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14. The Uncrowned King Of Swansea

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The Uncrowned King Of Swansea

Gabriel Powell 1710 - 1788

In the eighteenth century the affairs of the town were largely controlled by one man. Such was his influence that this period in the town’s history can be justifiably called ‘the Gabriel Powell years’. Powell’s influence characterises the nature of local government in many towns across the country in the eighteenth century, a time when democracy as we know it today did not exist, and the affairs or direction of the town were solely in the hands of men who were deemed to know best as a result of their station in life or as fact of their birth.

Gabriel Powell outside the Swansea Theatre in 1787.
The young Gabriel Powell learned his trade from his father who as steward to the Duke of Beaufort, guarded the rights of the Duke over the extensive lands and estates upon which the town was built. It is hardly surprising that Gabriel became a lawyer, steeped in the tradition of maintaining the Duke’s rights and privileges. It had become traditional for the Duke’s steward to exert a certain amount of influence over the town, but a new era of manipulation and dominance began with Gabriel’s admission as a burgess and election to the ranks of the Swansea aldermen on his twenty-first birthday.
  • 1731 Becomes a burgess and an alderman.
  • 1731 -1789 Powell blocks the appointment of any burgesses or officers who wanted to improve or change the nature of the town.
  • 1740 Appointed as Portreeve.
  • 1745 Becomes recorder and solicitor to the Corporation of Swansea.
  • 1768 Powell blocks attempts to improve the harbour.
  • 1762 Powell drafts the Town Hill Enclosure Act to the considerable advantage of the Duke and himself.
  • 1774 Powell blocks attempts to improve the harbour and pave the town.
  • 1775 Powell moves to prevent travelling players visiting Swansea.
  • 1787 Inhabitants of the town petition Parliament, the move is successfully opposed by Powell.
  • 1787 Powell attempts to block the foundation of a theatre in Wind Street.
  • 1787 Powell successfully blocks another attempt at port improvement.
The Lord’s Steward was extremely powerful in the affairs of the Borough. As Steward, Powell controlled all appointments nullifying any democratic processes that may have been developed. Whilst the Portreeve was seen as the head of the corporation, he only presided under the control of the steward. The ‘election’ of Portreeve took place each year in September. Two names from the body of aldermen were put forward and the Steward decided which man would take the office. Powell himself took a year as Portreeve in 1740. The duties of the Portreeve were numerous; presiding over various legal courts, the council of aldermen, Common Hall meetings, acting as coroner, constable, distributing the poor relief in the parish, and collecting the many rents and dues payable to the Lord.

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