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

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1896-1897. 1904-1905. 1905-1906.
PROFESSION:- Ironmonger
FIRST ELECTED TO COUNCIL:- October 17th 1888.
WARD:- St Matthew
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- January 30th 1906.
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate 10th December 1900. Guardian.
RESIDENCE:- Glenthorne, 68 Kingston Crescent.
DECEASED:- 17th August 1925. Aged 73.
BURIED:- Kingston Cemetery.
Portsmouth born George E. Couzens was the son of J.W. Couzens a pioneer of commercial enterprise in the borough's out-wards. In 1832 J.W. started an ironmonger's business in what was then Newton Row (now Commercial Road). However, George Couzens had civic as well as commercial ambitions - albeit his first two attempts to enter the council ended in failure. Not dispirited he was successful at his third attempt in October 1888 on the resignation of Cllr E. Good. (1)
On the 16th October 1896 the Hant's Post noted that at the close of business on Tuesday 12th the council went into committee in order to select a mayor for the forthcoming term. By now these proceedings were usually in camera but on this occasion there was a leak for the paper was able to disclose what happened. In observance of etiquette the outgoing mayor was offered a further term. Young declined on health grounds. Ex mayor Alderman Scott Foster then proposed a resolution that no ex mayor should be offered the post when there are others ready and willing to serve. The resolution was opposed by Sir William Pink and the motion was lost by 17 votes to 12. Couzens was then proposed by Cllr Dr Richard Emmett (St Matthews) and seconded by Cllr Henry Evans (St Paul). Two other names were mentioned but no one was prepared to accept the nomination. Not perhaps surprisingly, as the responsibilities of the council were vast. The council now had seven committees and as the Urban Sanitary authority it had a further eight.
At the formal meeting Cllrs Emmett and Evans stood to opine that there were two qualities required of a mayor. One he should be a good business man and second he should have sufficient time to devote to the task. The formality of the vote was observed. So at the age of forty-five G.E. Couzens was elected mayor for the first time. In his acceptance speech he said he hoped that work on the new storm drains would proceed apace and that the North End Library would be finished.
This year was the 60th of Victoria's reign thus it was always going to be an important year. How best to mark the occasion? At a meeting convened by the mayor and held in the Guildhall on the 29th January 1897 it was resolved that the most appropriate way to commemorate the occasion would be to build a new block of wards for the hospital. The mayor spearheaded the fund raising and 15,000 was raised which would give Portsmouth one of the finest hospitals on the South Coast. June 22nd 1897 saw the celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. To mark the occasion the mayor gave a grand ball to the Officers of British and foreign fleets assembled for the Review. To further enhance the celebrations, 31,862 school children were entertained to a Tea and presented with a Souvenir Beaker. By now the mayor's wife was playing a prominent part in local affairs being involved with hosting 'At Homes' officiating at prize givings and laying foundation stones etc. This role was officially acknowledged when the Mayoress's chain of office was subscribed for.
Her Majesty acknowledged the occasion when Couzens received the Silver Diamond Jubilee Medal conferred by the Queen on certain Mayors and Provosts in commemoration of her Jubilee. At last there was good news for the the depositors and shareholders of the defunct Portsea Building Society when they finally received recompense at 10/- in the Pound.
At the conclusion of Couzens' first term there was all round satisfaction at the manner in which he had managed his mayoral year. Following the 1897 mayor making the usual votes of thanks were passed to the outgoing mayor and it was mooted that Couzens' name would be recommended to the Lord Chancellor for inclusion on the list of Commissioners for the Peace. In the evening at the mayor's banquet (2) Sir William Pink stood to propose the health of the ex mayor saying:-
"With sweet reflection you shall taste, in handing o'er the mayoral chain,
The pleasure of a well spent year, and 'Ready Aye Ready' to put in on again."
Sir William Pink's wishes came true and Couzens was twice more elected. In 1904 he was again proposed by Cllr Dr Emmett who said that one reason for nominating Couzens was that he was a good beggar (laughter). In 1896 he had raised 16,000 for the Hospital and he expected 20,000 this year. This was also the year in which the borough boundaries were extended to embrace the whole of Portsea Island - the Mayor laying the boundary stone enabling the Portsmouth Times (3) to describe him as the Mayor of Greater Portsmouth.
In 1905 there was never any question that Sir George would refuse a third term. Feminine feelings were making themselves manifest in the press. On the 4th November 1905 the Portsmouth Times published, 'An Appreciation' of Couzens by a 'Lady Contributor.' The correspondent described Couzens as, 'Tall, broad and possessed of a fine manly presence . . . he carries himself with the dignity befitting high office. But this never verges on pomposity." Tribute was also paid to the the Mayoress and the correspondent concluded, "That a truly successful Mayor & Mayoress must be born and not made." The Mayor's inaugural banquets were now held in the Guildhall. The press was less than enthusiastic about the venue saying the acoustics were not ideal and the lifts were far from efficient leaving one elderly Alderman stranded for some time between floors!
Though they may be seen as prosaic periods of peace the early years of the C2Oth perhaps mark the high point of local authority enterprise and being mayor of a town with a population of c200,000 was indeed no light task. This prompted the Hant's Post (4) to suggest that the title 'Lord Mayor' should now be accorded to the chief magistrate of Portsmouth. The paper noted that formerly the title was reserved to mayors of cathedral towns. But the rules had changed and as both Sheffield and Cardiff had 'Lord Mayors' why not Portsmouth as the Empire's leading naval port?
Couzens' service was officially recognised in 1904 when he was knighted in the Birthday Honours List. Simultaneously the announcement was made in Paris that the Legion of Honour had been conferred upon him in recognition of the hospitality extended to the French Fleet on the occasion of its visit to Portsmouth.
In 1905 he laid the foundation stone of the Carnegie Free Library. 1906 was an equally busy year for His Worship. As a local responsibility the Portsmouth hospitals were continually in need of funds. To this end, and to further to mark the centenary of the battle of Trafalgar, the mayor sponsored an Exhibition and Bazaar as part of the fund raising drive. Later he was thus enabled to lay the foundation stone of the new hospital at Milton (St Mary's) in April 1906. In the summer of that year Couzens entertained the officers and men of the two visiting Imperial Japanese ships 'Katos' and 'Kashima.' He also opened the Royal Counties Agriculture show in the summer of 1906. It was his duty in that year to confer the honour of the Freedom of the Borough on Alderman Sir T. Scott Foster.
Between mayoralties he was for seventeen years a member of the Board of Guardians and one time Chairman - a position some considered to be second only to that of mayor. In politics he was a Liberal. In religion he was a Congregationalist. He was also, like so many other mayors, a Freemason being a member of the King Edward 7th Lodge. In private life he married Nellie who predeceased him on the 26th August 1908 aged 51. He also experienced early family sadness in 1891 when he lost four year old daughter Nellie on the 26th May. He lost a further daughter, Daisy Louise, on the 28th July 1916. All are buried in the family plot at Kingston. He left one son.
Norman Gordon
Obituaries:- Evening News August 18th 1925. Portsmouth & Hant's County Times August 21st 1925.
1. Portsmouth Times November 7th 1896 plus pic.
2. Portsmouth Times November 13th 1897.
3. Portsmouth Times November 12th 1904.
4. Hant's Post 11th November 1905