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Everyone advises having a routine during lock-down, to manufacture a feeling of achievement and progress, and mine is quite simple: in the morning I do my normal job (these days it involves using Teams or Zoom or Webex to deliver training to people – and take a peek into their lounges at the same time) and in the afternoon I work on the Gregory series.  My plan is to draw a line under my main research this weekend, and – taa dah! – start writing on Monday afternoon.  We’ll see.

But with the current focus on the excellence or otherwise of our public institutions and political structures, I thought a reminder that “t’was ever thus” might offer some perspective.  In 1833, the British central government became sufficiently concerned about the poor standard of local government to set up the Municipal Corporations Commission.  In The Times of 16 November 1833, an article was published commenting on the enquiry of that commission, and specifically on its findings in Cambridge: “Probably no judicial investigation into a public trust ever brought to life more shameless profligacy or more inveterate dishonesty, more bare-faced venality in politics, a more heartless disregard of the claims of the poor in the perversion of funds left for their benefit, or a more degrading subservience to the views of the rich when they appeared in the shape of patrons or distributors of places, a more insatiable cupidity in the corporate officers to enrich themselves with the corporate property, or a more entire neglect of their duties and functions as magistrates, than are presented by the evidence now before us.”  No pussy-footing around in those days, was there?

There’s no denying that there was room for improvement in Cambridge – it was the most rotten of rotten boroughs.  At the time, the municipal affairs of a population of over 20,000 were controlled by 158 freemen, of whom forty didn’t even live in Cambridge.  In the fourteen years leading up to the enquiry, the Commission found that the local Corporation had spent £480 for public purposes – and £1,300 on slap-up dinners.  One alderman had bought Corporation land worth £150 for one guinea (that’s £1.05); another had paid £40 for two acres in Hills Road, which he sold a year later for £400.  And a councillor told the Commissioners rather indignantly that he thought that the Corporation members had every right to expend their income on themselves and their friends: “As it was only Corporation property I would not make the same calculation for a stranger as for a friend.  I would make a little difference, and sometimes a great difference, in favour of a friend – because it was only Corporation property.”

Things had to change.  In came the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which had the effect in Cambridge of reducing the number of aldermen to ten and increasing the number of councillors to thirty – all whom were to be elected by locally-resident rate-payers.  It surprised no-one when, in the first elections after this, every alderman who stood for re-election was defeated.