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Begining - Parish Revolution A Socialist Utopia Early Council

A Socialist Utopia

The first item of business at the next meeting on the 4th February 1895, was a bombshell for the fledgling council. Its effects are still felt over 100 years later. A letter was read out from the Revd. Alfred Pagan, of Shadforth, County Durham, offering to the Council the leasehold of Town Head Farm. The farm, at the top of Seamill Lane, was valued at £1,098, with a rental of £42. This would give a considerable income to the Parish, but the conditions were far from straightforward.

The Rev'd Pagan had some eccentric social ideas, and wished to establish what the press subsequently described as a "Socialist Utopia". He stipulated that the income from the farm should be invested to buy up other properties in St. Bees. The rental from these would enable further purchases until all of the village was owned by the Parish Council ! When this was complete, £1,098 would be donated to a neighbouring parish to do the same. It would then do likewise, whilst St. Bees raised another £1,098 to start another parish on the same scheme, and so on.Pagan's theory was that the movement would spread as a chain reaction across the Country, until all the rural property in England was owned by the Parish Councils, and fair rents would be charged to the poor.

Understandably, the Council was split on whether to accept. The idea was obviously an impractical utopian dream. Could St. Bees really be the springboard for such a bold social experiment? It was unlikely.

After negotiations with Pagan the conditions were changed so that £10 of the money accruing could be used annually for charitable purposes. The rest would be invested to further Pagan’s Utopian plan. On a very narrow majority the Council accepted the gift, and a committee was set up to look after the farm and administer the money.

Back From Utopia

Being on the council was no bed of roses, and whilst the social arguments of the Pagan Gift were aired, councillors found they had to get down to more mundane duties, such as collecting the rates on behalf of the Whitehaven Rural District Council.That Council had also been created under the 1894 Act, and it looked after the roads, water, sanitation, public health, and similar matters for the whole district. The Parish Council was obliged to act as their tax gatherers, and had to employ 'parish overseers' who would value the properties in the village and collect the rates.

In return, the Parish immediately pursued the District Council to improve the Village roads and pavements. They got them to take over and improve the Abbey Road, which was the only public road to the beach (Lord Lonsdale owned the "Coach Road"), and to repair the cobbled pavements of the Main Street. These were in poor repair, partly due to horse riders using them. The Main Street had been straightened some years earlier leaving the old road at a higher level with an unfenced drop.

The Parish Council soon got the District Council to erect the present railings. The Council set about a variety of initiatives to improve the Village. They had powers to maintain public footpaths. Overgrown footpaths were cleared and obstructions removed. Two new footbridges were built, one over Rottington Beck at the sea outfall at Gutter Foot, and one on the path from Blythe Place to Seamill.

After 1899 the Council was also responsible for common land. In St. Bees there was little common land left, but they won a battle over a blocked access to the public watering place at the top of Outrigg. The maintenance of public seats was taken over from the St. Bees "Visitors Committee" and the Council tackled a host of other minor issues. They had drinking water piped to the Seacote Beach, obtained access to the Recreation Ground for village children, got the Furness Railway to deliver parcels free from the station and numbered the houses in the Main Street - up one side and down the other!

St. Bees had prided itself on being one of the first villages in the district to have gas street lighting. A Public Lighting Committee had looked after street lighting since the 1860s. The Council now inherited this task and a sub-committee was formed which had regular and vociferous public meetings. The Council employed a lamplighter, and gas was bought from the St. Bees Gas Company; all of which was paid for by a rate collected by the overseers. The Gas Company had its own works near the present sewage works, and gas was produced in retorts by roasting coal brought in on the railway.

One of the Council’s first improvement projects was the extension of public street lighting to the "Preston Quarter" area, north of Pow Beck, but it took many years of debate and public meetings before the ratepayers agreed on a scheme.