Sudbury’s Victorian historian, W. W. Hodson, noted that: “The office of Mayor of the borough of Sudbury is a very ancient one, having its origin in the dim and distant past …” It was most likely during the early 14th century that Sudbury gained the right to have its own mayor.
Sudbury, Suffolk, in the early 19th century, had been governed since 1664 according to its Charter of Charles II, which largely followed the lines of those granted by Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The town had a Corporation consisting of 7 aldermen, one of whom should be mayor, and 24 capital burgesses. The mayor was elected annually in September by the members of this body, together with 24 freeholders chosen by the aldermen. Vacancies occurring among the capital burgesses were filled by freemen chosen by the remaining members of the Corporation. A vacancy for an alderman would be filled by the remaining aldermen among the capital burgesses, excluding any who were publicans, since they were prohibited by law from becoming magistrates, in that they could not grant licences for selling ale or beer.
It was not until September 1833 that the mayor could be elected by the freemen in general, the Corporation having hitherto claimed to carry out the election with the consent of 24 freeholders nominated by the mayor and aldermen. It emerged that under the Charter every freeman had the right of voting for the Mayor, a right that had previously been concealed from them by a judicious tampering with the wording of copies of the Charter, inserting the word ‘chief’ before ‘burgesses’.
An enquiry into the Corporation’s finances in March 1834 revealed that ‘the principal source of revenue arose from the purchase of freedoms, which, from 1813 to the present time, averaged with the Foreign Fines, £233 yearly’.
The mayor automatically became a justice of the peace during his year of office and the following year, when he acted as coroner. Decisions of the Corporation were made in a Court of Orders and Decrees, meeting as occasion demanded. It was at this Court, Minutes of which continued until its abolition in 1835, that admissions of freemen took place.
The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 finally swept away the corrupt old Corporation and replaced it with a new one. It banned the purchase of the freedom but preserved most of the freemen’s traditional rights.
Allan W. Berry