HC Deb 09 February 1875 vol 222 cc190-9

, in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the condition of the Metropolis as regards Lighting, Paving, and Cleansing, calls for legislation, said, that the question was whether the Metropolis should continue in its present condition of sordid anarchy with respect to those important matters. The last time he called attention to the subject, some years ago, he moved the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate and report upon the condition of London, but Sir George Grey, then Secretary of State, declined to accede to the Motion, on the ground that the facts were already well known, and there would be no advantage in issuing a Royal Commission on the subject. In the autumn of the same year Sir George Grey wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, calling attention to the debate and asking their opinion upon it. The question was fully discussed by the Metropolitan Board, and the conclusion to which they came, as might have been anticipated, expressed their high approval of the state of London, and the opinion that no reform was necessary. A Select Committee was subsequently moved for by the late Mr. Charles Buxton, which was consented to, and presided over by a right hon. Gentleman of great ability (Mr. Ayrton), then Member for the Tower Hamlets, a Member of the late Government, the result of which was to add two bulky and interesting volumes to the literature which already existed on the subject. There was a long Report with the Minutes of Evidence, but nothing came of it until last autumn, when a deputation waited on the Home Secretary. He (Sir William Fraser) was requested to take part in it, but he declined to do so, promising, however, to give his best attention to the Bill which was then foreshadowed. The facts of the case could hardly be disputed. The vestries of London, under whom we lived, and by whom we were ruled, had numerous advocates in the House, and if he was thought a foeman worthy of their steel, there would be an ample opportunity for defence. It was well known that they were most inefficient in their management of the local affairs of the metropolis; that they were a numerous and divided body, incapable of doing anything effectively; and it was to remedy the present state of things and to bring public opinion to bear upon the question that he brought forward his Motion. First of all, could anyone say that the paving of London was in a satisfactory condition? Taking on the one hand an aristocratic thoroughfare, and on the other, one inhabited by the humblest classes, he would submit to the House whether they indicated a state of things that ought to exist. He would not go as far as Bermondsey; but, taking Piccadilly, which had been paved in the most various ways; he did not know whether there had been asphalte, but there had been wood, granite, macadam; could it be said that its paving was such as it ought to be, or that it was managed so as to render walking as convenient and practicable as possible? At that very moment the inhabitants of Piccadilly, including a Royal Prince, were indebted to the charity of a private individual, who was permitted at a large expense to himself to assist in putting down a wooden pavement. Had there been an uniform system of administration uniformity of pavement would have been brought about. In Oxford Street and other great thoroughfares there was great variety, and in the smaller thoroughfares the variety was, if possible, still greater. How was the work carried out? When an accident occurred on a railway, men were set to work morning, noon, and night, to clear the line. But what happened in London when the pavement was being replaced? Men went to work, left off to go to dinner, and when dusk came not a man was to be found doing anything, though the traffic in London was a hundred times greater than on the most frequented railway. There was scarcely a day passed that they might not read in the newspapers accounts of accidents occurring in the streets, resulting in broken or dislocated limbs; and as for the roads in what were called "the outskirts," you might travel into any part of the Kingdom without finding worse. As an instance, the Queen's Road, near the Chelsea Suspension Bridge might be taken, and it would be found that it was periodically full of mud, slush, or dust, varied occasionally by masses of flint, which were thrown in the roadway and left there unrolled. Then the street gas was very bad, so he was informed; and when he visited any other town he found it to be better. They paid the best price, and yet they got an indifferent article; and if they complained about it the companies, who possessed great capital, would turn round and say—"Do your worst." In fact, they laughed at the remonstrances of the vestries; while as to the lamp-posts, many of them appeared to form part of an old stock accumulated in the reign of one of the Georges, which was now being gradually used up. Thirdly, with regard to cleansing, could anything be worse? In the summer there was constant dust, in the winter mud and slush, followed by granite, flints, and every sort of ingredients. And not only that, but we were told that a great many of the worst disorders, those called entozoic, were caused by decayed particles of matter carried about. As for the question of snow, which at times was wont to agitate the newspapers, we know that vast masses of it were allowed to accumulate, as some thought, quite unnecessarily. It might be very difficult to remove quickly a heavy fall, but there were other means of getting rid of snow, which surely might be tried; for instance, it might possibly be melted by heated rollers. One great difficulty in dealing with London was its vast extent; but, besides, it was completely different from every other city. One of the most interesting discoveries of the present generation was the unearthing of the vast sites of ancient cities, such as Babylon and Nineveh, situated on what was once, and might again become, the great highway of the world. Those cities were built with far more regard to sanitary conditions than London. For instance, instead of being wedged together as with us, every house had its garden, and he need not dwell on the salubrious effect of such an arrangement. The vestries were very much blamed for the state of things of which he complained: no doubt the main point was that these bodies were far too weak. It was easy to bring accusations of venality, and to say that no persons went to a vestry except for corrupt purposes. He did not share that opinion. These men might do their best; but their best was not at all good. In the last century, a philosopher who cared, perhaps, more for point and antithesis than truth, speaking of different kinds of Government said— Whate'er is best administer'd is best. He would not say that, but he would say that "whate'er is worst administered is worst; "there could be nothing worse than the administration of London. Nor were the different Acts of Parliament governing these bodies by any means strong enough. Many of the clauses of Sir Benjamin Hall's Act began with the word "may." "The vestry may do this or that; "the word" shall" ought to have been substituted. Several different schemes for the government of London had been suggested, to all of which, of course, objections might be urged. One was that London should be formed into a vast corporation with the City for a centre; but it was probable that the City, being very rich, would not care to amalgamate itself with another corporation, which was not only very poor, but was burdened with a heavy and increasing debt. Another scheme was to form each of the Parliamentary boroughs into a corporation; but he feared if that were done, the men who served in those corporations would not be much more enlightened than the present vestrymen. He believed there was a considerable jealousy of London, and a desire in many quarters that it should continue weak, and broken up into opposing bodies that it might not become a rival to Parliament. It had occurred to him, therefore, that it might be brought more directly under the control of that House if a Minister were appointed for London, aided by an elected Board, which should have the necessary taxing powers in regard to the three great essentials he had named. Were that done, he felt sure that there would be one great sigh of relief from all the ratepayers of London. He did not ask for immediate legislation, but he hoped that something would be done soon. It was necessary to bring public opinion to bear on the matter, and it was in the hope of doing something towards that end, and towards arousing a feeling on the subject, that he had brought forward the Motion. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, the condition of the Metropolis as regards Lighting, Paving, and Cleansing, calls for legislation."—(Sir William Fraser.)


said, that though the Metropolitan Board, of which he had the honour to be Chairman, had nothing to do with paving or lighting, yet he felt it his duty to make a few remarks on those subjects. In doing so, he would at once say, he could take little exception to the manner in which the Motion had been brought forward. He did not intend, on this occasion, to enter into a detailed defence of the government of London, because that was not the question involved in the Motion, and it would probably come before the House at some future time. In his opinion, after having given considerable attention to the paving, cleansing, and lighting of the metropolis, he thought that, on the whole, though there might be some cause of complaint, these things were fairly done, considering that there were 1,200 miles of streets to attend to, and an area of 120 square miles. Speaking, not, like his hon. Friend, as a gentleman of leisure, rather fond of criticism, but as Chairman of the Metropolitan Board, and also as having previously served on local vestries and district boards, he could assure the House that a vast amount of care and attention was given to the work, and he thought that, speaking generally, the governing bodies deserved praise rather than the reverse. Considering, too, that his hon. Friend had had since August last to prepare his indictment against the vestries and district boards, he thought the case just presented to the House was rather a meagre one. His hon. Friend mentioned the paving of Piccadilly; but had he ever considered that the gradients of Piccadilly were not the same throughout the whole length, and that it was impossible to put asphalte on a Bill, or horses would tumble down? Then his hon. Friend said, that if London were under a single government, there would be one uniform paving. Now, he did hope the day would never arrive when there would be one uniform system throughout the whole metropolis. Where there was a vast amount of traffic, pitching was absolutely necessary; while in other places, gravel would suffice. He was glad to see that wood pavement was being laid down in various places. It had formerly been tried and failed, but he hoped it would prove successful now. Local boards, however, would be blamed if they spent a great deal of money upon experimental pavements, though they were quite ready to adopt them on a larger scale if they proved successful. As to lighting, he should not say much. It would be his duty by and by to introduce Bills, asking the House to assist him in purchasing or regulating the gas undertakings of the metropolis, and he should expect the cordial support of his hon. Friend in that endeavour. Meanwhile, if the gas companies put bad gas into the public lamps, his hon. Friend must not blame the vestries. In justice to the companies whose gas had to be tested by the Metropolitan Board, he was bound to say that the gas was generally found to be up to the mark when thus tested; but, in any case, the vestries and district boards were not responsible if the gas were not of the best character. The cost of lighting in one or two parishes would show how considerable this item of local expenditure was, and that the vestries had not fallen short of their duty in that respect. In St. Pancras, the lighting cost £15,428; in St. George's, Hanover Square, £11,498; and in St. Marylebone, £17,368; while the paving in Marylebone cost £17,399; in St. George's, Hanover Square, £20,281; and in St. Pancras, £38,947. The vestries were, therefore, alive to their duties, and felt that they were bound to spend large sums of money in this way. Surely, however, there must be some limit to this expenditure. Vestries could not go on increasing the rates indefinitely. The rates even now ranged from 3s. 6d. up to 6s. or 7s. in some eases; and he had often had to vote with a sad heart, when appeals were made by poor people, ill able to bear the rates. It was the duty of the persons who controlled these funds, to use them in the most economical manner. As regarded cleansing, he agreed that it was of importance, in the interests of public health, to do as much as possible in removing the summer dust and the winter mud; but in a changeable climate like ours, sometimes even the best intentions must be baffled by the state of the weather. One or two facts respecting the expenditure for cleansing the streets would, perhaps, astonish the House. In 1874, this item amounted in Marylebone to £12,262, and 129 men were employed daily. In St. George's, Hanover Square, it cost £9,242, with 80 or 90 men employed; and in Westminster, it cost £7,600. The vestry which had the charge of Regent Street, employed gangs of men, who began their work at 4 o'clock, both in summer and winter, and in other parts of London, the men began work at 5 o'clock, so that the larger thoroughfares might be cleansed at a proper time without impeding the traffic. The snow was always a matter of complaint, but it was impossible to gather up at once a large mass of snow. During the last fall of snow, 600 men were employed in the parish of St. George's Hanover Square, at a cost of £400; and general instructions were given to the surveyor that whenever a fall of snow occurred, he had carte blanche to do what was necessary. According to an estimate which had been prepared by the surveyor of St. George's Vestry, it would take the same amount of labour of men and horses to clear the streets from six inches of snow, as would suffice to cleanse them for a whole twelvemonth. The same might be said for both Marylebone and St. Pancras. That estimate would show the House what enormous difficulty was occasioned by a deep fall of snow in the metropolis. One of the chief difficulties in connection with the subject was to find a shoot for the snow. Carts, and men to put the snow into them, might be hired, but what was to be done with the snow when it was in the carts? and that was a difficulty that increased year by year, the carts having to go further and further to find a shoot. The cost of watering the roads, again, was probably, on the average, £90 per mile. The hon. Baronet had charged the vestries and district boards with having been wanting in their duty; but he begged to lay the following figures before the House, compiled from a return from most of the vestries and district boards, showing what had been done in these respects during the last 19 years in which the Metropolitan Board had been in existence. The parish of St. Mary, Islington, had laid down 541,363 square yards of paving, at a cost of £105,278, and had put up 1,246 lamps. The parish of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, had laid down 501,645 square yards of paving, at a cost of £119,094, and had put up 70 lamps. The parish of Bethnal Green had laid down 364,629 square yards of paving, at a cost of £104,300. The parish of Kensington had laid down 149,000 yards of paving, at a cost of £113,963, and had added 2,275 lamps. All the districts had not sent in returns, but the returns that had been furnished showed that in parts of the metropolis, 4,871,501 square yards of paving had been laid down, at a cost of £2,079,880, and that 14,440 lamps had been put up during the period to which he had referred. Under these circumstances, he thought that the much-abused vestries and district boards of the metropolis were entitled to some little credit, at all events, for what they had done in this direction. He should state, in conclusion, that the Metropolitan Board had no control over this matter, and could only notify deficiencies to the vestries and district boards, with a view to their correction.


said, he wished to bear his testimony to the deplorable state in which many of the thoroughfares of the metropolis were allowed to remain on Sundays. To whatever cause it was due, they were left wholly uncleansed and unwatered, so that London, on a Sunday, when there was a high wind prevailing, was simply insufferable. No doubt a great many of the vestries were entitled to commendation for the way in which they looked after the interests of their parishes; but there were others of which the same thing could not be said, and a discussion like the present would be very useful in arousing them to a sense of their duties. At the same time, he felt that it was scarcely right, seeing how high the parochial rates were, to ask the vestries to increase the burdens of the ratepayers.


said, that no man was better entitled to speak upon the subject than the hon. Baronet who had introduced it to the notice of the House, he having called attention to it years ago, when Sir George Grey, who was then Home Secretary, promised to take the matter into the consideration of the Government; and he had much ground for complaint when, after the lapse of so many years, he found that the streets of the metropolis were in the same state as when he first drew attention to the subject. The hon. Baronet had placed the matter very ably before the House; but he had made one rather important omission in his speech, and that was to show how the evil he pointed out was to be cured. He trusted that the hon. Baronet would go a step further, and would embody his views in the shape of a practical Bill, when his proposals might be more easily discussed. He had also listened with much attention to what had fallen from the hon. Member who had spoken in defence of the vestries. He was not about to enter on the present occasion into the question of how far the vestries had carried out what was entrusted to them, or how far they had failed to do so; for, judging from what had been stated that night, he would have ample opportunities at another period of the Session of going further into this matter. But his hon. Friend the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board had said a great deal about cost and very little about science. Now, he (Mr. Cross) could not help thinking that by the application of scientific knowledge, much greater results than any that had yet been attained might have been effected at a much less cost in lighting, cleansing, and paving. What was wanted was some mode of applying scientific knowledge, and any private Member who brought forward a proposal of this kind, which would affect the whole of the metropolis, should be very careful that his plan should provide for the greatest convenience to the public at the least possible cost, and this could only be secured by applying scientific knowledge to the subject. A good deal had been said about the clearing away of the snow after a heavy snow-storm, and he had received numbers of letters complaining of him for not taking steps to secure its removal, and also for not seeing that the crossings were swept and the pavements prevented from becoming greasy; but he wished to take that opportunity of replying to those persons en masse, and to remind them that it was the duty of every householder in London to see that the pavement in front of his premises was swept and cleaned. He knew that this was enforced during the prevalence of snow, but it was not strictly enforced at other times. He trusted that, after the discussion which had been evoked, the hon. Baronet would not deem it necessary to go to a division on his Resolution, but would withdraw it.


said, he was willing to accede to the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman. He must still however maintain that men who were entrusted, as vestrymen were, with the disposal of vast sums of money ought to be the very best men that could be got. The right hon. Gentleman had suggested that he (Sir William Fraser) ought to bring in a Bill. He had purposely avoided that course, for it could not be expected that a non-official Member would be able to carry a comprehensive measure on such a subject. He had confined himself to making a suggestion, which he still thought was not an unsound one, namely, that there should be a Board consisting of a limited number of persons, and presided over by a Minister of high rank. In a letter which appeared last autumn in The Times, Lord Grey suggested that a Committee of the Privy Council should be appointed to consider this question. But, surely there was a Committee of the Privy Council sitting en permanence, and receiving high, though not too high, emoluments, by whom the matter might very properly be considered. He hoped the present debate would be the means of attracting general attention to the subject, and that he would live long enough to see London very different from what it now was in the respects to which he had referred.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.