Metropolitan Board of Works

From Academic Kids

The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was the principal instrument of London-wide government from 1855 until the establishment of the London County Council in 1889. Its principal responsibility was to provide infrastructure to cope with London's rapid growth, which it succesfully accomplished.

The MBW was an appointed rather than elected body. This lack of accountabillity made it unpopular with Londoners, especially in its latter years when it fell prey to corruption.

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The MBW's headquarters, designed by Frederick Marrable in 1858, in Spring Gardens near Trafalgar Square. Picture taken 1939; building demolished 1971.


London's growth had rapidly accelerated with the growth of railway commuting from the 1830s onwards. However London's local government was chaotic, with hundreds of specialist authorities (few of them elected) representing parts of streets. All had to agree in order to provide services which crossed their boundaries. The ancient City of London was only the centre of the city. Three counties had authority over the metropolitan area: Middlesex covered the area north of the Thames, Surrey the area to the south and south-west, and Kent the far south east.


In order to have a local body to coordinate local work to plan London, Parliament passed the Metropolis Management Act 1855 which created the Metropolitan Board of Works (which also took over the responsibilities of the short-lived Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, established in 1848). It was not to be a directly elected body, but instead to consist of members nominated by the vestries who were the principle local authorities. The larger vestries had two members and the City of London had three. In a few areas the vestries covered too small an area, and here they were merged into a district board for the purpose of nominating members to the MBW. There were 45 members, who would then elect a Chairman who was to become a member ex officio. The first nominations took place in December and the Board met first on December 22, 1855 where John Thwaites was elected as Chairman.


A major problem was sewage: most of London's waste was allowed to flow into the Thames resulting in a horrendous smell in the summer months. In 1855 and 1858 there were specially bad summers with the latter being known as "The Great Stink". A notable achievement of the Board was the creation of the core London sewerage system, including 120 km of main and 1650 km of street sewers, which solved the problem. A large part of the work of the MBW was under the charge of the Chief Engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, previously engineer with the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.

From 1869 the MBW acquired all the private bridges crossing the River Thames and built new crossings including Tower Bridge, Grosvenor Bridge, rebuilding Battersea Bridge, Waterloo Bridge; the continuation of slum clearance creating Charing Cross Road, Garrick Street, Northumberland Avenue, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Southwark Street; and the creation of the three section Thames Embankment from 1864.


The MBW at first had its meetings in the Guildhall of the City of London and its headquarters at Greek Street in Soho. It then built its own headquarters at Spring Gardens (which became a euphemism for the MBW), designed by its first chief architect Frederick Marrable and built in an Italianate style in 1859. When John Thwaites died (August 8, 1870), he was eventually replaced by James Macnaghten Hogg, later Lord Magheramorne, who remained Chairman until the MBW was abolished. There was an increase in the membership to 59 in 1885 when some district boards were divided and others were given more members.


However the MBW had very little affection from the people of London. Its status as a joint board insulated its members from any influence of popular opinion, though all property-owners had to pay for its work as part of their local government rates. Worse, the very many building contracts issued by the MBW made membership of it desirable for anyone wishing to bid for them. The MBW took most of its decisions in secret. There were a succession of corruption scandals, of which the worst was that in 1888 which led to a Royal Commission investigation.


The Royal Commission found several officers and two members of the MBW had acted corruptly, and the perception of corruption and the creation of elected County Councils elsewhere led to the decision to replace the MBW with the London County Council (LCC), a directly elected local government body.


The last weeks of the MBW were its most inglorious period. The London County Council had been elected on January 21, 1889 with April 1 set as the date it would assume its powers. With the MBW a lame duck but the LCC liable for any of its long-term decisions, the MBW started awarding large pensions to its retiring officers and large salaries to those who would transfer. The MBW then decided to allow the Samaritan Hospital in Marylebone to use an additional 12 feet of pavement, which the LCC opposed. The LCC wrote to the MBW asking it not to take the decision; the MBW did not reply and gave the permission.

Finally, the MBW received the tenders for the Blackwall Tunnel and decided to take a decision to award the contract at its final meeting. The LCC again wrote asking the MBW to leave the decision to them. The Chairman of the MBW replied (March 18, 1889) that it intended to continue. At this the LCC decided to appeal to the Government which exercised its power to abolish the MBW and bring the LCC into existence on March 21, 1889.


The magazine Punch printed a cartoon to mark the abolition of the MBW entitled 'Peace to its Hashes', representing the MBW by a black suit of armour (ie blackmail). The citation lauded the MBW for showing 'how jobbery may be elevated to the level of the fine arts'.

Chairmen of the Metropolitan Board of Works


  • 'Professionalism, Patronage and Public Service in Victorian London: The Staff of the Metropolitan Board of Works, 1856-1889' by Gloria Clifton (Athlone Press, London, 1992)
  • 'The Government of Victorian London, 1855-1889: The Metropolitan Board of Works, the Vestries, and the City Corporation' by David Owen (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1982)

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