Samuel Griffiths and the Water Supply farce

This account is based The Municipal Life of Wolverhampton by W. H. Jones, published by Alexander and Shepheard, London, 1903.  Jones is not a 100 per cent reliable source for this period but this account seems reasonably reliable.

In 1854 and 1855 the Borough Council became involved in the farcical affair of the town's water supply. As a result of their unsuccessfully opposing a bill in Parliament to establish a private water supply company and equally unsuccessfully promoting a bill to authorise the council to be the sole provider of the town's water, the council was confronted with a bill for £6,500, with no means in law of paying it and a strong suspicion that the councillors themselves might have to find the sums from their own pockets. The Mayor, Mr. Shipton, decided it would be wise not to stand for another year in office. But "Mr. Shipton was determined to leave the Mayoralty with a good social feeling" so he held a dinner at his house in Dunstall to which all the councillors were invited. A local print, cited in full in Jones, gave an account of the proceedings, which is probably more or less accurate. This print describes some of the guests arriving, including "Councillor Samuel Griffiths, in his gig, driving furiously".

At the dinner many speeches were made and even more toasts drunk. It seems to have been a riotous party, with many of the speakers bursting into song. When a Dr. Wallace was speaking and mentioning that he had retired from his position, Councillor Wallace (a Scot with a notably broad Scottish accent) said "Oh, ay. You have won wealth and, like a gorged leach, dropped off from repletion". At this point Councillor Griffiths is recorded as making a witty intervention: "Sit down, sir, you are drunk or mad". Griffiths replied "Mister Chairman, do you hear what that born devil, Griffiths, calls me?". But, as all the parties were clearly boisterous if not actually hopelessly drunk, not too much store can be put upon this exchange.

But later in the evening Councillor Griffiths re-appears in the proceedings, when councillors are proposing each others health:

"Mr. Councillor Fearncombe proposed the health of Mr. Councillor Griffiths, and said that Mr. Griffiths was the man of all others to be elected Mayor. Some say he was not overburdened with modesty - (laughter) - but they must remember a modest man never got on in the world. It was only those who knocked others about with their elbows and thrust heartily on who were sure to get into a good place. He had heard him called a fanatic; that could not be the case, for he had seen him smoke a cigar, and had heard him, when in a good humour, swear by 'Jingo'. This proved he was not fanatical, but Mr. Griffiths certainly was clever. Cleverness was, generally, only a manufactured quality, but he supplied the raw material -(a laugh)-and was, after all, as good a specimen of humanity as Noah's Ark produced. The health of Mr. Griffiths was drunk with unbounded applause.

" Mr. Councillor Griffiths said: With regard to the mayoralty he had only to stretch out his hands and grasp the sceptre; but he despised the bauble, and would only accept it when solicited by the deputation of Aldermen on their knees. (Sensation.) The inhabitants of Wolverhampton wanted someone like the Phoenix to arise and save their town. He believed that the humble individual now addressing them was the only cock Phoenix in the market. (Laughter, and 'Cock-a-doodle-doo.')"

One strongly suspects that both Fearncombe and Griffiths himself were being sarcastic and that Fearncombe was making a joke about someone who was a good fellow, but pushy and too clever by half and never likely to be elected mayor. The next thing that happened was that Councillor Wallace said to Griffiths: "Od, maun, gies a wag o' yer loof. I forgie ye freely for a' ye hae dun. I'll gie ye a song on the head o't.' ". Some of this defies translation but it has been suggested to me by a Scot that it may mean "Good man, give us a shake of your hand. I forgive you freely for all you have done. I'll give you a song to prove it".

The four verses of the song are to the effect that it is time to settle differences and elect a mayor and the last verse reads:

"The gee's yer haun, my trusty Sam,
Upon the nonth I hope ye'll staun;
Guid faith! ye ir the only man
Fit for the Mayor-al-tee"

which was followed by "Immense Cheering", again suggesting that the idea was an amusing joke. Significantly perhaps at the end of the evening, when even more toasts had been drunk, "a few leading spirits broke out" into another song which suggested that E. Perry should be Mayor. And on the 9th November 1855 Edward Perry was duly elected Mayor, apparently as the only person who could be persuaded to offer himself for the post.

The matter of the water supply continued with one of the town's leading debtors getting judgement for his fees and sending in the bailiffs, who duly seized a lot of furniture from the town hall, the mayor's robe, the mace and, amongst other equipment, the police's handcuffs. The Council met twice, not able to decide what to do. In the second debate, Jones records Griffiths' intervention:

"Mr. Councillor Griffiths, a portly, jolly-looking man, denounced what he termed the cowardice of the Council, who wanted to relieve themselves and put the burden on others outside. Mr. Councillor Griffiths, in a loud voice, exclaimed that he felt utterly ashamed when he went on 'Change in Birmingham of being continually sneered at by persons saying to him, "Oh! you belong to that Corporation that's got the 'bums' in the Town Hall. (Oh, oh!) Let them all subscribe £10 to £20 apiece - that would about do it - and pay off the claim themselves. See what a halo they would cast around themselves." (Laughter.) Councillor Evans at this point said Mr. Griffiths had already made two or three speeches on the subject.

"Councillor Griffiths, indignantly stamping on the floor and striking the table with his fist, said, "Don't interrupt me; vote, sir. Don't be a coward as you were yesterday. (Oh, oh!) You are the only man in the Council who had not the pluck to vote yesterday." (General confusion and cries of " Shame!"). Mr. Evans demanded an explanation. Mr. Griffiths said (shaking his fist in the other's face): "Bah ! I would not give such a man as you an explanation." Further strong language and a continuous uproar - some shouting one thing and some another - made discussion impossible, and the members of the Council separated without coming to a conclusion".

Somewhat later the matter was settled by the Mayor going round the town collecting what was called a "voluntary rate" with which to pay off the debt. And that was pretty much what Griffiths had suggested, even if he had done so without much calm and tact.

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