Local administration and public services: Utility services

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: Utility services', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 37-47. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol5/pp37-47 [accessed 19 April 2024]

Public Utility Services

As long as population remained small and scattered no very complex organization of public services was essential. But when large areas became covered by streets and buildings and densely inhabited it was no longer possible to rely on the water-supply of small nearby streams and private wells, and the absence of drains and the casual deposit of refuse became not merely unpleasant but dangerous. Better public lighting and the exploitation of new technical discoveries, such as the use of coal-gas, to supply it became desirable for public safety in crowded districts or along busy roads, and an ample supply of gas came to be equally desirable for domestic and industrial convenience. A civilized social life would have been impossible in a district built up as rapidly as suburban Essex was in the late 19th century unless there were extensive works and elaborate organization for the supply of water and gas, the drainage of houses and streets, and the disposal of sewage.

In a very small part of the area population was sufficiently numerous and compact for special attention to some of these matters to be required a good deal earlier. A public water supply in West Ham dates from 1743 or 1745 when the West Ham Waterworks Company, which established works on an arm of the River Lea at Bow, began to supply Mile End and Stratford. (fn. 1) This company lasted until 1807, when it was bought by the London Dock Co., which sold the undertaking in 1808 to the East London Waterworks Co., formed in the previous year. The East London Co., which also acquired the undertaking of the Shadwell Waterworks Co. in 1808, became for almost a century the chief supplier of water not only to London's East End but also to most of those districts over the Essex border which became suburbanized. (fn. 2)

There were two major, related problems to be solved: to find enough water to meet the needs of a rapidly-growing population which came in the course of the century to be numbered in hundreds of thousands, and to supply it to them sufficiently free from impurity not to endanger health. Suburban Essex was too far down the Thames for that river to provide a local supply of drinking-water but there was one other substantial river, the Lea, and there were considerable quantities of artesian water, though in western Essex the water-bearing strata were a long way below the surface. For many years the River Lea was normally sufficient for the needs of all East London and the adjoining suburbs, although much of its upland water was drawn off at Hertford by the New River Company for the supply of North London. The Lea, however, was subject to long periods of abnormally low flow and in dry seasons shortage could be avoided only if there were reservoir accommodation equal to several weeks' consumption. And the attempt to make this one over-burdened river serve simultaneously as a commercial artery, a place of recreation, a source of drinking-water, and a common sewer added the defect of grossly impure quality to that of unreliably varying quantity.

Against these two defects the East London Waterworks Co. struggled with increasing but never quite complete success throughout the whole of its existence. In 1809 it completed intake works at Old Ford, and built two small settling reservoirs there, with an area of eleven acres. In 1829 power was obtained to move the intake upstream to Lea Bridge, where works were completed in 1834 which enabled the Old Ford intake to be abandoned. (fn. 3) Even at Lea Bridge the condition of the river was far from ideal as a source of water to be supplied without filtration, but no further change was made until after 1852, the year in which Parliament first asserted some general control over the London water companies. In that year the East London Co. was empowered to remove its intake as far as Tottenham, but only on the understanding that in the next session of Parliament it would introduce a bill for the purpose of moving its intake much higher, to Fielde's Weir. This provision of the bill was, however, turned down by Parliament in 1853, so the intake, which had remained at Lea Bridge, was removed to the Copper Mills at Walthamstow. The measures of 1852 and 1853 also empowered the company to construct its first Walthamstow reservoirs and filter beds at Lea Bridge. (fn. 4) The position was further improved in 1855 when the East London and the New River Companies were by statute given virtually equal shares in all the water of the Lea beyond 54 million gallons a day needed for the navigation. (fn. 5)

In spite of moving the intake progressively further from the influence of the tide and the manufacturing districts and in spite of the provision of more storage, complaints of both the inadequacy and impurity of the water continued. Charges that a severe outbreak of cholera in East London in 1866 was attributable to the company's water led to a government inquiry. These charges were not substantiated, for Leytonstone, Wanstead, Woodford, and Walthamstow, which were practically free of cholera, were supplied from the same reservoir as Stratford, where 7.76 per 1,000 of the population died from cholera in eight weeks. (fn. 6) But specific complaints of contamination of a storage reservoir at Old Ford and of a deficiency of supply were clearly proved. (fn. 7) The company responded to this situation by obtaining new powers in 1867 to construct more reservoirs at Walthamstow, to acquire Chingford Mill when its lease expired (which did not happen until 1882) and make a new intake there for the higher reservoirs, and to take up to 10 million gallons a day from the Thames. For this latter purpose an intake was constructed at Sunbury with filtration and pumping works at Hanworth Road and thence a 36-inch main was laid for 19 miles across London to a reservoir at Hornsey Wood. The Thames supply was brought into use in 1872. (fn. 8) These developments, together with the sinking of deep wells in the Lea valley, contributed to an appreciable improvement in the quantity and quality of the supply. On the whole the Essex suburbs had for some time been much better served than the East End of London, as far as quantity was concerned, though the position was not altogether satisfactory. In 1867, 71.32 per cent. of the houses east of the River Lea which were served by the East London Co. had a constant supply, (fn. 9) and in 1879 when inquiry was made of local authorities it was only from Wanstead that complaints of inadequate supply were received. There were, however, some districts which the company's mains had not then reached. Parts of Walthamstow, in particular, depended entirely on private wells. (fn. 10) In periods of prolonged low rainfall the position was still precarious and in 1897 the company found itself for a time unable to maintain a proper supply. The trouble was that there was not enough storage capacity to draw on in an emergency and that, in any case, the Lea was barely adequate for the immense population it had to serve. To meet the first difficulty the East London Co. in 1901 obtained powers to build two huge reservoirs (far bigger than anything that then existed in the London area) at Chingford. The situation changed, however, in 1904 when the eight London water companies were bought out and their undertakings handed over to the Metropolitan Water Board, a specially constituted body of 66 members, most of them representatives of local authorities in the supply area. (fn. 11) It then became practicable to make more connexions between the systems of the various former companies, so that a temporary deficiency in one source of supply might be made good from another. Thus in 1906 the former East London Co.'s Thames supply main was connected to the new storage, pumping and filter station at Kempton Park, begun by the New River Company and much larger and better-equipped than the East London's nearby station at Hanworth Road, which was, however, still kept in use. The old East London intake at Sunbury was then closed, as the Kempton Park station was fed from Staines. (fn. 12) It was still convenient and economical to use the local supply as far as possible, and the experience of another prolonged period of low flow in the Lea in 1906 again showed the necessity of more storage. Work was therefore begun at Chingford in 1908 and one of the new reservoirs, with a capacity of 2,729 million gallons, was opened in 1913 under the name of King George V Reservoir. (fn. 13) The safeguard provided by intercommunication with the rest of the Metropolitan Water Board's system made it unnecessary to construct the second reservoir for the time being. (fn. 14)

The East London Waterworks Co. supplied most but not quite all of that part of Essex which became suburbanized. Its statutory area of supply covered every parish in Becontree hundred, Chingford, Waltham Holy Cross, Chigwell, Lambourne, and Romford, but it did not lay mains throughout the whole of this area. Only about a quarter of Ilford and tiny portions of Barking and Dagenham were actually supplied by this company. (fn. 15) The outer areas, where rapid population growth came later, were naturally less attractive to water undertakers for many years, but a start was made when the South Essex Water Works Co. was incorporated in 1861. This company was given a statutory area which included East Ham, Barking, Ilford and Dagenham (all of which were in the East London Co.'s area) as well as places further east, but by private agreement it kept out of East Ham and part of Ilford in practice. (fn. 16) It was at first not a very large undertaking but it grew rapidly in the eighteen-eighties and the early years of the 20th century. Its original issued capital of £80,000 was not enlarged until 1882, but in 1901 it exceeded £400,000. (fn. 17) Some of this expansion was doubtless a response to outside pressure, for in the nineties the supply was notoriously inadequate, and in 1899 the local authorities of the chief areas affected, including Ilford, Barking, and Grays, jointly promoted a Bill for the compulsory purchase of the company. The Bill was rejected but the company promised to mend its ways, agreeing, for instance, to lower its charges and to provide Ilford, the most populous part of its district, with a constant instead of intermittent supply. (fn. 18) The South Essex Co. obtained all its water from wells in the chalk, which, like the Lea valley wells of the East London Co., were so well protected by the overlying clay and yielded a supply so pure that filtration was unnecessary. In 1914 six wells were in use, the most productive of them being at Barkingside, Dagenham and Ilford, and another was under construction at Seven Kings. (fn. 19)

By the time of the First World War the whole of suburban Essex was excellently provided with water. Both of the responsible undertakings gave a constant supply throughout their systems and maintained a high standard of purity, and practically every house was connected to the mains of one of them. Fifty-three houses in Ilford, sixteen in Barking Town, and one in Chingford were still dependent on private wells (all of them giving a satisfactory supply) but in East and West Ham, Leyton, Walthamstow, Wanstead and Woodford every house had a piped supply from the Metropolitan Water Board. (fn. 20)

This satisfactory state of affairs was also an indication that something effective had been done to overcome another set of severe difficulties, those connected with sewage disposal, for the problems of water-supply and drainage were intimately connected. When the refuse of houses and streets was left unremoved or stored for indefinite periods in ill-constructed cesspools some of it was bound to find its way by the natural course of drainage into the streams and rivers, and when drains were installed the line of least resistance was to use them to carry sewage away into the nearest river. In either case the quality of the water-supply suffered. Moreover, the very increase in the watersupply was responsible for a bigger proportion of refuse being disposed of by flushing into drains, instead of just being dumped out of doors in solid form and then carted away, or left to be blown away or to be dried up or to decay. Until about 1830 there were not very many water-closets in England, (fn. 21) but by the time most of suburban Essex was built they were common. Even a place with a great deal of low-grade property, such as West Ham, contrasted markedly in this respect with the northern manufacturing towns that grew up a generation earlier. In West Ham by the eighteensixties four-fifths of the houses had water-closets, (fn. 22) and by the beginning of the 20th century every house there was provided with one. (fn. 23)

As long as they remained villages, the inhabited places of south-west Essex, like those elsewhere, left their streets and many of their houses without drains; the better houses had drains to nearby cesspools. In such conditions refuse and sewage were bound to accumulate in the streets and to seep into the soil and streams, but in most cases in such limited quantities as to constitute only a minor nuisance which the residents could accept as a normal element in the environment. But as population and buildings increased, the nuisance became harder to bear and more dangerous to health and also began to upset the arrangements of the catchment authority. The extension of streets altered in some cases the direction of surface drainage and the escape of larger quantities of sewage partially blocked up the artificial channels that had been made and thus lowered their efficiency in carrying off surface water from the land. It was, therefore, not unnatural that, in the absence of any alternative arrangement, an attempt should have been made to combine house and street drainage with the drainage of agricultural and marsh land. In 1854 the Havering and Dagenham Commissioners of Sewers sought and obtained statutory power to carry out a main drainage scheme for West Ham and adjoining parts of East Ham and North Woolwich, and to levy a rate on the inhabitants for this purpose. (fn. 24) But the drainage of streets and buildings was a very different matter from the drainage of rural land, and the application to the former purpose of techniques developed for the latter was far from suitable. The commissioners' scheme offered West Ham the prospect of seeing (and smelling) its industrial and domestic waste carried in a large open sewer alongside the new Victoria Dock. Such a proposal was bound to increase the opposition inevitably aroused when an outside body imposed a large additional rate. The sequel was a successful application for West Ham to be made a local board district, and then negotiations by the local board to induce the commissioners to abandon their scheme in favour of one to be carried out by the local board. (fn. 25) The commissioners agreed to this in 1857, the wellknown civil engineer, Robert Rawlinson, was called in and, in consultation with the River Lee Trustees and the Havering Commissioners, he prepared a drainage scheme for West Ham, which was completed in 1861. (fn. 26) The commissioners made no further attempt to extend their activities to the drainage of buildings and the disposal of sewage, and thus gradually to transform themselves into a local sanitary authority, as the various sewers commissions in the Metropolis had earlier done. This function was left to the local boards as they came into existence and since, as the built-up area spread, the surface drainage of the streets was carried out in association with the drainage of the buildings, the commissioners' own task of preventing the surface flooding of the land throughout their area was in fact somewhat diminished in scope, though increased in complexity.

The West Ham drainage scheme was far from perfect. The Thames Conservancy Board refused to allow a sewage outlet to the Thames and so the Thames-side district around Silvertown was left undrained for the time being. The sewage of the rest of the parish was carried to an outlet on the Lea at Bow Creek and discharged in its crude form on the ebb tide. (fn. 27) This arrangement was permitted only on the understanding that it would be temporary, for though the Lea at this point was so filthy that the West Ham sewage made no noticeable difference to its appearance, (fn. 28) there was growing concern about its pollution, and in any case it was undesirable to go on depositing solid matter which might eventually make navigation more difficult.

When the River Lee Trustees agreed to the making of the temporary outlet they expected that the difficulty of sewage disposal would soon disappear because the entire district would be able to make use of the main drainage system of London, which was then under construction. (fn. 29) The reason for this belief was that the sewers of all London north of the Thames were to lead to a pumping station at Abbey Mills in West Ham, whence a great outlet sewer would go across the marshes to disposal works beside Barking Creek, on the boundary of Barking and North Woolwich: it seemed sensible and economical that the district through which this sewer passed should drain into it. London's main drainage system was completed in 1865, but, though it ultimately became of great service to suburban Essex, it was at first and for many years not a relief but a great nuisance to the district. It dealt with none of the local sewage, for it was found technically impracticable to send the West Ham sewage to the Abbey Mills pumping station (fn. 30) and the Metropolitan Board of Works resisted subsequent claims for the admission of West Ham sewage with the argument that the outlet sewer was not big enough to take it, a contention which was eventually shown to be false. (fn. 31) On the other hand the works of the Metropolitan scheme imposed considerable disadvantages. The outlet sewer was carried across West and East Ham along a large embankment which virtually cut those parishes in two, and the conditions in which sewage was discharged into Barking Creek were an offence to the neighbourhood. There was no statutory obligation to purify the sewage before discharging it, but, before the Bill authorizing the construction of the system was passed, an assurance was given in Parliament that purification would be carried out. (fn. 32) In fact, it was not. The sewage was merely retained in reservoirs until tidal water covered the foreshore and then it was released. But the sewers could (and in wet weather did) bring down much more sewage than the reservoirs could hold and when this happened crude sewage was poured on to the mud banks at all states of the tide. (fn. 33) The unpleasantness and danger caused by the discharge of sewage in this state were the subject of a memorial from the people of Barking to the Home Secretary in 1868, (fn. 34) but an official enquiry concluded that the charges in the memorial were only partially proved. (fn. 35) The Thames Conservancy Board also complained formally in the same year on the ground that the sewage was creating shoals in the river. (fn. 36) In later years it was several times in dispute with the Metropolitan Board of Works on the same subject, but owing to a conflict of expert testimony it was unable to obtain any redress. (fn. 37) Nothing was done, in fact, until in 1884 a Royal Commission concluded that the sewage discharge did cause serious nuisance and inconvenience in hot and dry weather and that the evils and dangers connected with it were likely to increase as the population increased in the district drained. (fn. 38) After this the practice began of discharging only the effluent after treatment of the sewage, the solid sludge being taken out to sea by boat. (fn. 39) The size of the reservoirs and other works at the outfall was progressively increased and the whole business of sewage disposal made much more tolerable.

In the absence of co-operation from the Metropolitan Board of Works, the local authorities in the Essex suburbs were left to tackle their sewage problems individually and it was many years in most districts before really satisfactory arrangements were operating. When the Lee Conservancy Board was established in 1868 it served notice on the West Ham Local Board to cease discharging crude sewage into the river. The Local Board got out of this difficulty by introducing a chemical process to clarify the sewage before discharge (fn. 40) and so it proved possible to continue to use the temporary outlet for another quarter of a century. The people of Silvertown turned to the principle of self-help and in 1868 obtained power to carry out their own drainage works, which were not taken over by the Local Board until near the end of its existence, when a new pumping station was built at Silvertown. (fn. 41) West Ham, then, managed to cope with its difficulties, but a system planned for a much smaller place was constantly under the threat of becoming quite inadequate as population increased, and it seemed foolish to remodel the system when there was already a natural outlet in the possession of the London County Council. Eventually in 1893, in spite of the opposition of the London County Council, West Ham obtained an Act compelling the admission of its sewage to the London system, though the West Ham Corporation had to provide its own pumping station. (fn. 42)

Elsewhere the local boards usually began to do something about main drainage very soon after they came into existence, though in East Ham, where a Local Board was first elected in 1879 it was not until 1887 that land was acquired for a sewage works, near Barking Creek, and not until 1890 that the works were brought into use. (fn. 43) The effect of the schemes of most authorities at first was that sewage was successfully carried away from the buildings and streets but that not enough was done to prevent some of it leaking away into unsuitable places and that it was not adequately treated before discharge. Consequently there were constant complaints of the nuisance that was caused. In particular, the Lee Conservancy Board found endless cases of pollution of the river by sewage, and the Havering Commissioners of Sewers were many times in conflict with the Local Boards of Walthamstow, Leyton, and East Ham because they allowed sewage to pass into the commissioners' drainage channels. Both bodies treated the local authorities with perhaps excessive patience. Until its constitution was changed in 1901 the Lee Conservancy Board generally abstained from litigation, partly because it hoped for better results by persuasion, partly because its funds were small; but in 1901 it changed its policy and took proceedings against a large number of offenders in the next few years. (fn. 44) The Havering Commissioners were a little more threatening in the 19th century. In 1874 they first decided to apply for an injunction to restrain the Leyton and Walthamstow Local Boards from passing sewage into their channels and in the next half-dozen years they were repeatedly discussing proposals from these bodies and urging them on to improve their sewerage systems by alternately agreeing not to enforce their injunction for a limited period and threatening to seek a renewal of the injunction. (fn. 45) There was comparable argument with the East Ham Local Board between 1885 and 1887, and an application for an injunction in 1889, with the understanding that if the Local Board refrained from opposing the application the commissioners would postpone the enforcement of the injunction. (fn. 46) These discussions may well have been decisive in persuading the East Ham Local Board to carry out its new sewerage scheme, which had by 1892 put an end to the fouling of the commissioners' sewers in East Ham. (fn. 47)

The shortcomings which persisted so long in sewage disposal arrangements were due in part to a pursuit of false economy, which persuaded local authorities to do only the minimum that was tolerable at the moment without planning for future expansion: the Ilford Local Board, for instance, prepared a new drainage scheme in 1893, but the Urban District Council had to carry out another, far more elaborate, only seven years later. (fn. 48) In part the difficulties were aggravated by the absence of co-operation among neighbouring authorities in the same natural drainage region. Joint schemes of sewerage and sewage disposal would have involved heavier initial outlay but would have brought savings subsequently. A scheme for a main sewer to serve the entire Lea valley from Enfield downwards was proposed as early as 1866 by Bailey Denton, (fn. 49) and in 1867 Sir Joseph Bazalgette brought out a more comprehensive scheme for carrying the sewage of the valley from Hertford downwards to an outfall works at Barking Creek. (fn. 50) This scheme, slightly extended, was revived in 1881 by Lamorock Flower, the sanitary engineer of the Lee Conservancy Board, and every local authority in the area was circularized about it, but nothing was done. The Lee Conservancy Board again brought out this scheme in 1897 and for several years was urging it on the local authorities, since it had no power to execute it itself; but again there was no result, for it was likely that the costs and benefits of the scheme would be unevenly distributed. (fn. 51)

In the absence of agreement on a scheme of this kind, some authorities considered how the advantages of joint action might be obtained by going into the London drainage system. The small bit of East Ham south of the Royal Albert Dock was already drained by the London County Council and in 1900 the Urban District Council inquired whether the L.C.C. would take the sewage of the rest of the district. But the terms proposed by the L.C.C. were considered prohibitive. (fn. 52) Walthamstow was more persistent. It applied in 1895 and 1904 to be admitted to the L.C.C. drainage system. It applied again jointly with Leyton in 1906, with Edmonton, Leyton and Southgate in 1909, and once more with Leyton alone in 1913, but every application was rejected. (fn. 53)

So, except for West Ham, every authority had to continue to rely on its own individual arrangements, and conditions were achieved which were satisfactory for the time being. New houses and streets were properly drained as a matter of course and the treatment of sewage was so improved that early in the 20th century complaints of pollution by local authorities practically ceased. But the position was precarious. Consumption of water (and therefore the flow through the sewers) was steadily increasing and some local sewage systems and disposal works would not be able to deal with much more unless they were drastically altered at heavy capital cost. To keep this cost to manageable levels it seemed after the First World War that renewed attempts at co-operation would have to be made and the whole question of sewage disposal reconsidered.

Gas supply was a service which for a long time after its introduction was of far less concern to the bulk of private citizens than water supply and sewage disposal and which, since it was not governed to any great extent by natural local conditions, could be carried on with fewer complications. The story of gas supply does not show anything like the same slow groping towards efficiency, the same experience of long years of failure to match service to conscious need. Rather was it much more a case of using contemporary technical knowledge to meet a contemporary effective demand which grew slowly enough for production to be fairly easily adjusted to it. Gas was for many years wanted only for lighting main roads, for industrial establishments and for the homes of some of the wealthier. Not until the very end of the 19th century did it become an article of mass private consumption and by that time most suppliers were sufficiently well-established and experienced to be able to cope with the more rapid expansion of demand.

Gas was first brought to Essex by the Whitechapel Gas Light Co., incorporated in 1821 for the purpose of lighting the turnpike road from London to the Essex border. The supply of this undertaking, which was the only oil-gas company in London, extended for four miles along the road to the beginning of Stratford. (fn. 54) In 1825 the Whitechapel Co. amalgamated with the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Co. which maintained a supply in Stratford and West Ham until 1829, when it sold all its East London mains and holder station to the British Gas Light Co. (fn. 55) This company, which had been formed five years earlier, was still operating in East London in 1846 but within a few years was so badly affected by the competition of the Commercial Gas Co. that it sold all its London interests very cheaply to the latter concern. (fn. 56) The Commercial Gas Co. did not extend its activities eastward, so that this long series of transactions had no permanent influence on services in Essex.

The present-day gas supply of West and East Ham traces its descent from two separate foundations of the eighteen-fifties. One of these, the Victoria Docks Gas Co., was founded in 1858 by the same group of contractors (Peto, Brassey and Betts) as had built the dock itself. It did not, however, have to start from scratch, for it began by taking over a small nearby firm, the North Woolwich Gas Co., whose works it operated until its own new works at Silvertown were ready in 1864. The Victoria Docks Gas Co. supplied an area bounded by the Thames, Bow Creek, Barking Road and Barking Creek, and was one of the influences which helped to make it possible for this to become one of the chief industrial districts of Essex. It experienced so heavy an industrial demand, in fact, that it was able to meet it at peak periods only by taking a bulk supply from the Commercial Gas Co., which operated in the adjoining district of Poplar. When the Gas Light and Coke Co. established its great works at Beckton it was settling within the Victoria Docks Gas Co.'s area of supply and so it arranged to take over the latter company on 31 December 1870. Thenceforward the area was supplied from Beckton. (fn. 57) The other concern was the West Ham Gas Co., incorporated and given statutory powers in 1856. (fn. 58) This company, which had works at Stratford, supplied all of West and East Ham north of the Barking Road, all of Wanstead and most of Leyton, (fn. 59) and throughout its existence was by far the largest of the purely local gas undertakings in suburban Essex. On 1 January 1910 the West Ham Gas Co. also was absorbed by the Gas Light and Coke Co., then in one of its greatest phases of expansion, but the works at Stratford were kept in operation. (fn. 60)

In other parts of south-west Essex small companies, usually beginning without the protection conferred by statutory powers, came into existence to supply various villages long before they were absorbed into the London suburban area. Then in the early 20th century, as consumption grew, most of these companies were taken into the vast unified system of the Gas Light and Coke Co. The earliest of them were the Barking Gas Co. (1836) and the Ilford Gas Co. (1839). The Barking Co. was reconstituted with statutory powers in 1867, but the Ilford Co. had none until it obtained a Provisional Order in 1873. From 1881 to 1899 it was known as the Ilford Gas Light and Coke Co. but in 1899 was re-incorporated under a private Act as the Ilford Gas Co. (fn. 61) This company supplied most of Ilford, the rest being in the area of the Barking Gas Co., which also supplied Barking and Dagenham. The third undertaking was the Chigwell and Woodford Bridge Gas Co., founded in 1863 and given statutory powers in 1873 as the Chigwell, Loughton and Woodford Gas Co. Besides serving Chigwell and Woodford this company extended its supplies to Chingford and as demand increased it supplemented its own output by taking a supply in bulk from the West Ham Gas Co. (fn. 62) A fourth undertaking, the Lea Bridge District Gas Co., was incorporated by special Act in 1878 (fn. 63) and supplied nearly all Walthamstow, together with a small adjoining portion of Leyton. This company, however, was not the pioneer in the district, as Walthamstow had had a small supply since 1854. (fn. 64)

The Barking Gas Co. and the Chigwell, Loughton and Woodford Gas Co. were both taken over by the Gas Light and Coke Co. on 1 January 1912. Their own works were closed and their areas supplied from Beckton. (fn. 65) Negotiations for the absorption of the Ilford Gas Co. failed at this time, but were successful in 1922 when the supply from the Ilford works also was replaced by one from Beckton. (fn. 66) Except that the Lea Bridge District Co. continued as an independent concern, the Gas Light and Coke Co. had then established a common supply for nearly all suburban Essex.

The whole economic situation of gas supply in the district had been greatly changed since the late 19th century by the huge increase of consumption, which was attributable not merely to the settlement of a large new population but also to the fact that a far bigger proportion of householders chose to have gas laid on. Between 1880 and 1908 the number of consumers served by the five local gas companies of suburban Essex (i.e. excluding the Gas Light and Coke Co.) rose from 6,031 to 98,260 (fn. 67) and there was a further rapid increase after that: between 1908 and 1912 the number of consumers served by the Lea Bridge District Gas Co. (which operated in an area not then growing very fast in population) rose from 11,717 to 18,589. (fn. 68) The bigger companies had consistently been able to supply gas more cheaply than the smaller. (fn. 69) Thus in 1880 the West Ham Gas Co. was charging 3s. 9d. per 1,000 cu. ft. whereas all the other Essex suburban companies charged 5s. The West Ham company, however, sold 256 million cu. ft. in the year while the next largest company's sales, those of the Lea Bridge District Co., amounted to only 37 million cu. ft. (fn. 70) The difference in prices narrowed but did not disappear: in 1908 the West Ham Co. still had the lowest ordinary price at 2s. 8d. per 1,000 cu. ft., while the Chigwell and the Lea Bridge companies charged 3s 6d. (fn. 71) Once a large continuous built-up area had been created and a large proportion of the population had taken to using gas, it seemed reasonable to expect definite economic advantages from the abandonment of a system based on supply by small local works in favour of a centralized supply for a much wider region.

The absence of municipal enterprise in gas supply is noteworthy. No doubt it was partly due to the early establishment of companies with areas of supply that did not keep within local government boundaries. It is perhaps significant that in the one instance (that of the Ilford Gas Co.) where a company's area was entirely within a single Urban District the local authority did seek powers of compulsory purchase. But this attempt, made in 1899, was unsuccessful. (fn. 72) When electricity began to appear as a possible rival to gas the situation was very different. Municipal enterprise was becoming popular, there were no established interests to be bought out, and the earliest Electric Lighting Acts, those of 1882 and 1888, were so framed as to encourage local authorities to supply electricity in their own areas and to give them eventual rights of compulsory purchase over private undertakings. The larger local authorities in suburban Essex all took advantage of this situation and Provisional Orders under the Electric Lighting Acts were granted to West Ham Corporation in 1892, Leyton Local Board in 1894, Walthamstow U.D.C. in 1895, Barking Town U.D.C. in 1897, East Ham U.D.C. in 1898, and Ilford U.D.C. in 1898. (fn. 73) The supply of electricity by the local authority began in Leyton in 1896, in West Ham in 1898, in Barking Town in 1899, and in East Ham, Ilford and Walthamstow in 1901. (fn. 74)

Electricity so far had been used for little except lighting, and while this was so there was no great loss in having an entirely self-contained supply system in every local authority area. But when the usefulness of electricity for many other purposes was perceived, it was realized that there were advantages in generating power at high voltages and transmitting it over large areas. Accordingly, beginning in 1900, the principle was adopted of approving bills promoted by power companies which exempted them from any liability to compulsory purchase by local authorities and gave them rights of supply over large areas, but restricted those rights to the supply of electricity in bulk to authorized distributors and to the supply of premises which used electricity for power. The power companies, that is, could not give a supply of electricity to premises which required it only for lighting. (fn. 75) One concern that took advantage of this change of policy, the North Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Co., was given, by its Act of 1900, an area of supply which in Essex covered the parishes of Waltham Holy Cross, Chingford, and Walthamstow. In 1907 part of this company's area was defined as a 'special district' within which the company could supply electricity to any consumer for any purpose and in 1909 the special district was extended to include Chingford and Waltham Holy Cross, where there was no authorized distributor. (fn. 76) No supply was provided for the time being, however, and the practical significance of the change remained in the future. So did that of the entry of another company on to the scene. The County of London Electric Supply Co., founded in 1892, was empowered by a Provisional Order in 1913 to build a generating station at Barking and to supply power in bulk to any authorized distributor in Barking, but there was no opportunity to do anything about this until after the First World War. (fn. 77) Until then, electricity supply continued to be a comparatively small service, operated independently by the local authorities and non-existent in the outer fringe of the suburbs.


  • 1. W. Ham Centr. Libr., P. Thompson, 'West Ham Gleanings' (MS Coll.), sheaf 3, f. 205.
  • 2. Metrop. Water Bd. Water Supply of London, 11–12.
  • 3. Metrop. Water Bd. Water Supply of Lond. 11–12; Sel. Ctee. on Rivers Pollution (River Lee) (1886), q. 2467.
  • 4. Metrop. Water Bd. op. cit. 11–12; Sel. Ctee on Rivers Pollution (River Lee), qq. 2471–7.
  • 5. River Lee Water Act 1855, 18 & 19 Vict. c. 196 (local and personal act).
  • 6. East London Waterworks Co., Rep. by Capt. Tyler to Bd. of Trade, H.C. 339, pp. 16, 20 (1867), lviii.
  • 7. Ibid. 6, 8, 20–28.
  • 8. Metrop. Water Bd. Water Supply of London, 11–12; Sel. Ctee. on Rivers Pollution (River Lee), (1886) qq. 2501– 2; Rtn. as to Water Undertakings in Eng. and Wales, H.C. 395, p. v (1914), lxxix.
  • 9. East London Waterworks Co., Rep. by Capt. Tyler (1867), p. 32.
  • 10. Rtn. showing the means by which drinkable water is supplied … in Eng. and Wales, H.C. 265, pp. 26–27 (1878–9), lxi.
  • 11. Metrop. Water Bd. London's Water Supply 1903–53, 16.
  • 12. Ibid. 88.
  • 13. Ibid. 95.
  • 14. Ibid. 99.
  • 15. Rtn. as to Water Undertakings in Eng. and Wales (1914), pp. 163–4: R. Com. on Lond. Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), pp. 873, 889 (paras. 39, 7).
  • 16. Rtn. as to Water Undertakings in Eng. and Wales (1914), p. 213.
  • 17. Burdett's Official Intelligence for 1885, 904–5; Stock Exchange Official Intelligence for 1911, 1687.
  • 18. Tasker, Ilford Past and Present, 49–50.
  • 19. Rtn. as to Water Undertakings in Eng. and Wales (1914), p. 213.
  • 20. Ibid. 418–19.
  • 21. R. Com. on Metrop. Sewage Discharge, 1st Rep. [C. 3842], p. xi, H.C. (1884), xli.
  • 22. R. Com. on Pollution of Rivers, 2nd Rep. (River Lee), vol. i (1867), p. xiii.
  • 23. W. Ham, ed. Howarth and Wilson, 16.
  • 24. 17 & 18 Vict. c. 79 (local and personal act).
  • 25. Hist. Sketch of W. Ham (1886).
  • 26. Ibid.; E.R.O., D/SH 4, 17 Dec. 1855–11 Aug. 1857; Sel. Ctee. on Lee River Conservancy Bill (1867–8), q. 163.
  • 27. Sel. Ctee. on Lee River Conservancy Bill (1867–8), qq. 155, 452, 457–9; R. Com. on Pollution of Rivers, 2nd Rep. (River Lee), vol. ii (1867), qq. 4086–7.
  • 28. R. Com. on Pollution of Rivers, 2nd Rep. (River Lee), vol. i, p. xiii.
  • 29. Ibid. vol. ii, q. 858.
  • 30. Ibid. vol. ii, q. 4089.
  • 31. W. Ham Centr. Libr. W. Ham Newspaper Cuttings, Handbill programme, Laying of stone, new pumping and electric lighting station, Abbey Mills, 3 Nov. 1897.
  • 32. R. Com. on Metrop. Sewage Discharge, 1st Rep. (1884), p. xlii.
  • 33. Ibid. pp. xxxviii–xxxix.
  • 34. Copy of mem. from Vicar … of Barking, H.C. 231 (1868–9), 1.
  • 35. R. Com. on Metrop. Sewage Discharge, 1st Rep. (1884), p. xxxii.
  • 36. Gen. Rep. Thames Conservancy, 1868, H.C. 385, p. 2 (1868–9), 1.
  • 37. R. Com. on Metrop. Sewage Discharge, 1st Rep. (1884), pp. xxxiv–xxxv.
  • 38. Ibid. p. lxvii.
  • 39. Robson. Government and Misgovernment of London, 129.
  • 40. Sel. Ctee. on Rivers Pollution (River Lee) (1886), q. 264.
  • 41. Sel. Ctee. on Lee River Conservancy Bill (1867–8), q. 451; Hist. Sketch of W. Ham (1886).
  • 42. D. McDougall, Fifty years a Borough … the story of W. Ham, 169–70.
  • 43. A. Stokes, East Ham from village to county borough (3rd edn.), 145, 151.
  • 44. Lee Conservancy Bd. Protection of Water. Rep. on steps taken … for the preservation of the purity … of the River Lee (1906), 3, 5.
  • 45. E.R.O., D/SH 4.
  • 46. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bk. 1881–94, ff. 163, 226, 284–5, 293, 375.
  • 47. Ibid. f. 470.
  • 48. Tasker, Ilford, 44.
  • 49. Sel. Ctee. on Rivers Pollution (River Lee) (1886), q. 2131.
  • 50. Ibid. qq. 1427–8.
  • 51. Sel. Ctee. Riv. Poll. (Lee) (1886), q. 895; Lee Conservancy Bd. Protection of Water (1906), 29, 31, 37–38.
  • 52. R. Com. on Lond. Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), p. 666 (para. 12).
  • 53. Ibid. p. 900 (para. 8).
  • 54. F. Clifford, A History of Private Bill Legislation, i. 214; S. Everard, Hist. Gas Light and Coke Co. 159.
  • 55. Everard, op. cit. 160, 170.
  • 56. Ibid. 99, 104–5.
  • 57. Ibid. 241–3.
  • 58. Burdett's Official Intelligence for 1885, 714–15.
  • 59. For maps showing the boundaries of the areas supplied by the different companies see: Everard, Hist. Gas Light and Coke Co. insets f. pp. 240, 288.
  • 60. Everard op. cit. 299.
  • 61. Stock Exchange Official Intelligence for 1911, 1135, 1159; Rtn. relating to all Authorised Gas Undertakings in the U.K. other than those of Local Authorities, 1908, H.C. 310, pp. 22–23 (1909), lxxxix; see also pp. 242, 256.
  • 62. Everard, Hist. Gas Light and Coke Co. 299; Stock Exchange Official Intelligence for 1911, 143.
  • 63. Burdett's Official Intelligence for 1885, 700–1; 41 & 42 Vict. c. 49 (local act).
  • 64. [E. Clarke], Hist. Walthamstow, 50.
  • 65. Everard, op. cit. 299.
  • 66. Ibid. 326.
  • 67. Rtn. relating to all Authorised Gas Undertakings Eng. and Wales other than those of Corporations and Local Authorities, 1880, H.C. 315, pp. 2–3, 10–11, 22–23, 24–25, 44–45 (1881), lxxxiii; ibid. 1908, pp. 22–25.
  • 68. Ibid. 1908, pp. 24–25; ibid. 1912, H.C. 137, pp. 26–27 (1914), lxxix.
  • 69. See e.g. tables of the prices charged by each company in each year, 1880–98, in Rep. from Sel. Ctee. on Metrop. Gas Cos. H.C. 294, app. 12 (1899), x.
  • 70. Rtn. relating to all Authorised Gas Undertakings etc. (1880), pp. 2–3, 10–11, 22–23, 24–25, 44–45.
  • 71. Ibid. 1908, pp. 22–25.
  • 72. Tasker, Ilford, 46.
  • 73. Bd. of Trade, Rep. for 1908 on Electric Lighting Acts 1882–1902 (Proceedings), H.C. 205, pp. 6–23 (1909), lxxxix.
  • 74. Electricity Com. Electricity Supply Undertakings: Rtn. of Authorised Undertakers in Gt. Britain and admin. partics. of Undertakings, 31 Dec., 1923 (H.M.S.O. 1924), pp. 10– 11, 30–31, 44–45, 50–51, 84–85, 86–87.
  • 75. Min. of Transport, Rep. of the Ctee. on Electricity Distribution, May 1936 (H.M.S.O. 1936), pp. 7–8.
  • 76. Electricity Com. Elec. Supply Undertakings: Rtn. of Authorised Undertakers etc. 1923, pp. 210–21.
  • 77. Ibid. 148–9, 380.