HL Deb 27 July 1858 vol 151 cc2154-61

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill to which I now invite your Lordships to give a second reading is one of considerable importance, and, as those must admit who have recently experienced the state of the river, of great urgency. Fortunately, the manner in which it has been sent up by the other House does not involve the necessity on our part of entering into a discussion of all the various schemes which have been proposed for remedying that which is an undoubted nuisance. The first question to be considered in dealing with this great subject was, at whose expense the necessary works for the purification of the Thames and the better drainage of the metropolis ought to be carried on. It was contended, on the one hand, that it was merely a local work, affecting the metropolis alone, as similar works affected other great towns; while, on the other hand, it was argued that the metropolis stood in a position quite apart from all other towns—that it was the seat of the Legislature, of the courts of law, and of the various public offices, and that, consequently, there was a fair claim on the part of the metropolis that some portion of the expense should be borne by the general public. It was thought, and justly thought, by the House of Commons, however, that, although it is quite true that the metropolis is an object of general interest, yet that, inasmuch as the presence of all the great public Departments brings a great concourse of persons to the metropolis, and adds materially to its wealth, there is no ground for not applying to the metropolis the same principle in this respect which is applied to all other towns. I cannot but express my opinion that the importance of the step now to be taken can hardly be overrated, because it is an experiment upon a gigantic scale which certainly will serve either for an example or a warning to all the other great towns of the country. Not the Thames only, but all the other rivers in this country have become polluted to a degree which renders it absolutely necessary that some steps should be taken for their purification. On a small scale I believe that successful operations have been conducted with this view at Leicester, and that the inhabitants of Glasgow—much to their credit—are endeavouring to carry out important works of the same kind. If the metropolis, therefore, were to receive a certain portion of assistance from the public funds, I can hardly conceive on what grounds applications for similar assistance from Edinbugh, Dublin, and what I may term the "provincial metropolises" generally, could be refused. I confess that my own opinion is, that this is a work which should be performed by the metropolis for the benefit of the metropolis, and, considering the immense wealth of the immense population among whom the expense is to be divided, it does not seem to me to be beyond what might fairly be expected from the inhabitants of a great city like this. If, then, the principle be adopted that the inhabitants of the metropolis should pay for carrying into effect this great work, it seems to follow as a necessary consequence that the persons to whom its execution should be intrusted should be those who possess the confidence of the metropolis itself; and as there exists a Board elected by the ratepayers of the different districts only two or three years ago for carrying out great works of local improvement, it seemed to the House of Commons that that Board—so constituted and maintained by the payment of rates—should be the body to carry out the intentions of Parliament with regard to the purification of the river. That Board since its original establishment has certainly not been very effective or very operative; but it must be remembered that it never either had any absolute discretion as to the carrying out of works, or any funds for the execution of them. It is, therefore, not very surprising that the Board failed to accomplish any work of importance; for its powers were so limited as to be absolutely and entirely worthless. The House of Commons then determined that if you are to have a Board of that kind, it was necessary that you should intrust it with sufficient funds to execute the purposes which it had to perform, and that the responsibility which it owed to the ratepayers in the disposition of their funds should be interfered with as little as possible by extraneous authority. The House, therefore, resolved to delegate the absolute and entire trust of executing this great work to the Metropolitan Board, which has been elected by the ratepayers of London, out of whose funds the expenses are to be provided. It has been thought wise not to encumber the provisions of this Bill by precise limitations with regard to any particular scheme, to the exact point where the outfall is to take place, or to any precise regulations to be carried into effect; but to leave the utmost possible latitude to the Metropolitan Board of Works for abating, on their own responsibility, out of the funds of their constituents, that which has become an intoler- able nuisance. There can be very little doubt that that nuisance has been very materially aggravated by the sanitary regulations of the last few years, by which we have purified the houses and the sewers of London, but have poured the whole collective filth into the river, and have thereby produced an amount of pollution which is now perfectly intolerable. The Board of Works, as I have already intimated, are by this Bill constituted the sole authority for executing the works which may be necessary for the purification of the river. It is generally understood—although there is no express provision in the Bill to that effect—that the modus operandi is to be by intercepting sewers whereby the sewage of the metropolis not be allowed to be poured into the river until it shall have undergone at such place or places as may be determined on the process of deodorization. No doubt it would be a great object—and I think it is one to which science ought to be immediately and urgently directed—to ascertain whether it would be possible to reconcile the two great ends of deodorizing the sewage of great towns and of obtaining from it at the same time the valuable product of manure. I believe that all the experiments which have been hitherto tried have unfortunately failed to reconcile those two objects; for in proportion as you deodorize you deprive the sewage of those fertilizing qualities which it possesses, and thereby diminish the value of the manure. It certainly does seem to be an incredible fact that we should be paying enormous sums of money for the importation of manure from foreign countries at the same time that we are pouring into the river, to corrupt and pollute the stream, an immense amount of manure, the value of which can hardly be calculated or exaggerated. It is to be hoped that hereafter science will arrive at the means of reconciling these two objects. If it do we shall derive a vast pecuniary advantage coupled with the greatest possible benefit to the health and comfort of the metropolis. The provision by which the Board are to be enabled to undertake and carry out these works is that they shall be entitled to levy by rate upon the various districts of the metropolis a suns of £3,000,000, the interest upon which together with a sinking fund, it is proposed to raise by means of a rate of 3d. in the pound fur forty years. Though the Government do not intend to grant any money from the Consolidated Fund in aid of this undertaking, yet considering the magnitude of the works, they have interposed to a certain extent the credit of the Government to enable the Board to borrow money at a more advantageous rate than would otherwise be in their power; and there is also a provision in the Bill enabling the Exchequer Loan Commissioners to lend money to the Board on the security of the rates. The provisions of the Bill, as I have described them, are such that it would be scarcely possible for your Lordships to make any material alteration in them; for the whole Bill, as it stands, is of a pecuniary character, making pecuniary arrangements for carrying these great works to completion. At the same time I do not anticipate that your Lordships will be disposed to interfere for We purpose of throwing any obstacle in the way of endeavouring to remedy a state of things which has grown to be unbearable. It must be admitted that this, to a certain extent, is an experiment; but the Board of Works have now had three or four years to consider the question, and they have had the advice and assistance of most experienced engineers. They have expressed their satisfaction with the powers which we are about to confer on them, and they are of opinion that they will now be able to restore the river to some portion at least of the purity which it formerly possessed, but which it has lust by the effects of our recent legislation.

Moved that the Bill be now read 2a.


said, that he did nut think it at all likely that any opposition would be offered by their Lordships to the passing of the Bill. The noble Earl had told them that the Government had abstained from proposing any particular scheme; but he should remind the noble Earl, that although the Bill did not ay down any particular scheme of drainage, yet as it imposed the duty of carrying out the undertaking on a body which was pledged to one scheme, and therefore it did practically ask the assent of Parliament to that particular scheme. He had no intention of entering into any discussion as to the merits of the respective schemes proposed by the Board and by the Government referees. He had no doubt that they both had their defects as well as their merits. But he felt convinced that it was better to proceed at once with the matter, even at the risk of making a false step, than to continue in the precut state of complete inaction; for the time was now come when something or other must be done to remedy the present state of things. He concurred with the noble Earl as to the wisdom of abstaining from giving assistance from the Consoldated Fund, for he had always been of opinion that the under taking was one the cost of which ought to be borne by the metropolitan ratepayers; but when the noble Earl prided himself upon adopting the popular principle in this case he (the Duke of Newcastle) should observe that that principle was embodied in the constitution of the Metropolitan Board to the smallest possible extent? What was that Board? It was not a body, like the corporations of our great towns, elected by the ratepayers. It went through all manner of processes in order to divest itself of the principle of direct representation. The first process in its formation was an election not by the ratepayers, but by the vestries, which were not themselves, in all cases, chosen by the ratepayers, and which were formed not for municipal but parochial purposes. But the men elected by the vestries had to make another election for the purpose of filtering, and, as it were, deodorizing themselves from the taint of popular representation; the object of that second election being to obtain a body of forty-three gentlemen who formed the Board. He had thought it proper to state those plain facts with respect to the constitution of that body; but, at the same time, he was not prepared to complain of the proposal that to them, in the absence of any more popular body, should be committed the superintendence of that undertaking. He believed that one result of entrusting to the Board so great a work would be to revive the question of the propriety of creating one municipal body for the whole of the metropolis; and, for his part, he felt convinced that such a step must before long be taken. One of the great evils of the present Board was its numbers. It appeared to him that those forty-three gentlemen would form too large an executive body; and he feared that when they came to consider the details of that undertaking, discussions must arise among them which would justify the nick-name they had already received of "the Board of Words," instead of the "Board of Works." He understood that it had at first been proposed that those gentlemen should be enabled to form from among their own number a subcommittee of six, which should preside over the execution of those works; and he regretted to perceive that that provision had been removed from the Bill. Indeed, he should himself have preferred that the executive body in that ease consisted not of six, but of three members. He was glad, however, to find that the clause giving the Government a power of inspection and control in the execution of the works had been struck out, for the less intrusive interference there was on the part of the Government with the Board the more likelihood there would be of some practical result being arrived at. He was also sorry to perceive that the present conservators of the river, of whom the Lord Mayor was at the head, were to have a power of controlling the action of the Board; but he could not feel much surprised at the introduction of clauses for effecting that object, after he had read in the newspapers the ominous announcement that the Conservators, with a party of their friends and supporters, the City Remembrancer, and all the paraphernalia of office, had paid a visit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The natural result of that visit was the introduction of provisions into the Bill which would throw in the way of the Board impediments which it was, in his opinion, most desirable should not exist. Those provisions would give considerable control in that matter to the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of London. He remembered that the present Lord Mayor was reported to have said, not long since, that he had long and devoutly prayed that he should, in the capacity of chief magistrate of the City of London, have the honour of receiving at his feet the noble Earl opposite as the head of Her Majesty's Government. That prayer had been granted, and he did not grudge the Lord Mayor the great gratification to which its fulfilment must have given rise but he believed that even in the utmost paroxyism of his piety the Lord Mayor could never have contemplated the passing of a measure which would give the body of which he was the head the power of controlling an outlay of £3,000,000 and thwarting the execution of a great public work. He should say that he looked at the introduction of those clauses with great distrust and anxiety, and that he could see no reason for a special reservation of the rights of the Conservators of the Thames more than those of any other body upon such a subject as that which their Lordships were then considering. But, under all the circumstances of the case, he was glad that the present measure had been introduced, for he was convinced that unless some course of action was immediately adopted, we should run the risk of being exposed in some less salubrious season than the present to some frightful public calamity.


was glad that it was wholly left to the Board to find out the proper points at which the sewage should fall into the Thames, and that the words were omitted which indicated the place "not higher on the north side than Barking Creek, and not lower on the south side than Erith." He was the last to complain of relieving the metropolis from what was likely to be an increasing nuisance, but they ought not to discharge the whole of the sewage just opposite Erith, or any other village on the borders of the Thames, which suffered enough from the effects of the London sewage already. He was, therefore, glad also to see, that the Bill would enact that the Board should not do anything to create a nuisance. It was some sort of security, although he believed medical men were of opinion that deodorization would not remove the injurious and insalubrious effects of the sewage.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House To-morrow.