Metropolitan Board of Works

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The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was the principal instrument of London-wide government from 1855 until the establishment of the London County Council in 1889. Its principal responsibility was to provide infrastructure to cope with London's rapid growth, which it successfully accomplished. The MBW was an appointed rather than elected body. This lack of accountabillity made it unpopular with Londoners, especially in its latter years when it fell prey to corruption.


[edit] Background

London's growth had rapidly accelerated with the increase in railway commuting from the 1830s onwards. However London's local government was chaotic, with hundreds of specialist authorities (few of them elected) representing parts of streets. All had to agree in order to provide services which crossed their boundaries.

In 1835 elected municipal boroughs had been set up covering every major city except London. The City of London, only the very core of the sprawling metropolis, was untouched by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and resisted all moves to expand its borders to include the poorer inner-city districts surrounding it. This meant that three counties had authority over the metropolitan area: Middlesex covered the area north of the Thames and west of the River Lee, Surrey the area to the south and south-west, and Kent the far south east.

In 1837 an attempt was made to set up a London-wide elected authority, however the wealthier districts of Marylebone and Westminster resisted this and ultimately defeated the move. In 1854 it was proposed to divide London in to seven boroughs, each represented on a Metropolitan Board of Works. The proposal to divide the city into boroughs was abandoned but the board of works was set up in 1855.

[edit] Creation

In order to have a local body to coordinate local work to plan London, Parliament passed the Metropolis Management Act 1855 which created the Metropolitan Board of Works (which also took over the responsibilities of the short-lived Metropolitan Buildings Office and Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, established in 1845 and 1848 respectively). It was not to be a directly elected body, but instead to consist of members nominated by the vestries who were the principal local authorities. The larger vestries had two members and the City of London had three. In a few areas the vestries covered too small an area, and here they were merged into a district board for the purpose of nominating members to the MBW. There were 45 members, who would then elect a Chairman who was to become a member ex officio. The first nominations took place in December and the Board met first on December 22, 1855 where John Thwaites was elected as Chairman.

[edit] Activities

Image:Metropolitan Board of Works in Spring Gardens 1860 ILN.jpg
The Metropolitan Board of Work's headquarters in Spring Gardens near Trafalgar Square were designed by Frederick Marrable in 1858.

[edit] Sewage

A major problem was sewage: most of London's waste was allowed to flow into the Thames resulting in a horrendous smell in the summer months. In 1855 and 1858 there were especially bad summers with the latter being known as "The Great Stink". A notable achievement of the Board was the creation of the core London sewerage system, including 75 miles (120 km) of main and 1000 miles (1650 km) of street sewers, which solved the problem. A large part of the work of the MBW was under the charge of the Chief Engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, previously engineer with the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.

[edit] Streets and bridges

Sir John Thwaites in 1858.

Its other activities included slum clearance, and the driving through of new streets to relieve traffic congestion. The most important streets built were Charing Cross Road, Garrick Street, Northumberland Avenue, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Southwark Street. From 1869 onwards the MBW acquired all the private bridges crossing the River Thames and freed them of tolls. It also rebuilt Putney Bridge, Battersea Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge. The Board wanted to build a new bridge to the east of London Bridge, which had been discussed for many years; in 1878 Bazalgette drew up plans which were estimated at costing £1.25 million. Despite the Treasury refusing to help by extending the coal and wine dues which paid for the Board, it went ahead with the plans, but saw its Private Bill rejected by the House of Commons.

[edit] Embankment

The Board also created the three section Thames Embankment from 1864.

[edit] Organisation

James Macnaghten Hogg in 1887.

The MBW at first had its meetings in the Guildhall of the City of London and its headquarters at Greek Street in Soho. It then built its own headquarters at Spring Gardens, (which became a metonym for the MBW), designed by its first chief architect Frederick Marrable and built in an Italianate style in 1859. When John Thwaites died (August 8, 1870), he was eventually replaced by James Macnaghten Hogg, later Lord Magheramorne, who remained Chairman until the MBW was abolished. There was an increase in the membership to 59 in 1885 when some district boards were divided and others were given more members.

[edit] Scandals

However the MBW had very little affection from the people of London. Its status as a joint board insulated its members from any influence of popular opinion, though all property-owners had to pay for its work as part of their local government rates. Worse, the very many building contracts issued by the MBW made membership of it desirable for anyone wishing to bid for them. The MBW took most of its decisions in secret. There were a succession of corruption scandals in the late 1880s, which led to a Royal Commission investigation. By this time, the public had dubbed the MBW as the "Metropolitan Board of Perks".

The essence of the scandal arose from the purchase by the MBW of the old Pavilion music hall in Piccadilly Circus in 1879, when the site was thought necessary for the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue. As the street was still in the early stage, the site was leased to music hall proprietor R.E. Villiers for the time being. In addition to his regular payment to the Board, Villiers paid a small sub rosa amount to F.W. Goddard, who was Chief Valuer for the Board, for favorable treatment.

In 1883, it seemed likely that demolition of the site for road construction was likely to take place, and Villiers met with Goddard and Thomas James Robertson (Assistant Surveyor) to ensure that the remainder of the site was granted to him for a new Pavilion. They agreed to help him, in return for one corner of the site being a public house under the landlordship of W.W. Grey. Grey was in fact the brother of Robertson, though this was of course not immediately apparent.

In November 1884 Robertson told Villiers that the time had come to make a formal offer to the MBW to lease the site, and Villiers duly offered £2,700 ground rent per annum. The Board instructed its superintending architect, George Vulliamy, to value the site: however, Vulliamy was old and left practically all of the work to his subordinates – Goddard and Robertson (it was said by the Deputy Chairman of the Board that "Mr. Goddard and Mr. Robertson were Mr. Vulliamy"). They prepared a report valuing the site at £3,000 per annum, which Villiers immediately accepted; this was then hurriedly pushed through the Board which agreed the lease despite a higher offer of £4,000.

The site was leased off in two portions, £2,650 for the largest part, and £350 for the western corner of the site. Goddard continued to collect his extra payments from Villiers, and the western corner was transferred to Grey – who sold his existing public house on Tichborn Street and divided the £10,000 profit between Goddard and Robertson. In December 1886, Villiers sold the Pavilion, and Goddard received a total of £5,000 of the proceeds.

[edit] Subsidiary corruption

For years, vague hints had been made that the Board tended to encourage those applying for leases to employ members of the Board as architects. In particular, James Ebenezer Saunders had been appointed as chief architect on the Pavilion, and on the Grand Hotel and Metropole Hotel on Northumberland Avenue, both on land owned by the Board, and had done little actual work. Francis Hayman Fowler, although he had done much other work as a Board member, had taken money from site owners and lessees in circumstances which clearly indicated bribery.

On a more base level, the Assistant Architect at the Board, John Hebb, had responsibility for inspecting theatres for safety. He began to write to the managers of theatres with upcoming inspections to suggest that they might want to send him free tickets. Given the power of the board to close theatres, most complied. However, displeased by the inspections themselves, and by the attempt to extract gifts, the managers tended to send Hebb tickets for seats that were at the back of the house or hidden behind a pillar.

[edit] Royal Commission

The Goddard-Robertson scandal was revealed by a series of articles in the Financial News beginning on October 25, 1886. The Board itself undertook an incompetent investigation under the Chairmanship of Magheramorne, which found Robertson was "injudicious in allowing relatives to become tenants of the Board without informing the Board" but could not find anything worthy "of more severe censure". Anti-Board campaigners were not pleased and kept up the pressure. On the motion of Lord Randolph Churchill (who represented Paddington South where anti-Board feeling was at its highest), the House of Commons voted on February 16, 1888 to establish a Royal Commission to inquire into the Board.

The Commission was headed by Lord Herschell and found the main allegations of the Financial News to have been correct, and indeed understated. Some other scandals were also discovered including the corruption of architects who were members of the Board. However, the Commission repudiated the view of critics that corruption was endemic in the Board.

[edit] Replacement

While the Royal Commission was still preparing its hearings, the President of the Local Government Board Charles Ritchie announced that elected County Councils were to be created throughout the United Kingdom. Almost hidden in the Bill were clauses that separated the area of the MBW from the counties of Surrey, Middlesex and Kent and created it as the County of London. This decision was in general what the anti-Board campaigners of the London Municipal Reform League had called for.

[edit] Abolition

The last weeks of the MBW were its most inglorious period. The London County Council had been elected on January 21 1889 with April 1 set as the date it would assume its powers. With the MBW a lame duck but the LCC liable for any of its long-term decisions, the MBW started awarding large pensions to its retiring officers and large salaries to those who would transfer. The MBW then decided to allow the Samaritan Hospital in Marylebone to use an additional 12 feet of pavement, which the LCC opposed. The LCC wrote to the MBW asking it not to take the decision; the MBW did not reply and gave the permission.

Finally, the MBW received the tenders for the Blackwall Tunnel and decided to take a decision to award the contract at its final meeting. The LCC again wrote asking the MBW to leave the decision to them. The Chairman of the MBW replied (March 18 1889) that it intended to continue. At this the LCC decided to appeal to the Government which exercised its power to abolish the MBW and bring the LCC into existence on March 21, 1889.

[edit] Reputation

The magazine Punch printed a cartoon to mark the abolition of the MBW entitled 'Peace to its Hashes', representing the MBW by a black suit of armour (ie blackmail). The citation lauded the MBW for showing 'how jobbery may be elevated to the level of the fine arts'.

The MBW's headquarters were taken over by the London County Council as its headquarters until County Hall was built and occupied in 1922; the building was then renamed 'Old County Hall' and continued as a subsidiary office for the LCC until the original hundred-year lease on the site expired in 1958. It was subsequently used for central government offices and demolished in 1971 to make way for a new headquarters for the British Council. The site is adjacent to Admiralty Arch, off The Mall.

[edit] Chairmen of the Metropolitan Board of Works

[edit] References

  • 'Professionalism, Patronage and Public Service in Victorian London: The Staff of the Metropolitan Board of Works, 1856-1889' by Gloria Clifton (Athlone Press, London, 1992)
  • 'The Government of Victorian London, 1855-1889: The Metropolitan Board of Works, the Vestries, and the City Corporation' by David Owen (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1982)

Government of London from 1855 to present

Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) 1855 - 1889

London County Council (LCC) 1889 - 1965

Greater London Council (GLC) 1965 - 1986

Mayor of London and the London Assembly of the Greater London Authority (GLA) 2000 +

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Part of a series of articles on the History of London

Londinium · Lundenwic · City of London · City of Westminster · County of London · Greater London


Metropolitan Board of Works · London County Council · Greater London Council · Greater London Authority · London Assembly · Mayor of London


Peasants' Revolt · Black Death · Great Plague · Great Fire of London · The Great Stink · The Great Exhibition · The Blitz ·Swinging London · The London Plan · 7/7 bombings · Olympic Games 1908 · 1948 · 2012


St. Paul's Cathedral · Tower of London · Baynard's Castle · Westminster Hall · London Bridge · Westminster Abbey · The Monument

City of London

Corporation of London · Lord Mayor of London · Guildhall · Livery Companies · Lord Mayor's Show · Bank of England


Bow Street Runners · Metropolitan Police Service · London sewerage system

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Metropolitan Board of Works

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