London’s Boroughs

A.D. Harvey looks back a hundred years to the birth of modern local government in London - the launch-pad for many national political careers.

Previously, in accordance with the Metropolis Management Act of 1855 and its subsequent modifications, London’s local affairs had been managed by the vestries of the twenty nine largest parishes and by twelve district boards nominated by the vestries of forty six smaller parishes. (Woolwich had a local board established by a separate Act of Parliament in 1854). Responsible for local drainage, paving, lighting, street repairs, the removal of nuisances etc., the vestries and district boards had also nominated a central authority, the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had dealt with main drainage and the administration of building regulations, but this body had been replaced by the directly-elected London County Council in 1888.

The twenty eight new Metropolitan Boroughs established by the 1899 Act were characterised in the House of Commons as simply, ‘a description of old things by new names’. According to The Times, ‘The measure overturns nothing’. In Islington, the largest of the old parish authorities, and one of fifteen which were simply upgraded to borough status without change of boundaries, the Vestry Clerk told the Vestry’s Parliamentary and General Purposes Committee that, ‘as far as Islington is concerned, little improvement in local government can be looked for as a result of the Act’.

Despite the apparent ineffectualness of the changes, the new arrangements were bitterly opposed by the Progressive Party which had controlled the London County Council since 1889. The Progressives associated themselves with the Liberal opposition in Parliament, and when the establishment of new boroughs was first proposed Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal leader, told the House of Commons, ‘If it is intended … and designed to undermine the London County Council, or to supersede the London County Council, then we will give it our most strenuous opposition’. Later he claimed that the measure, ‘materially invalidates the position of the London County Council’, but his ‘strenuous opposition’ turned out to be much less than the Progressives would have liked.

Herbert Morrison, Labour Chairman of the London County Council in the 1930s, stated that the intention of the Tory government in 1889 had been, ‘to create jealousies between the London local authorities, on the principle of divide and conquer’. In fact these jealousies already existed, and since it had been one Tory government that had created the London County Council in the first place, and other Tory governments that gave it control of education (1903) and acquiesced in its takeover of London’s tramways (1899 onwards) it seems unlikely that the Tories’ main motive in 1899 was a desire to make difficulties for the County Council. In fact the London County Council leadership in this period seems to have invested a great deal of energy in claiming rights that it had never been granted, and in misrepresenting the achievement of bodies that had carried out work they thought they themselves could have done better.

The Earl of Rosebery, the London County Council’s first Chairman, talked of a ‘municipal Renaissance’ that dated from the County Council’s establishment. In the view of people like Sidney Webb, a London County Councillor on the Progressive ticket (1892-1910), the whole point was that it was essentially an administrative unit. Webb even claimed, in 1895, that ‘London got its municipal body in the guise of a County Council, almost without anyone knowing or intending the guise of a County change’.

What London had actually got in 1888 was a platform for people like Sidney Webb who thought there should be a single municipal body for the whole metropolitan area. Webb complained that the London County Council had been given responsibility for ‘a strange hotch-potch of lunatic asylums and the fire-brigade, main drainage and industrial schools, bridges and baby farms’. These, together with important powers of financial supervision over the vestries, were just the powers the government had intended it to have.

Though the Progessives controlled just under a quarter of the vestries and district boards during the 1890s, their attitude to the lower tier of London government can only be described as malevolent. ‘There has been no really democratic control’, wrote Sidney Webb in 1891, ‘consequently the vestries have almost uniformly neglected their most important public functions, and largely mismanaged those which they have undertaken.’

But if a vestry attempted to undertake anything, the Progressives were quick to denounce it as a waste of ratepayers’ money, as for example in a broadsheet circulated in Hammersmith during the vestry election of 1894:

‘The “OLD GANG” on your Vestry are pledged to INCREASE YOUR RATES by spending £30,000 on an Unnecessary, Inconvenient and Ill-situated TOWN-HALL!! … Vote for the Progessive Candidates who will OPPOSE any such MONSTROUS EXPENDITURE!!!’

A realistic balance sheet of the achievements and failures of the pre-1899 vestries and district boards (as of the metropolitan boroughs that replaced them) would require a lifetime’s research. During their first twenty years of existence they established 650 miles of local sewers (as compared to eighty two miles of main sewers constructed by the Metropolitan Board of Works 1856-65), and filled in tens of thousands of cesspits. Their later work of bringing in electric street lighting is still in evidence today, for manhole covers over a century old embossed with ‘Vestry of Saint Mary Islington … Electric Light’ or ‘Vestry of Saint Pancras … Electricity’ are still to be found in the streets of north London. In Hackney many of the kerbside drains to be seen today date from the 1880s, or even the 1870s. In Shoreditch an amenity complex, comprising baths, wash-house, library, refuse-destructor plant and electricity generating station was opened. Shoreditch also set in train what should have been London’s first public slum-clearance project, though completion was delayed, partly by the obstruction of the London County Council, so that the LCC’s own much larger Boundary Street scheme entered the history books as the first such project actually to be completed.

The establishment of the metropolitan boroughs seems to have been regarded by the government as a means less of remedying failure than of conferring a status and prestige that the local authorities felt their achievements had earned. In 1897 the Vestries of both Westminster and Kensington petitioned the Crown to be given borough charters: the Vestry of Hammersmith obtained a grant of arms from the College of Heralds; a couple of other vestries adopted heraldic badges unofficially; and a group representing some of the inhabitants of Southwark, going to the other extreme, brought in a parliamentary bill aimed at incorporating Southwark into the City of London. Whatever the Progressives on the London County Council might say, the problem with the vestries, as far as the vestries themselves were concerned, was not what they did, but how they were perceived.

One or two of the vestries had inherited substantial office buildings, but others built impressive-looking new Vestry Halls, many of which are still in use today as local government offices, including Mile End, Shoreditch, Hampstead, and Chelsea town halls.

Clerkenwell Town Hall, which, after the establishment of the metropolitan boroughs, became Finsbury Town Hall, was opened by Rosebery, by now prime minister, in 1895. In his account of the old Vestry Hall at the back of St. Pancras station, the author of Saint Pancras Past and Present (1874) described the chamber where the Vestry met as an ‘elegant apartment…with a raised dais, or platform, over which are portraits of energetic and consistent vestrymen’, but added,

The extent of the parish, the many great interests existing in it, and the want of a large neutral meeting place … may be urged as valid reason for the erection of a Town Hall worthy of the great parish of St Pancras.

All the rhetoric of the Progressives on the London County Council about being the municipality of London, simply ignored the civic pride and community-consciousness of the municipal activists who were actually responsible for the greater part of local government affairs in the metropolis.

No doubt vestrymen existed who were neither ‘energetic’ nor ‘consistent’. The Times in 1899 thought far too many people were standing as vestrymen, ‘because it may conduce to their profit as builders, surveyors or owners of property’. In fact, a surprising number of people eminent in the professions became vestrymen, especially in parishes like Chelsea and Kensington, and for others service on a vestry was a preliminary stage to standing for the House of Commons.

The administrative achievements and leadership of the vestries may have been better than their critics made out; the elections and the actual vestry meetings were distinctly unimpressive. Till 1894 election was by show of hands at an annual ratepayers meeting, or, if called for by the meeting, a poll on the following day. Sidney Webb claimed in 1891 that this process was, ‘the most hugger-mugger electoral machinery that even the early Victorian era ever produced’, and that, ‘the very slightest public interest is aroused; and practically the five thousand members of the seventy eight vestries elect each other’. In 1894 it was enacted that elections, by adults of both sexes, should take place on a date advertised in advance, which for the first time gave scope for systematic canvassing and the use of printed election propaganda.

Except in Woolwich, where turn-outs were consistently high, polls remained low, and in 1899 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman seemed quite unaware that the electoral system had been changed, telling the House of Commons,

In some cases, where the electorate may extend to thousands, the election has been conducted with half a dozen voters. How many men are there in the House who have taken part in the election of a London vestry? We all of us live in London, but do any of us know where our vestry is elected, or when the election takes place?

The simple truth was, no Act of Parliament could make local politics seem vitally interesting to the majority of the population. What did change as a result of the 1899 Act was the pomp and circumstance surrounding local government. Except in very rare cases where the Church of England priest of the parish was encouraged to make use of his ex officio right to preside at vestry meetings, chairmen had to be elected for each meeting. There were no mayors, no aldermen with robes, no chains of offices, and in most cases no maces, seals or coats of arms. These trappings have more or less disappeared from view in London local government during the past three or four decades, but a hundred years ago their lack was widely regretted. Though only four of the twenty eight new Metropolitan Boroughs had obtained the basic triad of legal coats of arms, mace and mayoral chain by the end of 1901, and though Battersea acquired neither mace nor College of Heralds-approved coat of arms till 1955, most of the new borough councils relished their right to have the same fur-trimmed robes and silver-ware as boroughs which claimed to have been incorporated in the Middle Ages. In nine cases out of twenty eight it was the new borough’s first mayor who paid for and presented the mayoral chain that would be worn by his successors. Meanwhile, one of the first acts of the new Metropolitan Borough of Westminster was to obtain a charter entitling it to be styled the City of Westminster, and Kensington applied to Buckingham Palace for permission to call itself the ‘Royal Borough of Kensington’.

From the long-term perspective, the London Government Act of 1899 is significant as one of the successive stages in a process of reducing the number, while retaining the multiplicity, of local authorities in the capital. Before 1855 there had been approximately three hundred local authorities in what was later to become the London County Council area – select vestries, paving commissioners, improvement commissioners etc, most of them deriving their powers from separate Acts of Parliament, and many of them with overlapping jurisdictions, or at least overlapping geographical zones of responsibility. This arrangement had established itself piecemeal, and had resulted in some of the wealthier areas of the West End being as clean, tidy and well-ordered as the City of London, which had an energetic, long-established and, to this day, un-reformed civic government of its own, whereas other areas were left to fester. The three hundred local authorities became thirty eight in 1855; these were reduced to twenty eight in 1899.

By the terms of the 1963 London Government Act, again the work of a Tory ministry, the twenty eight London Metropolitan Boroughs were reduced to twelve, and together with boroughs carved out of, or assembled from the surrounding urban sprawl, became part of the area presided over by the Greater London Council.

The London County Council, having spent so much of its energy in its first ten years in claiming to be what it was not, had found an impressive role for itself between the two world wars, especially in housing and education: the Greater London Council, faced by different administrative challenges and operating in different political conditions, was arguably less successful in establishing its role, and by the 1980s was at loggerheads with government ministers, who were only too ready to believe that it was a megalomaniac municipality, bent on usurpation and defiance.

After the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986, the inner-London boroughs, took on new and contentious responsibilities, most notably in education. How much interest, and utility, there will be in the present government’s proposals for a mayor for the whole of London remains to be seen. That it will prepare the way for a single unitary municipal government of London, such as the Progressives thought they should have in the 1890s, is doubtful. The whole trend since 1855 is for local government bodies to become not only fewer but more powerful.

As we toast the centenary of borough government in London with bumpers of sour grape juice, we can be fairly confident that London has at least another century of multiple borough government to look forward to and that even in 2099, unless the European Union obliges us to bring in compulsory voting, the turn-outs in borough elections will not be much higher than they were a hundred years ago.

A.D. Harvey’s most recent book is A Muse of Fire: Art, Literature and War (Hambledon Press, 1998).