RepositoryArchives
Ref NoL/LBW
LevelFonds
TitleRecords of the Limehouse District Board of Works
Date1855-1901
DescriptionMinutes and administrative records
Extent108 items
AdminHistoryThe Limehouse District Board of Works was the main unit of local government that managed the public health and sanitary conditions for the areas covered by the Hamlet of Ratcliff and the parishes of Limehouse, Shadwell and Wapping from 1855 until the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney in 1900.

At the time of its creation, the area covered by the Limehouse District Board of Works comprised 576 acres, of which 105 acres were included in the bed of the River Thames, leaving 471 acres as the habitable portion of the district; the 1851 census recorded 7922 houses and 54,173 inhabitants. The density of population - on average 115 persons per acre - was high in comparison to the London-wide average of 30.

Origins and purpose
For hundreds of years prior to 1855, parish vestries had met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. The vestries were essentially committees of prominent householders and church officials, and were so-called because meetings took place in the church vestry or sacristy (the room where the priest prepares for a service and where vestments and articles of worship are stored). This early form of local government in London and across the country was a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions which had evolved as the most practical means to meet the needs of the inhabitants as they arose.

A generalised system of local government, separate to ecclesiastical concerns, slowly took shape during the course of the nineteenth century. The first concerted attempt to rationalise administration came in the form of the 1855 Metropolis Management Act. This Act retained the ancient parish unit as a basis for government, but provided for the election of a new type of vestry by the ratepayers of each parish. In the less densely populated parishes of London such as St Anne Limehouse, St Paul Shadwell and St John Wapping (as well as the Hamlet of Ratcliff), these vestries - technically known as 'Schedule B Vestries' from that part of the 1855 Act in which they were listed - were invested with no authority apart from the power to elect representatives to a District Board. The Board was endowed with municipal powers under the 1855 Act. Limehouse was one of the 12 newly created District Boards across central London to govern and manage certain defined aspects of local affairs.

Under the terms of the 1855 Act, the Schedule B vestries elected a total of 619 members to serve on the London District Boards; more specifically, the four Limehouse Board constituent vestries elected 36 members (later increased to 39) as follows:

- Limehouse: 15 members
- Ratcliff: 12 members
- Shadwell: 6 members
- Wapping: 3 members

This framework of local government in London remained unchanged until the Local Government Act was passed in 1894. This act together with a number of other so-called 'Adoptive Acts', such as Baths and Washhouses Acts, Burial Acts and Public Libraries Acts, enabled the District Boards to increase their powers. They could apply to the Local Government Board to take over the appointment, duties and liabilities of the overseers of the poor, and the powers of the Baths and Wash-houses Commissioners, Public Library Commissioners, Burial Boards and other local bodies. Despite these opportunities it appears that the Limehouse District Board only acquired powers as they related to the Public Library Commissioners.

In its early years, the Board's chief officials were its:

- Treasurer
- Medical Officer of Health
- Surveyor
- Inspector of Nuisances
- Three Inspectors of Streets

A clerk of the Board and an office clerk provided the necessary administrative support.

Activities
The Limehouse District Board of Works was a sanitary authority, charged with keeping its defined area as healthy as possible. The Board had control and management of streets, roads and footpaths, and had to ensure that they were paved, cleansed, watered and lighted; the emptying of dustbins, removal of all refuse and the prevention of 'nuisances' caused by noxious trades also fell within the Board's remit. For example, between March 1857 and March 1858 the sugar lead manufactory of Pinto, Perez and Company in St Ann's Street, Limehouse, and the bone and soap boiling establishment of Cowan and Sons in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell, both closed after repeated threats of legal action from the Board.

Over time, other responsibilities included dealing with 'unhealthy' dwellings and monitoring food standards (which included food analysis). By the time of its abolition in 1900, the duties, powers and functions of the Board were:

- Buildings - powers under the London Building Acts were almost entirely under the control of the London County Council (LCC) (created in 1888). However, the Board could
initiate proceedings where buildings had been erected beyond the general line of frontage without the LCC's consent
- Drainage - the Board had virtually complete power with regard to the construction and maintenance of local sewers and drains
- Housing - Part II of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act conferred upon the Board the right of building inspection and the power to take proceedings before a magistrate
seeking the closure and demolition of houses deemed unfit for human habitation; the 1890 Act also enabled the Board to purchase and demolish buildings which were an
obstruction to the improvement of adjacent premises
- Public health - the Board possessed almost all powers under the 1891 Public Health (London) Act, including:
- The appointment of medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors
- The monitoring and enforcement of bye-laws relating to nuisances (defined as including 'offensive' ditches, cesspools, overflowing drains, the inappropriate keeping of
animals, ill-maintained factories, workshops and slaughterhouses and polluting chimneys)
- The building of hospitals and provision of related medical services
- The cleansing and maintenance of factories and premises of employment so as to ensure the health of employees
- Inspection of slaughterhouses, shops and premises found selling unsound or adulterated food, milk, drugs and other substances
- Proceedings in cases of buildings and premises deemed 'unfit for human habitation'
- Removal of refuse, cleansing of dustbins and streets, and the appointment of 'scavengers' (waste pickers) for the purpose
- Provision of mortuaries for the reception of dead bodies before interment
- Streets - the Board possessed all powers with regard to making, maintaining, lighting, watering, cleansing and regulating the streets. However, the Board required the sanction of
the LCC for the temporary closing of streets for repairs, and for their naming. The LCC renamed and ordered the numbering of streets, the Board then carrying out their instructions in this regard
- Rates and borrowing - until 1894, the expenses of the Limehouse Board of Works were met entirely by levying local rates on residents. The 1894 Equalisation of Rates Act was
passed with the intention of standardising the rates for sanitary and other purposes throughout London; the rate was limited to 6d in the £, with the result of extreme inequalities
between rich and poor districts

By 1900 it appears that there were just two Board committees in existence:

- Emergency Committee
- Sanitary Committee

In the same year the Board was succeeded by Stepney Metropolitan Borough (collection reference L/SMB).

Between 1855 and 1900, Limehouse saw a number important developments and events. Among some of the key personalities and major events to have occurred were:
1857: opening of the Strangers Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders in the West India Dock Road
1862: construction of Burdett Road, linking Limehouse to Victoria Park
1864: amalgamation of the London Dock Company and the St Katherine Dock Company - the construction of Shadwell Basin results in the forcible removal of many of the area's poorest inhabitants
1864-1865: serial publication of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend - the Limehouse public house the Grapes (which still stands in Narrow Street) features in the novel as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters
1870: opening of Dr Thomas John Barnardo's offices on Stepney Causeway
1885-1892: Edward Samuel Norris sits as Conservative MP for Limehouse - the number of registered electors in Limehouse in 1885 was 5954
1889: London Dock Strike
1890s: settlement by Chinese sailors increases in Limehouse, particularly around Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway

Addresses
Both of the main buildings of the Limehouse Board of Works still stand today:
Offices of the Board, White Horse Road, Limehouse. The building was designed by the Board's surveyor Charles R. Dunch and erected by J. Jacobs between 1862-1864 at a cost of £5172. The building later housed the Public Health Department of Stepney Metropolitan Borough, the local authority body which succeeded the Board. In 1994 the building became home to the Half Moon Theatre.

The 'town hall' for the Limehouse Board of Works stands at the eastern end of the Commercial Road close to St Anne's, Limehouse. It was designed by the well-known municipal architects Arthur and Christopher Harston and built by J. H. Johnson of Commercial Road. It was opened on 29 March 1881, the final cost being in the region of £10,000. Limehouse Town Hall was also utilised by the successor Borough, which held committee meetings there for many years. The building also served as a place for social gatherings such as dances and film screenings. The Town Hall was later used for other administrative purposes after Stepney Metropolitan Borough was merged with Bethnal Green and Poplar in 1965 to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Sources
F. G. Brewer, A Century of London Government: The Creation of the Boroughs (London: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1934)
Albert Bassett Hopkins, The Boroughs of the Metropolis (London: Bemrose and Sons, 1900)
William A. Robson, The Government and Misgovernment of London (London: Allen and Unwin, 1939)
Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, London's Town Halls (1998)
Frederick Whelen, London Government (London: Grant Richards, 1898)
Related MaterialThe main parochial records of the three constituent ancient parishes of the Limehouse Board of Works are held by London Metropolitan Archives:

- St Anne Limehouse (ref: P93/ANN)
- St John Wapping (ref: P93/JN2)
- St Paul Shadwell (ref: P93/PAU3)

These collections mainly comprise parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials (for which digital versions are searchable on Ancestry); of the three parishes, the records of St Paul Shadwell are the most extensive. A few surviving records of the Hamlet of Ratcliff are at THLHLA (ref: L/RAT)

The records of the Limehouse Board's successor - the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney - include a few inherited records created under the Board.

Most printed material such as the Board's annual reports, together with relevant maps and plans are in the Local History Library. For maps and plans of the Limehouse boundaries in the Local History Library search reference code 'LCM' [add * - i.e. LCM* - to search across these formats].
Access StatusOpen
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