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

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1846-1847. 1849 -1850. 1850 -1851. 1851-1852.
PROFESSION:- Building contractor.
FIRST ELECTED TO COUNCIL:- January 9th 1836 on establishment of Aldermanic Bench.
WARD:- St Thomas
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- November 9th 1844.
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate. Chairman of the Landport & Southsea Commissioners.
RESIDENCE:- Grove House. Southsea.
DECEASED:- 18th November 1857 aged 68.
BURIED:- Highland Road Cemetery.
Four times mayor Benjamin Bramble was esteemed as an honest and public spirited person. In private life he was admired for his amiability and benevolence. In public life he was generally well thought of and evaluated as a popular and hospitable host of whom it was rhymed:-
"Tho' our mayor a Bramble is by name,
He blooms a rose in universal fame."
In the very first local election held on the 26th December 1835 Bramble"s name did not appear on the short list of any wards' nominees. However, following the election of the first fourteen aldermen a vacancy occurred in St Thomas Ward. Bramble stood against Thomas Ellis Owen and polled 177 votes to Owen's 111. (1) Thereafter he remained a member of the council till his death in 1857.
At the electoral meeting Alderman Thompson proposed Thomas Owen this was seconded by Cllr Cavendar. Alderman Scale then nominated Benjamin Bramble - seconded by Alderman Howard. Owen had been unsuccessful in the previous year's contest and perhaps with a touch of dented pride he now stood saying that in his view mayoral contests were unseemly, reflecting no credit on the council. Under these circumstances he urged his supporters to withdraw his candidature. Cllr Leggatt noted that if Owen were elected 'unanimously' it was be the first time ever in the history of the new Council. (Leggatt seems to be implying that there is a subtle difference in being elected 'unanimously' i.e. everyone votes for the candidate and returned 'unopposed' i.e. where there is no other candidate but some members may remain 'neutral'). Owen's name was withdrawn and Bramble elected unopposed.
Nationally the years 1844-1845 were those of railway mania and this was reflected in Portsmouth on June 14th 1847 with the opening of the Portsmouth & Southsea railway station. The London & Brighton South-Coast Railway Coy provided a 95 mile route to London via Chichester. The journey time was three to four hours but this was better than travelling via Gosport.
In 1846 the construction of the twenty-five bed hospital, to be known as the Royal Portsmouth Hospital, was inaugurated - at a cost of 2,700. (3) On June 1st 1847 the Albert Pier at Portsea, a structure 1249 feet in length, was opened. On July 28th 1847 the deeply unpopular Rt Hon F.T. Baring and Sir George Staunton were re-elected to Parliament - unopposed. Also in this month Portsmouth's Free Market Fair was finally abolished. The Fair had been a running sore for a number of years but it was not an easy decision to outlaw a long established institution. Some claimed the revenue it generated was good for the economic health of the borough. Alderman Howard countered that any benefit was well out weighed by the additional expense entailed in keeping those arrested during the Fair in gaol. In local government all power stems from the Crown. A Corporation cannot act until it has been granted authority so to do by Parliament. For the abolition of the Fair the Borough would need legislation and in July 1847 the council, headed by Bramble, got what it wanted in the shape of a new Improvement Act which granted the council powers to abate nuisances. The Fair was consequently proscribed. (N.3)
1847 was the year in which cholera reappeared in Portsmouth and the death rate on Portsea Island was again well above the national average. In September HRH Prince Albert visited the town to lay the foundation stone of the new Royal Hospital - which the Council continued to support for the next hundred years.
On the 'Ninth' ex mayor Alderman Hoskins rose to reflect that the suitable person should be one of high standing in the community, of a respectable profession and endowed of business talents. He therefore nominated Benjamin Bramble. Seconded by Alderman Crassweller. Alderman Casher was then nominated by Cllr Henry Hogg (St Paul) but Casher declined the honour. The vote for Bramble was put and carried with five neuters.
Bramble was proposed by two ex mayors, Alderman Scale and seconded by Alderman Hoskins. The nomination did not please Cllr Cavendar - a tobacconist from St Thomas Ward. Still smarting at the abolition at the Free Market Fair, but without mentioning it by name, he spoke saying he had respect for the office of mayor but when a man makes a slip he ought to be told of it - as had the present mayor on signing away some of the rights and privileges of the people of this Borough. He continued, "He has done that which shall have my most violent condemnation. I will never vote for any man who so far commits himself to party influence. Had I the power I would throw him from the seat he now occupies (commotion). I would resist with the utmost indignation of an Englishman such conduct as that which the mayor allowed himself to be drawn into. It was a conspiracy to rob the people of one of their dearest privileges." He sat down. No other candidate came forward so Alderman Scale put the motion when all members rose except Cavendar. Following this election, instead of the mayor giving the usual banquet, on this occasion, the council resolved to give Bramble a banquet to show that he had earned the respect of his community at large and to repay some of his previous hospitality.
July and August 1849 witnessed the return of cholera. Death rates in Portsmouth were among the highest in the land. For the quarter June 30th - September 30th 1849 deaths totalled 1,136, far above the 1848 figure of 377. Most of the deaths were attributed to cholera. Births for the same quarter were but 623 - the population of Portsea Island was not replacing itself. By November the worst of the epidemic has passed. The Queen decided that a national day of Thanksgiving would be held on the 15th. Mayor Bramble promulgated Her Majesty's proclamation and all shops and businesses were closed for the day.

The council still had but four standing committees: The Watch, Finance, General Purposes and Camber Docks. But there would be much for this council to consider. The overriding political debate throughout Bramble's four mayoralties was sanitary reform and the proposed acceptance of the 1848 Public Health Act. (PHA) This Act was permissive rather than mandatory, it did not say, 'you must' instead it said, 'you may'. In terms of hygiene and basic sanitary facilities the Borough of Portsmouth was one of the vilest places in the Kingdom with death rates exceeding the national average. However, acceptance of the PHA with the concomitant expense of building drains, sewers etc would, it was argued, impose an additional and unacceptable financial burden on borough ratepayers who were already among the most heavily taxed in the country. The vexed topic was not just the extra expense acceptance of the Act would entail but also, as large property owners, to what extent would the government be prepared to make an equitable contribution.
In June-July 1850 the council sat on five consecutive nights discussing the proposed Bill clause by clause. Bramble presided over these mammoth sessions and the ensuing turbulent debates. He was much admired for the way in which, by his reasonableness and resourcefulness, he handled these difficult meetings. The year 1850 also witnessed the passing of the first Public Libraries Act. Again the Act was permissive requiring a majority of burgesses to voted for its acceptance. Nothing was done at this point in time but the topic was to reappear on the council agenda in future years.
June 1850 saw the emplacement on Southsea Common of two colossal statues of Nelson & Wellington a gift to the borough by Lord Frederick Fitzclarence marking the 35th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. (N.2.) Bramble also presided over and supported the building of the Fitzclarence column currently sited near the junction of Pembroke Road and Bellvue Terrace. The year 1851 also witnessed the Great Exhibition and the town was represented.
Bramble's election for a third consecutive and unprecedented fourth term of office in November 1851 was another remarkable event. Even some who had previously supported him now had reservations about returning him for a fourth term. The election was overshadowed by the omnipresent issue of the PHA. Bramble was known to favour the acceptance of the Act. His adversary for mayor was George Cornelius Stigant, a known opponent of the Act. (N.3.) Currently, mayoral elections are formalities and politically innocuous affairs. Customarily the person proposed is returned ... unopposed. Not so in the [middle] C19. Ald Scale proposed Bramble be re-elected. Ald Hoskins seconded saying that he could not recall the necessity of having the PHA without feeling convinced Bramble was the right man to lead the council. Cllr H. Ford did not deny Bramble's good qualities but was concerned about a fourth term being accorded to the same man - establishing a dynasty? He proposed Cllr Stigant saying that as a member of the PHA Council Committee he had sacrificed his own views on the Act to that of the majority. Cllr G. Sheppard supported this point saying that had the other members of the committee put as much effort into securing the PHA we could have had it by now. Cllr. Emanuel opposed Stigant mainly because the latter was adverse to Jewish Emancipation. There were forty-eight members present at the meeting. When the vote was taken the result was:- for Bramble 24, for Stigant 22. Both Stigant and Bramble had abstained - as etiquette required. This created a problem - twenty-four was not a majority of those present. Both men were nominated again. No one indicated they were prepared to alter their minds. The prospect of further stalemate loomed. How could the deadlock be broken? Bramble was quite entitled to vote. He could break the impasse and avoid further heated debate only if he voted for himself. But would he take this brazen step? In the event he did so making the count 25 to 22, thereby giving himself a majority of those attending. Bramble had voted himself in. This promoted a nice piece of satire to be printed in the Portsmouth Times the following week.
Internationally Napoleon 3rd became Emperor of France. Locally on January 22nd the Troopship 'Birkenhead' sailed from Portsmouth. On February 26th she was wrecked off Danger Point, South Africa, and 436 lives were lost. Many of the crew belonged to Portsmouth and subscriptions were collected by civil and naval authorities. 3,000. was raised in Portsmouth and a further 3,500 in London. On July 6th 1852 at the General Election, following the withdrawal of Lord Frederick Fitzclarence, Sir Francis Baring, and Lord Monk were returned to Parliament unopposed.
Out of office Bramble continued to support borough initiatives. Not least of these was the ongoing commercial docks development. By 1857 the Borough Council were looking to extend the Camber Docks towards Mill Dam. But the land was owned by the Board of Ordnance who were most reluctant to release it. Bramble protested by letter that whilst neighbouring ports prospered, Portsmouth' inhabitants, '. . . have been hitherto debarred by hereditary naval prejudices and objections, untenable in the present day, from availing themselves of the legitimate advantages afforded by their maritime position.' The Board of Ordnance remained obdurate. (6)
As a builder Bramble is credited, inter alia, with the construction of No 9 dock in the Dockyard. Made of Cornish granite and being 305 foot long by 88 foot wide it was at the time a considerable feat of civil engineering. He is also credited with building St Mary's church to a design by T.E. Owen.
Norman Gordon
Obituary Portsmouth Times, 21st November 1857.
1. Hampshire Telegraph, 21-12-1835, 4th January 1836 and 11th January 1836.
2. Hampshire Telegraph, November 14th 1846.
3. Joy Harwood. 'A Portrait of Portsea 1840-1940.' Ensign 1990.
4. Hampshire Telegraph, 10th November 1849.
5. Portsmouth Times, 9th November 1850.
6. Quoted in 'The Spirit of Portsmouth.' by Webb, Quail, Haskell and Riley. page 6.
N.1. Those opposed to the PHA were daubed in the press as 'Muckabites' and the supporters as 'Sanitisers'.
N.2. The two colossal statues some twenty-foot high, were sited near the current Clarence Pier. Made of soft marble they soon weathered and became un-loved objects of derision. One night, in the 1870s, to no one's displeasure, they disappeared - presumed dumped at sea. [For more information see the Memorials in Portsmouth website]
N.3. See Portsmouth Papers No 35. Free Market Fair 1810-1847.