Metropolitan Essex since 1919: Local adminstration

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

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'Metropolitan Essex since 1919: Local adminstration', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 5, (London, 1966) pp. 74-81. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]


To ensure that the new streets and the additional population in the suburbs were supplied with essential public services presented on the whole a good deal less difficulty than in the late 19th century, mainly because it was seldom necessary to establish completely new undertakings. Satisfactory provision could be made by expanding existing equipment under the control of experienced administrative bodies.

The amalgamations of the Gas Light and Coke Co. meant that from 1922 one of the vital services was met, as far as nearly all the Essex suburban area was concerned, from two producing centres (Beckton and Stratford) under the control of a single organization with ample resources to increase supply as demand grew. There was therefore no great problem in providing a gas supply when new areas were built up, for there was no question of the new inhabitants being unable to meet the cost of the supply. Industrial developments did a little to augment the amount of gas available locally, for in 1932 the Gas Light and Coke Co. began to buy in bulk the surplus gas produced by the coke ovens of the Ford Motor Co. at Dagenham. (fn. 1) The one undertaking which had retained its independence (the Lea Bridge District Gas Co.) underwent a change of position when the South-Eastern Gas Corporation, a holding company formed in 1933 by the Gas Light and Coke Co. in association with the merchant banking firm of Dawney, Day & Co., bought it up. (fn. 2) The Lea Bridge Co., however, continued to be directly responsible for supplying its own area. Unity of administration throughout the suburbs was completed when the gas industry was nationalized under the Gas Act 1948, and with effect from 1 May 1949 the assets of both the Gas Light and Coke Co. and the Lea Bridge District Gas Co. were transferred to the North Thames Gas Board. (fn. 3)

Arrangements for electricity supply were less complete at the time of the First World War, as most of the outer suburbs had no supply. Chingford, however, was within the statutory area of supply of the North Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Co. and in 1923 its Urban District Council negotiated with this undertaking for the introduction of a supply. (fn. 4) Dagenham in 1913 was added to the statutory area of the County of London Electric Supply Co., (fn. 5) which in 1922 received the consent of the Electricity Commissioners to proceed with the construction of its new power station at Barking. (fn. 6) There was therefore no administrative difficulty in providing a supply for the Becontree Estate. Wanstead and Woodford, however, remained outside any statutory area of supply. The Empire Electric Light and Power Co. had in 1903 and again in 1904 sought authority to provide a supply in Wanstead, (fn. 7) the National Provincial Electricity Corporation in 1905 had sought similar authority in Woodford, (fn. 8) and in 1914 the County of London Electric Supply Co. had tried to get not only Wanstead and Woodford but several other adjoining districts added to its supply area. (fn. 9) But all these applications were refused. Finally in 1923 the North Metropolitan and the County of London companies, in direct competition with each other, both sought provisional orders to enable them to supply electricity in Wanstead, Woodford, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton, and in 1924 the application of the latter was granted. (fn. 10)

An attempt was made to increase the efficiency of electricity supply in the London area, particularly by concentrating the work of generating at a few large stations, through the creation in 1925 of a London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority, which consisted mainly of representatives of the local authority and company electricity undertakings and of the county councils. But control of electricity generation throughout the country and the task of concentrating it at selected stations were in 1926 placed almost completely in the hands of the Central Electricity Board, so that the London and Home Counties Authority was deprived of much of its purpose. (fn. 11) In a few districts the Authority itself took over supply undertakings but none of these was in Essex. The development of the national grid under the direction of the Central Electricity Board was more important. It did not affect the local arrangements for the distribution of electricity but it made it advantageous for some of the local authority undertakings to close their own generating stations and buy power in bulk from larger undertakings. As a result of nationalization under the Electricity Act, 1947, (fn. 12) responsibility for the supply and distribution of electricity passed on 1 April 1948 from the local authority and company undertakings to the Eastern Electricity Board in some parts of the suburban area and to the London Electricity Board in others.

No change was made in the administrative arrangements for water supply, but a good deal of new work was required from the two responsible undertakings, not merely in extending their mains as building spread, but also in enabling their total supply to keep up with the rising consumption. As the supply of the eastern part of the Metropolitan Water Board's area had for long been rather difficult, any increase in consumption there posed serious problems. It was impossible to take much more water from the River Lea and from wells in the Lea valley than had been done at the beginning of the 20th century — an average of 44 million gallons a day was drawn from the Lea in 1906–7 and 54 million gallons in 1951–2, whereas total consumption in the Board's unchanged area rose by nearly 50 per cent. in this period. (fn. 13) It was therefore essential to make the fullest use of periods of abundant flow, and this lesson was forced home by the drought which followed the dry summer of 1933 and left the Lea very low for a long period. (fn. 14) This experience made the Board decide to build the second great Chingford reservoir which the East London Co. had planned long before. Contracts were placed in 1935 but the work was delayed by flooding, by two slips of the embankment, and then by war. As a result the reservoir, which had a capacity of 3,500 million gallons and was named the William Girling (after the Chairman of the Board), was not brought into use until September 1951. (fn. 15) Even then, however, there was no prospect of East London and the Essex suburbs being completely supplied from their own local sources, especially as building development higher up in the catchment area of the Lea (in particular the establishment of new towns at Stevenage and Harlow) was likely to reduce the supply which the Metropolitan Water Board could obtain from the river. In 1948 the Board therefore decided to build a 75-inch main from the Thames at Hampton to Chingford. This would make it possible for the ordinary pumping machinery at slack periods to send unfiltered Thames water direct to the Lea valley reservoirs when the supply from the Lea was short. It would then no longer be necessary to retain a special reserve of pumping and filtration plant in order to supply East London and Essex with filtered Thames water at such times. (fn. 16) This was a long-term project, not completed until 1961.

Sewage disposal had not, down to the time of the First World War, been dealt with in so comprehensive a way as these other services. Practically every local authority proceeded in this matter independently of its neighbours, though the disadvantages which this entailed for some of them were well known. In 1921 another attempt was made to revive the old proposal of a unified main drainage scheme for the Lea valley, and the Ministry of Health called a conference of the local authorities of Enfield, Edmonton, Southgate, Walthamstow and Leyton. But on the advice of their engineers, who found technical as well as financial objections to it, these authorities unanimously rejected the proposal. (fn. 17) For the time being any further improvement had to be on a purely local basis. The building of additional houses and the rising consumption of water, however, faced some authorities with the imminent prospect of having so drastically to alter their main drainage and sewage disposal systems that they were reluctant to undertake the task alone. Walthamstow, in particular, was inclined to think this a strong reason for agreeing to the extension of the area of the London County Council. (fn. 18) Most of the districts in which building was going on most rapidly did, in fact, have to make their own expanded arrangements for sewage disposal, though there was some co-operation between neighbours. Dagenham, for instance, was able to build a new sewage works outside its own area, in Hornchurch, and there dealt with the sewage of part of Hornchurch, and some parishes of Romford Rural District as well as its own. (fn. 19) But some of the older districts were able to find another solution to their problems. Walthamstow and Leyton, after so many refusals, were at last admitted to the London County Council's main drainage system, the necessary connexions being completed for Leyton in 1927 and Walthamstow in 1928. (fn. 20) In 1934 new links were also built to bring Ilford and Barking into the London system. (fn. 21) From this time the London County Council was responsible for sewage disposal for more than half the population of the Essex suburbs.

The value of large joint schemes on the fringe of the metropolitan area had been demonstrated by the recently-completed West Middlesex Drainage Scheme. A similar scheme for East Middlesex, which provided for a centralized sewage purification works at Edmonton and sludge disposal works at Rammey Marsh, was sanctioned by the Middlesex County Council Act of 1938, (fn. 22) and Chingford, along with Waltham Holy Cross and certain districts in Hertfordshire, agreed to participate in the scheme. The outbreak of the Second World War caused a ten-year delay in the start of work upon it, but by the Middlesex County Council Act of 1944 (fn. 23) all the local authorities in the district covered by the scheme (including those in Essex and Hertfordshire) handed over their responsibility for sewage disposal (including their rating powers) to the Middlesex County Council, which continued to keep the various local sewage works in operation until they could be superseded when the scheme was completed. (fn. 24)

One other major service, land drainage and flood protection, which had always been administered without regard to local authority boundaries, was the subject of drastic rearrangement. The first minor alteration came in 1920 when the Lee Conservancy Board, in addition to its existing functions of controlling the navigation and the fishing and preventing pollution, was empowered to spend money on a scheme to prevent floods in the Lea valley, and to levy a precept on the local authorities affected by the scheme. (fn. 25) The original scheme was not carried out because it was thought too expensive, but the Conservancy Board continued to be interested in the matter and eventually agreed on joint action with West Ham Corporation to improve the various waterways known as the Stratford Back Rivers. Some of these were very much neglected and filthy and so impeded with silt and rubbish as to be a frequent contributory cause of flooding. Parliamentary sanction for the scheme was obtained in 1930, work was begun in 1931, and the improved waterways, which included an additional navigation channel as well as a drainage stream 100 feet wide, were officially opened in October 1935. (fn. 26)

The Havering and Dagenham Commissioners of Sewers, however, continued to be the main authority for land drainage. Their work at this time appears to have involved no large innovations of policy and to have been largely delegated to their officials, the court meeting only twice a year, in June and December. (fn. 27) But the Land Drainage Act (1930) (fn. 28) introduced new arrangements for the whole country outside the County of London. Land drainage was to be entrusted to catchment boards constituted by administrative order made by the Minister of Agriculture and each catchment board was to prepare for confirmation by the minister a scheme which would, inter alia, provide for the abolition of Commissioners of Sewers within its area. Special provisions were made for the Lee Catchment Area. Its board was to be made up of the members of the Lee Conservancy Board with six others, of whom Essex and Middlesex County Councils would appoint two each, and the London County Council and the Minister of Agriculture one each. This catchment board was also required to bear a proportionate part of the establishment expenses of the Lee Conservancy Board and of the costs of any works carried out by the Lee Conservancy Board which contributed to land drainage. (fn. 29) The area for which the Havering Commissioners had been responsible was divided among three boards: the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board, the River Roding Catchment Board and the Essex Rivers Catchment Board. These were created late in 1930, but, until the schemes of reorganization which they prepared were confirmed, the commissioners continued their work as agents of the boards. (fn. 30) The new scheme for the Lee Catchment Area came into force on 1 February 1934 and those for the other two areas later in the same year. (fn. 31) The Court of Sewers met for the last time on 14 June 1934. (fn. 32) One curious anomaly remained, however. The Land Drainage Act did not apply to London except for a small part in the Lee Catchment Area. Consequently the section of East Ham Level which was in the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich could not be included in any catchment area (fn. 33) and the jurisdiction of the Havering Commissioners there was never legally abolished, though in practice they made no attempt to exercise it. West Ham Corporation continued to be the catchment authority for the district south of the north side of the Royal Victoria and Albert Docks, but the rest of the borough was divided between the Lee and Roding Catchment Areas. (fn. 34)

Further changes came after the Second World War. By the Transport Act of 1947 inland navigations were nationalized with effect from 1 January 1948 and the Lee Conservancy Board was vested in the Transport Commission. Those of its functions which related to water supply, fisheries, pollution or land drainage were transferred to the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board, (fn. 35) which thus had a wider range of duties than other catchment boards. Under the River Boards Act (1948) (fn. 36) a new system of river administration was introduced for the whole of England and Wales, with the usual exceptions of London and the Thames and Lee Catchment Areas, where existing arrangements continued. The new river boards to be set up under the Act were to have functions very similar to those already exercised by the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board. They were made responsible for the regulation of fishing as well as for flood prevention and land drainage, and they also took over all the powers and duties of local authorities in respect of the prevention of pollution. Despite local opposition an Essex River Board Area was defined in 1951 (fn. 37) and a board was established in 1952 to operate within it and to take over all the functions of the River Roding, Essex Rivers, and River Stour Catchment Boards, which were then dissolved. (fn. 38)

After the supersession of the Commissioners of Sewers one major improvement in the flood protection works was planned. The Lee Conservancy Catchment Board prepared a scheme which included the stopping up and diversion of several old sewers and the cutting of a broad additional channel leaving the River Lea (New Cut) at Tottenham, near the Banbury Reservoir, and running through Walthamstow and Leyton, eastward of the reservoirs, to rejoin the river just below the filter beds of the Metropolitan Water Board at Lea Bridge. Parliamentary sanction was obtained in 1938, but owing to the war the work was deferred. Serious flooding in 1947 which, among other things, put the filter station out of action for several days, showed the importance of the project. Work on the construction of the new channel was begun in 1950 and completed in 1960. (fn. 39)

It is noteworthy that in all these important services whenever there was a change in administration and control it almost invariably involved unification over an area much larger than that of any single local authority. That was, of course, by no means new, but the areas of administration were tending to become larger. Moreover, other special bodies, such as the Port of London Authority, the Port Sanitary Authority, and the Metropolitan Police, continued to act for a much more extended area than the County of London, and in so doing played a significant part in the affairs of some or all of the Essex suburbs. When all this was happening and when the continuously built-up metropolitan area was spreading out faster than ever, it was almost inevitable that the question of the proper governmental relationship between London and its suburbs should be raised again.

The subject was brought to prominence by the London County Council which in 1919 resolved that its existing area was too small for efficient administration and asked the government to arrange an enquiry. (fn. 40) The sequel was the appointment of a Royal Commission which took evidence for two years and reported in 1923. The London County Council put its case to the Commission in a surprisingly diffident way and couched its positive proposals in tentative and imprecise terms, not likely to be nearly so convincing as a definite, detailed scheme in which specific arguments were directly related to specific proposals. Roughly, what it wanted was a central authority with about the same number of members as the London County Council then had (144), but governing a much larger area. It sought to extend its authority at least over the whole continuous urban area and all adjoining land likely to be built on soon. It preferred to take in also any other districts within the areas of the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Water Board, and the projected, but not yet established, London and Home Counties Electricity Authority. Below this central authority it wished to have local authorities with greater powers than those exercised by the existing metropolitan boroughs. In some cases the existing local authorities would have to be enlarged or combined. Very tentatively the London County Council suggested that it would be most suitable for the new local authorities to have areas containing about 500,000 inhabitants each. (fn. 41)

These proposals met almost unanimous objection from the other authorities affected by them. In Essex only East Ham and Walthamstow maintained that a satisfactory case had been made out for the establishment of a central authority for an enlarged area, and even they had reservations. (fn. 42) Moreover, the favourable attitude of the Walthamstow Council, strongly influenced as it was by anxiety to obtain relief from the prospective heavy increase in the cost of its sewage disposal service, was decided by the narrow majority of only 18 to 15. (fn. 43) Outside Essex only one local authority in Greater London supported the suggestions of the London County Council. (fn. 44)

Some of the local authorities in Essex, while preferring to see no change, put forward alternatives which they would prefer to the London County Council's scheme if it was decided that some change there must be. The Urban District Councils of Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Chingford, Loughton, and Wanstead (which presented evidence jointly, with the chairman of the Woodford U.D.C. as their spokesman) suggested that, in this event, there might be an elected central authority for the Metropolitan Police District or Metropolitan Water Board's area and that its duties should be concerned only with transport, housing, main drainage, higher education, the poor law, isolation hospitals, the care of lunatics, and the control of any scheme for the equalization of rates; all other local government services should remain in the hands of the existing local authorities. Leyton also preferred this scheme to that of the London County Council. (fn. 45) Barking suggested a complicated scheme for a central authority many of whose functions should be exercised only within the existing County of London, but which throughout Greater London should own and operate the tramways, provide the institutions and institutional treatment then controlled by the poor law authorities, exercise such functions in housing and town planning as were unsuited to local authorities, and provide technical and other forms of higher education. Barking also favoured the creation of a separate London Traffic Authority. (fn. 46) One thing which emerged, however, was that although they opposed the London County Council's scheme, many areas recognized the responsibilities which their special economic ties with London placed on them. Even some of the low-rated districts, such as Ilford and Woodford, were prepared to support a rate equalization scheme for Greater London, although it would certainly have had adverse financial effects on them. (fn. 47)

There were notable divergences of view among the various local authorities about what arrangements they would prefer if they were compelled to combine to form larger units. In general, the older Essex suburbs wanted to absorb their newer neighbours, but the newer suburbs were opposed to this and preferred to combine among themselves. Thus East Ham suggested it should combine with North Woolwich, Barking, Ilford and Dagenham; (fn. 48) Walthamstow thought Woodford and Chingford the most suitable areas to be added to it; (fn. 49) and Leyton regarded Buckhurst Hill, Loughton, Wanstead and Woodford as most suitable for amalgamation with itself. (fn. 50) But Barking, Ilford and Dagenham were opposed to fusion with East Ham, and agreed that it would be much better for the three of them to join together, along with Chigwell, though the Chigwell Parish Council wanted to be left alone. (fn. 51) Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Chingford, Loughton and Wanstead preferred to combine, if there had to be larger local authorities, and had no positive objection to the addition of Waltham Holy Cross and Chigwell; but they felt very strongly that none of them was suitable for amalgamation with Leyton or Walthamstow. (fn. 52) All these proposals, however, were merely part of a search for the lesser evil. The general wish was for no change.

In the end the general wish was respected. The Royal Commission reported that the extension of the dual system of local government to communities outside the County of London would rouse great opposition, and recommended that no change should be made along the lines suggested by the London County Council. (fn. 53) The only innovations which followed the enquiry were one or two more ad hoc bodies for specified purposes in a larger area than had been used previously for any metropolitan services. In 1924 a London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee was set up to report to the Minister of Transport and advise him on questions concerning traffic and transport within an area of over 1,800 square miles. In 1933 the London Passenger Transport Board was established with a virtual monopoly of passenger transport in this area, and at the same time the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee was made permanent and re-constituted so as to be more representative of local authorities. To its total membership of 40 Essex County Council and the County Borough Councils of East Ham and West Ham each contributed one nominee. (fn. 54) In 1927 a Greater London Regional Planning Committee was set up to act in the same area as the Traffic Advisory Committee. This also was reorganized in 1933, and, besides having a representative each from Essex County, East Ham and West Ham, its constitution provided for the minor local authorities to be grouped together for the nomination of representatives. It remained a purely advisory body, whose powers the local authorities were not anxious to see enlarged. (fn. 55)

So the local authorities of the Essex suburbs, though their functions were rather more limited than those of similar authorities outside the Home Counties, because there were so many statutory bodies for various special purposes, found their constitutional position little changed. A prime object of all of them, where they had not previously obtained it, was to increase their status and responsibility by securing charters of incorporation, and in this all the suburban districts in the region covered by the present survey were successful before the Second World War. Several proclaimed that county borough status was their ultimate ambition, but no more were able to emulate West and East Ham. An enlargement of dignity and power through boundary changes had little attraction, on the whole. The national review of local government boundaries set on foot by the Local Government Act of 1929 led to several changes but they were all very slight except for the union of Wanstead and Woodford, which took effect on 1 April 1934. (fn. 56)


  • 1. Everard, Hist. Gas Light and Coke Co. 334.
  • 2. Ibid. 332–3.
  • 3. Ibid. 382. A small part of Chingford, close to the boundary with Waltham Holy Cross had been supplied by the Tottenham and District Gas Co. and was placed under the Eastern Gas Board. [Chingford Borough Council, Tenants' Handbk. 12.]
  • 4. Chingford U.D.C. Official Handbk. (1st edn.), 22.
  • 5. Electricity Commission, Elec. Supply Undertakings: Rtn. of Authorised Undertakers etc., 1923, pp. 148–9.
  • 6. Ibid. 151.
  • 7. E.R.O., C/DP 154, 170.
  • 8. E.R.O., C/DP 176.
  • 9. E.R.O., C/DP 231.
  • 10. E.R.O., C/DP 268, 267.
  • 11. H. Morrison, How Greater London is governed, 139–40.
  • 12. 10 & 11 Geo. VI, c. 54.
  • 13. Metrop. Water Bd. London's Water Supply 1903–53, 100, 225.
  • 14. Ibid. 130.
  • 15. Ibid. 133–7.
  • 16. Ibid. 149–51.
  • 17. Min. of Health, J. R. Taylor and others, Rep. on Greater London Drainage (H.M.S.O. 1935), p. 109.
  • 18. R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), qq. 13,139–40.
  • 19. Ibid. p. 891 (para. 22); Min. of Health, Rep. on Greater London Drainage (1935), 57. The original works had been built by Romford R.D.C.: see below, p. 293.
  • 20. Leyton Official Guide (1st edn.), 10; Walthamstow Official Guide (5th edn.), 16.
  • 21. Min. of Health, op. cit. 24, 61.
  • 22. 1 & 2 Geo. VI, c. 90 (local act).
  • 23. 7 & 8 Geo. VI, c. 21 (local act).
  • 24. Abercrombie, Greater London Plan, 123, and map between pp. 118 and 119; County of Middlesex, Development Plan 1951: Rep. of the Survey, 144.
  • 25. R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), p. 18 (para. 103).
  • 26. McDougall, Fifty years a Borough, 185–6.
  • 27. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bks. 1894–1934, vols. vi–viii, passim.
  • 28. 20 & 21 Geo. V, c. 44.
  • 29. Ibid. s. 80.
  • 30. Havering Com. Sewers, Min. Bks. 1894–1934, vol. viii, ff. 54, 184–5.
  • 31. Ibid. ff. 229–31.
  • 32. Ibid. ff. 229–56.
  • 33. Ibid. f. 54.
  • 34. McDougall, Fifty years a Borough, 171.
  • 35. Lee Conservancy Catchment Bd. (Addit. functions) Regulations, 1947 (S.R. & O. 1947, no. 2797).
  • 36. 11 & 12 Geo. VI, c. 32.
  • 37. Essex River Bd. Area Order, 1951 (statutory instrument 1951 no. 2142) (H.M.S.O. 1951).
  • 38. Essex River Bd. Constitution Order, 1952 (statutory instrument 1952 no. 879) (H.M.S.O. 1952).
  • 39. E.R.O., C/DP 396; and information supplied by the engineer to the Lee Conservancy Catchment Bd.
  • 40. R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), pp. 23, 48 (paras. 12, 45).
  • 41. Ibid. pp. 51–73 (paras. 8–22) and qq. 974, 1,158.
  • 42. Rep. R. Com. on London Govt. [Cmd. 1830], pp. 22–23, H.C. (1923), xii (1).
  • 43. R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), q. 13,065.
  • 44. Rep. R. Com. on London Govt. (1923), p. 23.
  • 45. Ibid. 43.
  • 46. Ibid. 46.
  • 47. Ibid. 98.
  • 48. R. Com. on London Govt., Mins. of Evid. (1922), p. 666 (para. 11).
  • 49. Ibid. q. 13,144.
  • 50. Ibid. 616 (para. 27).
  • 51. Ibid. 874, 875 (paras. 43, 46).
  • 52. Ibid. qq. 7,008–10, 7,016, 7,021.
  • 53. Rep. R. Com. on London Govt. (1923), p. 70.
  • 54. Robson, Government and Misgovernment of London, 149–53.
  • 55. Morrison, How Greater London is governed, 133–4.
  • 56. Census, Eng. and Wales, 1931 Essex (pt. ii), 6–10. Since this study was prepared there has been a Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, which reported in 1960. This Commission recommended drastic changes that had much in common with the type of reform suggested by the L.C.C. to the Royal Commission of 1921–3. The main recommendations were accepted by the government, and embodied in the London Government Act, 1963, c. 33. This Act, which came into force by stages in 1964–5, provides for a Greater London Council, and 32 London Boroughs, of which 5 are in Essex: Waltham Forest (formerly Chingford, Walthamstow, and Leyton); Redbridge (Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford, and parts of Chigwell and Dagenham); Havering (Romford and Hornchurch); Barking (most of Barking and of Dagenham); and Newham (East Ham, West Ham, and parts of Barking and of Woolwich).