The Metropolitan Board of Works

From: The Government of Victorian London, 1855-1889: The Metropolitan Board of Works, the Vestries, and the City Corporation (1982), by David Owen:

“The new MBW would be composed of forty-five members, who were elected by the various vestries and district boards…

Among the forty-five members returned – or rather forty-four, since one, John Thwaites, was returned from both Southwark and Greenwich – Thwaites’s election was by far the most momentous. For, as chairman until his death in 1870, he guided the Board with sound sense and extraordinary patience. Though he was a Westmorland man, a contemporary newspaper could still describe him as “a type of the time we live in…the natural product of London matter-of-factism.” Determined rather than imaginative, he was solid and dependable, an excellent moderator and a sound judge among opposing points of view. He had been a person of some consequence in Southwark, and a leader in such enterprises on the south side of the river as the Surrey Gas Consumers Company, which had been formed to break the hold of the profiteering commercial companies, and which had reduced rates markedly. As one of the elected members of the final Commission of Sewers, he had kept his eyes and ears open and had turned out a pamphlet which still remains a useful introduction to the sewerage dilemma of the metropolis. When in the chair at the Board, the expression of his eyes was heavy with gloom; his face reflected no emotion. Neither praise nor blame seemed to affect him, and his somber smile could never develop into a laugh. Yet nothing seemed to escape him. In that often rowdy “Senate of Sewers” he used the gavel when it was needed, sometimes rising in his seat to command silence. As chairman he often had to take the blame for actions of which he himself disapproved, and, indeed, for inaction which he had done his best to avoid. Conceivably his qualities were not unconnected with his faith, that of an “old-fashioned Calvinist” of the Strict and Particular Baptist persuasion. In any case, Thwaites’s fifteen-year chairmanship was the Board’s outstanding period of achievement. Clearly its success cannot be ascribed entirely to his diligence and judgment. But, for whatever reason, one feels that after his death in 1870 the Board lost much of its momentum. Its two major achievements – main drainage and the embankment – were behind it, and no such obvious tasks loomed up for the future. Still, while Thwaites was in command, the Board seemed to be in diligent, firm hands. Lord John Manners, at his death, referred to his “determined spirit, great energy, capacities of no common order, together with a rare patience and power of reconciling conflicting views and interests.” The record of the Board, in a large degree, was to depend on the drive and the tactical skill of its chairman.

…The Board took over the old headquarters of the Sewers Commissioners at 1 Greek Street…”

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