HC Deb 18 June 1858 vol 151 cc27-40

said, he rose to ask the Chief Commissioner of Works what steps he has taken, or proposes to take, to preserve the health of the Members of the two Houses of Parliament from being destroyed by the present pestilential condition of the River Thames. When he asked a question—cognate with the present—on a former occasion, the noble Lord opposite (Lord J. Manners) referred him to that august body constituted by Act of Parliament, and called the Metropolitan Board of Works, and told him that the matter was under their consideration. He had noticed the proceedings of that body since they first began to enter upon their duties. At first he was pleased to see that their proceedings were practical and energetic, and gave hope that something would be done to purify the river, but latterly they had been completely futile, and he had ceased to take any notice of them. Indeed he believed that the public press had discontinued to report their proceedings, and had left them to their own devices. He had been told that the only plan before the Board at the present moment for abating the dreadful nuisance which was oppressing not only the Members of both Houses of Parliament, but the whole community on the banks of the Thames, was one for delivering the whole sewage of London into the middle of the Thames, instead of the sides of the river; and that scheme seemed to exhaust the wisdom of the body. He would also state another fact, for the purpose of showing how they managed the business committed to their care. They sat, he believed, with great regularity, and one of the Resolutions which they had to consider that very day was a Resolution of which Mr. Wright, one of their members, had given notice in the following terms:— That he would draw attention to the present polluted state of the river Thames, and move that the Board will, on a day to be agreed upon, inspect the river in a steamboat hired for the purpose. They had thus to consider whether they should parade the river in a steamboat, with a view to ascertain what was its condition at a time when, as we suppose, no rational men could have any doubt upon the subject. If they were to go on that voyage of inspection, he (Mr. Mangles) hoped that they would take a good supply of brandy and other condiments with them, for the purpose of obtaining relief from the sickening sensations they must experience. An hon. Friend of his who had gone down the river the other day to see the Leviathan had told him that he had been obliged to stop on the way to take a large dose of the stimulating alcohol to which he had referred, in order to counteract the nauseating effects of the voyage. He (Mr. Mangles) believed that the House had committed a great mistake in handing over a matter of that importance to any municipal body. The question was really one of an imperial character, and ought to have been so treated by the Legislature. He felt persuaded that Parliament ought at once to arrest its past error, and take the matter into its own hands. This metropolis was by far the most populous and the wealthiest city in the world, and yet it appeared that its inhabitants were unable to relieve themselves from the pollution of their own filth. If cholera were to visit the metropolis while the river was in its present state, the mortality would be something dreadful, and a great responsibility would rest upon the Legislature. Every one would remember the remarkable chapter in Lord Macaulay's History of England, which described the state of England in the reign of Charles II., but that which struck us as most wonderful and strange—the unpaved streets, for example, infested by highwaymen—would be as nothing, to the astonishing fact for our descendants that we so long submitted to this dreadful nuisance. Parliament had handed over the whole matter to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and nothing was done. When he was a young man, he remembered Thames salmon were celebrated. The salmon, wiser than Members of Parliament, had avoided the pollution, and he was informed that cartloads of fish were taken out of the Thames which had died in consequence of the state of the river. A noble mansion was prepared for the right hon. Gentleman who occupied the Chair, but could any hon. Gentleman expect Mr. Speaker to live in an atmosphere into which they would not put their worst enemy? They had built on the banks of the Thames a most magnificent palace for the Legislature, but how could they direct the attention of any foreigner to it, when he would be welcomed by a stench which was overpowering? God had given to them a most magnificent river, and they bad turned it into the vilest of sewers. The country could provide £320,000,000 for railways, but £1,000,000 or £2,000,000 could not be applied to diminish this great evil.


said, he rose to beg permission to vindicate the Board of Works, of which he was a member, as far as he could from the aspersions which had been cast upon it. The fault was with Parliament. Parliament invented a scheme which was not practicable, and appointed the Board of Works to carry it out. The Board were directed to carry the sewage below the metropolitan district, and they set about the work by calling upon engineers to produce a plan, which, if the scheme were good, was a good plan. They sent it up to the Chief Commissioner of Works, whose duty it was to say whether it was a proper scheme. He naturally shrank from the responsibility, and called in professional aid. The engineers to whom it was referred said the sewage would come back too far up the river, and the Chief Commissioner sent the plan back. The engineers of the Board produced another plan, which carried the sewage lower down the river. The Chief Commissioner was in the same "fix"—either to put a veto on it, or take the responsibility of it. He very wisely called in three engineers who had never had anything to do with the matter, and said to them, "Advise me whether this is a proper thing to do." They looked into it and said, "The metropolis will in a few years be three times as large as it is now, and you ought to provide for the future." The engineers of the Chief Commissioner prepared a plan, and it was sent to the Board of Works. The Board, besides ordering the work to be done, had to find the money to do it. The estimate for the plan sent to them was between £5,000,000 and £6,000,000, and those who were called upon to advise the Board said, "It is a monstrous plan, and will cost twice as much as the estimate." The Board had to consider whether they ought to spend £10,000,000 or £11,000,000, to be raised by a rate exclusively on the metropolitan district, and, besides that, many persons doubted whether the scheme was a proper one. He confessed he very much doubted the propriety of returning the 80,000,000 gallons of water which they received daily, half of it from the Thames west of London at a point thirty miles distant. They had provided a daily supply of thirty-two gallons of water for every man, woman, and child, and by that means there was in London a perfectly healthy internal system; but the question was, whether in hot dry summer weather they could take out that bulk of water without affecting the supply if it were returned at so distant a point. He had been on the Thames for the last three or four days, and he entirely agreed in everything which had been said as to the vile state of that magnificent river. Something must be done. If the Board of Works had been appointed to consider what was to be done they might be charged with neglect of duty; but Parliament did not charge them with that duty. They said, "Make a great sewer and take the sewage away," and there was a dispute whether they proposed to carry it far enough or not. Within the last few weeks a Committee had been appointed to hear the scheme of Mr. Goldsworthy Gurney. He was a Member of the Committee, and he took upon himself to say that it would be a very valuable auxiliary to any scheme which could be proposed. But it would not do alone. There must be some means by which the water could be returned into the Thames almost as pure as when it was taken out, and it was his decided opinion that it would not do to send the water away thirty miles from London. He had no doubt that it was possible to devise some scheme which would be satisfactory.


said, that he found himself suddenly forestalled by the hon. Member for Guildford, not having been aware that he had intended to put his question on the Votes relating to the subject to which his (Mr. Warren's) Motion referred, and least of all that he had intended to go into the question at large. The subject, however, was much too important and pressing to be passed over without further notice; and he still intended to call the attention of the House to it, but very shortly. The root of the whole mischief, from which we were now beginning to suffer so seriously, lay in the enormous fallacy of supposing that a local Board could cope with a national exigency of such magnitude. For was not the salubrity of this great Metropolis a matter of national moment? Here was the seat of the Imperial Legislature, and here were collected together annually the élite of the intellect, the social power, the learning of the whole realm. What was meant by the "season"—the height of the season—but the presence of these? If Paris might be said to be France, much more might London be pronounced Great Britain, where all its vast interests were consulted and cared for. Had the nation at large, then, no interest—an interest great and direct—in the arrangements which ought to secure not so muchs the comfort, as the mere safety of those whose presence and services here were of such moment? Then if the injury were a national one, it ought to be provided for by national arrangements, and those on a commensurate scale of efficiency, and by a measure worthy of the energy and utility of the nation. But what had been the result? The insupportable and pestilential atmosphere, generated by the reeking river outside, now, and for a long time, in a condition which was a scandal to us before all Europe. The House had trifled with a great opportunity and ruined a noble river, and done it by Act of Parliament. Just three years ago, namely, on the 14th of August, 1855, was passed an Act "For the Better Local Management of the Metropolis"—the preamble of which recited that the principal object was, "to provide for the Sewerage and Drainage thereof." It constituted and incorporated a Metropolitan Board of Works, and vested in them all the main sewers, till then vested in the Commissioners of Sewers, and which were recited in a schedule to the Act to be seventy-one in number—fifty on the North, and twenty-one on the South side of the river Thames—each one of these huge conduits having great numbers of tributary sewers pouring into it, and all the seventy-one pouring their loathsome contents daily and hourly into the Thames. Well, to enable this new Board to deal with this matter, it was armed with all manner of powers, of even the most arbitrary character—powers of making, repairing, closing, enlarging, narrowing, altering the direction, and increasing or diminishing the number of sewers, the grand object being, as recited in the Act, "to prevent all or any part of the Sewage within the Metropolis from flowing or passing into the River Thames in or near to the Metropolis;"—and the House should observe that the Board was to cause "all such sewers and works to be completed on or before the 31st December, 1860." The Act came into operation on the 1st January, 1856,—this was the 18th June, 1858, and what had been hitherto done? Nothing; and, on the contrary, matters had got worse—infinitely worse than before. The 126th section of the Act required the Board, before commencing any of their sewers and works, to submit the plan, and an estimate of the expense of them to the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Works and Public Buildings, whose approval was necessary before the plan was carried into effect. The Board et to work, with the engineers, at once; but, up to the present moment, when matters remain at a dead lock, nothing had been the result, but a series of abortions—abortive plans, crudely conceived by the Board, and as ruthlessly condemned by the right hon. Baronet late the First Commissioner of Works. He (Mr. Warren) would not, as he had fully intended, go through them in detail, but confine himself to the very first of these precious schemes, which was in flat defiance of the plainest possible provisions of the Act which had called the Board into existence. The right hon. Baronet the Member for Marylebone gave an account to this House, on the 11th December last, of all the various dealings between himself and the Board down to that time. He said that on the 3rd of June, 1856—that was within five months of the Board's being in existence—the Board sent him a plan which he took for granted was in conformity with the spirit and intention of the Act; but on examining it, he found that it provided that the sewage should flow into the Thames at a point within the Metropolis! And so they went on, from bad to worse,—their second plan providing outfalls just ouside the river, and insuring the constant re-flux of the sewage, with the tide, into the Metropolitan area. Thus we had been trifled with up to the present moment—even when matters had become past all bearing. The Metropolitan Board of Works had proved itself utterly impotent to effect the object for which it had been called into existence, and the Government ought at once to address itself vigorously to the subject, which brooked no further delay. It was a duty which challenged their best energies. If they wished to anticipate support in the House, and especially the suffrages of the Metropolitan Members, they could not more effectually gain that aid, than by putting an end to the dangerous trifling which had hitherto gone on. The Government were at present, from all he heard and observed, conducting the business of the country admirably, but let then not underrate the magnitude of the task which was now set them, nor shrink from undertaking it. They might depend on the House supporting them.


said, he must apologise to the hon. Member for Perthshire (Mr. Stirling) for not having answered at an earlier moment the question he had put to him relative to the monument to be erected to the late Duke of Wellington. The hon. Member, however, had very fairly stated the past history of the matter. In 1856, the artists of all countries were invited to compete; in 1857, the judges made their award, that award being signed, among others, by Lord Lansdowne, Lord Overstone, the Dean of St. Paul's, and his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford. The judges selected the designs for which they awarded the prizes without regarding the question of their adaptation to the site which was then indicated in the Cathedral where it was intended to place the monument, and they suggested, and he thought most properly, that before they determined which, if any, of the designs should be selected, the Government should consult some architect of eminence as to the local effect which would be produced by the erection of any particular monument in St. Paul's. When he came into office no practical step appeared to have been taken beyond the presentation of the report of the judges. He, therefore, thought it to be his duty, considering the time, thought, and cost which had been devoted to the designs, to endeavour to come to some definite opinion, in his own mind at least, as to whether any one of the designs which had obtained prizes was worthy of being placed in St. Paul's Cathedral. In all the discussions in that House upon art and taste, hon. Gentlemen and noble Lords were apt to dogmatise in a manner which might be pardonable in Spanish Inquisitors pronouncing on matters of Christian faith, but which appeared to him singularly out of place when they were discussing what—to use the phrase of the hon. Member for West Surrey (Mr. Drummond)—were mere matters of opinion; and in stating the conclusion at which he had arrived on this subject, he wished to guard himself against being supposed to claim infallibility. Having then given the best attention in his power to the designs, he came to the conclusion that he should not feel himself entitled to recommend Her Majesty to set them all aside, and say that none of them were worthy of being erected in the Cathedral. Under the circumstances, he had thought himself bound to act on the recommendation of the judges, that some one competent to advise on the subject should be consulted as to the local effect which would be produced by the various designs. No one appeared to him better qualified by position and accomplishments to give advice than Mr. Penrose. They went over the designs together, and the design which they both thought the best was that known as No. 18, the design of Mr. Stevens. It was a great relief for him to find that the judgment which he himself had formed was sanctioned by Mr. Penrose. They then examined the area of St. Paul's, to see whether the site indicated was the most worthy, and, after consulting with various high authorities, they had come to the conclusion that the site indicated in the proposals for competition was not the best calculated for the erection of the monument. The site ultimately chosen was a side chapel at the west end of the Cathedral, which had hitherto been need as a consistory court; and it had been willingly ceded by the Dean and Chapter for the purpose. One great advantage would be derived from this circumstance. His hon. Friend, Mr. Stirling, had pointed out most truly that in former times it was not thought sufficient in such a case as that under consideration to have recourse to sculpture, but the sister arts of painting and artichecture were called in aid. The site which had been selected would enable them to act on that principle in this instance. He proposed that the adaptation of the chapel and its architectural ornamentation should be confided to Mr. Penrose. He thought it advisable, acting again on the recommendation of the judges, to call in the assistance of some artist of eminence, and that those three gentlemen should form a committee to whom should be confided the execution of a monument worthy of the great Duke whom it was intended to commemorate, worthy of the pile in which it was to be placed, and worthy of the state of English art in the nineteenth century. With regard to the question put by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. R. Mangles), he was satisfied that he was quite right in the answer which he gave to a similar question the other day, which was, in effect, that so far as the draining of the metropolis was concerned, the First Commissioner of Works had no power beyond that of vetoing any scheme which might be submitted to him by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The hon. Member, however, after admitting that he had no power over the London drainage, had asked him whether he had done, or was prepared to do, anything for the preservation of the health of hon. Members while they were sitting in that House. He could only say, in answer to that question, that he had that day received from Mr. Gurney a report in which he stated what he proposed to do to carry out his (Lord J. Manners') wishes on the subject. Mr. Gurney said:— Sir,—do not lose a moment in answering your letter received last evening, requesting me to report to the First Commissioner what is already being done to improve the condition of the river Thames, in the neighbourhood of the two Houses of Parliament, and also what, if anything, I propose to do in the matter within my jurisdiction. With regard to the river itself, there is nothing done, or can I do anything. Before the meeting of Parliament and during the recess the mud outside the terrace was removed; but during the sitting of the House, and while the river is in its present state, the accumulation cannot be moved. In answer to your latter question, I beg to say the means by which I propose to relieve the river (according to my report to the First Commissioner, printed by the order of the House, 12th December last. Sessional No. 21) is now under consideration of a Committee of the House of Commons. I think it right to state, for his Lordship's information, that the air entering directly the House of Peers and Commons through the proper ventilating channels is purified from the river effluvia by the spray jets. For the purification of the air coming in through the windows of the House of Lords and Commons, should either be opened, I have placed canvass moistened with a weak solution of chloride of zinc and lime. The same is being fixed at all the windows likely to be opened towards the river in the libraries and committee rooms. He might inform the House that, in accordance with the recommendation of the noble Lord the Member for Tiverton, which was concurred in by himself, Mr. Gurney had been engaged all that day in distributing throughout the Thames, in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, four or five boat-loads of lime, and in spreading lime over the mud banks. Such was the simple means adopted for the purpose of effecting the object mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and at present he really did not know what more could be done. The question raised by his hon. Friend was a very large and serious one. He had no hesitation in saying that in his own opinion the provisions of the Metropolis Local Management Act in reference to the drainage of the metropolis, and the veto given to the First Commissioner of Works, were not satisfactory. The House had been engaged the whole of the Session in endeavouring to meet the evils that were supposed to flow from a double government and a divided responsibility; but under the provisions of that Act there were a double Government and a divided responsibility of a most hopeless and inconvenient character. They called together a body of gentlemen elected by the popular voice; they tied them down by stringent words in an Act of Parliament to do a certain thing in a certain way; and they declared that none of the plans which might be approved by that popularly-elected Board should be carried into effect until they had received the sanction of the First Commissioner of Works. But there was no provision requiring the First Commissioner of Works to inform himself upon the subject, and he might strictly perform every obligation that was thrown upon him by never leaving his room, and simply refusing his sanction to everything that was proposed. He would not enter into a discussion of that Act, however. The Metropolitan Board had from time to time submitted such plans as they thought fit; but the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir B. Hall), in the exercise of his discretion, had rejected those plans. He understood that a new plan had recently been submitted to the Board, which had been prepared by able engineers, but it had not yet come under his cognizance, and he was unable, therefore, to express any opinion upon it. He thought that some change should be made in the relations between the Board of Works and the Government, and he should be very happy to confer with any one who could suggest any means by which a useful change might be effected. The difficulty was this:—if the Government took upon themselves the main drainage of the metropolis, at an enormous expense, they could not in justice call upon the metropolis to pay for that drainage; while, on the other hand, if the metropolis were called upon to do the work, it was but fair that it should do it in what manner it pleased. The responsibility and the burden must be imposed on the one party or the other.


said, that until the relations of the Metropolitan Board with the Government should be placed on a more satisfactory footing, and somebody be invested with more discretionary power and the means of carrying out such works as might be advisable, the question would remain in the same unsatisfactory state that it had been in for the last five years. With reference to the Wellington monument, it was not his intention to dogmatize upon the subject, but his belief was that the exhibition of designs was anything but creditable to the character of British art. If, therefore, the conclusion of the noble Lord in the choice of a design were not irreversible, he hoped that time would be allowed to elicit the artistic opinion of the country before it was finally resolved upon, in order that a monument might be erected worthy of the great man whose memory it was intended to commemorate, and of the magnificent temple in which it was to be placed.


would briefly state to the House the exact course of events with respect to the main drainage scheme. In 1855 he introduced a Bill for the better local management of the Metropolis. And with the entire approval of the House it was provided in that Bill that, before any great works should be undertaken by the Metropolitan Board in reference to street improvements or to the main drainage, the plans should be laid before the First Commissioner for his approval, and the clause which defined the manner in which the main drainage should be carried out contained a provision to the effect that the drainage should not flow into the Thames at any spot in or near to the Metropolis. Soon after the Metropolitan Board of Works were called into existence they presented to him a plan which had its outfall within the Metropolitan area, and which, consequently, was contrary to the provisions of the statute. Of course it was his duty to reject that plan. Some months afterwards they presented another plan, which was also contrary to the statute, because the outfall was so near to the Metropolis that all the filth of the sewage would have flowed back into the metropolitan area. He therefore rejected that plan; and he thought that the fact of these two schemes being submitted to him showed the wisdom of the provision, which has been sanctioned by Parliament, that the drainage works should not be executed without the sanction of the First Commissioner, because, but for that, a plan would have undoubtedly been carried out which would have allowed all the sewage to flow back into the Metropolis. He then put himself into communication with the Metropolitan Board, having previously requested the then First Lord of the Admiralty to let him have the assistance of Captain Burstall, who was probably better acquainted with the Thames than almost any other person. Captain Burstall made a Report, pointing out where the outfall ought to be, and some time afterwards—in December, 1856—the Metropolitan Board submitted to him a plan, which had its outfall at the point defined by Captain Burstall. It would, he thought, have been presumptuous in him—an unprofessional person—to take upon himself to decide at once upon that plan, and he therefore took the precaution of submitting it to three eminent engineers. Those gentlemen reported on it, and at the same time they presented to him another plan. He gave no opinion upon it, but sent it at once to the Metropolitan Board, and said that he thought it might be worthy of their consideration as it was suggested by men of great eminence in their profession. They referred it to their own engineer, in conjunction with Mr. Hawkesley and Mr. Bidder, who submitted another plan to the Board of Works. Instead of communicating that plan to the noble Lord who had succeeded him in the office of First Commissioner the Board passed a resolution that they would defer all consideration of it until the month of October next, leaving the whole summer to pass without any care for the state of the river or the condition of the inhabitants of the Metropolis. That was the exact course of events down to the present time. The question now was, not as to the past, but what should they do for the future. The noble Lord had stated very truly that if this work were to be undertaken by the Government the Metropolis could hardly be expected to pay for it; while, on the other hand, that if it were to be paid for out of the local rates it ought to be executed by the local authorities. He thought that the time had now come when the Government should consider whether it would not be better to take the whole of this great work into their own hands—whether they should not appoint some Commission of able and responsible persons, subject, of course, to the approval of the Treasury, and leave it to them to carry out both the main drainage of the Metropolis and the embankment of the Thames—works of such magnitude that it was impossible that they could be paid for wholly out of local rates.


said, he rose to express a hope that the decision of the noble Lord with respect to the Wellington monument was not final; the competition had failed, and all they had to consider was, what was due to the artists. The terms of the competition were so drawn up that it was possible for the Government to do what was fair to the artists, but it was questionable whether a desirable result would be obtained by the plan of the noble Lord; and he hoped he would reconsider his decision. The House was most anxious to do honour to the memory of the Duke of Wellington, as was shown by voting so large a sum of money for the purpose of erecting a monument for that purpose, but at the same time they were bound to see that that large sum of money was laid out in the most effective manlier possible.


said, he was not a member of the Metropolitan Board of Works, but he thought that his hon. Friend (Mr. Mangles) had been rather hard on that body. If he only knew the difficulties with which they had to contend as well as he knew Indian affairs he would not throw so much blame upon them. It was not so easy as his hon. Friend thought to decide how the Thames was to be purified. His hon. Friend said that the House of Commons made a mistake in putting the matter into the hands of a board elected by the metropolitan ratepayers, but he (Sir John Shelley) believed that the real mistake which the House made was that of rejecting the 141st clause of the Metropolitan Local Management Bill, which would have enabled the Treasury to advance money for the purification of the Thames, to be repaid by instalments with interest. The Metropolitan Board were now called upon to drain an area beyond their jurisdiction, but on the part of the ratepayers whom they represented they very properly refused to do so, unless they were supplied with the necessary funds. The state of the Thames was no doubt, infamous; but if the Government would furnish funds the Metropolitan Board of Works would purify the river. He protested against the whole expense of the work being thrown upon the present ratepayers. Like the cost of draining settled estates, the expense ought to be spread over a number of years. The sewerage of London was only one question with reference to the purification of the Thames, as he was convinced that the main cause of the nuisance from which they were suffering was the state of the banks of the Thames, and until those banks were improved by quay walls or some other means, it would always continue.