HC Deb 19 February 1869 vol 194 cc133-47

said, he would beg to ask the First Commissioner of Works a Question relative to the Viaduct from Charing Cross Bridge to Wellington Street, Strand, proposed to be made on the Thames Embankment by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The importance and urgency of the subject induced him to bring it forward early in the Session. Its importance might be gathered from the fact that it amounted simply to this—whether £245,000 of ratepayers' money was to be unprofitably expended on a scheme which would occupy a large portion of the Thames Embankment, reclaimed from the river at great cost, destroy a magnificent site for a public building, and give in return a roadway of little or no value to the public? The Board of Works was blameless in the matter, as it was bound by an Act of Parliament to carry out the scheme. The connection of the Board with the Viaduct scheme was briefly this:—The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, created under the 11 & 12 Vict., became by the 18 & 19 Vict. the Metropolitan Board of Works, a body invested with enormous taxing powers, and charged with the duty of carrying out metropolitan improvements. The Thames Embankment, though originally recommended by Sir Christopher Wren, and more seriously proposed by Sir Frederick Trench in 1824, owed its construction in a great measure to a suggestion of that very able man, Sir John Thwaites, during the consideration of the proposal to carry the sewage of the metropolis to the mouth of the Thames. Sir Joseph Paxton took up the idea, a Committee of the House reported favourably upon it, a Royal Commission did the same, and in 1862 Parliament entrusted the Board of Works with the duty of constructing the Embankment. The scheme involved the making of approaches to the Embankment from the Strand. Part of the scheme was a roadway from the neighbourhood of Charing Cross to Wellington Street, in the Strand, or, properly speaking, Lancaster Place. When the matter was handed over to the Metropolitan Board of Works, they did not think that the best line of road, so they proposed another. A Committee of the House of Commons sat upon it. There were various schemes, with a detailed account of which he would not trouble the House; but last year a Bill was passed, laying down a line of road, and under that Bill the Metropolitan Board of Works, whatever their own feelings might be, were obliged to carry out the Viaduct he had described, and which was so much objected to. It was true the Board had not yet accepted contracts for the work, but they had issued the necessary notices, and tenders had been advertised for, and, unless Parliament stepped in, the work would have to be gone on with, because the hands of the Board were absolutely tied. A very strong feeling on the subject had arisen in the metropolis during the last fortnight. The Rev. Henry White, chaplain of the Savoy Chapel, had given a very clear description of the roadway in a letter to the Editor of The Times, and in company with himself and others had stated the reasons against making it to the First Commissioner of Works, who, he was glad to say, appeared to sympathize with the object of the deputation. The points laid before the right hon. Gentleman were the expense and waste which the construction of the Viaduct would involve, its unsightliness when completed, and the destruction of a most admirable site for a public building. The objectors to the scheme included the District Board of Works, represented on the deputation by Mr. Jones, who said the Board had never been consulted upon the subject, and had petitioned against the work as soon as its true character became known. He had that evening presented a petition from St. James's Vestry, declaring the proposed structure unsightly, and of questionable utility for purposes of traffic. The House was merely asked to postpone the work for a time until it had been positively ascertained whether this Viaduct was necessary, in addition to those two main thoroughfares, the Embankment and the Strand, one of which was as yet unopened. It had been suggested that the Viaduct was designed more as a ready means of communication between Downing Street and Whitehall and Somerset House than for the public convenience; but in any case it was not too much that Parliament should be asked to stay the hand of the Metropolitan Board—which really did not want to carry out the work—if it were only to preserve the eight acres of reclaimed land as a site for some public building. He invited any hon. Member who had not already done so to take a walk on the Embankment, and what would he see? In the first place, he would see executed by the Metropolitan Board of Works the finest granite wall in the world; and if he went as far as Waterloo Bridge he would find Somerset House and that beautiful bridge on the one side, and almost as a matter of necessity something was required by way of balance on the other. If they should have nothing of the kind, the result would be that this beautiful spot, so well adapted for the ornament of the metropolis, would be occupied by a road or viaduct, which, however constructed, must necessarily be a very great eyesore. They all knew that the buildings on the spot where this Viaduct would be were not ornamental, and, unless negotiations were entered into between the Government and the proprietors, all that the latter would look to was to see that they had made of their property the most profitable investment. They might have warehouses or dwelling-houses, factories or gas works, on the spot, or, in short, anything which would be most profitable to the owners. Now, there was an important moral and an important principle involved in this matter. The moral he held to be this:—whether in this metropolis, where so many important railway and other works were to be constructed, there was to be any controlling power? At present there was none—absolutely none. That was a state of things which ought not to exist in this metropolis, and which existed in no other metropolis in the world. It was the fault of the House of Commons, which did not give sufficient power to any authority to step in and interfere. He would give an illustration of what he meant. Take the Southwestern Railway, for instance. Suppose it wanted to extend from the south to the north of London, and to join the Great Northern. What had it to do? Simply to deposit its plans, its estimates, and all that was required by the Board of Trade within a certain day; it came then before Parliament, and its scheme was submitted to a Committee of that House. Now that Committee took no cognizance whatever of the nature of the works, so far as affected the beauty of the metropolis, whether they would destroy it or not. If the plans were deposited, the money lodged, and the public requirements of traffic seemed to render such a railway necessary, the Committee would pass it without further question. What was the result? Why, that they had got Hungerford Bridge, which intercepted the view of the Houses of Parliament from Waterloo Bridge; and with regard to Cannon Street they had got a monstrous tubular station which jutted into the Thames at one side and cut off the view of St. Paul's. Now, if there were any one in the metropolis responsible for its public works those two structures would not have been erected. One of the disadvantages of the divided authority which existed was that the roadway parallel to the Thames, which they all desired to see completed, could not be made for five years, because Parliament in its wisdom had given the Metropolitan District Railway Company power to scoop and burrow under the roadway, and until their railway was constructed the road could not be made. Further, one Committee of the House decided that this Metropolitan Railway Company should run a portion of their line on arches in order that the water-rights of certain persons might be preserved; but subsequently another Committee decided that the railway should be in the inside of an embankment. Therefore they had one Committee deciding one thing, and another another. Why, it was simply because of these divided powers and of there being nobody to control them, and the Board of Works and the Railway Company could not come for such a long time to a settlement about this railway. He had spoken of the ability of Sir John Thwaites and the Metropolitan Board. He had already said that the wall they had erected was the most beautiful river wall in the world. But whom had the public to thank for it? Was it the House, or a Royal Commission, or the Government? Nothing of the kind, it was Sir John Thwaites and the Metropolitan Board of Works. He had said to Sir John Thwaites, "You have made a most beautiful wall; but I just want to ask you, as far as a Committee of the House of Commons, as far as a Royal Commission, as far as the First Commissioner of Works, or any other officer of Government were concerned, might you not have erected anything in the shape of a wall you chose, whether of concrete or of brick?" And the answer was that it was so. He hoped that state of things would be put an end to, that the Government would pay attention to this question, and lay down a new system. He might cite other instances, but he would not. All he wanted was that the Office of the First Commissioner should be so constituted as to have a Board, chosen, he would say, by the Institute of Architects, and with the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works as a member, who would advise the First Commissioner on all these matters. Indeed, the First Commissioner had already made a salutary change by putting Mr. Fergusson, a first-class architect, in the office. The additional Board might be made to consist of two members appointed by the Institute of Architects, two appointed by the Royal Academy, and one appointed by the Metropolitan Board of Works. He believed, with a Board so constituted, no public work could be constructed, and no Act of Parliament sanctioning one could be obtained unless the First Commissioner of Works was satisfied that it would be an embellishment to the metropolis and not the reverse. He had prepared a Resolution on the subject to this effect, that it was not expedient to proceed with the proposed road or Viaduct from Hunger-ford to Waterloo Bridge until the subject should be submitted for further consideration to a Committee of that House. According to the forms of the House he could not move it now, but he would on Monday next give Notice of a Motion on the subject. He hoped, however, that the First Commissioner would render it unnecessary for him to move any Resolution, by taking the matter up and refering it to either a Royal Commission or a Committee of the House.


said, he concurred in the view taken by the noble Lord. He believed the proposed work was a mere blunder on the part of those with whom it had originated. He could not discover that anybody liked this scheme. The Board of Works did not like it, though they were carrying it out; the First Commissioner of Works did not like it; and the ratepayers of London did not like it, beccause it would involve them in an expenditure of £245,000. He really thought the very finest site in all London for a magnificent public building would be sacrificed if this Viaduct was erected. They were now making the river Thames one of the most beautiful in the world, and it would be the most puerile folly to throw away those eight acres by cutting them asunder by this Viaduct. There really ought to be some one with greater powers than the First Commissioner to judge in such matters; and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would give the House the benefit of his views on the subject.


said, he was anxious, as a Director of the South Western Railway Company, that it should not go forth to the shareholders that the case hypo-thetically put by his noble Friend (Lord Elcho) was an actual case. It was not in the contemplation of the Company to throw a bridge across the Thames, or make any extension of their line in the manner imagined by his noble Friend. But he agreed with his noble Friend that if that Railway did wish to make any such extension, there was no controlling authority which could prevent them from disfiguring a magnificent site by erecting there one the greatest monstrosities in the world. He did not say that each separate authority, if left to itself, might not be competent to do what was right in that matter; but the conflict of authority which existed caused the most complete anarchy. Before coming down to the House, he had inspected the site to which his noble Friend alluded, and found the Embankment blocked up with all kinds of work; yet the several works were not to be carried out contemporaneously, but one was to be commenced after another was done. After Sir John Thwaites and his colleagues had finished the Embankment, then came the Metropolitan Railway, which dug up all that had been laid, or burrowed under the Embankment; and that Railway Company had power to deprive the public for five long years of the enjoyment of that Embankment. Nor was that all. Somehow or other—he could not tell in what way, or who was responsible for it—an Act passed through Parliament last Session, further to aggravate the condition of anarchy in which the Thames Embankment stood by the building upon arches of a road, with a gradual slope, that would for ever utterly disfigure and destroy one of the noblest sites in Europe. Every hon. Member to whom he had mentioned the matter had told him that it had come upon him with surprise; indeed, many hon. Gentlemen were quite startled on hearing that such a work was contemplated. He trusted that the House of Commons would put down its foot on that extraordinary state of things, and pause before the Act of last Session was carried out. The ratepayers did not desire this Viaduct, nor did the traffic which now passed along the Strand require it. Indeed, the whole question of the Thames Embankment had been muddled. When it was first projected, all those squalid buildings which abutted on the river, and were valuable only because they so abutted, were not bought up—that would have been a sensible thing—but their water privileges were bought up; and now that the Embankment ran in front of those squalid buildings they had been made five times more valuable than they were before. Thus, having first compensated their owners for their water privileges, they would have to buy the buildings themselves at the enhanced value put upon them by the very construction of that work. All that showed the necessity of establishing some such authority in the metropolis as his noble Friend had indicated.


said, in reply, his noble Friend the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) was good enough the other day to attend at the Office of Works with a deputation on that subject, when he made to him a reply which, he was very much afraid he could only repeat that evening. The fact was that he had really nothing to do officially with the Thames Embankment, or with anything which might be erected on that great highway. All that he could do—and that he had promised his noble Friend the other day he would do—was to use what personal influence he might have with the Metropolitan Board of Works, and ask them, if possible, to check the construction of the road and Viaduct, which, there could be no doubt, would have the effect described by his noble Friend and other hon. Members who had spoken that evening. The relations between the Metropolitan Board of Works and the First Commissioner of Works, whether official or otherwise, had always been of the most friendly and cordial character, and Sir John Thwaites and Mr. Tite had kindly offered to take such steps as were in their power to delay the progress of the works. But certain notices had been given for the acquisition of a part of the site, which were in the nature of a contract, and must be carried out, although the contract for the works themselves had not been entered into. As First Commissioner of Works, he had no power in that or any other matter to interfere with the Metropolitan Board of Works, or with the operations of any company in the metropolis. His position was frequently much misunderstood, and he was held responsible for many things with which he had nothing to do. It was, for instance, popularly supposed that he was at the head of the Woods and Forests; but such the House knew was not the case. He would look at the question of control over public buildings in the metropolis for a moment from an Imperial and not a mere ratepayers' point of view. The House of Commons had more than once rejected schemes for erecting a National Gallery on different sites which had been proposed, and it had determined that a National Gallery should be erected in Trafalgar Square, at a great expense to the nation, on this ground, among others, that that was one of the finest sites in the world, and that a magnificent view of any building there erected would be obtained from Parliament Street. Well, assuming that building to have been erected at the cost of the nation, what might happen? It was perhaps an extreme supposition, but some railway company might obtain permission to unite the Charing Cross Station with Brompton, and might throw a bridge across the entrance to Parliament Street, which would completely destroy the view of the new National Gallery, for the sake of which a large outlay of public money would have been in- curred. That was a great evil. How it was to be remedied was another question. As First Commissioner of Works he had no power whatever to interfere. On another occasion he might appeal to the House for its opinion on the subject. When the Metropolitan Board of Works was first constituted they could not undertake any work the expense of which exceeded £50,000 without the approval of the First Commissioner of Works; and before entering upon any work exceeding £100,000 they were compelled to obtain the sanction of Parliament. But in 1858 an Act was passed which repealed the sections of the previous Act conferring that power on the First Commissioner and on Parliament. What had been stated in regard to the road in question was strictly true; but the Metropolitan Board of Works were not responsible; their hands were as much tied as his own. When the Thames Embankment Act was passed it was thought by some persons that there ought to be a communication between Wellington Street, Strand, and Parliament Street, in order to divert the traffic, which, it was said, was too great for the Strand. He had strong doubts whether there was any proof that the traffic was too great for the Strand; and it was the opinion of the Metropolitan Board of Works that it would not require dividing at Wellington Street. But the Committee of the House decided that that road should be constructed; so that there would be two nearly parallel roads, one of which would be partly constructed on a Viaduct. The Metropolitan Board of Works at once saw that so hideous a structure as was at first proposed would destroy the whole effect of the Embankment, and would require a great group of buildings to mask it. The Committee, however, rejected the scheme of the Board of Works for a crescent in front of the road and Viaduct. It was first decided that this road should load from Wellington Street, but as the narrowest part of this street had been selected, the line was altered, and the road was to commence from the corner of Wellington Street and the Strand. But the inhabitants of the Savoy immediately rose against the scheme, and complained that it would disturb their ancient and venerable graveyard. This led to the final change of the plan, by which the communication would start from the broadest part of Wellington Street. A Bill was passed last Session authorizing that deviation; and it was an extraordinary fact that that Bill should have apparently got through the House without discussion, as a fresh opportunity was thus afforded of re-considering the whole question. The Embankment road ran along the north side of the Thames, and it was now proposed that a second road should run from Hungerford Bridge almost parallel with the Embankment road, and should have an ascent of forty feet to Lancaster Place, near Waterloo Bridge; but where the Viaduct nearly reached the level of the Strand—that was, about Salisbury Street and Cecil Street, and would prove some use to the public—power was given to the owners of the property to close those streets with gates, which would intercept the communication with the Strand. After all, the convenience in regard to shortening the distance between the Strand and Parliament Street would not be so great as had been supposed. He had had the distance measured, and found that there was a difference of a few feet only between that route and the route along the Strand into Parliament Street. There was no doubt that in an æsthetic point of view it would be perfectly monstrous to have a roadway gradually rising in the manner he had described and cutting the Embankment diagonally into two parts. The expenditure upon this new work was a serious matter for the consideration of the ratepayers of London. Estimates had already been given in to the extent of £230,000, but that would be very far from representing all that would be required to be paid. A large sum would be required to hide the monstrosity from view as much as possible by the planting of trees. Moreover, there would be a great gap left behind it similar to the one which long existed in Victoria Street, which would form a hideous receptacle for rubbish, dead eats, and other offensive matter; and it would be necessary to put the ratepayers to considerable additional expense to obviate that nuisance by filling up this hollow. But, as he had said before, he had no power to interfere in the matter. Sir John Thwaites and the Board of Works were as much opposed to the making of the road as he was, and he felt assured they would do everything they could to put a stop to its con- struction; but it would be very difficult for them to effect that object unless they were supported by an expression of the opinion and the authority of the House of Commons. He himself had contemplated the erection of a public building on the site in question, which was one of the best and most central in the metropolis, and the only area sufficiently large and convenient for a good public edifice that could now be obtained, but he suddenly found that he was precluded from carrying out his intention in that respect in consequence of the projected construction of a roadway, which would be of no use to anybody, to which the ratepayers were opposed, and against which he believed every man of taste would protest. It was in that manner that the subject was originally brought under his notice, and he was glad to find that it had been brought under the notice of the House, for it was only by the expression of a decided opinion on its part that the Board of Works would be enabled to interfere with the prosecution of a scheme which would entirely destroy a magnificent site. He thought the course proposed by the noble Lord (Lord Elcho) was a perfectly right one. A Committee of the House would be the proper tribunal to inquire respecting what was to be done. The Metropolitan Board of Works was not bound to proceed at once, as three years were allowed to construct the road; therefore there was plenty of time to reverse the decision to which the Committee on the Embankment Bill had come. And even though a few houses were purchased for carrying out the work, that would not cause any great loss—supposing they were bound to bear it.


said he must maintain that ample time had been given to the consideration of this matter. Eight years had elapsed since it was mooted, and therefore it could not be said that the ratepayers living in the precincts of the Savoy had been taken by surprise with respect to the construction of the road. The road was intended to furnish the means of direct communication between the eastern part of the Strand and Westminster Bridge, and its construction formed part of the scheme of the Commission which was appointed by the Crown to recommend a plan of improvement in that quarter of the metropolis in 1861. That Commission, he might add, differed very little from the council advocated by his noble Friend the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho), who seemed to think that if there were only a council to advise the First Commissioner of Works every one would be pleased. It was composed of men who were deemed to be most competent to advise on questions of that description. Among its members were two eminent military engineers—General Jebb and Captain Douglas Gralton—a civil engineer, Mr. Maclean—Sir William Cubitt, who was at the time Lord Mayor, Sir John Thwaites, and Mr. Hunt, the Surveyor of Works; so that the Board of Works were, through its Chairman, a party to the original proposal, for although it was true that Sir John Thwaites had not signed the Report, because he objected to one of the recommendations of the Commission, yet he had expressed his entire concurrence in the general scheme suggested. The Report, accompanied by a plan for a roadway, was, among other Papers laid before Parliament, and was in the following year 1862 submitted to a Committee of the House of Commons; so that the whole of the proceedings connected with the matter were as deliberate as possible, and it was Either too late to object to the roadway on the ground that nothing had ever been heard of it before. The road would be very useful, as the only convenient communication between the Strand and the Embankment, and as a relief to the traffic at Charing Cross and the Strand. The higher part of the Viaduct would not be constructed on the Embankment itself, but on the ground which was now occupied by the houses between Cecil Street and Lancaster Place. He might further observe in reply to those who objected to the roadway because it would, in their opinion, occupy a space which was valuable as a site for public buildings, that the original plan for the Thames Embankment was that the greater portion of it should be laid out as a recreation ground for the public, and not used for building purposes. An open space of that kind would be very ornamental. It would be better to let new buildings rise on the space only where old buildings now stand. The building which his right hon. friend (Mr. Layard) proposed to erect would be placed at the bottom of the Adelphi Terrace. He (Mr. W. Cowper) did not think that would be a favourable place for the erection of such a building. If the Metropolitan Board of Works had objected to this roadway they might have proposed to repeal the clause of the Act relating to it, but he had never heard of a proposal to repeal it. They could not at that moment repeal an Act of Parliament; but a Committee of the House might consider whether this road really involved the objections urged by his noble Friend, or whether the benefit of the communication could be obtained without disfigurement and without needless sacrifice of space.


said, he was of opinion that the speech of his right hon. Friend the Member for South Hampshire (Mr. W. F. Cowper) was the clearest illustration they had yet had of the defects of the existing system, and the most complete and clinching confirmation of all the arguments which had been urged by the preceding speakers. The very length of time over which, according to his statement, the arrangements had spread, concluding with the total ignorance which existed as to the ultimate form which they had assumed, was the severest possible condemnation of the entire affair. The right hon. Member had shown that notwithstanding the agencies of the Metropolitan Board of Works and of the First Commissioner of Works, the complicated commissions, notices, forms of the House, and so forth, a Bill had passed through Parliament of which nobody knew anything, and which everybody was startled at when they first happened to hear of it. Now, if such a thing occurred under the present cumbrous management, it proved not only that they were very naughty children indeed, but that they had schoolmasters trained upon very bad models, and that some organization should set to work to alter the whole system. It was really appealing a good deal to their imagination to tell them, as his right hon. Friend had just done, that a temporary Commission had the same power as, or was in any way equivalent to, a formal Council. He admitted that the merits of the proposed Council, on which the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) laid so much stress, were not strictly germane to the present question, and that a great deal might on this point be urged upon the other side. But to contend that a temporary Commission, appointed without any responsibility, and merely to deal with a particular matter, would have the same authority, either in the eyes of Parliament or of the public, as a permanent Board would be to say what few could agree to. The fact was that division of responsibility ended with no responsibility at all in the management of our public buildings. At each change of Government some accomplished gentleman found himself appointed to a Commissionership, which foreign journals translated Ministère des Travaux Publiques, and yet in the greater part of all that concerned the public works of the largest and most important city of the Empire, he had no more authority than the beadle at the Burlington Arcade. The Commissioner had, indeed, a few parks to look after; he might order about a few statues and plant a few flower-beds; and he was the authority whenever a public Department wanted to order a little new furniture. Such was the level of the English idea of Minister of Public Works. He trusted, however, that after the discussion of that evening something better might arise. He (Mr. Beresford Hope) had often raised his voice in the un-Reformed Parliament for a strong Minister of Arts and Architecture. He trusted now that the Reformed Parliament would grasp the conception. He hailed the manly speech of the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Layard) and his courageous confession of official impotence; and, in so doing, he claimed that the present First Commissioner should follow up his words with deeds, and propose some effective remedy. After what had taken place, the obnoxious Viaduct was, of course, doomed; but the evening's work would only have been half done if the benefit of the debate were to stop there. He called upon his right hon. Friend to propose some measure which should reorganize and strengthen our administration of public works. And now a few words with regard to the particular question at present before the House. His right hon. Friend the Member for South Hampshire had indeed, argued that this Viaduct would go a very short way over the reclaimed land, and would be chiefly carried through the ruinous houses upon the present river's bank. Not long ago, however, he happened accidentally to see what he believed was the authen- tic plan of the site; and unless his senses deceived him, the major portion of the Viaduct was to run upon the reclaimed land, and it was only to touch existing houses at either end. In short, if the right hon. Gentleman would refresh his memory by looking at the plans he would see that the whole of this portion of the reclaimed land would be hopelessly eaten up by the waste of space incident to the transverse course of the Viaduct. As to the argument that a public building ought not to be placed upon that plot because the land was originally laid out for a park or public recreation ground, that was not to the point of the present debate, and he wondered that the right hon. Member for South Hampshire urged it as if it had been. It might, indeed, be a question hereafter whether a fine public building or a public garden were the more desirable use of the ground. That was a fair matter for a debate. Either would be a noble, and, so to speak, an Imperial destination of that magnificent area, but both would be made impossible if this wretched Viaduct were to be carried out. Let the House clear the way to the discussion by deciding that, in some form or other, the land reclaimed from the river shall be devoted to public purposes, and not be surrendered to private enterprize, and prostituted to wharves and warehouses.