as private secretary to Mr. Frank Ives Scudamore. He was brought much into connection with Mr. John Tidd Pratt, the Registrar of Friendly Societies, who suggested that he should read for the Bar. The young official accepted the cordial guidance of Mr. Pratt, and was proceeding with his legal studies, when they were suddenly interrupted by his promotion to the surveyor's department, and his removal to the Eastern Division.
Mr. Anthony Trollope was surveyor of the district in which Mr. Powell Williams found himself, and a close friendship sprang up between the new-comer and the fecund novelist. Trollope would often get his young companion to read his proofs, and most of the proofs of the well-known tale, "Phineas Finn, passed through his hands.
In I873 his father died, and Mr. Powell Williams returned to Birmingham. Here he associated himself with the work of the Liberal Party, assisted in strengthening its organization, and was regarded with such favourable eyes that in I817 he was elected Councillor of St. Thomas's Ward without opposition. At this point his real career began.
He distinguished himself peculiarly in finance. He had been on the Council only two years when he was elected Chairman of the Finance Committee, and in that position he proved his worth.
The high interest exacted on the loans they were obliged to contract, had long been a sore point with the Corporation. Money was borrowed from banks, insurance companies, and private lenders, at rates of interest varying from 4 ½ per cent. to 3 ½ per cent., according to the state of the money market. A scheme proposed by Alderman Biggs for the issue of Debenture Stock at 3 ½ per cent. interest redeemable at par in sixty years, was laid before the Local Government Board, but they declined to sanction the scheme. In 1877, during the chairmanship of Alderman Richard Chamberlain, the Finance Committee reported that they had' decided to issue £1,500,000 of Debenture Stock for the purpose of the Birmingham Improvement Scheme, to be issued by the Bank of England. But the amount of tenders for the, stock did not exceed £300,000, and the scheme consequently failed. How the scheme was finally settled is told in Mr. Bunce's History of the Corporation.
No further steps were taken to re-organize the finances of the Corporation until I880. In that year Mr. Powell Williams proposed a plan to the Finance • Committee for the conversion of loans into stock, and this plan was adopted by the Council on the 11th February in the same year. The plan was to apply to the Local Government Board for a provisional order to repeal the local Acts under which the Corporation were authorised to borrow, and to create a Consolidated Corporation Stock, in which trustees empowered to invest in Government Securities might invest. On 1st of June, the Finance Committee reported that, after a public inquiry held in Birmingham, on the I6th March, the Local Government Board had complied with the request, and made the requisite order, and that a bill confirming it had been read a first time in the House of Commons. In the House of Lords the bill encountered serious opposition from Lord Redesdale, the Chairman of Committees, who expressed his opinion that the Local Government Board had no authority to grant such an order. The Local Government Board thereupon took the opinions of the Law Officers of the Crown, who held that the Board were within their powers. Repeated interviews subsequently took place between Lord Redesdale, with his counsel (Mr. Warner), and Mr. Powell Williams, with the Town Clerk (representing the Corporation), and Lord Redesdale finally yielded to the representations made to him, and allowed the bill to pass, with certain amendments not to the disadvantage of the Corporation. He yielded, however, only on the express stipulation that the Local Government Board should issue no similar order to any other Corporation until their powers in this direction had been defined by Parliament.
By obtaining this concession from Lord Redesdale, the Corporation got, at a cost of £70, an Act of Parliament which, had they proceeded by private bill would have cost at least £1,000, and perhaps £1,500. Moreover, they obtained such powers as have never since been granted to any other Corporation. In all provisional orders now granted for the creation of Corporation Stock, Parliament insists on the introduction of model clauses, which considerably restrict the Corporation powers. So convinced were the Corporation of the special value of their Provisional Order that when the Consolidation Act was passed, no powers in relation to the issue of Stock was sought for. The Corporation felt that if they had included financial powers in their Consolidation Bill, the Stock Order must have been repealed, and the model clauses introduced.
Immediately after the concession, the Corporation proceeded to issue two millions worth of stock at a minimum price of £98 per cent. By the forethought of Mr. Powell Williams, the Corporation reserved the right to redeem the Stock at par in sixty years. So that if in 1946 the £100 stock of the Birmingham Corporation should, owing to the reduced price of money, stand even as high as £111 - a point which it has more than once reached - the Finance Committer will still be able to buy back their bonds at £100 each.
The total amount of loans converted into Stock since the Act of Parliament was obtained has been £4,000,000. Reckoning the saving on this at half per cent, the aggregate saving must be £20,000 a year.
Mr. Powell Williams also originated the £10 mortgages at 3 ½ per cent interest, composed of Corporation Stock. Provision for these was made in the Consolidation Act.
On the 26th August, 1878, a memorable fire occurred at Denison's, the confectioner's, in Digbeth. Mrs. Denison, her baby, her sister, and a servant girl, lost their lives. The fire brigade and the police were located in one establishment, under one authority, and a great attack was made upon the fire brigade for the inefficiency of its work at the fire. At that time Lord Beaconsfield's Government was in power, and some of the people in the town, who were not favourable to the Corporation, made representations to the Home Office that the Corporation was neglecting its duty. The Home Office commissioned Colonel Cobb, the Inspector of Constabulary for the district, to "make a full inquiry on the spot, and to report as to the circumstances of the fire, and the condition of the brigade. Upon this the Watch Committee took action. 'Alderman Deykin was their chairman, and he and Mr. Powell Williams were appointed to visit some of the principal towns in England to examine their fire-brigade arrangements, and to report.
The report, a model of lucidity and concise expression, was written by Mr. Powell Williams, and presented to the Council on February 11th, I879. At that time the fire brigade consisted of one superintendent, one engineer, one foreman fireman, four firemen, one driver, and seven firemen turncocks. The report declared the numerical strength of the fire brigade to be below the point of safety. It recommended the separation of the fire brigade from the police force, under the control of a trained superintendent, and the selection of a site for a new central fire station, with a proper residence for the superintendent, and also barracks for his men, stables, and a sufficient open space for drill.
The recommendations of the Committee
generally were adopted, so that a large part of the credit for establishing
the fire •brigade on a basis on which it has ever since successfully worked,
must be given to Mr. Powell Williams.
His other notable achievements in connection with the Corporation were to obtain a Provisional Order when the loan of £150,000 was required for the building of the Council House, whereby a saving of £3,000 a year was effected. He also suggested and carried through a scheme under which the Rate Department of the Corporation has been abolished, and the whole of the Corporation rates are collected by the Overseers of the Poor, thereby saving at least £1,000 per annum.
When Alderman Powell Williams resigned
the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, in January, I886, the Committee,
the Mayor, Alderman Martineau in the chair, received the resignation with great
regret, and recorded the many valuable services rendered by him to the Council
and the Borough as a member of the Finance Committee for the past seven years,
during six of which.he presided over the Committee as their Chairman, and especially
they desired to recognise the leading part taken by him in promoting the conversion
of the Borough Debt into Corporation Stock, and in preparing the system for
the issue of £10 mortgages, which had been greatly appreciated by small
investors. The Committee also congratulated Mr. Alderman Powell Williams on
his election to Parliament, and trusted he might there maintain, the high reputation
he had acquired during his connection with the Corporation of Birmingham.
Another vote of thanks Mr. Powell Williams received was in relation "to his valuable assistance in effecting a satisfactory settlement of Railway Companies' Appeals." In 1880, the Great Western Railway Company, acting for all the other Companies, challenged nearly every item in the Borough Rate. They argued that the charges should have been placed upon the Improvement Rate when the Railway- Companies enjoyed deductions and exemptions. Mr. Powell Williams, acting for the Corporation, approached the Railway Companies, and a friendly investigation took place, with the result that the Railway Companies abandoned the appeal upon which they were about to adventure. Only one single flaw was found in the items charged to the Borough Rate, and as this would have affected the charges to the amount of but two or three shillings a year, the Corporation promised to put the matter right in their next estimate, and there the matter ended.
We may now take a brief glance at Mr. Powell Williams's political and Parliamentary history.
During his connection with the Town Council he had been one of the leaders of the Liberal Party in Birmingham. He was the author of several publications by the National Liberal Federation, one of which, a paper on County Government, read by him at Nottingham, in 1882, may be mentioned. Maintaining that County Boards should be purely elective, he thus described his ideal County Board :--"Its chairman would hold a position at least equal to that of a mayor of a large municipality, and he might be made a magistrate by virtue of his office. I would empower it to make bye-laws. I would entrust to it the appointment of the Chief of Police, of the County Coroners, of a Medical Officer of Health, of a County Clerk, a County Surveyor, and of a County Treasurer, and I would give it entire control over them. I would make it the sole rating authority of the county for all purposes, the various districts making their respective demands upon it by precept. I would give it authority to revise and alter the precepts so made. In this way one rate only would be levied throughout the county. It should publish, annually an account of indebtedness, of income, and of expenditure; and it should alone have the power of borrowing money on the security of county property or rate."
Those views may be usefully compared with the principles of the County Government Bill which Mr. Ritchie brought in five years later.
Mr. Powell Williams was honorary secretary of the Birmingham Liberal Association until the split, in r886, and honorary secretary to •the National Liberal Federation up to •the same date. In that capacity he came into intimate association with Mr. Chamberlain, and was engaged in furthering the principles of the Liberal party through the country. The General Secretary of the Federation (Mr. Schnadhorst) ,being occasionally away for weeks at a time, through illness, the responsibility of the post during those absences fell upon Mr. Powell Williams. He had the whole conduct of the Liberal candidature in the School Board election of 1882, when the late Mr. Hawkes was returned at the head of the poll. However, all the nine Liberal candidates were returned, and, "as a slight acknowledgement of the valuable services he had rendered to them and to the cause of education," they presented him with an elegantly-bound copy of Ruskin's "Arrows of the Chace." The inside cover of the book bore the following names:-
Eli Bloor. Caroline Kenrick.
Henry W..Crosskey. G. H. Kenrick
W. J. Davis. J. Langford.
Geo. Dixon. E. F. M. McCarthy.
Since the "split," he has tilled the office of Chairman of~ the Executive of the National Liberal Union.
When the Reform Bill gave seven seats to Birmingham, Mr. Powell Williams was It once nominated as one of the Liberal candidates, and he contested South Birmingham against Mr. Henry Hawkes, the Conservative candidate. The election ended:--
Powell Williams … …
… … 5,099
H. Hawkes … … … … 3,311
Majority … … … 1,788
On the 31st March, in the next year,
he delivered his maiden speech to the House of Commons. The subject and style
of the speech was thus described by the London correspondent of the Scotsman:
“The next subject was not a particularly exhilarating one. It was a matter of dispute between English counties and boroughs as to rating. Mr Powell Williams originated the controversy by moving the second reading of a bill to relieve certain boroughs from payment of county rates. Mr. Williams is one of the seven members for Birmingham. In this speech he made his maiden effort. He had decidedly more than the average success. He handled his subject so that it became really interesting. Concise, clear, and pleasant, his style .is such as the House likes. There is no vestry-like self-assurance in it; no superabundant fluency such as flows from the intensely parochial mind of Mr. T. H. Bolton; no extravagance of rhetorical flourish. Mr. Williams argued the case of Birmingham in so agreeable a manner that he was humorously cheered, even from the Tory benches, when he remarked in a quiet and natural aside, in reference to the lunatic asylum of the borough, that it Has already more than ample to accommodate the few lunatics who were to be found in a model community. For a short time it looked as though the controversy thus started would go on for the rest of the afternoon. A number of members were enthusiastically on the side of the bill, and a number were strenuously against it. The disputants were, however, set at rest by the Government. Mr. Hibbert, who in the absence of other available Ministers occupied, the Treasury bench alone, pointed out that this matter had better be allowed to rest in the meantime till the bill of the Government dealing with local taxation is introduced. Mr. Powell Williams, finding the Treasury bench against him, did not seek to press his bill, and at half-past four o'clock the way was clear for three acres and a cow.'' The object of the Bill was, however, afterwards revived in the English Local Government Act of the present Parliament.
The General Election of I886, upon
Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, saw Mr. Powell Williams returned for South Birmingham
Since then Mr. Powell Williams has been a member for three years of the Town Holdings Committee of the House, which is an important
Committee charged with the duties of enquiring and reporting on the question of rating of ground rents. He was also a member, last session, of the select Committee on the Bill of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway for a new line between Sheffield and London. This was the most important scheme of Railway extension that has been before Parliament for many years, and the Committee sat for more than thirty days.
Mr. Powell Williams resides at Avondale, Ampton Road. He married, in 1870, the eldest daughter Dr. S. A. Bindley, who was for many years a well-known surgeon in Birmingham. He has two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Rowland, is a well-known cricketer.
A fine library - he is a wide reader - adorns the walls of his study. It comprises several enviable books-some fine Baskervilles, a library edition of Bright's speeches, with original notes of Mr. Bright bound inside; a first copy of Cardinal Newman's “Apologia,” containing the correspondence with Kingsley, and a presentation note in the Cardinal's handwriting to the recipient: - "God's best blessing be with you, J. H. Newman."
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