HC Deb 22 February 1870 vol 199 cc708-18

rose to call the attention of the House to the toll charged on Chelsea Bridge, and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the Government Bridge at Chelsea should henceforth be freed from toll. The hon. Gentleman said the subject was of great importance, and excited considerable interest among the inhabibitants in Battersea Parish and neighbourhood. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1846 to form a Park in Battersea Fields, and another to build a suspension bridge, with approaches; it being stated in the Preambles of both Acts that the object was to endeavour to provide the most effectual means of improving the metropolis and increasing the facilities of communication. An Act had also been passed in 1858 to abolish the foot-passengers' toll on Chelsea Bridge after the payment of a sum of £80,000 with interest, and in 1865 a Bill had been brought in by Sir John Shelley. Mr. Locke King, and Mr. Locke, which was referred to a Select Committee, to abolish the tolls taken from foot passengers passing over the bridge. That Committee had sat in the months of May and June in that year, and had collected a very valuable amount of information, but it had, unfortunately, made no Report, being unable to arrive at any definite conclusion, and ended its labours by merely recommending that it should be re-appointed in the ensuing' Session. It had, however, never been be re-appointed, and the matter dropped. Since then Papers had been moved for by the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) on the subject, a Petition, signed by 388 tradesman and 2,010 mechanics, had been presented last-year with respect to it, and a large deputation had waited on the late First Commissioner of Works, calling his attention to the matter. As regarded the financial position of the bridge, he had to state that it had been open eleven years, and that in those eleven years the net annual revenue derived from the tolls was £1,575, the cost of collection and maintenance being deducted. The gross amount of the tolls for the eleven years was £51,069, and the debt, including principal and interest, was £97,500, so that the Act of Parliament passed in 1858 in reference to its liquidation remained, and must always remain, a dead letter; for the revenue, which had been decreasing for three years past, would be thirty-eight years paying off the single principal, or—the principal being left a continual burden—interest at 2½ per cent would swallow it all up. It would, therefore, be seen at once that the receipts from the tolls would never pay principal and interest taken together. The bridge, as he had already stated, had been opened eleven years, and at the end of the first five years, according to the latest information obtainable, 957,000, or nearly 1,000,000 foot passengers had passed over it at a half penny per head, and 198,000 horses and vehicles, averaging 2d. each, yielding together for the year end- ing March, 1864, £3,681. Five years later, the revenue of last year—£5,700—being taken as a guide, the bridge would have been used by about half as many more; but from the inquiries he had made he had found that the increase was in the number of carriages and horses, and that the number of foot passengers had undergone little or no increase, proving that the action of the toll was very detrimental so far as they were concerned, for Chelsea and Battersea were both much more thickly populated now than five or six years ago. Again, it was worthy of remark that, although both parishes had largely increased in population, and Battersea Park had become more attractive than ever, the gross tolls of the bridge for last year were £300, or 6 per cent, less than either in 1867 or 1868. The grievance arising from the exaction of the toll was, he might add, felt by three classes of the people. The first class comprised owners of property. At present there were no fewer than 3,000 houses to let in the parish of Battersea, and its immediate neighbourhood. Although the bridge, as regarded the object for which it was opened, was a complete failure, the ratepayers had to provide for maintaining and lighting the roads, providing police, &c. The grievance was most felt by the artizan class, on whom the toll pressed heavily. A halfpenny might seem a small sum to Members of that House, but it became a serious matter to the poor man when he had to pay at the rate of 2 per cent on his wages for passing over this bridge, to say nothing of wives and children. Besides, the matter was one in which the general public were very much interested, for it was clear that the principal object for which the bridge had been built had been in a large degree frustrated. All the suburbs of Battersea Park were in striking contrast to its beauty, and the Government were acting in the present instance in direct opposition to the spirit of the age, which was to set all thoroughfares entirely free—now, the bridge was a convenience only to the rich, the poor in the neighbourhood were, to a large extent, deprived of the various benefits which the Park, as a public recreation ground, was intended to confer, to say nothing of being better housed, which they undoubtedly would be if they could avail themselves of the accommodation afforded by the 3,000 houses now lying empty on the Surrey side of the River. But was there no way in which the difficulty could be met? Was it impossible to recoup any part of the £97,500 standing to debit when the accounts were made up last year? The way was quite simple. The Returns, which had been moved for last year by the hon. Member for Westminster, showed that about sixty acres of land surrounding the park remained for sale in the parish of Battersea. That land was, probably, not so valuable now as it was a few years ago, before the comparatively wretched, outskirts came into existence; still, as the land which had been already sold had produced, on an average, £2,400 per acre, the remaining sixty acres would, if sold even at two-thirds of that price, realize nearly sufficient to wipe away the whole outstanding debt and interest. He hoped he had made out a case, showing that the abolition of the tolls would be of immense benefit to the inhabitants on both sides of the water, and especially to the poor people, who would avail themselves largely of the privilege of passing over the bridge as soon as the tolls now upon it were removed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer would, he thought, by looking a bad debt boldly in the face, be only taking a common-sense view of the question, and he bogged, therefore, in conclusion to move his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That, in the opinion of this House, the Government Bridge at Chelsea should henceforth be freed from toll."—(Mr. Peek.)


said, the case of this bridge was exceedingly peculiar; it had been erected by Government, was maintained by Government, and a toll, was exacted by Government. Whatever inconvenience there might be in the creation of works of this kind by Government, there could be no doubt that this inconvenience was increased when, simply with a view to obtaining revenue, a toll was exacted for passing to and, fro between great thoroughfares, and the inconvenience became almost a great public anomaly when the Government itself maintained a park at a larger cost than the benefit derived from the toll, and practically imposed a charge on the entrance of people into the park. Would it be tolerated if a toll were charged for entrance into Hyde Park? He main- tained there was very little difference between maintaining a toll for entrance into a park and for passing over a bridge into the park itself. But there was another ground upon which this toll ought to be remitted. In the district of Pimlico and Chelsea there was a great want of houses for working men, and it was impossible to build houses which working men could afford to occupy. But at Battersea there was land which at present was wholly unproductive, but might be very advantageously used in affording house accommodation. Upon these grounds he gave his cordial support to the Resolution of his hon. Friend.


said, that in 1857 the question of the propriety of remitting the tolls on Chelsea Bridge was submitted to a Select Committee, of which he was a member, and the Committee reported that funds had been advanced by the Government for building the bridge on the faith that tolls would be charged. Under these circumstances, and finding that the money could not be otherwise recouped, the Committee expressed an opinion unfavourable to the remission of the tolls. This question of the bridge was not to be taken alone, but in connection with Battersea Park, upon which the Government had expended upwards of £400,000. At the time the park was made it was said that it would, not be a burden on the public, but that the value of the adjacent land would be so much enhanced as to repay the cost both of the bridge and the park. It might appear invidious for any individual Member of the House to oppose what might be of advantage to the people, but there was a larger question under which this one was comprehended, the question whether purely metropolitan improvements were to be paid for by other persons than the taxpayers of the metropolis, and upon that question, and upon that alone, this Motion had been opposed for years in that House, and successfully. He thoroughly agreed with all that had been said as to the impropriety of tolls being placed on bridges, but the present claim he viewed not in regard to the general question, but as to whether faith was to be kept with the country. He would, therefore, oppose the hon. Gentleman's Motion.


said, though this bridge had not in a financial point of view been a success, he would remind the House that it stood in a very different position from other bridges upon which tolls were now exacted. These bridges belonged to private companies, and were generally subject to large mortgage debts, but the Chelsea Bridge was in the hands of the Government, who had power to throw it open or to keep it closed, as they thought proper. He was prepared to contend that there was a reasonable prospect of considerable advantage accruing to the Government from their throwing the bridge open to the public free of toll. He found, from the Return obtained less than twelve months ago by the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith), that there were fifty-six acres of land which were totally unproductive on account of the exaction of the tolls deterring the people from living on the Battersea side of the river. Now, if that land were sold for about the same price as had been realized for sixty-five acres, the residue of the original purchase, it would actually pay off the whole debt and leave some money over and above. But that was not all. The land would be enormously increased in value by the fact that the bridge was thrown open. He had heard various estimates made on that point, none of which placed the increased value at less than from 20 to 25 per cent. By throwing open the bridge they were literally improving the property of the Government, and giving better security for the debt which still remained upon it. Turning from the financial to the social and moral aspect of the question, how did the case stand? There was a large and dense population on both sides of the river, and employer: on the one side and employed on the other had at present no access for four miles along the river frontage without paying toll. Westminster Bridge, which was two miles distant, was the nearest by which workmen living on the opposite side of the river could reach their daily place of labour without being subject to a daily impost, and hon. Gentle men could scarcely be aware how serious a question that was now becoming. It had been his lot for sixteen years to reside in a parish on the Middlesex side and from that parish, out of a population of 10,000, no fewer than 2,000 the poorer classes had been removed in consequence of improvements affected within the last three years. Some provision in the shape of model lodging-houses had been made for these poor people by a noble Lord who had been recently removed from that House to "another place;" but more than half of them had been driven across the river because it was impossible for working men to find suitable house accommodation at this side. What was going on in his parish was also going on in surrounding parishes. He had had the honour that day of attending with a deputation on the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner of Works, and on that deputation there was a clergyman who had in his parish a still larger number than that he himself had named, who were in a similar position, living, however, still closer to Battersea Bridge, and there the demand for houses and house-rent was increasing daily. Numbers were crowded in houses, while numbers more were driven across the river into the parish of Battersea. Nor was this all. There was a population about Chelsea Bridge on the Middlesex side who were without any place of recreation, any place where they could take the air, without crossing the bridge. They were a mile and a half or two miles from the Royal Parks. Battersea Park was formed for the express purpose of their recreation and enjoyment, and they were simply cut off from it by the fact that a toll was still exacted for crossing the bridge. The Resolution of his hon. Colleague was one which should recommend itself to the good sense and good feeling of the House; it had, if he mistook not, been passed once before and he trusted the House now would follow so good an example.


said, that his constituents very much grudged the immense outlay of public money upon London, and he believed the country generally shared that feeling. If the people of London wanted to have a bridge thrown open, let them pay for it. At Glasgow they had pontages on bridges, and some of those pontages had been removed, not out of the general taxation of the country, but at the cost of the locality. He should, if required, support, the hon. Baronet the Member for King's County (Sir Patrick O'Brien.)


said, there was a considerable portion of Government land near the bridge, and if they abolished the tolls they would materially improve the value of that land, and thereby recoup the public accounts. Moreover, by doing away with the tolls, they could give much increased comfort and enjoyment to the London poor. These considerations combined would induce him to support the Resolution. When the noble Lord (Lord John Manners) was First Commissioner of Works a similar Motion to the present was made, and it was met by throwing open the bridge on Christmas Day, Easter, and Whit-Monday, and on Sundays—a boon much appreciated by the working classes. As the Saturday half-holiday had now become very general throughout London establishments, he would suggest that the Government might at least go a step further, and throw the bridge open every Saturday afternoon at two o'clock.


said, he was not at all surprised that hon. Members representing Westminster and that division of Surrey, comprising the part of the metropolis in which that bridge was situated, should join in pressing that Resolution upon the House. That Resolution was, in fact, a political inheritance which they derived from their predecessors in those seats, who had always been desirous that the House should make to that portion of the metropolis a present of the tolls now levied by law on the bridge referred to in the Motion. He entirely sympathized with those hon. Gentlemen as to the advantage of free communication between both sides of the Thames, and especially of free access to a park so delightful as that at Battersea. But the question now to be considered was whether the national Exchequer was to make a gift to a particular portion of the metropolis, and whether it was to take over to itself the obligation solemnly undertaken on the faith of those tolls from the particular fund now charged with that obligation. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Peek) had not very clearly explained the nature of that transaction, but had rather confounded two or three things that ought to be kept perfectly distinct. About twenty years or more ago a general project was submitted to the House that land should be bought and laid out as a park, a bridge built across the Thames leading to that park, and approaches made on the north, side, including the embankment of a part of the river near the bridge—a large undertaking, involving a great outlay. Parliament, regarding the project favourably, voted considerable sums from the national revenue to aid in carrying it out. It limited its assistance to a certain amount, and then enacted that the rest of the cost should be raised by loans, to be obtained by the Commissioners appointed to execute the Act from the authority intrusted with the duty of making loans for public works. Under that Act a sum of £80,000 was borrowed for the construction of the bridge and the approaches; and the tolls to be levied on the bridge would be mortgaged to the Public Works Loan Commissioners, as a security for the repayment of the £80,000, with 4 per cent interest. Under that arrangement, the sum of no less that £165,000 having been voluntarily contributed by the Votes of Parliament, the bridge and the approaches on that side were completed. No sooner, however, was the bridge opened for traffic than hon. Members, interested in the metropolis, commenced an agitation in that House; not, indeed, to abolish the tolls entirely—because that was looked upon then as rather an extravagant demand—but to remit the portion raised from foot passengers, under the notion that the tolls derived from horses and carriages would be sufficient. That proposal was supported by all the arguments urged that night in favour of the present Resolution; but the House referred it to a Select Committee, which, after inquiry, came to the conclusion that it was not expedient to remit the tolls pledged to repay the debt, and that it would be a violation of good faith to recommend that course. Moreover, the Committee reported that they did not concur in the reasoning put forward several times that evening, that the land connected with Battersea Park would be so greatly improved by the remission of the tolls that little or no loss would result from it to the public Exchequer, and, further, that they did not understand why the Government should be owners of the bridge over the Thames, and thought the trustees, represented by himself, ought to get rid of it as soon as practicable. That proposal dropped, but the agitation continued, and another Bill was introduced for the purpose of relieving the public from the tolls after a less sum had been repaid than was stipulated for in the original Act. The House was strongly opposed to any such proceeding, and finally the Act was passed in the very modified form of making the bridge free for foot passengers on Sundays, it being thought that the whole of the tolls for the rest of the week, with those derived from horses and vehicles on Sundays, would be sufficient to meet the obligation that had been incurred. Another concession was made, because the reversion of the tolls, after paying the debt, was pledged to the Government as a fund to recoup the money advanced for public improvements in the metropolis; but the Act of 1858 relieved the tolls of that obligation, and declared that as soon as the debt of £80,000 and the interest were paid, the toll on foot passengers should cease. Still, the former Member for Westminster again agitated the question, but, enlightened by what had previously occurred, he no longer asked for a present of £80,000 of the public money for the inhabitants of Westminster and Battersea, but made the more rational proposal that the Metropolitan Board should be empowered to purchase that and the other bridges over the Thames on which tolls were levied, in order that by raising an additional tax on coal, it might be enabled to make free all the bridges within their area. That was a comprehensive scheme. It was referred to a Select Committee, which, however, did not find it easy to adopt; but, after sitting throughout the Session, reported that they had not been able to arrive at any conclusion. From that day to this the subject had been entirely dropped The deliberate and consistent opinion of the House, then, during the last ten years having been, that it was expedient that public faith should be maintained when money was advanced by the Public Works Loan Commissioners on the security of the fruits of an improvement, it would now be in the highest degree impolitic to sanction a proposal that the fund pledged as a security in this case should be altogether wiped out by a Resolution of that House, or even by an Act of Parliament. It was, therefore, his duty to ask the House to adhere to its previous decision; for nothing could be more injurious to the general cause of improvement than to hold out the expectation that after money had been obtained from the Exchequer on the se- curity of the fruits of improvements any hon. Member might, by indirect means, get a loan converted into a gift. It would not be competent, by the rules of the House, for the hon. Member to ask for a direct grant of money for the benefit of his constituents. Yet that was realty what he was aiming at by an indirect process; and that, too, after the great amount of assistance already given to the inhabitants of that part of the metropolis by means of large Votes in Supply. He had no desire to continue master of Chelsea Bridge, Battersea Park, or the Embankment. He had not the least desire to interfere with them. They formed no legitimate part of his duty. Personally, he felt that he ought to get rid of this bridge as soon as possible; but how was he to do it? They had established a local Board in the metropolis, with power to tax the inhabitants, for the purpose of supplying all their wants, requirements, and enjoyments, so far as they could be supplied by law; and the Metropolitan Board, therefore, was the proper representative of the ratepayers for the purpose of embarking in questions of this character. They were invested by law with the power of providing bridges, parks, and places of recreation; and if it were desired that there should be free communication between the Wandsworth and Westminster districts, the duty fell on them to provide the means. When they were prepared to make any proposal to the Government by which they might take over this bridge the Government would be prepared to meet them.


said, he had shown that the revenue of the bridge was declining. It brought in no more than £1,600 per annum, while there was £97,500 to be paid off. The bridge, therefore, never could be free; and he only asked the Government to give up what really came to very little after all. He must press the question to a division, as there were a great many on both sides of the river who felt very strongly upon the subject.

Question put,

The House divided:—Ayes 21; Noes 162: Majority 141.