Harwich Borough Council 1604 – 1974
In 1604 a new charter was granted to the town by King James I. This royal charter marked a milestone in the town’s history since it gave Harwich a new status having the rights, privileges and jurisdictions of a free borough. For the first time, Harwich had a council to take local control of the town’s affairs.
The 1604 Charter was a lengthy, comprehensive and inclusive document that was to provide the basis of local government for several centuries. The principal and new features were the appointment of eight Aldermen and twenty-four Capital Burgesses. The mayor was appointed from amongst the aldermen and served a term of one year. These thirty two men constituted the Common Council. They had considerable powers to make laws, purchase and sell land and undertake legal suits. The ‘executive officer’ was the Recorder – the first office-holder being Sir Edward Coke who was King James I’s Attorney General. The Recorder’s deputy was the Steward. Harwich is one of only twenty three places in the country that still has the right to elect a High Steward although the role is now purely ceremonial. The Mayor, Recorder and Steward also presided over a local court, hearing all kinds of pleas, actions and suits – providing they did not exceed £40 in costs.
Sergeants at Mace were appointed to accompany the Mayor on all his public appearances and had the right to enforce the law and apprehend miscreants and felons. From 1679 onwards, these were held in the Gaol at the Guildhall.
Most significantly the Council had the right to appoint two Members of Parliament, emphasizing the political importance of Harwich as a strategic port and harbour, regularly used for the assembly of fleets for warfare, trade and exploration.
The 1604 charter was confirmed in a Charter from Charles II in 1665 and remained in force until the Borough ceased to exist in 1974. The splendidly decorated 1604 Charter is still housed in the Guildhall, Church Street, Harwich.
Harwich Town Council 1974 – Present day
Harwich Town Council succeeded Harwich Borough Council during local government re-organisation in 1974, when many of the functions carried out by the former borough council, were handed over to the district.
Today, the town council operates from the Guildhall in Church Street and consists of 16 councillors, elected every 4 years, to represent the five wards of Harwich & Dovercourt, and is supported by 4 part-time members of staff and 2 honorary archivists.