by Malcolm Pratt
As has been mentioned, the 1832 Reform Bill removed Winchelsea's right to elect two members to the House of Commons. It is therefore something of a surprise to find Stileman, who had always deplored the influence of the patron in controlling such elections, leading his fellow residents in submitting a petition to Lord John Russell (originator of the bill) and his fellow privy councillors seeking retention of the seats. Despite it being obvious that this never stood any chance of success, the reasons given were reasonable. The petitioners claimed, in words which must have been prepared by Stileman and his advisers, that Winchelsea had exercised this right since it was granted in the time of King Edward I (it was actually King Edward III). They were on stronger ground when they complained bitterly that this right had been taken from them by non-residents who had removed control of the corporation and the franchise from the townspeople. As a result the corporation had little interest in the welfare of the town and its residents, in consequence of which Winchelsea had been allowed to fall into poverty. Indeed it had. The bill, the petition claimed, by removing the franchise, would lead to even greater neglect.
Fortunately that is not what happened. That further neglect might well have followed if the Duke of Cleveland and his supporters had succeeded in killing off the corporation as they intended. That they failed was due to the tenacity of one member, John Tilden. Two corporation courts could not be held, as intended by the duke, through having no quorum - he had ordered those he controlled to stay away. However, Tilden's persistence and his persuasion of other resident members resulted in a quorate meeting on 25 February 1834. At this no fewer than thirty-five new freemen were appointed, thus ensuring that the corporation could continue but, instead of being controlled externally, in the hands of local people. One of those thirty-five, appointed in his absence, was Richard Stileman. In 1837 he was elected deputy mayor and the following year mayor. He served continuously in one or other of those positions for the next six years and thus became acknowledged as Winchelsea's principal personage.
During those years it was Stileman's duty to sit as coroner because the mayor of Winchelsea was ex-officio coroner for the Liberty of Winchelsea, an area which stretched from the Kent border right along the coast to Pett. Perhaps the most intriguing such case over which he presided concerned servants of a Mr Dawkins of St Leonards who borrowed a boat and, some distance off the beach at St Leonards, met French fishermen. The implication of this, of course, was that smuggling was involved although one witness, obviously hoping that this would not be assumed was careful to say, 'I did not see anything pass between them'. If the servants had received smuggled goods they did not succeed in getting them ashore for their boat capsized and the body of one of them, Charles Crompton, was washed up at Rye Harbour which was how the death came under Stileman's jurisdiction.
Also during his mayoralty he presided at a notable meeting of Winchelsea Corporation held in the Court Hall on 2nd March 1840. On that occasion it was unanimously decided to send a loyal address to Her Majesty Queen Victoria congratulating her on her marriage. A further address was sent to Prince Albert. It was agreed that these addresses, signed by the mayor and authenticated with the town seal, should be presented by Stileman as mayor and the town clerk 'assisted by' the local MP, Thomas Gybbon Moneypenny Esq., (as Gybbon was his mother's maiden name it is possible that this was a relation). These three were to be accompanied by 'any of the jurats and freemen who may be disposed to join the deputation'. It is extremely unlikely that Stileman was able to make the presentation in person, let alone take all those others with him, but his colleagues were certainly very grateful for what he had done to facilitate the proposal. The official record ends: 'It was unanimously resolved that a vote of thanks be given to the mayor for his ready compliance in calling this [meeting] and for his conduct therein.'