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

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1881-1882.
PROFESSION:- Pawnbroker
WARD:- St. Thomas
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- 12th October 1880.
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate. Guardian.
RESIDENCE:- Wishart House, 53 High Street.
DECEASED:- 25th January 1892. aged 69. (1)
BURIED:- Highland Road Cemetery.
Described as a man of retiring disposition Joseph Whitcombe was born in Newport I.O.W. in 1822 - albeit his father hailed from Gosport. He moved to Portsmouth in 1852 setting up a Pawn Broking business in Highbury Street. In 1857 he married Miss Jane Price daughter of Thomas Price of Gloucester. He closed his business in 1872 and purchased No. 53 High street, whence he devoted himself to civic duties. This is perhaps not so surprising as it may seem for he came from a family often active in public affairs. Indeed, an uncle had been instrumental in drafting the Municipal Corporations Act while another - Samuel Pring - was a noted supporter of the Abolition of the Corn Laws. Joseph was himself ten times elected Guardian once holding the chair. His motto was 'Deeds, not words'.
This was a bland election compared with other mayor making sessions. At the election Whitcombe was proposed by Alderman Davies. There were no other nominations so he was unanimously returned unopposed without a dissenting voice being raised.
In terms of civic enterprise drainage was an on going development. The system was not functioning efficiently and proposals for a new system were sought. A 500.00 prize had been offered for the best improvement scheme. Colonel Crease R.M.A. made certain proposals and reported on June 15th 1882. Consequently the Drainage and Sanitary subcommittee (consisting of five mayors Messrs:- Whitcombe, King, Baker, Pink and Cudlipp plus the Town Clerk) went to see Crease. But the final decision was left to the next mayoralty William Pink.
To every mayor a high spot. Whitcombe's came on Easter Monday 10th April 1882 with the review of the Volunteers. This part-time army, the precursor of the present day Territorials, had its origins in 1859. With 40,000 plus expected to attend, this annual money spinning event was a prize for any local authority. Portsmouth had hosted it in 1868 but due to the borough's poor reputation as a sink of iniquity and drunken debauchery it had not been staged here since. In February 1882, at a public meeting convened by the mayor, it was agreed that Portsmouth should bid to host the Review again. Brighton was the main opposition, but that town withdrew its application as it was going to host the Royal Counties Show later that year.
The problems for Portsmouth were transport and the consent of the local farmers to permit soldiers to trample over their arable land in the pursuit of mock battles - and how much compensation would they demand for damaged crops. Subscriptions were raised and under the leadership of the mayor a deal was struck with the railway companies on special low fare rates for visiting soldiers. The problems with the farmers were resolved and a very successful Review took place on Easter Monday 10th April 1882. The culmination for the public was a march past, plus tattoos and fireworks. At a banquet given on the 20th April 1882 the mayor publicly acknowledged the support given by H.R.H Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimer, local district commander, towards the success of the Review.
June 14th 1882 witnessed the opening of the Sailors' Rest. and on the 4th July a Libraries and Museums' committee was set up. Later His Worship welcomed home the victorious British troops from the Egyptian campaign. He also shared with Alderman T. King the cost of the purchase of the Three Tuns public house so that it might be demolished in order that it should no longer obstruct the view of St Thomas' Church - now the Cathedral. [This act may not have been entirely altruistic as his house was on the opposite side of the street close to the Three Tuns and with it gone he may have been able to see the Cathedral from his front window]
Whitcombe was a man with a taste for music and welcomed the Prince and Princess of Wales to the opening of the concert Pavilion on Clarence Pier. Perhaps his most notable contribution was that he sponsored, and was principal contributor to, the fund for the founding of a Scholarship at the Royal College of Music to be known as the Portsmouth Whitcombe Scholarship.
The close of his mayoral year was sadly marred by ill health. Due to nervous prostration for the last two months of his tenure he was not able to fulfil his public duties and failed to take his seat at the 1882 mayoral election. He was accorded the usual vote of thanks in absentia. Whitcombe was dogged with continued poor health throughout the remaining years of his life. He was thought to be suffering from Bright's Disease, a complaint of the liver, and dementia. This led to problems with his estate which was valued at 15.000 to 16,000. In his Will he made numerous bequests including 2,000 to the Charity Commissioners and 6,000 to the Corporation. However, distribution was delayed when the Will was contested in the Probate Division. (4)
The difficulty was not so much the above but rather that the testor had on the 1st January 1892, just three weeks before his death, revised a codicil to the Will. Originally the residual legatees were his brother Samuel Whitcombe of Newport I.O.W. and his sister Mrs Jane Edmunds. The amendment excluded his brother altogether. Given his nervous state the question was, to what extent was Whitcombe competent to alter the Will. Chemist. W.H. Saunders of the High Street gave evidence that he was not on good terms with his brother. The widow, when asked, was not sure why exactly he had changed his Will. Alderman Cudlipp was called and said that the deceased often complained of headaches and by 1890 his mental prowess had declined to such a degree that he was not capable of making fully rational decisions. By contrast Dr Morley, Whitcombe's physician, said the testor was competent. Finally, the judge concurred with this opinion and the Will, as amended, stood.
Norman Gordon
1. Obituary. Hants Post, Friday 29th January 1892. Also Portsmouth Times, January 30th 1892. p6 + photo.
2. Portsmouth Times, November 12th 1881.
3. Portsmouth Times, Various reports February to April 1882.
4. Hant's Post, 4th November 1892.
Information has been received from Ray Whitcombe, a descendant of Joseph, saying that Samuel Pring was probably a ship owner and coal merchant on the Isle of Wight who could have been Josephs uncle by marriage to his mother's sister. Joseph also had a brother whose full name was Samuel William Pring Whitcombe.
The other 'uncle' referred to above may well have been Richard Whitcombe who was noted for his support of the Municipal Corporations Act but who's connection to Joseph is tenuous. An alternative would be that the reference was to Joseph's cousin Charles Benjamin Whitcombe who was very active in Gosport's civic life in the 1860s.
Finally! The strange alteration of the Will cutting out brother Samuel may have had something to do with what appears to be Samuel marrying for a second time - he was a widower - and then apparently abandoning his new wife and her baby. At least that's the story various census records + birth and marriage dates suggest. Seeing Joseph's moral stance and interest in charities for the disadvantaged this may have 'annoyed' him sufficiently to alter the Will?