Liverpool: Municipal government

A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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'Liverpool: Municipal government', in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911) pp. 38-41. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]


After the Municipal Reform Act the Whig party for a brief period enjoyed control of the borough government. At the outset they possessed an overwhelming majority, but by 1842 this majority had disappeared. The main cause of this was the unpopularity of the Whig attempt to abandon compulsory Anglican religious teaching in the two corporation schools, which was advocated on the ground that the population served by these schools was mainly Roman Catholic; but the proposal aroused a fierce opposition. The Whigs, however, also initiated a series of elaborate inquiries into the various departments of borough government, reconstituted the corporation service and effected large economies by reductions of salaries, and commenced a vigorous progressive policy in regard to the regulation of buildings and the safeguarding of the health of the town. In these respects the transference of power to the Tory party led to little change; and the years from 1835 to 1870 witnessed a vigorous, sustained, and not unsuccessful campaign for the amelioration of the conditions of the borough. The powers of the Watching, Lighting, and Cleansing Board had been taken over by the corporation under the Act of 1835, and were administered by a special Watch Committee; they were now enlarged by a new local Act, (fn. 1) under which the council took powers to impose numerous penalties for neglect of civic duties. In regard to the regulation of buildings the new régime was especially vigorous. The council obtained powers by an Act of 1839 (fn. 2) to appoint building surveyors who should be required to certify before any new building was permitted to be occupied that it fulfilled the numerous requirements laid down in the Act. These regulations were made still more exacting by the important Act of 1842, (fn. 3) which forbade the erection of inadequately lighted courts; the same Act also empowered the magistrates to order the cleansing at the owner's expense of any 'filthy or unwholesome' house. The most important clause of this epoch-making Act was that which decreed the appointment of a Health Committee to carry out its terms. Another Act of the same year, (fn. 4) while providing for the widening of certain main streets, provided (section 107) that on the presentment of the grand jury or the complaint of four or more householders the council might demolish a ruinous house. Meanwhile the Commissioners for Paving and Sewerage had continued to perform their duties independently, being expressly safeguarded from any interference by the growing activity of the council; (fn. 5) but in 1842 it was provided that half of them should be elected by the council. (fn. 6) Their authority extended only over the old township, and in the same year a separate commission was created for Toxteth Park. (fn. 7)

The new Health Committee found its work hampered by the existence of these independent and unrelated authorities. Moreover, in 1843 a very powerful pamphlet (fn. 8) published by Dr. Duncan, then a lecturer in the Royal Infirmary School of Medicine, awoke the town to a new sense of the horrors of its slums. He showed that nearly half of the workingclass population lived in cellar-dwellings; that most of the poorer streets were quite unprovided with sewers; that the water supply was such as to render impossible even ordinary personal cleanliness; in short, that the condition of the poorer quarters of the town was such as not only to degrade their inhabitants, but also to form a grave menace to other residents. This powerful statement came at a moment when the corporation was already awakening to the difficulty of the problem, and the ineffectiveness of its weapons for coping with it. The immediate result was that a new Act was obtained in 1846, (fn. 9) which was of the most far-reaching importance. It provided for the first time for the appointment of a Medical Officer of Health—an office to which, with singular appropriateness, Duncan was the first to be appointed. It transferred the powers and properties of the Liverpool and Toxteth Paving and Sewerage Boards to the Health Committee of the Town Council, on which it imposed the obligation to pave and sewer every street and house. (fn. 10) It also imposed upon the council a totally new obligation, namely that of laying down pipes and supplying water throughout the borough; for which purpose the Green Lane Waterworks were transferred to the corporation.

Under Duncan's guidance the council now began a systematic campaign against cellar-dwellings; in 1847 over 5,000 such dwellings were declared unfit for human habitation, and absolutely closed, while over 10,000 more were measured, registered, and in some cases cleansed at the owners' expense. (fn. 11) But the powers possessed by the council for carrying out such reforms were as yet slight. By the Sanitary Amendment Act of 1864 (fn. 12) these powers were very largely increased; so much so that under the terms of this Act the facilities for the demolition of insanitary property are in some respects more useful than any conferred by the later national Acts for this purpose.

Even more important than the demolition of insanitary property was the provision of an adequate water supply. The supply of water had hitherto been in the hands of two companies—the Company of Proprietors, and the Liverpool and Harrington Company, founded respectively in 1799 and 1802; both drew their supply from wells, some of which are still in use. These were now taken over; (fn. 13) but in addition the corporation took powers to construct a series of reservoirs on the Rivington moors, north of Bolton. (fn. 14) The scheme produced much discussion, being one of the first of its kind, and several additional Acts (fn. 15) were passed before it had been finally settled. The Rivington Waterworks were not completed till 1857; their completion for the first time rendered possible a continuous supply of water throughout the city. As population grew, it in turn became inadequate; and in 1879 the Vyrnwy scheme was entered upon. This involved the acquisition of the valley of the River Vyrnwy in Merionethshire, with its drainage area of 22,742 acres; the construction across the mouth of the valley of a masonry dam 1,172 ft. long, 161 ft. high, and 127 ft. thick, thus creating a lake 4¾ miles long, capable of yielding a supply of forty million gallons of water per diem; and the construction of an aqueduct 68 miles long, including tunnels of 4½ miles, one of which passes under the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey. The supply was first brought to Liverpool in 1891, after eleven years' work. The value to the community of this magnificent achievement cannot be exaggerated. (fn. 16)

Meanwhile the town had not been altogether neglectful of the amenities. St. George's Hall, (fn. 17) designed to serve the double purpose of a public hall and assize courts, had been projected by private citizens in 1835, and was begun in 1838, and completed by the corporation in 1854 at a cost of £238,000. The design was by a young architect, H. L. Elmes, who died before his work was completed, and much of the interior was carried out by R. P. Cockerell. The design was much criticized, but it is now agreed that the building is one of the noblest modern classic buildings in the world. It is enriched by a fine pediment by Alfred Stevens at the south end and by a series of external bas-relief panels; it contains one of the best organs in England, long played by W. T. Best; and both the great hall and the plateau without are used for the display of statuary.

Another fruitful new enterprise was begun in 1852. As early as 1849—before the Free Libraries Act— the establishment of a public library had been projected. In 1851 the thirteenth Earl of Derby had bequeathed his large natural-history collection to the town. At the same time the Liverpool Academy, founded in 1810, had succeeded in stimulating artistic interests in the town by its annual exhibitions. In order to meet this triple need a private Act (fn. 18) was obtained empowering the council to establish and maintain a public library and museum with a gallery of arts, to provide lecture rooms and arrange lectures. With this were at first linked the Botanic Gardens, originally started as a private organization by Roscoe, but taken over by the corporation in 1846. (fn. 19) A fine classic building for the library and museum was provided by Sir William Brown, replacing the rather ragged houses at the north of Shaw's Brow, and facing St. George's Hall. Thus began a noble group of buildings devoted to knowledge and the arts, gradually extended by the erection of the Picton Reading Room, a fine rotunda, in 1872, the Walker Art Gallery (the gift of Sir A. B. Walker) in 1877, and the Museum Extension and Technical School in 1902; a proud adornment to the city, later made still more attractive by the laying out of gardens with statues in the centre of the great place. The development of these institutions during the last half-century can only be briefly summarized. The Central Library, opened in 1852 with 8,296 volumes, now contains close on 150,000 volumes; it is most strongly equipped on local history and topography, natural history, and the fine arts; the last-named section has been greatly strengthened by the bequest of the Hornby Library, now housed in a beautiful additional room. There are also nine lending libraries in various parts of the city, having among them nearly 140,000 volumes. (fn. 20) The Museums fall into two sections— the Museum of Natural History, which has been built up round the nucleus bequeathed by Lord Derby in 1852, and is now of great range, probably unsurpassed out of London; and the Museum of Antiquities and Anthropology, which includes some very valuable collections mainly provided by bequest of Mr. Joseph Mayer in 1867. The large extension of the buildings effected in 1902 for the first time gives adequate room for the display of these collections. (fn. 21) In the Art Gallery a large permanent collection has been accumulated by gift and purchase. It includes some modern paintings of wide fame, also the Roscoe collection of Early Italian art, formerly housed at the Royal Institution. The controlling committee has wisely set itself to obtain as full a representation as possible of the remarkable group of Liverpool painters who flourished in the middle of the 19th century. An exhibition of contemporary art has been held annually since 1871, and many special exhibitions have also been organized. (fn. 22)

Brown of Astrop, Bart. Gules a cheveron or between two bears' paws erased in chief argent and four hands conjoined in saltire of the second in base, on a chief engrailed gold an eagle displayed sable.

Walker of Osmaston, Bart. Or three pallets gules surmounted by a saltire argent charged with a hart's head erased proper, on a chief azure a garb between two stars of the first.

The increasing attention to the amenities which the council were now showing was exhibited especially in 1868. Up to that date the town had possessed no public parks, except the small public gardens in St. James's Mount; for though as early as 1848 the Newsham estate had been purchased, no use had been made of it. In 1868 powers were obtained (fn. 23) for the creation of three parks—Sefton Park, Newsham Park, and Stanley Park—at a cost of £670,000. The expenditure thus begun has been continued without intermission, and supplemented by private munificence, to which the city owes Wavertree Playground and Bowring Park. The total area of parks and gardens laid out in various parts of the city amounts to almost 1,100 acres.

The last twenty-five years of the 19th century were largely engaged in a renewed attack on the problem of the housing of the poor. In the earlier period the council had been content with the demolition of insanitary property, a work in which it had been a pioneer; it now began to undertake the replacement of the demolished property by model dwellings. The first block of cottages to be thus erected was in 1869. (fn. 24) In 1885 a large group of dwellings was erected, known as Victoria Square. By 1900 accommodation had been provided for over 700 families. More recently this work has been pushed on with such vigour that in February 1907 over 2,200 dwellings were either in occupation or almost completed. The total cost has been more than £1,000,000, the interest on which is almost met by the rents paid. The elaborate and efficient tramway service, taken over by the corporation in 1897, has also tended to facilitate the solution of the housing problem.

Of other municipal activities no account can here be given. But enough has been said to show that the seventy years since the Municipal Reform Act have been marked by a systematic attempt at the reorganization and reconstruction of the city. In the last part of the period the establishment of the separate diocese of Liverpool in 1880, the more recent commencement of the erection of a cathedral, and the foundation of a university, have added the dignities of a cathedral, episcopal, and university city to those of a great port. The advance thus made was recognized by the first charter of Queen Victoria in 1880, (fn. 25) whereby the title of 'City' became the official designation of Liverpool, and by the queen's second charter in 1893, (fn. 26) whereby the chief magistrate of the city was empowered to assume the style of Lord Mayor of Liverpool.


  • 1. 1 Vict. cap. 98.
  • 2. 2 & 3 Vict. cap. 92.
  • 3. 5 Vict. cap. 44.
  • 4. 5 & 6 Vict. cap. 106.
  • 5. 1 Vict. cap. 98; 2 & 3 Vict. cap. 92.
  • 6. 5 Vict. cap. 26.
  • 7. 5 & 6 Vict. cap. 105.
  • 8. Read before the Lit. and Phil. Soc. in 1843.
  • 9. 9 & 10 Vict. cap. 127.
  • 10. An excellent account of the sanitary administration of the city is given in Hdbk. of Congress of Roy. Inst. of Pub. Health, 1903.
  • 11. Gore's Annals, 1847.
  • 12. 27 & 28 Vict. cap. 73.
  • 13. Under powers conferred by 39 Geo. III, cap. 36; 9 Vict. cap. 35; and 10 & 11 Vict. cap. 261.
  • 14. 10 & 11 Vict. cap. 261.
  • 15. 13 & 14 Vict. cap. 80; 15 Vict. cap. 47; 18 Vict. cap. 66; 19 Vict. cap. 5.
  • 16. On the history of the water supply in general, Hist. and Descr. Account of the Liv. Water Supply (Water Engineer's Rep. 1899); article in Hdbk. of Congress of Roy. Inst. of Pub. Health, 1903.
  • 17. R. P. Jones, 'H. L. Elmes,' Archit. Rev. 1904; H. L. Elmes, Corresp. relative to St. George's Hall, &c.
  • 18. 15 Vict. cap. 3.
  • 19. 8 & 9 Vict. cap. 43. The library of the Botanic Gardens, founded by Roscoe, was transferred to the City Library in 1907.
  • 20. Cowell, Liv. Public Libraries, a history of fifty years (1903).
  • 21. Forbes, descriptive account of the Liverpool Museums in Hdbk. of the Congress of Roy. Inst. of Pub. Health, 1903; annual reports.
  • 22. Annual Reports, 1872–1907. On the Liverpool painters, Marillier, The Liv. School of Painters, 1904.
  • 23. 28 Vict. cap. 20.
  • 24. The following facts are from information supplied by the Medical Officer of Health. It may be noted that the Royal Com. on the Housing of the Working Classes reported in 1885 that housing reform was more urgently needed in Liverpool than in any other Lancashire town. A good account of housing work in Liverpool may be found in the Hdbk. of the Congress of Roy. Inst. of Pub. Health, 1903.
  • 25. Printed in Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 290.
  • 26. Ibid. 292.