A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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'West Ham: Local government and public services', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, (London, 1973) pp. 96-112. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp96-112 [accessed 1 March 2024]
LOCAL GOVERNMENT TO 1836.
In the mid 13th century Richard de Montfitchet (d. 1267) was holding view of frankpledge and enforcing the assize of bread and ale on his manor in East and West Ham. (fn. 1) He also set up gallows, probably at Gallows (later Stratford) Green. (fn. 2) In 1285 the abbot of Stratford was claiming the view of frankpledge and the assize of bread and ale on his manor of West Ham. (fn. 3)
Only one medieval court roll has survived for the manor of West Ham, that for 1463–75. (fn. 4) Courts were then meeting three or four times a year, the most important being in Whit week when the view of frankpledge was held and a constable and two aleconners appointed. Apart from a fragment of 1518 (fn. 5) the next rolls for the manor are for 1581 (fn. 6) and 1585–7, (fn. 7) when the court was appointing a constable, a headborough, and two aleconners. In 1650–9, during the temporary lordship of Robert Smyth, it was appointing three headboroughs and three aleconners, one of each for Plaistow, Church Street, and Stratford wards. (fn. 8) It also appointed four constables: in 1650 two of these were for Stratford ward and the others for Church Street and Plaistow, but from 1651 those three wards had one each, the fourth constable being for Upton ward. The division of West Ham into wards was also used in the parochial administration, as shown below. The fact that the court of West Ham manor was appointing the Upton constable suggests that by 1651 Robert Smyth was also exercising jurisdiction over West Ham Burnells and its associated manors. (fn. 9)
In the 18th century, after the manor of West Ham had been temporarily divided, separate courts baron were held for its Stratford section, for which rolls survive for 1736–1802. (fn. 10) It is not known whether courts were held during that period for the other part of the manor. In 1805, when the whole manor was bought from the Crown by George Johnstone and James Humphreys, the full jurisdiction of its courts, both leet and baron, was revived. This aroused opposition from the parish vestry, which in April 1806 passed a long resolution of protest. The vestry was especially alarmed by the possible extension of credit 'calculated to involve and distress the labouring poor and likely to end in an increase in the poor-rate'. This presumably means that the court baron was proposing to revive its jurisdiction over small debts. The vestry was also annoyed because the court was claiming, as copyhold, Newman's alms-houses, which the vestry held to be freehold. (fn. 11) In both these matters the vestry's opposition seems to have been successful. Court books for the manor of West Ham survive from 1808 to 1922. (fn. 12) Courts leet were held only until 1819. For Stratford ward they appointed a constable and two headboroughs, and for each of the other two wards a constable and one headborough. Various other officials were appointed for all or part of the period 1808–17: bailiff, water bailiff, marsh bailiff, two pinders, a forest reeve. Formal courts baron continued until 1841, after which the books record only copyhold conveyances.
In 1587 the homage at the manor court said that a cage and a pillory should be set up at Stratford Street. (fn. 13) By 1732 stocks, whipping-post, and pillory were being maintained by the parish vestry, presumably because the court leet had lapsed. (fn. 14) In 1808–13 the manor court rebuilt two cattle pounds, in Stratford Broadway and in Barking Road, Plaistow.
For West Ham Burnells the earliest surviving court rolls are for 1603–24 (fn. 15) and for 1627–8 (drafts). (fn. 16) During that period the court leet was appointing a constable for Upton ward. From 1649 to 1925 there is a continuous series of court rolls and books for this manor, including, for some periods, the associated manors of East Ham Burnells, East West Ham, and Plaiz. (fn. 17) A court leet was held for West Ham Burnells in 1681; with this exception the series records only courts baron.
Surviving parish records (fn. 18) include vestry minutes from 1646 to 1869, churchwardens' accounts for 1643–1710 (fn. 19) and 1788–1803, and overseers' accounts for 1749–62 and 1787–1819. Vestry meetings appear to have been held in the vestry room or, when more accommodation was needed, (fn. 20) in the church. About 1740 they were often adjourned to public houses. The number signing the minutes was usually between 10 and 20, but at important meetings it sometimes rose to over 100, and there is evidence that signatures do not always indicate total attendance. Elections, particularly of lecturers, attracted the largest attendances.
There is no evidence that any vicar attended vestry meetings until 1672. Before then those who signed the minutes first, presumably as chairman, were prominent laymen like (Sir) Robert Smyth (Bt.) (1649 and later), Sir Jacob Garrard (1663), and Sir William Humble (1670 and later). In 1663–71 there are occasional references to the steward of the vestry, probably its convener. Richard Hollingsworth (vicar 1671–82) and Joshua Stanley (1682–90) usually attended and sometimes signed first. John Smith (1690–1708) usually attended and always signed first. In his absence one of the churchwardens usually signed first. From that time the vicar seems always to have taken the chair when present. When he was away it might be taken by the assistant curate, a churchwarden, or another vestryman.
From the 1640s the vestry appointed annually a committee to audit the accounts of the parish officers. In 1731 that committee was merged with the workhouse trustees, a body appointed for the first time in 1729. The joint committee, which included the vicar, churchwardens, overseers, and about 20 others, was re-appointed annually until 1819. It was powerful, taking an active part in the administration of the parish and controlling the parish officers. From 1769 its orders of poor-relief were shown as a separate section in the overseers' accounts. Other committees were sometimes formed for special purposes like the re-assessment of rates. In 1819 the parish set up a select vestry. (fn. 21) A committee of by-ways, appointed in 1823 to carry out an investigation, was made permanent in 1824 and was re-appointed at least until 1829.
By the early 17th century West Ham was divided into wards. There were originally four, Stratford, Plaistow, Church Street, and Upton, but by the 1640s Upton was for most purposes merged with Church Street and there are no references to it as a separate ward after 1661. From the 1640s until 1836 Stratford, Plaistow, and Church Street each had one churchwarden and one overseer. The wardens were all appointed by the vestry: there is no evidence, during this period, that any of them was appointed by the vicar. One of the three was by the 1670s being designated the 'head' warden, and from 1700 the 'accountant' warden. Each of the three wards had two surveyors of highways until about 1720, when the number was reduced to one. From 1820, when West Ham manor court leet ceased to function, until 1840, the vestry nominated constables and headboroughs, for appointment by the magistrates. A vestry clerk, receiving a small honorarium, was being employed by 1663, the office remaining in the same family until 1736. (fn. 22) From 1730 to 1745 or later there was a parish treasurer, whose office was revived in 1819–36.
The vestry appointed various paid subordinate officials. The parish sexton, first mentioned in 1657, was primarily a church officer, but during the later 17th century appears also to have supervised newcomers to the parish in relation to the settlement laws. Newcomers subsequently became one of the responsibilities of the beadles, to whom there are references from 1701. There were usually two and sometimes three beadles, who acted as general assistants to the churchwardens and overseers. The 'upper' beadle was often designated as an 'extraordinary overseer', and between 1754 and 1777 was also workhouse master. The beadles were well paid and wore splendid uniforms. Vacancies were keenly contested. In 1781, for example, there were four candidates for the post of upper beadle, whose appointment was decided by a public poll in which over 200 votes were cast. The successful candidate served until 1795 and was then granted a retirement pension. The surveyors of highways were supported in 1767–84 and 1806–11 by three assistants, one for each ward. No assistant surveyors are recorded in the minutes from 1785 to 1805. From 1812 there was a single assistant surveyor for the whole parish, but in 1826 James Clarke, who then held the post, was dismissed for embezzlement, and no successor was appointed. Among other minor officials were three engineers (from 1795), who looked after the parish fire-engines.
The select vestry, formed in 1819, appointed an assistant overseer at £150 a year with £50 for the use of a room in his house. From 1827 to 1833 it was employing a second assistant.
Information concerning rating is incomplete and sometimes obscure until the later 18th century. The churchwardens' accounts for 1643–1710 relate to the parish charities and poor-relief as well as the church. During the first half of that period income and expenditure seem to have been carefully recorded, except in 1660, when a churchwarden was robbed and murdered before his books had been made up. The accounting system, however, was crude. Receipts from any source might be used for any parochial purpose, no proper distinction being made between income from charities, poor-rates, and church-rates. In 1674–5, for example, the church-rates of Plaistow and Church Street wards were spent entirely on poor-relief. From 1679 there are usually separate overseers' accounts, one for each ward, with another account for charities and the church. But for many years after that there were cross-payments from one account to another, and as late as 1737 the vestry found it necessary to order that in future the church-rate should be made separate from the poor-rate and that nothing should be paid for the church out of the poor-rate. The rateable value of the parish increased from £10,500 in 1742 to £30,600 in 1818, but the poor-rate rose much more rapidly. (fn. 23) The main reason for the slower increase in the rateable value was that cottages occupied by the poor were altogether exempt from rates, whether payable by owners or by occupiers. By 1818 there were over 700 such houses in the parish. In 1804 a committee of the vestry urged that their owners should be forced to pay rates, if necessary by the promotion of a local Act of Parliament, but the owners defeated this move by packing the vestry with their cottage tenants, and it was not until 1820 that cottages were rated. (fn. 24)
Except for Newman's and Harris's alms-houses (fn. 25) and possibly one or two poorhouses, (fn. 26) there was no parish accommodation for the poor until 1725, when the vestry built a workhouse in Abbey Lane on a site given by Sir Gregory Page, Bt. (fn. 27) The house was enlarged in 1760 and on several later occasions, bringing the total accommodation by 1836 to about 280. In 1786–8 part of it had to be rebuilt after a fire. Between 1812 and 1818 the annual average number of inmates rose from 101 to 189. Later figures show great variation, by year and season, the highest, 283, being recorded in the winter of 1829–30. The house appears to have been well managed. Separate sick rooms were built in 1760 and children's rooms in 1819. Serious efforts were made to set the poor to work. In 1778 they were being taught to wind silk, and in 1819 a variety of textile and other trades was being carried on. In the 1820s and 1830s sack-making was especially profitable, producing an income of £500 in a good year. After 1836 the workhouse was let to various tenants until about 1866, when it was sold, its site being incorporated into a leathercloth factory. (fn. 28)
Until 1725 poor-relief consisted mainly of pensions or doles. In 1653–4 there were some 40 pensioners and in 1678–9 about 50. In 1686, before this became a legal requirement, the vestry ordered parish paupers to wear badges. When the workhouse was built the vestry decided to stop paying pensions, but in fact these, along with other forms of outdoor relief such as rent aid, medical care, boarding out, gifts of food, fuel, clothing, and the tools of trade, continued to account for a large proportion of the poor-rate up to 1836. The apprenticeship of pauper children was under the direct supervision of the workhouse and auditors' committee. Between 1755 and 1788 some 44 apprentices were bound, mostly to weavers, silk-weavers, or peruke-makers in London and east Middlesex. The vestry seems on the whole to have treated its poor with humanity. In 1788, for example, it prosecuted a master for ill-treating a parish apprentice, and in 1817 it erected a shelter outside the workhouse for those awaiting relief. In the early 19th century, when its policy was clearly influenced by the presence in the parish of prominent Quakers like the Gurneys and Frys, it even behaved kindly towards those for whom it had no legal obligation. Thus in 1823 the select vestry reported that several travellers taken ill in the parish had recently expressed gratitude for care received from the parish officers.
A manuscript written about 1740 by an anonymous farmer, and entitled 'Some general observations on … West Ham', (fn. 29) described the parish as one of the poorest within seven miles of London. It stated that out of c. 570 houses in West Ham more than 200 were inhabited by those too poor to pay rates. It complained bitterly of the burden of the rates upon the shopkeepers and farmers and of recent extravagance and mismanagement by the parish vestry. The writer was probably Thomas Prat, a local magistrate who between 1735 and 1745 battled against the vestry, in and out of court, to keep down the rates and to prevent their misapplication. His campaign was apparently sparked off by the vestry's decision to exempt the vicar from rates. When it was over the parish received, apparently from quarter sessions, a set of instructions 'whereof for the future they may avoid such differences and inconveniences …'. (fn. 30) This urged more businesslike methods of parish government, including the careful keeping of accounts and minutes, greater care in levying rates, and the limitation of expenditure at vestry meetings adjourned to public houses.
Prat's reforming campaign was timely. In the 17th century, when West Ham was still small, casual methods of administration did little harm, but by the mid-18th century it had a rapidly growing population including many poor, and greater efficiency was needed. Prat, who left the parish in 1750, seems to have achieved his main object. Between 1736 and 1765 the rate poundage remained steady at about 1s. 6d. It then began to rise, but after some higher fluctuations it was no more than 3s. 1d. in 1795. In 1815 it was 5s. and during the next three years rose to 8s. This caused the vestry to appoint an investigating committee, whose report was printed early in 1819. The committee stated that the poor rate had risen from £5,080 in 1811 to £12,110 in 1818. The increase was due partly to the approach of the London docks and the other new industries, but above all to the influx of poor Irish, who worked elsewhere in the summer, returned to West Ham for the potato harvest, and remained there, unemployed, throughout the winter. Unlike English vagrants the Irish were not then normally subject to the settlement laws, so that it was difficult to remove them, though the vestry sometimes paid their fares back to Ireland. That anomaly was dealt with by an Act of 1819, (fn. 31) and from that year all Irish who became chargeable were removed from the parish. By then, however, many of them had acquired a settlement: in the winter of 1829–30 the Irish and their descendants formed a quarter of those applying for relief in West Ham. The report of 1819 comments on various other aspects of parish government, including the desirability of rating the owners of cottages, and the conduct of the workhouse. On its recommendation the vestry appointed a committee of guardians of the poor, anticipating the provisions of the Second Sturges Bourne Bill, then before Parliament. That committee was transformed into a select vestry later in the same year, when the Bill became law. After 1819 distress declined and from 1821 to 1836 the poor-rate poundage was kept down to about 4s. In 1836 the parish became part of the West Ham poor law union.
By the end of the 18th century, when the population had risen to over 5,000, the vestry had to deal with problems of policing as well as poverty. In 1786 it became concerned over 'night invaders', and ordered its officers to visit eating houses and lodging houses and arrest all suspicious persons. The parish then had three watch-houses, one in each ward. These may all have originated in 1662, when the vestry was planning them. The Stratford watchhouse was certainly built about 1662. It was rebuilt in 1750–3, when the turnpike road was widened, and again in 1781. The Church Street watch-house was repaired in 1743 and rebuilt in 1778. A new watch-house, presumably for that ward, was built beside the workhouse in 1799, when the vestry resolved to employ an armed watchman to serve there from Michaelmas to Lady Day. The Plaistow watch-house was rebuilt in 1775 on a new site. In the early 19th century official action was reinforced by a West Ham society for the prosecution of felons. (fn. 32) In 1840 West Ham became part of the Metropolitan police district.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT 1836–86. (fn. 33)
West Ham in 1836 was little more than a group of large villages. During the next fifty years it became an industrial town with a population of over 150,000, but the evolution of its local government lagged behind its physical growth. At the start of that period the only local authority within the parish was still the open vestry with its associated select vestry. In 1836 the open vestry set up a highway board of 10 members, enlarged to 12 in 1839, and to 20 in 1840, when, in addition to its responsibility for the roads, the board was given control of the parish fire-engines. The members were elected annually in the vestry meeting. Apart from the matters thus delegated to the highway board, the vestry now had no important civil powers, since poor-relief had become the responsibility of the guardians.
The vestry was reluctant to accept its diminished status. It continued to elect the select vestry until 1846, although that body seems to have done little after 1836. Also in face of opposition from the guardians it continued to appoint a salaried vestry clerk until 1845. It then abolished the post, resolving to appoint instead an additional assistant overseer, whose duties were to include those of vestry clerk. This was not merely a change of title. The vestry was displeased with the former clerk, George Dacre, who was said to have caused 'litigation and illfeeling' in the parish, and it resolved that the new assistant overseer should not, like Dacre, be a lawyer. The new officer was appointed for the first time in 1847, when Robert Anderson of Rokeby House, Stratford Broadway, won a contested election. He began to provide parochial offices at Rokeby House, and the vestry later leased part of the house for that purpose.
When Dacre was ousted he began to stir up trouble for the vestry. In 1846 he noticed a technical illegality in the publication of the rates and successfully appealed against them. In 1853, when the vestry resolved to provide street lighting for the parish, he was among those who opposed the scheme and caused it to be restricted to Plaistow ward. He then played a prominent part in an attempt to deal with drainage problems.
By this time the inadequacy of West Ham's local government was obvious. Uncontrolled development was creating slums at Canning Town and Stratford. The population was approaching 20,000, but the only public drainage was the agricultural system of open ditches maintained by the Havering and Dagenham commissioners of sewers in the low-lying parts of the parish. These ditches were being increasingly fouled by domestic and industrial refuse, which also polluted the river Lea. The water supply was poor. Many of the streets were unpaved, unlighted, and unswept. In the seven years 1848–54 epidemic diseases, including cholera, accounted for more than a third of all deaths in the parish. Firefighting arrangements had become farcical. (fn. 34) The future development of the town was likely to be rapid. In recent years a number of offensive trades had moved into the parish to escape control under the Metropolitan Building Act, 1844, (fn. 35) and the great Victoria Dock was nearing completion.
In November 1853 Dacre convened a small meeting of ratepayers to discuss a main drainage scheme for the parish proposed by the commissioners of sewers. The scheme was referred to the vestry, which in the following month resolved to support it, though some of the members urged further consideration. A Bill empowering the commissioners to carry out the scheme was enacted in July 1854. (fn. 36) Though the commissioners have the credit of being the first body to take action in a serious situation, their scheme was inadequate. The new sewers would serve only a small part of the then inhabited area of the parish. The commissioners had no powers to extend them beyond the areas described in the Act, nor to compel persons to drain their premises into the main sewers. One of the main sewers was to be an open ditch or 'cut' running alongside the Victoria Dock to the Thames at Gallions Reach. This had originally been planned to replace the old land drains destroyed in making the dock. The dock company, which had undertaken to provide the cut, did not consider itself bound to complete it as far as Gallions Reach until it had cut off the existing surface outfalls in that direction, and opposed the use of the cut for house drainage.
The commissioners' Act ignored the other problems of public health, especially the control of new building. Even before the Act passed the vestry had realized the weaknesses of the scheme and had also become alarmed at its probable cost. In May 1854 Samuel Riles, a prominent vestryman and poor-law guardian, carried a motion condemning the Bill. It was then too late to stop it, but he continued to attack the scheme, and organized a petition of ratepayers to the General Board of Health, calling for a public enquiry into sanitary conditions. The enquiry was held in 1855 by Alfred Dickens, superintending inspector of the General Board, and brother of the novelist. (fn. 37) His report provided ample evidence of the dangers to public health. He recommended that the commissioners of sewers should abandon their main drainage scheme, and that a local board of health should be formed for the parish.
The West Ham local board was duly constituted in 1856, with 12 elected members (four for each of the three ancient wards) and 3 appointed by the commissioners of sewers. (fn. 38) In 1863 the number of elected members was increased to 18, the 3 appointed members continuing as before. (fn. 39) The board's meetings were held at Rokeby House until 1869, when a new town hall was opened in Stratford Broadway. This was designed by Lewis Angell, the board's surveyor, and John Giles, in an ornate renaissance style, dominated by a square tower with domed roof and tall cupola. It was enlarged in 1885.
The board's first chairman was Samuel Riles (1856–63), followed by John Meeson (1863–75), cement manufacturer, and George Rivett (1875–86), builder and undertaker. Meeson, who served on the board throughout its existence, was always prominent. The original members included five who had been on the parish highway board in its later years. Among the members appointed in 1856 by the commissioners of sewers were the vicar of West Ham (A. J. Ram), and Capt. R. W. Pelly, R.N., a fellow of Trinity House whose family owned much of the parish. Both served until 1869, and had considerable influence. But with these and two or three other exceptions the members of the board seem to have been tradesmen of narrow experience and outlook. A few were corrupt, as in 1872, when one was imprisoned and another resigned after the discovery of election malpractices. Others used their position as a stepping stone to an office of profit under the board, as in 1875, when two members resigned to contest the vacant post of rate-collector, one of them being successful. No regular groups or parties can be identified among the members. This was not a source of strength, for the board's meetings were sometimes quarrelsome, and its policies often capricious, irresolute, or short-sighted.
The board appointed a full-time surveyor, and a part-time clerk (a solicitor), medical officer, and honorary treasurer (a banker). The first surveyor was dismissed in 1859 for accepting bribes from private builders. The second, J. G. B. Marshall (1859–67), was dismissed after a disagreement about his terms of employment, in which the board was at fault, since it kept altering them arbitrarily. Marshall went into private practice and later became himself a member of the board. The board's third and last surveyor was Lewis Angell whose eventual dismissal, after a dispute with the borough council, is described below. (fn. 40) The board's first clerk died in 1862; it was found that he had been embezzling public funds. The third clerk, F. E. Hilleary, appointed in 1874, came from an old-established family firm of solicitors at Stratford. He served the board and the borough council with distinction until 1913. With an impressive mien, and holding many other part-time posts in the district, he was nicknamed 'the West Ham Pooh-Bah'. (fn. 41) The board was served in succession by two medical officers. In 1859 the West Ham Parochial Association suggested that this post should be abolished as unnecessary. The board took no action then, but a similar proposal in 1863 resulted in the reduction of the medical officer's salary.
The board's treasurer was no more than its bank manager, acting ex officio. There was no separate financial department. Responsibility for accounting was ill-defined but was mainly in the hands of the clerk. During the lifetime of the board several frauds were committed by its officers. That of 1862, by the clerk himself, has already been mentioned. In 1875 the assistant clerk and one of the ratecollectors were found to have conspired to commit much more serious fraud. Both fled abroad to escape prosecution. Another rate-collector, dismissed for embezzlement in 1884, was later imprisoned. At his trial the jury, recommending mercy, suggested that the laxity of the board's accounting methods had tempted him, and in general it is likely that the failings of the board's officers were due as much to the defects in the administrative system as to their personal weaknesses.
The administration was always under strain. The staff was very small by modern standards and was not expanded in proportion to the town's growth. Between 1856 and 1886 the rateable value increased from £80,000 to £652,000, but it was not until 1885 that the number of rate-collectors was raised from three to four. In 1878 the surveyor, asking the board to augment his staff, stated that it was no larger than it had been ten years earlier, and that his salary had also remained the same; during that decade the population of West Ham had doubled, to about 100,000.
The failure to employ staff in sufficient numbers, and to pay them adequately, which was not unique to West Ham, sprang from the board's chronic financial weakness, which hampered all its activities. During its early years the board had great difficulty in raising loans for public works, and it was also involved in a long and costly lawsuit concerning the rate assessment of the Victoria Dock Co., one of the largest ratepayers. Owing to the poverty of the town the poor-rates, and later also the school-rates, were very high, and the board, in making its own precept, always had to beware of pressing the ratepayers too hard.
On taking office the local board was vested with the powers specified in the Public Health Act, 1848, under which it had been formed. It immediately superseded the parish highway board, but had to wait until the passing of the Local Government Act, 1858, before it could supersede the Plaistow lighting inspectors or assume responsibility for the parish fire-engines. Even after 1858 its freedom of action was limited by the powers of many other public bodies. The parish was under the jurisdiction of Essex quarter sessions, the Metropolitan police, and West Ham poor law union. Elementary education, from 1871, was provided by West Ham school board. The Middlesex and Essex highway trust controlled the main road through Stratford, and the Commercial Road trust that through Canning Town. The Havering and Dagenham commissioners of sewers remained responsible for surface drainage, and although they did not try to carry out the drainage scheme as provided in their Act of 1854, that Act remained in force in spite of an attempt in 1863 to revoke it. (fn. 42) The Thames conservancy board and the river Lee trust (later Lee conservancy board) controlled the watercourses on the southern and western boundaries of the parish. The Metropolitan board of works, formed in 1855, built its great northern outfall sewer through West Ham, with a pumping station at Abbey Mills. The City of London, as the Port of London sanitary authority, created in 1872, was responsible for health and sanitation in the docks. Gas, water, and transport were provided by commercial companies, including the West Ham Gas Co., the East London Waterworks Co., and the Great Eastern Railway Co., all of which had works in the parish. The local board had to reckon with several other large firms, notably the Victoria Dock Co. and the Thames Ironworks Co., which were important as ratepayers and employers of labour, and many smaller ones, especially those concerned with building development or with offensive trades. Most of these bodies or groups came into conflict with the board at some time.
The local board's most urgent problems in 1856 were sewage disposal, street improvement and maintenance, and control of the town's development. The board's initial plans for the first were based on assurances from the Metropolitan board of works that West Ham would soon be able to make use of the northern outfall sewer then being planned as part of the metropolitan main drainage scheme. The local board failed to insist that these assurances be given statutory force in the Metropolitan Board of Works Act, 1858, (fn. 43) and the M.B.W. subsequently refused to permit access to the northern outfall sewer. Thus West Ham's temporary sewage system, completed in 1861 for a population of about 30,000, had to be expanded during the next forty years to serve nine times that number. The outfall works at Bow creek polluted both the Lea and the Thames, and under Acts of 1868 and 1870 the respective conservancy boards secured powers to force West Ham to purify its effluent. (fn. 44) Thus threatened, the local board unsuccessfully sought an alternative site for the works, first at Manor Park, and later at Barking. The second of these attempts failed, in 1872, when the Local Government Board, no doubt influenced by the protests from Barking, refused loan sanction. The L.G.B. considered that West Ham's sewage could be adequately treated at the existing works, but its opinion did not bind the river boards, which insisted on a high standard of purification. The refusal of loan sanction wrung from the local board a bewildered protest: West Ham had been placed 'in a position of great difficulty from which it does not see how to extricate itself'. (fn. 45)
After 1872 the local board tried to improve the works at Bow creek, and experimented with various methods of treatment, but the river boards remained dissatisfied. Nor was disposal the only sewage problem. Dangers to health lay in the foul open ditches, many of which were still controlled by the sewer commissioners. In its early years the board often complained to the commissioners or private owners about these ditches, usually producing only counter-protests against the inadequacy of the board's own scheme. By its local Act of 1867 (fn. 46) the board obtained certain powers to cause offensive drains to be cleansed or covered, but these did not enable it to supersede the sewer commissioners, and although the board subsequently filled in many of the open ditches some still remained in 1886.
Other sewage difficulties arose from the fact that West Ham's rapid growth was totally unplanned. The board lacked powers to prevent building in places where no public sewers were available, and was therefore obliged to permit temporary cesspools in many cases. Silvertown was a special problem. That area, which began to develop during the 1850s, was cut off from the rest of West Ham by the docks. It was not included in the board's original drainage scheme, and in 1868 the local factory owners and estate developers sponsored a private Bill embodying a scheme for Silvertown and North Woolwich. This was eventually dropped after the local board had agreed to extend a main sewer to Silvertown. Further development, especially the building of the Royal Albert Dock, soon rendered that sewer inadequate, and in the 1880s, again under pressure from public opinion, the board put in hand a scheme for the whole of that area, with a separate outfall works at Ham creek. Those works, like the larger ones at Bow creek, would have been unnecessary if the board had obtained access to the Metropolitan sewer, and on one occasion it may have missed a chance of doing so, at least in part. In 1871 the Metropolitan board of works invited West Ham to discuss a joint scheme for North Woolwich, but the local board refused, saying that its own drainage system was complete. (fn. 47)
In addition to the problems caused by West Ham's own sewage were some caused by that of other parishes. For many years sewage from Leyton polluted a ditch discharging into the Channelsea river, in West Ham. That issue, involving several lawsuits, does not seem to have been settled until 1881. West Ham also suffered annoyance from the sewage of Wanstead, but this came mainly from the small detached part of Wanstead near Temple Mills, and the matter was resolved by a boundary change. (fn. 48)
Apart from drainage the local board's most urgent task in 1856 was street improvement and maintenance. The Dickens report had commented that the number of streets not under the management of the highway authorities was 'almost peculiar to this parish'. (fn. 49) Many of these streets, especially at Hallsville and Canning Town, were muddy tracks, deeply rutted and strewn with rubbish. The initial paving of private streets was the responsibility of their owners. This was difficult to enforce, and the board's powers in the matter were uncertain until the Local Government Act, 1858, enabled it to improve private streets, to levy special rates from their owners, and to raise loans on the security of those rates. For years the board had to devote much time and effort to private improvement works, in addition to the routine maintenance of public roads. When the highway trusts were wound up the board also became responsible for the main road through Stratford (in 1866) and that through Canning Town (in 1871). In taking over the Stratford road from the Middlesex and Essex trust the board found itself involved in complicated negotiations with the owners of the bridges over the Lea and its branches. (fn. 50) Even more important was the board's purchase, from the North Woolwich Land Co., of Victoria Dock Road and North Woolwich Road, leading to Silvertown and the docks. These had been laid out by the company before the board's time, but had been badly maintained and were subject to heavy tolls which caused great annoyance as Silvertown grew. In 1882 local industrialists forced a public enquiry, as a result of which the board secured powers of compulsory purchase under its Act of 1884 (fn. 51) and took over the roads in 1886. During the 1880s the board also obtained statutory powers to buy land for widening main streets. (fn. 52)
One of the main reasons for the formation of the board had been the need to control the town's development. In 1855 West Ham already had considerable slums, including some recently built. In the Randall Street area of Canning Town 'the houses … though comparatively new, are all to pieces … the footings of the foundations for some of the house walls are actually on the surface'. In North Woolwich Road cellars were being built in the excavation of old ditches; yards were constantly under water in the winter and some even in summer; many single houses had been divided into two without additional sanitation. (fn. 53) Smallpox had lingered in that area for more than seven months and there had also been cholera. These conditions had been made possible by the absence of building controls in the parish before 1856. The local board prevented a repetition of the worst evils of the previous generation, but it cannot be said to have done, or tried to do, much more. Builders were often able to evade or defy the by-laws, or to persuade the board to take a narrow view of its duty. In July 1864, for example, the board's surveyor refused to certify a public house already built in Barking Road, because he was dissatisfied with the drainage. The board, however, agreed to issue the certificate because the house was occupied by its owners 'and therefore in case the drainage be inadequate he will personally be the sufferer'. In 1865, reversing its own previous decision, it permitted the construction of cellars in North Woolwich Road, in spite of flood dangers. In considering applications to build in the southern marshes of the parish the board was certainly in a difficult position. The area was unsuitable for small houses at high densities, but its proximity to the docks and factories created a strong demand for them there. It was unfortunate also that the area was one of those most affected by West Ham's first period of rapid growth, about 1877–83, when the surveyor's department was overwhelmed with work. In 1870 only 218 plans for new buildings had been deposited with the board. The annual total rose to over 1,600 in 1878–9, over 2,000 in 1880–1, and 2,400 in 1881–2, when the board at last began to get the measure of the problem. In 1882 it obtained statutory powers to make new building by-laws and to appoint more building inspectors, whose salaries were to be met by charging inspection fees to builders. (fn. 54) Even later, however, there is evidence that its system of inspection was inadequate.
In controlling industrial development the board was a little more effective. From its earliest days the board often took action to check offensive trades, sometimes compelling them to close down completely, and restricting them, on the whole, to the western and southern fringes of the district. It was helped by public opinion, which readily protested against the dirt and stench from such factories, and probably also by the fact that many of the factories were small and easy to coerce. Nuisances introduced by public bodies were harder to deal with. The problem of Leyton's sewage has already been mentioned. A more serious threat to public health was the establishment of two smallpox hospitals on adjoining sites at Plaistow, by the Poplar board of works, and West Ham union. (fn. 55)
In view of the local board's uncertain handling of urgent tasks it is not surprising that it was often ineffective in dealing with those less pressing. It never attempted any systematic slum clearance, though it occasionally took emergency action when buildings were in danger of collapse, as in 1871, at Wood's Yard, High Street, Stratford. Wood's Yard, a court containing ten wooden houses, had been one of the worst areas described in the Dickens report of 1855. (fn. 56) The board provided no public baths, libraries, or parks. It did, indeed, make one attempt, in 1868–9, to buy Upton Park, but there was opposition from the West Ham ratepayers' association, and the scheme was rejected by a public poll. The board took no further action, and it was left to voluntary effort, helped by the Corporation of London, to secure the park for public use. The board's fire brigade was for many years sadly inefficient. Refuse collection, performed by contract, was never satisfactory. Gas street lighting, also by contract, was apparently adequate, except in private streets, where the board was hampered by lack of legal powers.
The board was not responsible for policing or for water supply, but it exerted some influence on both. The squalor in which many of West Ham's inhabitants lived occasionally led to disorder, and to complaints, in which the board joined, against the inadequacy of the police. The outbreaks which attracted most attention were those occurring in main roads. In 1864 there were allegations of obstruction by crowds of roughs in Barking Road. There were frequent complaints, as in 1877, of disorder around the market stalls in Stratford Broadway. In 1880 there was an outburst of violence in Romford Road, Forest Gate, where windows were broken and gate-piers overturned. This was especially alarming, since it struck at a middle-class area, and in the following year the board secured the appointment of a stipendiary magistrate for West Ham, and planned a new court house, which was completed in 1885 as part of the town hall extension.
Problems of water supply are described elsewhere, (fn. 57) but it must be observed here that the local board's failure to co-operate with the water company in 1886, though not without reason, delayed the introduction of a constant supply in West Ham.
West Ham was incorporated as a municipal borough in 1886. The local board, in a farewell report, boasted of its thrifty administration. Between 1874 and 1886 the rate poundage had been reduced steadily, from 4s. 2d. to 2s., and the outstanding loan debt, amounting in 1886 to only a quarter of the rateable value, was exceptionally low. Those who came after saw the matter differently. Will Thorne, who joined the borough council in 1891 and served on it for over fifty years, blamed the board for 'calculated neglect and lack of foresight' and especially for failing to buy land for public purposes when it was relatively cheap. (fn. 58) The burden of this neglect fell heavily upon the board's successor, the borough corporation. The borough treasurer, commenting on this in 1901, noted especially that between 1871 and 1878 the board raised no capital loans at all. (fn. 59) The local board's neglect also appears in West Ham's mortality figures. (fn. 60) In 1876 the death-rate was 15.4 per 1,000, compared with 20.9 for the whole of England and Wales. By 1885 it had risen to 22.0 (England and Wales 19.2).
LOCAL GOVERNMENT 1886–1965. (fn. 61)
The municipal borough of West Ham, formed in 1886, was divided into four wards, with a council comprising 36 councillors and 12 aldermen. It became a county borough in 1889 under the Local Government Act, 1888. The number of wards was increased to 12 in 1899, and to 16 in 1922, when the council was also enlarged to 48 councillors and 16 aldermen. (fn. 62)
The history of local government in the borough falls into three periods: 1886–1919, 1919–40, and 1940–65. In the first period the town continued to grow rapidly, reaching a population of about 300,000. Between 1886 and 1904 the borough council rapidly built up its services, but progress then became slower, partly because of an economic depression, and partly because the sensational success of the Socialists and their allies at the municipal elections of 1898 had provoked a reaction against their policies. The Labour group lost control in 1900. It did not completely regain it until 1919, but after that never lost it. During the second period, after 1919, the council made considerable advances in slum clearance and municipal housing, built Silvertown Way, and carried out a major scheme to widen Stratford High Street and improve the river Lea. But it was hampered by the poverty of the town, which made poor-relief a heavy charge on the rates, and led to a dispute, during the 1920s, between the West Ham poor law union and the Ministry of Health. The borough council, though not directly involved in that dispute, was inevitably affected by it, since the borough was by far the largest and the poorest place in the union, and in 1930, when public assistance was reorganized, took over many of the union's functions and debts. The third period started in September 1940 with heavy air attacks. By those and later bombing over a quarter of the houses in West Ham were destroyed. This made possible, after the war, large-scale slum-clearance and redevelopment, especially in the south of the borough.
Of the 21 retiring members of the local board 11 were elected to the borough council in 1886 and 2 others later. Seven of those 13 left the council within six years and only 3 remained after 1898. From the first the council thus had a very different membership from the board.
Of the chief officers taken over by the borough council from the local board in 1886 only the engineer, Lewis Angell, was serving full-time. His department included his nephew John Morley, and John Angell, probably his son. When Lewis Angell was dismissed in 1899, as described below, John Angell left also, but Morley succeeded his uncle, and served until 1924. The town clerk, Frederic E. Hilleary, remained a part-time officer until his retirement in 1913. In his later years there was criticism of his pluralism, and his successor, H. W. Greaves (1913–15) was appointed on a full-time basis. Greaves was succeeded by George E. Hilleary (1915–29) son of Frederic and previously for many years deputy clerk. The post of medical officer of health was made full-time in 1898. In 1889 the council appointed for the first time a borough accountant, heading its financial department, and in 1897 he became borough treasurer. The first borough electrical engineer was appointed in 1896 and the first tramways manager in 1903. The first borough librarian (1891–1905) had no immediate successor, because the council adopted his suggestion that the post should be abolished on his retirement in order to save money. The public libraries, thus decentralized, were indeed then very short of money owing to the penny rate restriction. In 1894 West Ham was granted a separate quarter sessions, with a recorder, Edward Morten (1894–1929).
In most respects the quality of the borough's staff improved between 1888 and 1919, but there were a few cases of corruption. In 1899 all the senior staff of the stables department were forced to resign after irregularities had been revealed. The case of the clerk to the education committee (1903) is mentioned elsewhere. (fn. 63) In 1905 the clerk to the borough justices, also accused of fraud, fled abroad to escape prosecution.
The borough council soon proved itself far more vigorous and effective than the local board. (fn. 64) Among the original councillors were several Progressives, notably J. H. (later Lord) Bethell, who were soon joined by others, and by some Socialists, led by W. J. (Will) Thorne. (fn. 65) The Progressives and Socialists did not at first dominate the council, but they had a strong influence on its policies, partly based on the vigorous support of Mansfield House university settlement, whose warden, (Sir) Percy Alden, was a councillor from 1892 to 1901. In 1888 the council secured the transfer to itself of the remaining jurisdiction, within the borough, of the commissioners of sewers. (fn. 66) It also obtained powers to widen several main streets and to issue loan stock. (fn. 67) A new public hall, opened in 1894, was built at Canning Town. The West Ham Corporation Act, 1893, provided at last for the town's sewage to be admitted to the northern outfall sewer. (fn. 68) The necessary scheme was carried out in 1897–1901. By 1898 the council had also built two public libraries and a technical institute, had started building mental and smallpox hospitals, opened two recreation grounds, put in hand an electricity and tramway undertaking, and was planning public baths, council houses, and an isolation hospital. (fn. 69)
In 1897 the Socialists and some of the Progressives on the council formed a Labour group with a policy including, among other things, trade union wages for council employees, labour clauses in council contracts, the provision of council houses, and the establishment of a works department. At the election of 1898 this group, with 29 seats, won control. Their victory, then unique in English local government, (fn. 70) was attributed to good publicity, trade union support, and the hostility caused by the previous council's attitude during a recent dispute in the engineering industry. The new council proceeded vigorously with the schemes for the baths, council houses, hospitals, the electricity undertaking, tramways, and sewage disposal already started or planned. (fn. 71) Its most controversial measure was to set up an independent works department, which brought it into collision with the aged borough engineer, Lewis Angell, who had held office for 32 years. (fn. 72) He had already fought one successful battle against an independent works department. That had been set up in 1894, but its manager proved ineffective, and in 1896 Angell forced his resignation and annexed his department. (fn. 73) In 1899, when the Labour council decided to re-establish the works department, Angell bitterly resisted the proposal and was dismissed. The works department, under a new manager, was given the task of building, by direct labour, the new isolation hospital at Plaistow.
Other controversies in which the council was involved in 1898–9 concerned the enforcement of trade union membership among council employees, labour clauses in council contracts, the Freethinker magazine, and the parochial charities. The Freethinker had been admitted to the borough library at Stratford before the Labour group won control of the council. It was at first kept under the counter but was later openly displayed. Early in 1899 there was a storm of protest against it, led by the churches, in which the 'godless' council was urged to exclude the magazine from the public libraries. After several acrimonious debates the Freethinker was relegated to its previous place under the counter.
The Freethinker issue became the rallying-cry of those who in 1899 formed the Municipal Alliance against the Socialists in the borough. (fn. 74) The Alliance received strong support from the churches, especially the middle-class free churches. Its leaders included such prominent nonconformists as Montague Edwards and Clement Boardman. At the 1899 municipal elections one Alliance candidate published a message from a Wesleyan superintendent mentioning the Freethinker and urging 'ministers, Sunday school teachers and parents who are interested in the purity of any young people to vote against any Socialist'. (fn. 75) This attitude helps to explain the local Socialists' dislike of the churches, then and later. (fn. 76) For the churches the Freethinker was only one of several local issues in which they found themselves opposed by the Socialists. Perhaps the most substantial was the struggle for control of the parochial charities, which is described elsewhere. (fn. 77) The antagonism between the churches and the Socialists was never absolute, but the Church Socialist League, which had a branch at Plaistow in 1911–16, found few supporters. (fn. 78) The Municipal Alliance worked through a number of ratepayers' associations, each embracing two or three wards. Some of these associations already existed, notably the Forest Gate Ratepayers' Association, founded in 1883. (fn. 79) Others were promoted by the Alliance after 1899. At the municipal elections of 1899 the Alliance won nine out of the twelve wards into which the borough had for the first time been divided (fn. 80) and reduced the Labour majority to one. (fn. 81) In 1900 the Alliance won further seats and gained control of the council. (fn. 82) It had successfully exploited the fear of Socialism and the sense of outrage felt by many at the idea of working-class government. (fn. 83) These feelings, aroused by the Labour group's brief triumph, were echoed far beyond West Ham: the group is said to have been criticized in America, Australia, France, and Germany. The attacks continued even after the group had lost control. In 1902 The Times, in a series on 'Municipal Socialism' (fn. 84) published a hostile article on West Ham. This was answered by J. J. Terrett, a former Socialist councillor, in a pamphlet appraising West Ham's problems, especially the legacy of neglect left by the local board. The Times' article had urged that West Ham should restrict its services and amenities because it was a working-class town. Terrett showed that much of the heaviest expenditure had been necessitated by poverty and disease. In the heat of this controversy it was not remarked by either side that the Labour council of 1898–1900 had in fact initiated very little. All the public works with which it was particularly associated had been launched or planned before the 1898 elections. The works department was in another category, but even that had its precedent in West Ham before 1898. Friendly critics suggested that the Labour council tried to do too much, too soon, (fn. 85) but even this mild stricture is hardly supported by the facts. Between 1895–6 and 1900–1 the council's rates rose by only 8d., of which 3d. was accounted for by new undertakings that came upon the rates for the first time before November 1898. (fn. 86)
What is surprising is not that the Labour council may have tried to do too much but that it did not try to do more, for action was badly needed, not only to remedy past neglect, but also to provide for the future. At that time it seemed possible that the population of the borough might rise as high as 430,000. By 1896 about four-fifths of the borough's area had been built up mainly with small houses at high densities. The rateable value of these houses was so low that on one recently-built estate each house was paying £2 18s. 6d. a year less in rates than its share of the costs of municipal services, including education. The borough accountant noted that 900 a. within the borough were still undeveloped, and estimated that it would be cheaper for the council to buy all this land for playgrounds than to have it covered with similar small houses for which services would have to be provided. These warnings appear to have led to some changes in rating assessment, and probably stimulated the council to extend its small area of parks and to restrict building. But by 1908 a further 200 a. had been built over. (fn. 87)
The Municipal Alliance retained control until 1910. Between 1901 and 1904 the public works already started were completed. This left the works department underemployed, and in 1907 it was again absorbed by the engineer's department. In 1903 the council took over from the school board control of the borough's schools. Between 1901 and 1910 the only important scheme initiated by the council was the extension of the municipal tramways. (fn. 88)
In and after 1902 the council provided winter relief works to help the unemployed, and in 1905 formed a distress committee, which established a farm colony at South Ockendon. None of these measures had much effect on the serious problem of unemployment, owing largely to the high proportion of casual labourers, especially at the docks. This was an unhappy period for the Labour councillors, powerless after their short triumph. In July 1906 one of them, Benjamin Cunningham, seized a vacant plot of municipal land near St. Mary's Road, Plaistow, and established there his own farm colony of unemployed, called Triangle Camp. (fn. 89) The council brought a legal action for trespass against the 'landgrabbers' and evicted them early in August. In September Cunningham led another attempt to occupy the site, but this failed after a brief scuffle with police and council workmen, and he was subsequently imprisoned for several weeks for contempt of court. At the municipal elections in November he stood as an Independent Labour candidate, disowned by his own party, came bottom of the poll, and never regained his seat.
In 1910 the Municipal Alliance was defeated by the Labour group in coalition with a small new party of Progressives led by J. R. Hurry. (fn. 90) The coalition was helped to power by an Act passed earlier that year providing that only councillors should be eligible to vote for new aldermen. (fn. 91) It retained control until 1912, when the Municipal Alliance came back with a small majority. (fn. 92) In 1910–12 the Labour group, no doubt recalling 1899, tended to avoid controversy. (fn. 93)
During the First World War there was an electoral truce, with the Municipal Alliance controlling the council by two or three votes. This frustrated the Labour group's hopes of regaining power, but every year they made a fierce contest of the mayoral election, and in 1916 the Alliance at last agreed to the nomination of the first Labour mayor, Richard Mansfield, an old friend and colleague of Will Thorne. (fn. 94) Thorne himself was mayor in the following year. By that time he was the outstanding public figure in the borough, as an alderman, a trade union leader, and as the M.P. for South West Ham since 1906.
In 1919 the Labour group at last won absolute control of the council. It was helped, no doubt, by middle-class migration from West Ham and by the prestige of Thorne and other veteran Socialists in the borough, including J. J. (Jack) Jones, who in 1918 had been elected M.P. for the new Silvertown division. Between 1919 and 1939 the Labour party retained and increased their control. By 1938 they held 54 seats on the council, while the Ratepayers' Association, successor to the Municipal Alliance, had only 10 seats and had ceased to contest several wards. (fn. 95) Such a large majority bred political torpor. Between 1927 and 1937 the proportion of the electorate voting at municipal elections in West Ham was in every year smaller than in any of the other 9 great towns of Britain which were the subject of a special study. (fn. 96) An observer at the last council meeting before the 1937 elections noticed 'no enthusiasm, no recriminations, no praise, and no farewells … harmonious indifference'. (fn. 97)
The Labour council of 1919 was faced with problems in some ways even more difficult than those of 20 years earlier. The population was larger, there was growing overcrowding in the older parts of the borough, and redevelopment was urgently needed, both for slum clearance and to improve main roads. But West Ham was still a very poor borough, with many unemployed or underemployed.
In 1919 the relief of poverty was still the responsibility of the West Ham poor law union, which included the neighbouring districts as well as West Ham itself. Early in the century the union had been notorious for extravagance and corruption, which in 1906–7 led to the imprisonment of five guardians and four officers. (fn. 98) During the 1920s the guardians were again accused of extravagance. There was then no charge of corruption, but the memory of the events of 1906–7 may have influenced the central government in its dealings with them.
By 1926 the guardians were deeply in debt owing to their policy of relieving beyond their resources. Neville Chamberlain, then Minister of Health, suspended them from office and replaced them with a nominated board, under Sir Alfred Woodgate, which greatly reduced expenditure. In 1929, when public assistance became the responsibility of county and county borough councils, Chamberlain proposed to retain the nominated guardians to administer West and East Ham, the rest of the old union being placed under the county council. (fn. 99) Soon after this the Conservative government went out of office, and the plan was dropped. West Ham borough council took over responsibility for its own poor, and, by arrangement with the other local authorities, for administering some of the union's institutions outside West Ham. It also took over much of the union's debt, along with the bitterness aroused by Chamberlain and his ministry. (fn. 100) In and after 1929 the borough was also affected by industrial de-rating, as the result of which the council lost £250,000 of its rate income. This sum was made up by a block grant from the government, but the grant was not adjusted to cover either the rise in rates or the expansion of industry which took place in West Ham between 1929 and 1939. (fn. 101)
In spite of these and other difficulties the council achieved a good deal during this period. It erected some 1,200 dwellings, mainly under slum clearance schemes, in which its record was second only to that of Bermondsey among the boroughs in Greater London. (fn. 102) Two major engineering works were undertaken. Silvertown Way, by a viaduct and bridge, carried a new arterial road from Canning Town to the docks over railways and the dock entrance. In the north of the borough a joint scheme was carried out for widening High Street from Bow Bridge to Stratford Broadway, and, with the Lee conservancy board, for the improvement and flood relief of the river and its branches. The public health department was greatly expanded and did pioneer work in several fields, with such success that from 1923 onwards the borough's death-rate was lower than the average for England and Wales. (fn. 103) Large indoor baths were built in Romford Road, open air baths at Canning Town, and a number of new schools. (fn. 104)
Between 1919 and 1940 there were many changes among the staff of the council, including some caused by the retirement of officers who had served since the borough's early days. In filling senior posts the council tended to prefer those already on its staff or having local connexions. G. E. Hilleary was succeeded as town clerk by C. E. Cranfield (1929–45), previously managing clerk of the firm of Hilleary's. In 1933 the libraries were again centrallized, under a borough librarian, and in 1939 responsibility for education was transferred from the town clerk to a separate education officer.
On 7 and 8 September 1940 West Ham was attacked by German bombers aiming especially at the docks and the power station. Canning Town was badly hit, much of the area between North Woolwich Road and the Thames was destroyed, and Silvertown was, for a time, encircled by fire. There were further attacks throughout the following autumn and winter, the heaviest being in March 1941, and in 1944–5 the borough suffered severely from flying bombs and rockets. (fn. 105) The borough council, as the civil defence authority, had an exceptionally difficult task. West Ham was one of the most densely populated towns in Great Britain, and few suffered bomb-damage so severe in relation to their size. By 1945 over 27 per cent of the houses in the borough had been destroyed, and in the southern wards the proportion was much higher, rising to 85 per cent in Tidal Basin, and 49 per cent in Beckton Road. During the intensive raids of 1940–1 the local leadership sometimes faltered, as it did in other towns under battle stress, (fn. 106) but over the whole war the council's record was not unimpressive. The normal municipal services were adjusted to wartime conditions with little difficulty. The experienced public health department even acted as a pioneer in several schemes of national importance. The technical college continued to function, being for a time the only one in England still open. The library services were maintained and even extended. Some of the council's emergency services, like public shelters and rest centres, were at first judged to be less efficient, but others, like the removal and storage of furniture from bombed houses, were always well-organized. Deaths from bombing in the borough throughout the war totalled only 0.4 per cent of the pre-war population. (fn. 107)
Between 1939 and 1945 there was again an electoral truce. After the war the Labour party continued to increase its already large majority at the expense of the Ratepayers' Association, whose candidates from 1947 were styled Conservatives. (fn. 108) In 1954 the Conservatives lost their last remaining seat, and for the next six years the council consisted entirely of Labour members. In 1960 municipal politics were enlivened by the Liberals, who won three seats and began to subject the majority to searching attack, especially on education. By 1962 they had seven seats, but they lost two of these in the following year. (fn. 109) By 1945 West Ham had been greatly altered. Some 14,000 houses had been destroyed by bombing and 500 a. land cleared. The population, which had already begun to decline before 1939, was now less than it had been for 60 years. War damage made it possible to undertake large-scale redevelopment, especially in the south of the borough, and between 1945 and 1965 the council built over 9,500 dwellings, of which 8,000 were permanent. (fn. 110) Public buildings completed since 1945 include a new fire station, new municipal offices in the Grove, Stratford (1960), two libraries, a health centre, a junior training centre, and a youth centre, as well as several schools. This programme of public works raised the council's loan debts from £4,758,385 in 1945 to £31,515,478 in 1965. Housing accounted for about two-thirds of the debts outstanding in 1965. (fn. 111)
Under the London Government Act, 1963, West Ham became part of the London borough of Newham. (fn. 112)
The development of gas, electricity, and water supplies, and of sewage disposal, have been outlined elsewhere. (fn. 113) Gas was brought to Stratford in the 1820s from the works of the Whitechapel Gas Co., to light the turnpike road. In the 1850s, after several changes of ownership, that undertaking was in the hands of the Commercial Gas Co., which was supplying some western areas of West Ham parish. The West Ham Gas Co., founded in 1846, was incorporated in 1856, when it took over all the Commercial Gas Co.'s mains in the parish except those in a small part of Canning Town. (fn. 114) The directors of the West Ham Gas Co. were local men, including several, like Capt. R. W. Pelly and John Meeson, who were also prominent on the local board, and on one occasion it was alleged that the company and the local board were 'hand in glove'. (fn. 115) The company was taken over in 1910 by the Gas Light and Coke Co. (fn. 116) Its works, at Stratford, were still open in 1965. In the south of the parish the North Woolwich Gas Co. had built works at Silvertown by 1855. (fn. 117) These were taken over in 1857 by the Victoria Dock Gas Co., which opened new works in 1864. The Victoria Dock Gas Co. was absorbed in 1871 by the Gas Light & Coke Co., which closed the works in 1909. (fn. 118)
The borough council in 1892 obtained powers to supply electricity throughout West Ham. (fn. 119) In 1895 it set up a small generator behind the public hall in Barking Road, Canning Town, which lighted the hall, the public library, and later also Mansfield House and a neighbouring shop. (fn. 120) This operated until 1898, when a power station was completed at Abbey Mills and a general supply started. The Abbey Mills station soon became inadequate and was replaced by a larger one, opened in 1904 at Canning Town on the site of the former municipal sewage works. West Ham's municipal tramways were electrified in the same year. (fn. 121) The new power station was extended several times between 1904 and 1914 and again in 1922. It was said in 1926 that West Ham had the largest municipal electricity undertaking in the London area and the eighth largest in the country. (fn. 122) In 1930 another generator was added, and new offices and showrooms were completed in Romford Road. Demand was stimulated by vigorous publicity, designed especially to attract new industries to the borough. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of consumers rose from 15,000 to 56,000 and units sold from 98 million to 156 million. During the Second World War the power station and the offices were heavily bombed. The electricity undertaking passed in 1947 to the London electricity board, which in 1951 completed the first part of West Ham 'B' power station, planned before nationalization and adjoining the old station, now designated West Ham 'A'.
West Ham waterworks originated in or about 1745, when Resta Patching of Dorking (Surr.), mealman, and Thomas Byrd of Queen Street, Westminster, went into partnership for the purpose. (fn. 123) Byrd, who evidently provided most of the capital, was to be manager, and Patching the turncock or overseer. A steam engine was to be erected on land rented from John Cox of West Ham, from which water would be pumped to this and neighbouring parishes. In 1748, shortly after Resta Patching's death, his son Ezra, with Thomas Byrd and John Montgomerie, obtained statutory powers to extend the works and to protect them from malicious damage. (fn. 124) Among the properties acquired by the company for its works was Saynes Mill, the lease of which, from the corporation of London, was bought before 1762. In 1775, when this lease was renewed for 61 years, the company stated that it had spent nearly £70,000 on its undertaking. (fn. 125) In 1807 the West Ham waterworks were taken over by the London Dock Co., which in 1808 sold them to the newly-formed East London Waterworks Co. (fn. 126) West Ham was supplied by the East London Waterworks Co. until the formation of the Metropolitan water board in 1904. (fn. 127) After 1850, when the town was growing fast, there were frequent complaints about the inadequacy and impurity of the company's supply there. (fn. 128) Since West Ham lay outside the area governed by the Metropolis Water Acts of 1852 and 1871, (fn. 129) the water company was not obliged to maintain a constant supply. Nevertheless the company professed its desire to do so, provided that certain regulations were met. (fn. 130) Failing that, it turned on its mains only for short periods each day. In 1886 it sought statutory power to ensure a constant supply in West Ham, but this was opposed by the local board and was not enacted. The board's ostensible objections were technical and financial, but behind these lay a quarrel with the company caused by the recent discovery of eels in the company's mains at West Ham. (fn. 131) With the formation of the borough council relations improved, and in 1895 the company began to provide a constant supply throughout West Ham. (fn. 132)
Provision for sewage disposal was the main task facing the local board when it was formed in 1856. (fn. 133) The board appointed as consultant (Sir) Robert Rawlinson, chief engineering inspector to the General Board of Health. (fn. 134) The Metropolitan board of works was then planning a drainage scheme for London, and Rawlinson obtained assurances that the metropolitan northern outfall sewer, which was to traverse West Ham, would soon be available for use by that district. On that assumption the local board approved his plans for a sewage scheme with temporary outfall works at Bow creek, and this was completed in 1861. The metropolitan scheme came into operation in 1868, but the local board's subsequent attempts to obtain access to the northern outfall sewer were unsuccessful, and the board was forced to go on using its Bow creek works, and eventually also to provide separate works for Silvertown, completed in 1886. In 1893 the borough council at last obtained statutory powers to use the northern outfall sewer, but the necessary conversion works, including a new pumping station in Abbey Road, near the Metropolitan pumping station, were not completed until 1901. This long delay, during the period of West Ham's most rapid growth, created great difficulties for the local board and the borough council. (fn. 135)
The pumping station at Abbey Mills, built by the Metropolitan board of works and opened in 1868, was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and E. Cooper, and laid out on a lavish scale, surrounded by lawns and trees. The main pump-house is cruciform in plan, with domed turrets and a central cupola 110 ft. high. The building was originally flanked by two tall chimneys, also surmounted by cupolas, but these were taken down during the Second World War to prevent their use as landmarks for enemy aircraft; electric power had been introduced in 1933. The interior of the pump-house has elaborate decorative features, including cast ironwork of Venetian Gothic design. (fn. 136) The West Ham sewage pumping station (1899) is in a more restrained classical style. In 1970 it still retained a beam engine of 1895 and an impressive chimney. (fn. 137)
The local board's unsuccessful attempt in 1868–9 to buy Upton Park (73 a.) for public use, has been mentioned elsewhere. (fn. 138) In 1872, after the demolition of Ham House, the project was revived by a private committee. John Gurney, owner of the park, agreed to sell it cheap, and funds were raised by subscription. The City of London, which had been one of the main subscribers, also undertook to maintain the park in future. West Ham Park, so re-named, was opened to the public in 1874. (fn. 139) The first municipal parks (fn. 140) were opened in 1894, at Plaistow (8 a.), and Beckton Road, Canning Town (22 a.), and in the same year the borough council took over, as tenant, the 17 a. of Wanstead Flats lying within West Ham. Hermit Road park, Canning Town (10 a.), was bought for the town by J. H. (later Lord) Bethell in 1899, with the aid of private subscriptions. (fn. 141) West Ham Lane park originated in 1900, when the first part was bought; it was later enlarged to 10½ a. Several other parks and playing fields were provided by the borough council, including the Grove Gardens, Stratford, laid out in 1901 on a small piece of roadside waste which the local board had bought from the lord of the manor in 1884. In 1963 the council owned 97½ a. of public open spaces. (fn. 142)
The earliest public baths in the borough were privately owned. (fn. 143) In 1886 and for a few years after, there was a swimming bath in Manbey Park Road, Stratford, on the site later occupied by Boardman's furniture depository. (fn. 144) The Carpenters' Company institute, Jupp Road, Stratford, founded in 1886, also contained a swimming bath. Municipal swimming baths were opened at Plaistow in 1901 and at Silvertown in 1922. The Silvertown baths were badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War and were finally closed in 1948. The corporation was planning baths for Stratford as early as 1895, but this project lapsed, and in 1905, when the Carpenters' Company's school closed, the council leased the bath in Jupp Road, retaining it until 1934, when large municipal baths were built in Romford Road. In 1937 an open-air bath was built in Canning Town park, replacing a smaller pool built by private subscription about 30 years earlier. (fn. 145) Slipper baths were opened at Fen Street, Tidal Basin, in 1912, and at Plaistow Road, West Ham, in 1932. The Fen Street baths were bombed in the Second World War and were finally closed in 1944.
West Ham already had public fire-engines in 1785, when the parish vestry arranged a new contract for their annual maintenance. (fn. 146) In 1792 the vestry, which then had two engines, bought a third, (fn. 147) and from 1795 to 1840 it appointed each year three 'engineers' (engine keepers), one for each ward. (fn. 148) In 1841 the engines were placed under the parish highway board. In 1848 it was found that they could not legally be maintained out of the highwayrates, and the vestry therefore began to charge them against the church-rates, contracting for their maintenance with Edward Thorman, engineer of the West Ham gasworks. (fn. 149) After 1854, when compulsory church-rates ended, (fn. 150) the vestry defaulted on its payments to Thorman, who impounded the engines and would not permit their use. In 1856–7 the vestry formed a voluntary fire brigade, by subscription, recovered the engines, repaired them, and appointed a trained fireman. (fn. 151) This was a temporary arrangement, pending the Local Government Act, 1858, under which the local board was able to take over the fire brigade. (fn. 152) The board bought a new engine, leased a building in West Ham Lane, Stratford, as a fire station, and built another station near the Abbey Arms at Plaistow. A new station for Stratford was built in 1869 as part of the town hall scheme. For many years the brigade was far from efficient. The firemen, mostly part-timers, were ill-trained and badly led. In 1877–8 the local board reorganized the brigade on a more professional basis, rebuilt the Stratford fire station, built a new station in Barking Road, Canning Town, to replace the one at Plaistow, and opened a third station in rented premises at Forest Gate. By 1902 there were three main fire stations, at Stratford, Barking Road, and Silvertown, and three sub-stations, at Forest Gate, Plaistow, and Custom House. A new station was built for Silvertown in 1914. (fn. 153) In 1931 a new station was built in Prince Regent Lane to replace the old one at Canning Town. The three sub-stations were subsequently closed. In 1964 a new station was opened in Romford Road, Stratford, replacing the one adjoining the town hall. (fn. 154) The first motor fire appliance was bought in 1909, but it was not until 1923 that the last horse-drawn steam fire-engine went out of service.
Between 1899 and 1905 the borough council built 401 municipal dwellings, in Bethell Avenue (Plaistow), Corporation Street and Eve Road (West Ham), Wise Road (Stratford), and Invicta and Rendel Roads (Custom House). (fn. 155) Most of these were flats in 'double' houses. In building them the council was concerned to raise the standard of workmen's houses rather than to meet any housing shortage. (fn. 156) From 1905 to 1908 there were often as many as 40 or 50 council dwellings unoccupied, but after that vacancies became fewer. Between 1918 and 1939 the council built a further 1,200 dwellings, mainly under slum clearance schemes. (fn. 157) A further 600 dwellings, built by the Ministry of Transport to rehouse those displaced by the building of Silvertown Way, were transferred to the council on completion. The heavy bombing of the Second World War created the need and the opportunity for large-scale redevelopment, especially in the south of the borough. Before the war ended the council had drawn up a preliminary scheme proposing that the borough should eventually be restricted to a population of about 165,000, living in 16 'neighbourhood units'. (fn. 158) Under a plan approved by the government in 1956 the council designated 21 areas of 'comprehensive development', totalling some 785 a. The first quinquennial review of the plan increased the total area involved to 843 a. Land subject to compulsory purchase orders was also designated, and by 1965 the council had acquired over 400 a., mainly for housing and planning. The plan provided for the development of some 500 a. for housing, the improvement of market and shopping areas, sites for new schools, the provision of nearly 200 a. of open spaces, and the resiting of certain industries. Between 1945 and 1965 the council built over 9,500 dwellings, of which 8,000 were permanent. A further 1,600 were under construction in 1965. (fn. 159)
During the 19th century West Ham was subject to serious epidemics. (fn. 160) There were cholera outbreaks in 1838 (fn. 161) and many later occasions at least up to 1905, one of the most serious being in 1866, when there were about 300 fatal cases. Typhoid was still occurring as late as 1901. Most serious of all was smallpox which caused epidemics in 1867 and 1871–2. In spite of these diseases West Ham's death-rate was still relatively low in 1876: 15.4 per thousand compared with the national average of 20.9. But after that the rate rose sharply, reaching 22.0 in 1885 when the national average was 19.2. One cause of the rise was the opening of three smallpox hospitals at Plaistow. That source of infection was eliminated in the 1890s, but though the borough's death-rate declined after 1900, it remained above the national average until 1918. From 1919, in spite of overcrowding and industrial airpollution, West Ham's death rate was below the national average. Much of the improvement was due to the borough's comprehensive health services. (fn. 162)
In 1871 the West Ham poor-law union opened a smallpox hospital in Western Road, Plaistow. (fn. 163) Another smallpox hospital, opposite the first, was built in 1877 by the Poplar board of works, in spite of protests from the local board. During the following years there were frequent smallpox epidemics near these hospitals, and in 1884 the local board itself had to open a temporary smallpox hospital, leasing for the purpose a row of cottages in Pragell Street, near Western Road. By then it was becoming clear that these hospitals, in a rapidly growing area, were a danger. In 1890 the borough council suggested that all three should be closed, that the Union and Poplar hospitals should be converted into a municipal hospital for infectious diseases other than smallpox, and that the council should build a new smallpox hospital in a more isolated place outside the borough. This scheme was carried out gradually over the next twelve years. In the final stage (1899–1902) the sites of the Union and Poplar hospitals were combined and extended by the closure of the road between them. Most of the old hospital buildings were demolished and the new Plaistow fever hospital, with 120 beds, was built there. It was recognized in 1906 as a teaching hospital, and during the next 37 years over 3,000 students received fever training there. It suffered bomb damage during the Second World War. In 1947 part of it became an annexe of Queen Mary's hospital for the East End. Since 1948 it has been known simply as Plaistow hospital. Associated with Plaistow fever hospital was a children's hospital at Harold Wood, Hornchurch. This was opened in 1909 as the Grange convalescent home, with 40 children's beds. In 1930 it was enlarged to 116 beds. By 1935 it was providing temporary accommodation for chronic adult cases, to relieve the public assistance home at Leyton. (fn. 164) West Ham's new smallpox hospital was opened in 1899 at Rookery Farm, Dagenham. Though built and maintained by the borough council it served all the places in West Ham union. (fn. 165)
The borough council also built a mental hospital at Goodmayes, Ilford, in 1901, (fn. 166) and in 1932 opened a colony for mental defectives at Little Mollands Farm, South Ockendon. (fn. 167) For the treatment of tuberculosis the council in 1912 converted the Dagenham smallpox hospital into a sanatorium. (fn. 168) A children's tuberculosis sanatorium was opened at Langdon Hills in 1927. (fn. 169) In 1930 the council became responsible also for the main institutions of the dissolved West Ham union, including Whipps Cross hospital and the central home (later Langthorne hospital), both in Leyton, (fn. 170) and also Forest Gate hospital.
Forest Gate hospital, Forest Lane, had been an industrial school from 1854 to 1906, and in 1908 became a branch workhouse of Poplar union. (fn. 171) In 1911 it was bought by West Ham union which reopened it in 1913 as a workhouse infirmary. By 1930 it had 500 beds for maternity, mental, and chronic sick cases. An extension with 200 beds was added in 1931. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1940. New maternity wards were built in 1950. The principal building still retains its mid-Victorian institutional appearance. It is a brick range, 15 bays long and three storeys high, with round-headed windows to the ground floor and the central bay raised to form a low tower.
Of West Ham's former voluntary hospitals the oldest is Queen Mary's hospital for the East End, West Ham Lane. (fn. 172) This originated in 1861 when William Elliot, a prominent local doctor, opened the West Ham, Stratford, and South Essex dispensary in a house in Romford Road lent by Mrs. Mary Curtis. Mrs. Curtis later gave a site in West Ham Lane, where a new dispensary was built in 1879. (fn. 173) In 1890 a 32-bed hospital, mainly for accident cases, was built beside the dispensary. A new hospital wing, with 28 beds, was given in 1895 by Passmore Edwards. The hospital was further extended in 1906–10, on the site previously occupied by West Ham high school. In 1911 it received a legacy of £20,000 from Joseph Withers. Queen Mary became patron in 1916 and the hospital then adopted its present name. In 1917 it was incorporated by royal charter, and in the same year Charles Lyle gave it £10,000, including the freehold of the adjoining Chant Square. By 1931 after several recent extensions there were 219 beds, but in 1940 the hospital was partly destroyed by bombing, and reduced, even after repairs, to 164 beds.
St. Mary's hospital for women and children, London and Upper Roads, Plaistow, originated in 1886, when the vicar of St. Mary's, Thomas GivenWilson, established a welfare clinic and day nursery. (fn. 174) In 1889 part of the work was transferred to Howard's Road, as St. Mary's Nurses. In 1893 a new building was erected in London Road for the nursery with 6 hospital beds for children. The site was provided by Given-Wilson and the building by the Revd. Henry Blisset. In 1896–8 the hospital accommodation was enlarged to 38 beds. The present name was adopted in 1905 and in 1911 a new 66-bed hospital was built. In 1946 a new out-patient building was completed and the hospital beds were increased to 100.
Plaistow maternity hospital, Howard's Road, originated in 1889, when Katherine Twining, who had been working at the clinic in London Road, moved to Howard's Road and established there St. Mary's Nurses, to provide a district midwifery and nursing service. (fn. 175) The nurses' home was gradually extended, in 1904 a 12-bed maternity hospital was opened in adjoining houses, and in 1915 Chesterton House was bought for a maternity clinic. The hospital was rebuilt in 1923 and was further enlarged, to 60 beds, in 1929. Extensions to the nurses' home and a lecture hall (1936) helped to make this an outstanding centre for midwifery training. The work of the district nursing branch was taken over in 1940 by the East Ham District Nursing Association.
The Invalid and Crippled Children's hospital, Balaam Street, Plaistow, was founded by the London Medical Mission Association. (fn. 176) The mission hospital was taken over in 1893 by the Canning Town Women's Settlement as a hospital for women and children. In 1895 it was transferred to two houses in Barking Road, remaining there until 1905, when a new building was erected in Balaam Street. In 1923 the settlement conveyed it rent-free to the South West Ham Invalid and Crippled Children's Society, for use by children only. The hospital was extended in 1932–3. It was closed for most of the Second World War, but subsequently reopened.
The Albert Dock seamen's hospital, Alnwick Road, Custom House, was founded in 1890, when the original buildings were opened in Connaught Road by the Seamen's Hospital Society, which has maintained the hospital ever since. (fn. 177) The London School of Tropical Medicine was founded at this hospital in 1899 by Sir Patrick Manson, and remained there until 1924. The old dock-side buildings suffered from subsidence, and in 1937 a new hospital was built on the present site with help from the Port of London authority.
In 1948 all the hospitals in West Ham, except the seamen's hospital, came under the control of the West Ham group (No. 9) hospital management committee of the N.E. Metropolitan regional board.
In the provision of welfare services of all kinds much pioneer work was done by voluntary bodies, especially the churches and settlements. These were followed up and developed by the borough council, which made prompt use of permissive power given by statute. (fn. 178) West Ham was one of the first education authorities to provide school meals (1906) and to establish a school medical service (1908). By 1918 the council was giving financial aid to seven voluntary maternity and child welfare centres. The first such municipal clinic was opened at Silvertown in 1920, and by 1936 there were five, of which three had been built for the purpose in 1930–1. (fn. 179) A new health centre built in West Ham Lane in 1962 provides many specialist services. In 1932 the council took over from a voluntary society responsibility for training the blind, and opened temporary workshops in West Ham Lane; permanent workshops were built in 1938. Training centres for the mentally subnormal were opened at Forest Gate in 1950 and at Plaistow in 1961. The John F. Kennedy junior training centre, Pitchford Street, Stratford, for handicapped children, was built in 1964. In 1965 the council was maintaining nine old people's hostels, all outside the borough except for Adelaide House, Meath Road, Stratford, which was built in 1954 with aid from the Lord Mayor's National Air Raid Distress fund. (fn. 180) There were also two reception homes for children together with six 'family group' homes. The council's special schools are described elsewhere. (fn. 181)
A burial board for West Ham was set up by the parish vestry in 1854, and in 1857 laid out the West Ham cemetery at Forest Gate. (fn. 182) In 1901 the board was dissolved and the cemetery was taken over by the borough council. (fn. 183) The East London cemetery at Plaistow was laid out by a private company in 1871. (fn. 184) The Jews' cemetery at Forest Gate is treated elsewhere. (fn. 185)
The history of the public libraries up to 1955 is described elsewhere. (fn. 186) It should be added in amendment that the hospital library service inaugurated in 1899 did not last long, and that it was not revived until about 1945. In 1959 a permanent building was erected in Woodgrange Road for the Forest Gate library and in 1961 the Silvertown library was transferred from the Tate institute to new premises in Constance Street. The total book stock of West Ham libraries was 222,000 in 1964.