Local administration and public services: Administrative bodies

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1966.

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'Local administration and public services: Administrative bodies', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 32-37. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol5/pp32-37 [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section


Administrative Bodies

The rapid extension of streets and buildings, the opening of new industrial establishments, and the great increase in the density of population, which took place in southwest Essex, gave rise to a host of problems in public administration whose solution, in part at least, was essential to general health and well-being. It is well known that the English local government system in the mid-19th century was very ill-suited to coping with the affairs of large urban agglomerations and with the rapid inflow of people to any area, but Essex was fortunate in that most of its suburban development did not come until after the beginning of serious national attempts at local government reform. For most of the 19th century responsibility for local government remained in each parish in the hands of the vestry, which had small powers, small financial resources and little or no expert guidance. Such a body was suited to the management of the affairs only of a small community with a fairly homogeneous economic and social life, into which change came gradually rather than suddenly. For the first three-quarters of the century, however, most parishes in south-west Essex did fulfil these conditions to a considerable extent; and the danger of vestry control becoming inadequate for contemporary needs was lessened (though only at the cost of creating divided authority) because a few of the most fundamental tasks of local government were committed to the hands of other bodies, specially established for a single purpose. The provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, for example, were fairly quickly put into effect in this area. It was in 1836 that responsibility for poor relief in nearly all Becontree hundred was transferred to the elected Board of Guardians for the West Ham Union. (fn. 1) The parishes of Barking (including Great Ilford) and Dagenham were placed in the Romford Union. The maintenance of some main roads was also not a parish responsibility but rested with the Trustees of the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Roads from 1824 to 1866, (fn. 2) and it was possible for a special highway board to be set up, such as existed in West Ham until 1856. (fn. 3) This practice of establishing a new ad hoc body to exercise one particular function also continued even for some time after a beginning had been made with the formation of a more uniform set of local authorities exercising a variety of powers, and the last thirty years of the 19th century saw the election of a school board in most of the parishes in the area.

The real beginning in the adaptation of the instruments of local government to the needs created by a sudden increase in urban population came when it was made permissible to set up elective local boards of health with power to carry out specified sanitary duties. The possibility of establishing local boards, to which gradually increasing powers were entrusted, dates from 1848, and after 1875 any existing local board usually became the general sanitary and highway authority within its own district.

Thus by the time that people were flocking to the Essex suburbs in great numbers it had become legally possible to effect progressive improvements in the instruments of local administration there in order to cope with the new situation, though a local board could be a very imperfect instrument. On the whole, the opportunity of reform was seized very promptly and there was only one instance of reversion to an earlier form of government after a change had once been made: a local board of health existed in Barking from 1853 to 1855 but thereafter the vestry resumed full control until another local board was set up in 1882. (fn. 4) Apart from the brief episode at Barking, government by local board, as might be expected, came into use only when some appreciable part of a parish became very thickly populated. For a time West Ham, which obtained its local board in 1856, (fn. 5) was the only place in this condition, but local boards were obtained in the sixties by Wanstead, in the seventies by Walthamstow, Leyton and East Ham, in the eighties by Barking and Woodford, and in 1890 by Ilford. As the local boards became the chief instruments of local government the opportunity was taken to create more convenient areas of administration by ignoring the old parish boundary in one or two cases, notably that between Low Leyton and Wanstead; but, in general, local board areas were exactly or almost the same as those of civil parishes. West Ham, the most populous of the Essex suburbs, was the first to achieve municipal status, which it did in 1886, and in 1888 it was large enough to be made one of the original county boroughs. East Ham was subsequently able to emulate both these increases of status, but none of the other suburbs achieved incorporation until after the First World War.

There were some functions which were vital only in certain conditions that were far from universal, and which were therefore committed to specially-constituted bodies instead of to the local authorities. Such a function was land drainage and flood protection, which was particularly important to south-west Essex, because much of the land near the Thames was below high water mark and saved from frequent inundation only by the river walls, and because the natural drainage of the marsh-lands needed to be supplemented by artificial channels if the land was to be of much use. Responsibility in this matter had rested continuously since the reign of Henry VIII with the Havering and Dagenham Commissioners of Sewers. (fn. 6) When the last new Commission was issued to them in 1860 it defined their area of jurisdiction as extending over the levels north of the Thames from Havering to West Ham and northward alongside the Lea to Walthamstow. (fn. 7) Previously it had stretched further west to take in Bromley Marsh as well. This large area was divided into eight levels (Havering, Dagenham, Ripple, Barking, East Ham, West Ham, Leyton, and Walthamstow) each of which was rated separately to cover its own needs and each of which was supervised by its own Marsh Jury. In some cases differential rating was applied to different sections of the same level. (fn. 8) In 1883 the Havering and Dagenham Levels were united because the works of both were essential to the protection of each. (fn. 9)

The commissioners in the mid-19th century appear to have been a fairly leisurely body, meeting somewhat irregularly to discharge routine business. In most years there were meetings of the Court in January, April and October and at other times when there was an accumulation of business. But the growth of population and the spread of buildings had a considerable impact on their affairs. When these changes led to a demand for improved local government they were anxious not to be left out of something which might directly affect them and they were represented by three nominees on the West Ham Local Board throughout its existence. (fn. 10) The volume of their own business greatly increased in the eighteen-seventies and they faced new problems in reconciling building development on the waterfront with the maintenance of flooddefences and in trying to ensure that their drainage channels were not obstructed by the refuse of a rapidly-increasing population. On the whole they faced fairly successfully the task of discharging their own duties without hampering the progress of building. They readily agreed to the diversion of their river walls and sewers in the interest of new building, while ensuring that suitable new works were carried out in substitution. In 1875–6 they raised all the river walls by six inches to five feet above Trinity High Watermark. In 1880 they began greatly to expedite business by empowering any two commissioners in consultation with the engineers to act on behalf of the whole body and report their decisions to the next meeting of the Court. (fn. 11) And on more than one occasion, notably in 1888–9, 1898, and 1900 they looked, unsuccessfully, for for some way of extending the area of their jurisdiction so as to be able to deal more effectively with flood-waters by diverting them nearer to their source. (fn. 12)

In 1888 the West Ham Corporation turned the tables on the commissioners by obtaining statutory power to terminate their jurisdiction within the borough from 1 January 1890. (fn. 13) Thereafter for more than forty years the West Ham Corporation was in the unusual position of being the sole catchment authority within its area. There were, however, certain sewers for the drainage of levels farther north which passed inside the West Ham boundary, and the corporation was required to divert these to meet the needs of the commissioners. Instead of doing this it made an agreement with the commissioners in 1893 that these sewers should remain as they were and be maintained by the commissioners in return for a payment by the corporation of £100 a year, a sum which was reduced to £75 in 1914 when one of the sewers was found to be no longer necessary and was closed. (fn. 14) The jurisdiction of the commissioners was unaltered in the rest of their area and was, indeed, expressly preserved in that small district (North Woolwich) which was included in London instead of Essex, although the Metropolitan Board of Works and its successor, the London County Council, were responsible for flood prevention in the rest of London. (fn. 15)

The proximity of London, however, was the reason why in a few respects the functions of nearby local authorities were more restricted than in the country generally. Probably the most important of the customary local responsibilities which were denied to the authorities in south-west Essex was control over the police. A Metropolitan Police Force, directly responsible to the central government, was organized in 1829 and the district in which it was authorized to operate was enlarged by an Act of 1839 to cover any place (except the City of London) which was part of the Central Criminal Court District, and any parish not more than fifteen miles distant from Charing Cross in a straight line. The Central Criminal Court District had been defined by statute in 1834, and the Essex parishes within it were Barking, East Ham, West Ham, Little Ilford, Leyton, Walthamstow, Wanstead, Woodford, and Chingford. The boundaries of the Metropolitan Police District were defined in detail by an Order in Council issued in 1840 under the authority of the 1839 Act. (fn. 16) In Essex the District was extended beyond the Central Criminal Court District to take in also the parishes of Waltham Holy Cross, Loughton, Chigwell, and Dagenham. The boundaries have never been significantly changed since 1840. Thus the machinery of a police system suited to urban needs and controlled from outside was introduced to south-west Essex well before large-scale settlement of the area began.

The other main duties which were kept out of the hands of the local authorities and entrusted to specially constituted bodies were those concerned with the river and the port. The onerous task of controlling health and sanitation in the port, instead of being divided among the various local authorities within whose boundaries the docks and wharves were situated, was concentrated in the Corporation of the City of London, which was made the Port of London Sanitary Authority in 1872. (fn. 17) The City Corporation was also solely responsible for the regulation of the River Thames from Staines to the sea until 1857, when the Thames Conservancy Board, consisting at first of seven representatives of the City and five appointed by the Admiralty, the Board of Trade and Trinity House, was established to take over this duty. The membership and the area of jurisdiction of the Thames Conservancy Board were subsequently enlarged but its main duties in connexion with the lower part of the river continued to be to prevent pollution and to dredge the river and keep it in good navigable condition. From 1908 its activities ceased to be of any concern to Essex for in that year the Port of London Authority was established and besides taking over the docks and their ancillary establishments was also made responsible for the conservancy of all the tidal section of the Thames. The Port of London Authority was intended to represent all the principal interests in the port but no member was allotted to West or East Ham. (fn. 18)

Control over the other important river in the district was in the hands of the River Lee Trust, first established in 1570 but not legally incorporated until 1850. This rather unwieldy body (in 1868 it had 65 members, most of them ex officio) was mainly concerned to keep the navigation channel and its locks in good order, and it exercised no control over those channels that were not used for navigation. (fn. 19) In 1868, after the river had been the subject of detailed inquiry because of its importance in London's water-supply, the Trust was replaced by a new body, the Lee Conservancy Board, which received not only the powers previously exercised by the Trust but additional powers to control fishing and to prevent pollution and was specifically charged with the duty of protecting the water supply derived from the river. (fn. 20) The Board was in fact given statutory powers against pollution at a time when the only remedy generally available was common law, and it retained them after roughly comparable powers had been given to the authorities of urban and rural sanitary districts throughout the country. (fn. 21) Originally the Board had thirteen members, of whom only one was elected by the local authorities in its area. Its constitution was changed from time to time and for most of its 20th-century existence it had 15 members, including one appointed by the Essex County Council and one by West Ham County Borough Council, as well as four elected by local authorities in the Lea valley. (fn. 22)

Apart from these specific modifications to the usual pattern of local government there was one large general question arising from the relation between London and its suburbs. As more of Essex came to be physically part of the continuous built-up area of London and as more of its population came to consist of people whose daily work was done in London, was it not logical that the Essex suburbs should be brought within London's own local government system? An administrative area for London was defined in 1855, when the Metropolitan Board of Works was established to serve as a controlling authority for certain purposes throughout the area, and even at the outset the similarity of West Ham (which was excluded) to Greenwich and Woolwich (which were included) was remarked. (fn. 23) Subsequently the possibility of a change was considered on numerous occasions. At most times opinion in the suburbs appears to have been opposed to amalgamation with London. The West Ham Local Board in 1886 concluded its account of its stewardship with a hearty expression of triumph over London. It had secured borough status 'although opposed, to the fullest extent in their power, by the Metropolitan Board of Works who desired to annex the district, the result of which would have been increased rating, to be expended, probably, on West End improvements'. (fn. 24) Within a few years, however, local opinion was becoming more doubtful. West Ham rates were high, especially for poor relief and education, and a share in an equalization scheme spread over all London might be welcome. Unification with the County of London was first considered by West Ham Council in April 1895 and referred later in the year to two of its committees, which in turn requested the Borough Accountant to report on the probable financial effect of amalgamation. His report was somewhat ambiguous, for though it pointed to the saving of a 5½d. rate on certain items it added that no definite statement could be made about some other changes which might be sufficient to offset this reduction. Both the advocates and the opponents of amalgamation claimed that the report supported their views, but the committees, after considering it, declined to recommend any further action, and in September 1896 the council decided to proceed no further. (fn. 25)

There the matter rested for the time being. The formation of the Metropolitan Boroughs in 1896 passed off, just as the creation of the London County Council had done, without any extension of London's administrative area into Essex, and increased assistance from the central government towards the cost of education lessened one of the possible attractions of fusion with London. But in 1907 and 1908 the question was again the subject of agitation. This time it was the Progressives on the London County Council, anxious for a larger area in which to operate trading services, who were most active in urging amalgamation. Their claims aroused some interest in Essex, notably in Walthamstow where there was dissatisfaction with the services rendered by the Essex County Council. In 1907 the Walthamstow Urban District Council was asked by one of its members to look into the possibility of joining London. Next year it called a public meeting, at which a resolution was passed unanimously asking the Walthamstow U.D.C. 'to take into serious consideration the question of incorporation within the London County Council area'. Later in the year the Walthamstow U.D.C. invited further expressions of opinion from all the people in the town and consulted Leyton U.D.C. on the subject, but it never advanced beyond the position of an interested inquirer. (fn. 26) All through the first half of 1908 various spokesmen of the Progressives addressed meetings of one local society after another in the Essex suburbs, but they gained little support in most cases though at a meeting of the East Ham Municipal Alliance on 4 May the Mayor of East Ham expressed his personal view that amalgamation with London would be advantageous. (fn. 27) The change of opinion over the last dozen years was striking. The most widely-read local newspaper, the Stratford Express, had declared in its editorial comment in 1896: 'That West Ham will shortly be united to London is as certain as that the sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow', and that, with few exceptions, 'amalgamation is good for everybody.' But in 1908 it was warning its readers that 'as the London County Council is displaying great eagerness to annex the suburbs, the suburbs will do well to keep their weather eye open'. (fn. 28) And Alderman Spratt of West Ham, who had been one of the most active advocates of amalgamation in the nineties and still wanted a central authority for the whole of Greater London, declared roundly in seconding a vote of thanks to a speaker from the London County Council in 1908: 'You may depend upon it that West Ham is not prepared to seek for amalgamation now'. (fn. 29) There were doubts whether there could be any financial advantage in amalgamation, fears of the effect of London by-laws on local industry, and reluctance to lose established civic institutions and privileges. In these circumstances the agitation came to nothing and suburban government continued without the intervention of any authority that could act for Greater London as a whole.


  • 1. G. F. Bosworth, Some chapters in the History of Walthamstow, 31.
  • 2. 4 Geo. IV, c. 106 (local and personal act); 4 & 5 Wm. IV, c. 89 (local and personal act); W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 305–6; Doble, 'Hist. Eastern Counties Rly'. (Lond. Ph.D. thesis), 208. The trust controlled 36 miles of road, from Whitechapel to Brentwood, with branches to Woodford and Epping.
  • 3. W. Ham Local Board, Hist. Sketch of the development of W. Ham (1886).
  • 4. See below p. 221.
  • 5. Hist. Sketch of W. Ham (1886).
  • 6. W. W. Glenny, 'The Roding, Roden, or Roothing', E.R. viii. 98.
  • 7. Havering etc. Commissioners of Sewers, Letters Patent, 27 Apr. 1860. This document and the minute books of the commissioners, 1881–1934, are in the custody of Mr. S. A. Legg of Brentwood, to whom the writer is indebted for permission to consult them.
  • 8. E.R.O., D SH 4, passim [Havering etc. Com. Sewers, Min. Bk. 1854–81].
  • 9. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bk. 1881–94, f. 98.
  • 10. Hist. Sketch of W. Ham (1886).
  • 11. E.R.O., D SH 4, 16 Jan. 1880.
  • 12. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bk. 1881–94, ff. 348, 353–4, 361, 373, 377; ibid. 1894–1934, vol. i, ff. 221–2, 231; vol. ii, ff. 114–16, 122–4, 138–9.
  • 13. 51 & 52 Vict. c. 179 (local act.).
  • 14. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bk. 1881–94, ff. 345, 488; ibid. 1894–1934, vol. v, ff. 62–63.
  • 15. Metropolis Management (Thames River Prevention of Floods) Amendment Act 1879, 42 & 43 Vict. c. 198, s. 21 (local act).
  • 16. Lond. Gaz. 13 Oct. 1840, p. 2250; G. Whale, Greater London and its Government, 131; R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (H.M.S.O. 1922) pp. 15, 18 (paras. 84,104).
  • 17. Public Health Act 1872, 35 & 36 Vict. c. 79, s. 20.
  • 18. W. A. Robson, The Government and Misgovernment of London (2nd edn.), 131–2, 136–7.
  • 19. R. Com. on Pollution of Rivers, 2nd Rep. (River Lee), vol. i [3835], pp. xvii–xviii, xxiii; vol. ii [3835–1], pp. 143–4 and q. 4557, H.C. (1867), xxxiii; Sel. Ctee. on Lee River Conservancy Bill, H.C. 307, q. 585 (1867–8), xi.
  • 20. Lee Conservancy Act 1868, 31 & 32 Vict. c. 154 (local and personal act).
  • 21. Rivers Pollution Prevention Act 1876, 39 & 40 Vict. c. 75, s. 9.
  • 22. Robson, Government and Misgovernment of London, 132; R. Com. on Lond. Govt. (1922), pp. 17–18 (paras. 100–3).
  • 23. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1861, Pop. Tables, vol. i. 39.
  • 24. Hist. Sketch of West Ham (1886).
  • 25. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 312–13; W. Ham C.B. Council, Reps. of Ctees, vol. x (1895–6), 643–5; Stratford Express, 4 and 11 July 1896; West Ham Herald, 4, 11, and 25 July 1896.
  • 26. Walthamstow, Leyton, and Chingford Guardian, 28 Feb. 1908; Stratford Express, 4 July and 1 Aug. 1908.
  • 27. Stratford Express, 9 May 1908.
  • 28. Ibid. 11 July 1896 and 6 June 1908.
  • 29. Ibid. 7 Mar. 1908. For reports of other meetings on the same subject see: ibid. 22 Feb., 11 Apr., and 30 May 1908, and South Essex Mail, 6 Mch., 10 Apr., 17 Apr., and 8 May 1908.