A Portreeve or Port Warden is the title of an historical official in England and Wales possessing authority (political, administrative, or fiscal) over a town. The details of the office have fluctuated and evolved considerably over time. The term derives from the word port (which historically meant a market town or walled town, and not specifically a seaport); and the word reeve, meaning a high-ranking supervisory official.
The origins of the position are in the reign of Edward the Elder, who, in order to ensure that taxes were correctly exacted, forbade the conducting of trades outside of a ‘port’ or duly appointed place for trading, and without the supervision of a Portreeve or other trustworthy person. At this time therefore, they had a role as a fiscal supervisor, much like modern Customs and Revenue Officers.
By the late Middle Ages Portreeves acted as representatives of the people to ensure that their duties to the Mayor and Community were fulfilled. In some cases (and usually more recently) the role has been combined with that of Mayor. Portreeves may also have acted as returning officers at elections.
Contemporary British towns which still nominally have or appoint a Portreeve include Laugharne, Carmarthenshire; Ashburton, Devon (the only town in the country where the office is still held by act of Parliament); Beccles, Suffolk; Callington, Cornwall (where the name is given to the council chairman); and Yeovil, Somerset.
Callington is unique in that the Chairman of its Parish Council has the courtesy title of Portreeve. The office of Portreeve was, from early medieval times, that of the people leader, responsible to the Lord of the manor for the people’s performance of their manorial duties and service.
When Callington was a parliamentary borough he was also the returning officer at the elections of the two burgesses to represent us in Parliament, playing a key, and often corrupt, role, as it was his decision which disallowed the votes of some voters who supported the “wrong” party!
He was elected at the annual Court Leet held after Michaelmas, by a jury of 24 townspeople – freeholders or, if there were not 24 freeholders present, by ” the oldest and most discreet residents” under the direction of the Manor Steward. He held no chain of office until 1909, when Earl Compton, the son of the Lord of the Manor the Marquis of Northampton, presented a chain to be worn by the Portreeve, James Venning, when he was to receive the Prince and Princess of Wales at Callington Railway Station (Kelly Bray) on their way to Stoke CIimsland.
The badge on it was adapted from the 16th Century mace, now held by the deputy Portreeve, part of this is believed to be that of the Ashton family, and below that hangs the coat of arms of Lord Compton. The office of Portreeve came to an end in Callington in 1919, when the manorial estate was broken up by auction sale. The last Portreeve, John Huggins, kept the chain of office until 1926, when he presented it to the Callington Urban District Council, whose Chairman that year was the 1909 Portreeve’s son John Venning. When the U.D.C. was abolished in 1933 the chain continued to be used by the chairman of the successor Parish Council.
In 1955, during the Chairmanship of T.N. Coombe, Mr. D Trevanion suggested the revival of the title of Portreeve for the chief citizen. The following year Mr. W .R.Lovell was formally appointed Portreeve of the Parish Council. In this way the chain and the title came together again and ancient tradition was re-established in Callington. In 1988 Callington was recognised as a Town Council and the Chairman now carries the title of Portreeve and Town Mayor.