Political Biographies of the Mayors of Portsmouth (1836-1900)

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1885-1886.
PROFESSION:- Solicitor
WARD:- St John
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- September 23rd 1890.
RESIDENCE:- Staunton Lodge, Stoke Rd Gosport.
DECEASED:- March 4th 1892 aged 44.
BURIED:- Ann's Hill Cemetery Gosport.
Possessed of a winning manner he was a staunch Liberal (being one time Secretary of the Association) and progressive in all his views (1) Alfred Starling Blake was the son of Cllr Joseph Starling Blake, (draper St John 1862). As such Alfred became the second of four generations of the Blake family to devote long and proud service to their communities. Alfred studied for the law and as a trainee he was articled to Thomas Cousins J.P. He was admitted solicitor in 1869 and became a partner in the firm of Blake, Reed & Lapthom (now Blake Lapthorn.) In its obituary the Portsmouth Times commented, "His legal acumen and high personal character won him a place in the first rank of his profession."
Blake was elected at the exceptionally young age of 37 - just four years after his first election to the council and before he had reached the Aldermanic Bench. There was still no plethora of prospective candidates for mayor. It was (3) commented, 'The bestowal of the mayoralty may be considered a personal reward and honour - the highest a municipality has in its gift. Thus it is of vital importance they should bestow it wisely." The Hant's Post (4) made the point that a further dissuading factor for prospective mayors was that now, in addition to the mayoral oath, mayors elect were further required to state that after all debts had been paid they were holding in excess of 1,000. By this time the official electoral proceedings had been deprived of the sharpness keenness and debate of earlier years. Matters were decided well before hand. Blake was formally proposed by Alderman Baker and without further ado he was elected unanimously. As such he was the second consecutive Nonconformist mayor to be chosen.
In his role as 'Returning Officer' he had the unique distinction of presiding over two General Elections - November 1885 and July 1886. Drainage was still the perpetual item and on the 4th February 1886 the council agreed to accept and offer from James Watt & Coy for two engines to be emplaced at Eastney. Tenders were sought for the Engine Houses and contracts were agreed.
On June 17th the Canoe Lake was opened but without doubt the big event occurred in October when the mayor laid the foundation stone of the new Town Hall. This had been an on going project for the council since 1883 when they purchased the land from the war Department for 10,000. Who should be selected as architect to design the new municipal palace was the question the council faced in early 1886. The idea of putting the project out to competition was discussed and rejected as this process might result in undue delay. A Corporation flying squad was formed to visit other sites in England and report back with the recommendations. The group was impressed with the look of Bolton's Town Hall which had been designed by William Hill. F.R.I.B.A of Leeds. Hill was consequently awarded the contract to design Portsmouth's new Town Hall. (Sadly architect Hill died suddenly in January 1889 and never saw the project completed).
Work commenced and plans to lay a foundation stone were made. The date set was Thursday the 14th October. The stone itself was quarried from the Whithed Quarry, Portland. The stone measured 5 foot by two foot by two foot and weighed 2½ tons. It was transported to Portsmouth by rail arriving on Monday 11th of October. It had been a wet autumn, the ground was exceedingly soggy such that the trolley carrying the stone from the station to the site sank into the mud. It took no less than twelve horses to pull the trolley free. Planking was laid and the ceremony went ahead as planned. Beneath the stone was was placed, among other things, an illuminated scroll signed by all the members of the council.
The Gas Company made their offices in Commercial Road available to the Mayor and Corporation as robing rooms. At twelve-thirty p.m. the mayor and his party embarked for the spot from which the ceremony would be performed. The mayor was greeted with cheers when he ascended the platform. The festivities was attended by no less than 500 official guests. After the laying the party adjourned to the Gladstone Buildings for a civic lunch. To mark the event a silver epergne (centre piece) in Grecian style and engraved was presented to His Worship. Music is usually synonymous with these affairs and The Portsmouth Times noted, ". . the Mayor has shown sound judgement in dispensing with a brass band on this occasion preferring instead a recital on the organ played by Mr Harvey Pinches." In the evening the mayor and mayoress held an, 'At Home' at Cawte's Assembly Rooms Southsea. Five hundred invitations had been issued. A buffet was served and dancing ensued until the early hours.
But life was not all glamorous events for the mayor. He was still expected to sit and dispense justice - not perhaps too onerous for a solicitor but time consuming nevertheless. Under the heading, "A candid defendant." the Portsmouth Times (6) reported. "Edward William Miller was summoned for using profane language in Ordnance Row on the 5th inst. P.C. Stokes proved the case and Miller pleaded that he might have done it or he might not have done so. He could not remember. The Constable said Miller was a butcher and knew very well what he had said. Miller then added that he was out of temper at the time and could not recall what he had said. The mayor then said they must protect the public from people who got out of temper. The defendant retorted, "Quite right." The mayor continued that the language used was clearly anything but - . The defendant then interposed, "Gentlemanly." (Laughter) He was whereupon fined 20/- including costs."
On his passing in March 1892, at the young age of 44, Alfred S. Blake was the third ex mayor to decease that year. (see Joseph Whitcombe and Edward Wells) He left a widow and three children. But the Blake family's history of service to the community by no means ended with the death of Alfred. Two succeeding generations also became Lord Mayors. In 1923 (Alderman) Leonard Nicholson Blake followed in his father's footsteps and was elected to the council. Fifteen years' later, in 1938, he was elected Lord Mayor. During this tenure the focus of civic attention was on Air Raid Precautions (A.R.P.) with an eye to a forthcoming war.
Twenty-years further on, in 1958, Leonard's son (Sir) Alfred Blake was elected Lord Mayor. Prior to this Alfred had served with distinction during World War Two as a Major in the 2nd Royal Marine Commando seeing active service in Yugoslavia and Germany. He was also director of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme 1967-1978 - a service for which he was knighted. His civic career perhaps culminated in 2003 when he was made an Honorary Freeman of the City.
Norman Gordon
Obituaries Portsmouth Times 5th March 1892. Hant's Post 11th March 1892.
1. W.G. Gates ibid.
2. Hant's Post 13th November 1885.
3. Portsmouth Times 14th November 1885.
4. Hants Post 13th November 1885.
5. Evening News 15th October 1886.
6. Portsmouth Times 17th April 1886.