NOW THAT the king's reeve was no longer with them, the burgesses elected from among their own number four provosts or bailiffs to govern them, as their royal charter had ordained. The town was then divided into four districts. Each bailiff looked after his own particular district or ward, and it was he who was responsible for public behaviour and the maintenance of the watch. It would be interesting to know the names of these first bailiffs, but unfortunately we know none earlier than 1269, the fifty-third year of the reign of Henry III, when it is recorded that these were Thomas de Horseye, Oliver Wyth, Thomas Thurkyld, and William de la Mawe. By this time, however, the system was beginning to creak a little, and the bailiffs were complaining of being overworked. In consequence, three years later in 1272, King Henry, in a grant of letters patent, agreed that the town should appoint a further twenty-four burgesses called jurats to help the bailiffs. This was obviously a position of considerable responsibility, for absentees were fined the large sum of half a mark or 6s. 8d., and should one of them himself break the king's peace, he was fined no less than 40 marks, an incredibly large sum in those days. On the other hand, they were comparatively free from criticism, for grumblers complaining without just cause were also heavily fined.

So the town was governed for over a hundred years, until 1386, when 24 citizens were elected to form a common council and assisted the 24 jurats (who by this time had become aldermen) and the 4 bailiffs to administer the town. Later the number of citizens was increased to 48. Shortly afterwards, in 1426, the number of bailiffs was halved, and a little later it is recorded in the town's official documents that the 24 aldermen represented the burgesses and the 48 councillors the common people. This would seem to be the first sign of decay in the true democratic spirit which permeated the earlier government of the town. Gradually a few wealthy families prospered and began to control Yarmouth.

A casual look at the tablets in the entrance of the town hall will confirm this, for between the years 1300 and 1400 the name of Drayton occurs in the list of bailiffs no fewer than thirty-five times, and a little later the name of Elys is constantly reappearing. The right to take part in the government of the town was gradually denied to all but the rich, and consequently merchants prevented the rise of other merchants competing for a common market. Life became even harder for the common people when their guilds, which differed from trade unions in that they were primarily alliances of masters and not workers, entered into agreements with the Corporation to restrict the number of freemen-the only citizens with voting rights-and so the affairs of the town were conducted until King Charles II took a hand in things in 1684. It is true that a charter of incorporation had been received from James I in 1609, but this gave the Corporation additional rights and privileges. It could now instigate and conduct litigation as a body, instead of as a number of individuals, and as a symbol of its unity was endowed with a common seal. The twenty-four aldermen were now elected for life, and the steward was replaced by a recorder, but these changes did nothing to ameliorate the lot of the commonality. The great schism in the Corporation ranks in 1626, as to whether the town should have a mayor instead of bailiffs, must have seemed equally academic to an outsider labouring under so many disadvantages. The Civil War passed, but the accession of Charles, however, heralded sweeping changes.

He was not only a most impecunious monarch, as King John had been, but he was also anxious to reassert the supremacy of the Crown over Parliament. He was astute enough to realise that it was the corporations which controlled Parliament, for they elected the members, and to control Parliament he must first control the corporations. This he did by compelling the surrender of all charters and the granting of new ones-but at a price. It cost Yarmouth I 75. The corporations, and Yarmouth is typical in this respect, retained the right to return members to Parliament. If their choice displeased him, he replaced recalcitrant councillors with his own nominees, but so far as Yarmouth was concerned it was left to his brother, James II, to act upon this clause, and in 1687 he removed from office 5 aldermen and 12 councillors, and a few months later 3 more aldermen and 4 councillors, in an attempt to get his own way. In 168g James revoked all charters, including Yarmouth's, granted in the past twenty years, and in consequence the town reverted to government by bailiffs until 1702.

The accession of Anne, however, brought further changes. A new charter was granted and Yarmouth was once again governed by a mayor, and he had a council consisting of 18 aldermen and 36 councillors to help him. This was the last charter received from royal hands, for the concept of the rights of the monarchy had changed considerably since John granted his first charter in 1209. Parliament had won its big struggle with the Crown and the pattern of life in Yarmouth, as elsewhere, was no longer governed by royal patronage, but by statutes enacted in the House of Commons. But the laws of universal suffrage were still in the future, and Parliament itself was little more than an oligarchy. It had confirmed Yarmouth's last charter and the next hundred years saw the heyday of the closed corporation. Privilege was now firmly in the saddle. The town was run entirely for the benefits of the freemen-the very few with voting rights-the rest were disregarded. Aldermen and councillors alike feathered their own nests and those of their friends. Lucrative posts in the gift of the Corporation were given to blood relations; simony and corruption were to be found on all sides; and then in 1834, to make their position doubly sure, aldermen and councillors saw to it that they were elected for life.

But this could not last for ever. For some years angry protests had been heard throughout the length and breadth of the country at these flagrant abuses which were everywhere duplicated. The complaints grew in volume until in 1835 Parliament was forced to act. The Municipal Corporations Act became law. The day of the closed corporation was over, and a further step made along the road to democracy. Voting powers were given to all ratepayers, and it was they, not a privileged few, who elected their councillors for a term of three years.

The councillors elected the aldermen, who were expected to serve for six years, and these two sections, together with a mayor to control meetings, formed the town council. Although the powers of suffrage have been considerably increased, the Great Yarmouth Town Council is still elected in this way, and this system has done much to make local government in this country the envy of the entire world.