Was the Mercury editor playing by the rules?

BIRTHPLACE: the Yarmouth Mercury was the brainchild of printer John Buckle whose Theatre Plain premi

BIRTHPLACE: the Yarmouth Mercury was the brainchild of printer John Buckle whose Theatre Plain premises are on the right-hand end of this block dominated by the Conservative Club. They were razed in 1974 to make way for the building of the Market Gates shopping mall.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

THE strange case of the Yarmouth Mercury editor’s apparently unprofessional and provocative conduct has been worrying me. Was it ethical to serve on a public body and cast a vote that was not only of personal benefit but also split the borough asunder?

PROTEST VENUE: Great Yarmouth's Corn Hall, where the angry meeting took place in 1899. It was demoli

PROTEST VENUE: Great Yarmouth's Corn Hall, where the angry meeting took place in 1899. It was demolished in 1969. It stood in Howard Street South where a car park now stands on the corner of Stonecutters Way on the site of the demolished Kelf's furniture store.Picture: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Arthur Peaton, the Mercury’s first editor 134 years ago, still occupied the chair in 1899 when the row erupted over the simple appointment of “the part-time office of a junior functionary.”

That is the description applied to the minor post by Trevor Nicholls, Great Yarmouth’s retired registrar who has researched the acrimonious dispute involving the Poor Law Guardians responsible for registering births and deaths in the area south of a line from the Britannia Pier to the Town Hall.

The filling of that part-time office of registrar sparked a protest meeting so vehement that the rival Yarmouth Independent coverage occupied four full-length columns of small type – 6ft of reading!

The vacancy arose through the death after a long illness of Mr J H Bayly. During his absence, his wife assumed his duties efficiently, diligently and without criticism, it was acknowledged. But when the Guardians met to decide on his successor from 19 applicants, they ignored her 15 years as an able deputy, her near-destitute position and her family problems.

Instead, by 11 votes to nine, they appointed Lucy Peaton, wife of the Mercury editor who was also a Guardian – and voted for her despite fellow Guardian G T Brown stressing “the very strict rule” that members of public bodies were not to profit in any way through their connection with them, and the appointment of a Guardian’s wife “would be considered unseemly by a large majority of ratepayers.”

He emphasised: “If Mrs Peaton was not the wife of a Guardian, she would not have stood a chance of being selected. Her chance arose simply from her being the wife of a Guardian.”

Most Read

The situation resulted in a rowdy public protest meeting in the packed Corn Hall, with hundreds having to stand outside. At this gathering Mr W S Poll called the Guardians’ stance “the most cruel and contemptible action I have ever seen.”

The meeting petitioned the Registrar-General to veto Mrs Peaton’s appointment “on the ground that she was ineligible by reason of having a husband who was a member of the Board of Guardians which had selected her with a majority of two, her husband being amongst that majority and being himself, by law, disqualified from holding the post.”

It called for the appointment of Mrs Bayly who was “both qualified and well-suited and had, moreover, been left in desperate circumstances by her husband’s death.”

Trevor Nicholls’ research noted tersely: “The Registrar-General, Bridges Henniker, refused to uphold the petition and instead confirmed Lucy Peaton’s appointment.”

Trevor based his findings largely on rival Yarmouth newspaper reports, so I checked to see if the Mercury coverage under editor Peaton warranted criticism or was fair and accurate. It was puzzling, I must admit.

Our first-person unsigned column commented that it was not surprising that the public, “with an animosity seldom if ever before displayed, had risen up and entered the strongest possible protest against what they look upon as a scandal.

“The matter is one in which it requires almost an effort to either speak or write coolly and dispassionately, and it is therefore only natural that those 11 members who formed the majority at Friday’s meeting should have been the target at which have been levelled some rather fierce criticism.”

But the anonymous writer continued: “I do not desire to say one word against the lady whom the majority of the board selected for the office. There can be no two opinions about her possessing all the ability to fit her to carry out the duties in a manner which will be satisfactory to everyone concerned, nor am I inclined to quarrel with the attitude which Mr Peaton has adopted in the matter.

“Many blame him for having recorded his vote on Friday in favour of his wife but it appears to have been perfectly legal and therefore it is only a question of good taste. Mr Peaton may be left to defend himself against the attacks which are being made upon him.

“My complaint lies with those who supported Mrs Peaton and who did not make the slightest attempt to justify the recording of their votes in the way they did. How they could possibly have ignored the strongest imaginable claims which the widow of the late registrar had...is absolutely incomprehensible to me.

“No-one dared to urge that she was not qualified to carry out the duties. It would have idle to do so because, for so long a period she has to all intents and purposes filled the office and no single complaint has every been breathed as to the way in which she did the work.”

The writer, whoever he was, said Mrs Bayly’s “very straitened circumstances” ought to have carried great weight but a statement at the meeting that she had wealthy relatives was received all too readily and believed by some whose duty it was to have endeavoured to have verified it. One Guardian who supported Mrs Peaton explained that he believed the claim that “Mrs Bayly’s future was perfectly safe in the hands of her relations.”

So was that Mercury editorial written by Peaton himself, creating an unsavoury precedent? Was he purporting to be an independent anonymous commentator? Did he instruct a colleague what to write, or consent to the line he took? Was Peaton being provocative – two-faced, even?

Alas, 115 years later, it is impossible to fathom out the Mercury stance and we shall never know the identity of that actual writer.

Arthur Peaton, Yarmouth’s Unitarian Church minister before he accepted the new Mercury editorship, declared in the launch edition: “We shall not expect, as we shall certainly not attempt, to please the partisan and the bigot. We deem the countenance of such more dangerous than their hostility.” Hmm...

He had also been town councillor, member of various other public bodies and Royal Aquarium manager. He died in 1901, aged 54. Lucy Peaton held the registrarship for 26 years, dying in 1941.