With talk of a super unitary council through the merger of Colchester and Tendring Councils, Colchester High Steward Sir Bob Russell – who was a Borough Councillor for 31 years between 1971 and 2002 – contrasts local government today to what it was 100 years ago. Local government was last re-organised in 1974. Sir Bob is the only person still active in public life who was involved 46 years ago.

One hundred years ago (1920) the population of the town of Colchester was around 40,000. Today it is more than 115,000.

With the current Borough, since 1974 in addition embracing some 30 surrounding villages plus Wivenhoe, West Mersea and Tiptree, the total population is approaching 200,000 which it is likely to reach in three or four years’ time.

The suggestion that in 2020 Colchester Borough has too small a population to be a self-contained all-purpose “unitary” council – and should merge with Tendring District Council (including Clacton, Harwich, Brightlingsea, Walton and Frinton) to create a super council with a population of 350,000 people – is something which Councillors from 100 years ago would have scoffed at.

In 1920 they were responsible for significantly more of daily life in Colchester than Colchester Borough Council is today. Councillors made decisions – not Officers. The Officers were there to advise, and carry out the decisions of the Council which would meet every month – with committee meetings several times a week dealing with a myriad of subject areas.

All members were unpaid, voluntarily giving of their time to the people and to the town.

The Borough Council, more generally referred to as the Corporation, had taken Colchester through the challenges of The Great War, the First World War of 1914-18, which puts into perspective the past six months’ dealings with the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

And the Town Hall remained open throughout both World Wars, unlike since March with the ornamental gates to the High Street still locked.

In 1920 the Council had 32 members – 24 Councillors elected by registered electors (males aged over 21, with women aged over 30 given the vote for the first time in 1918) – and eight Aldermen, elected by the Councillors. With rare exceptions, all lived in the town – as did Officers and Council employees.

Women had recently become Councillors for the first time – three of them had been co-opted at the end of The Great War. The first woman Mayor was Catherine Alderton in 1923-24.

Excluding Aldermen, each Councillor served an electorate of around 1,000 people. There was significantly greater democratic involvement and accountability 100 years ago.

The Borough in those days had its historic boundary to the west at the border of Lexden with Stanway; to the south at King’s Ford and Blackheath; to the east at Salary Brook; and to the north at Mile End and St John’s.

Adjoining parishes of Stanway, Wivenhoe, East Donyland (Rowhedge), Layer-de-la-Haye, West Bergholt, Great Horkesley, Boxted and Langham, and other villages, were not included in the Borough until 1974.

In 1920 Colchester had its own Police Force – the Police Station was in the semi-basement of the Town Hall, with the entrance being the doorway just round the corner in West Stockwell Street.

Colchester had its own Fire Brigade. And its own ambulance.

It was responsible for all highways matters, plus street lighting which was still gas.

The Corporation had an electricity generating plant, a thriving port, its own public transport tram system, water supply (via Jumbo water tower) and sewage disposal plant at The Hythe, and a profitable oyster fishery.

Public health was an important part of the responsibilities, with the Medical Officer for Health making a verbal report to the monthly meeting of the Council.

Rubbish was collected and disposed of.

The Public Library was in West Stockwell Street, next to the “new” Town Hall which had opened in 1902. There was a small museum in the front area of the Castle. Most of the Norman Keep was open to the sky until the next decade.

The Castle Park was barely half the size it is now, having been opened in 1892. In 1922 it was expanded with additional land given to the people of Colchester by the then High Steward, Viscount Cowdray.

All schools in Colchester were the responsibility of the Corporation.

During 1920 work started on Colchester’s first Council houses, at Mile End. They were in Defoe Crescent, the end nearest Nayland Road.

All these activities were run by a Council of 32 members in a town with a population about a third of what it is today.

Since 1945 Colchester has lost virtually all the above powers and responsibilities for a variety of reasons. Police and Fire gone to Essex-wide control. Water supply and sewage disposal have been privatised; electricity taken over by nationalisation and subsequently privatised; the bus undertaking bought out; health transferred to the National Health Service; education to Essex County Council, with highways and libraries also going to County Hall at Chelmsford. The port has closed and the oyster fishery is run by a private company.

Even with what powers Colchester Council still has, many decisions nowadays are not taken by elected Councillors but have been delegated to Officers. And where decisions are not taken by Officers, it is seldom by the 50 Councillors as a whole but mostly through seven Councillors who sit in the Cabinet and often by just one member of the Cabinet. There are now only four Full Council meetings each year.

Merging Colchester with Tendring to create one super council covering the whole of North Essex will significantly reduce even more the concept of local democracy – and shows how far things have changed from the way they were run and done 100 years ago.