|AdminHistory||Prior to 1855 the parish vestry had met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. Parish vestries were committees of prominent householders and church officials. The name came from the way meetings took place in the church vestry or sacristy; this is the room where the priest prepares for a service and where vestments and articles of worship are stored. This early form of local government was thus a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions that had evolved 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 in London came in the form of the 1855 Metropolis Management Act. This created 22 vestries (and 12 district boards) in inner London endowed with municipal powers. Under the terms of the Act, St George-in-the-East was designated as a 'Schedule A' vestry (on account of its dense population), and provision made for elections thereto. Under the terms of the 1855 Act, St George-in-the-East Vestry was divided into North and South wards, each electing 18 vestrymen.|
Until the 1894 Local Government Act, vestry elections were haphazard affairs: election notifications were often not circulated; voting procedures were unsatisfactory; and the qualifications for candidates - based on a minimum financial rating of £40 p/a for the relief of the poor - limited the number of candidates. Under the 1894 Act all resident citizens - men and women - were made eligible for election, the voting list was to include all names on the parliamentary and LCC registers with the addition of married women householders, and elections were to be duly publicised and held in accordance with the Ballot Act and the Corrupt Practices Acts. The 1894 Local Government Act (and a number of other so-called 'Adoptive Acts', i.e. the Baths and Wash-Houses Acts (1846 and 1847), Burial Acts and Public Libraries Acts (1850)) also enabled vestries to apply to the Local Government Board to take over the appointment, duties and liabilities of the overseers, and the powers of the Baths and Wash-houses Commissioners, Public Library Commissioners, Burial Boards and other local bodies. St George-in-the-East Vestry opted to acquire these powers as they related to public baths and wash-houses in 1887, and to public libraries in 1896 (see ref. L/SGE/K).
Initially, the officers of the Vestry were:
- Medical Officer of Health
- Inspectors of Nuisances, Scavengers, Lamps, Pavements, etc.
The establishment expanded considerably over the years as the responsibilities of the Vestry became more extensive.
The St George-in-the-East Vestry was a sanitary authority, charged with keeping its defined area as healthy as possible. The Vestry 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 Vestry's remit.
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 Vestry 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 Vestry could initiate proceedings where buildings had been erected beyond the general line of frontage without the LCC's consent
Drainage - the Vestry 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 Vestry 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 Vestry 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 Vestry 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
Rates and borrowing - until 1894, the expenses of the Mile End Old Town Vestry 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
Six committees were in operation by 1871, but this had been reduced to four by 1900:
- Finance, Parliamentary and General Purposes
The successor body to St George-in-the-East Vestry was the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, created in 1900 under the terms of the 1899 London Government Act. Across London, 28 new borough councils were created. The new Metropolitan Borough of Stepney replaced the St George-in-the-East Vestry, Mile End Old Town Vestry, the Limehouse District Board of Works and Whitechapel District Board of Works.
Key developments and dates
1855 and 1866: outbreaks of cholera recorded in the parish (387 out of 1881 deaths attributable to this cause in 1866)
1859: serious riots and disturbances in the parish; arising out of theological disputes affecting the church, these events draw national attention
22 August 1861: new Vestry Hall opened in Cable Street
5 August 1871: powers of the Commercial Road Trustees to levy tolls expire, and management of part of the Road devolves upon the Vestry
1872: tramway laid along the Commercial Road by the North Metropolitan Tramways Company
15 December 1887: first Commissioners for Public Baths and Wash-Houses elected by the Vestry
31 March 1888: opening of public baths in Betts Street
March 1896: the parish adopts the 1892 Public Libraries Act by a majority of 642 votes; John Passmore Edwards provides £5000 to cover the expense of the building
29 October 1898: formal opening of the Library in Cable Street, designed by the architect Maurice B. Adams and built by W. Johnson & Co Ltd of Wandsworth
Initially, Vestry meetings were held in the board room of the parish workhouse (situated between Prusom Street and Princes (now Raine) Street). Vestry committees met and deliberated at the offices of the Vestry Clerk, solicitor William Lockwood Howell, at 40 St George Street, while the Surveyor and Medical Officer of Health were forced to conduct business at their respective homes. A site on Back Road (Cable Street) for the construction of a designated vestry building was purchased from the Trustees of the Wesleyan Chapel for £550 in January 1858, but plans for the actual building were postponed on several occasions due to the parish being heavily indebted and a reluctance to increase the rates. However, new premises were urgently needed to cope with the increasing amounts of work the Vestry was dealing with, and so tenders for the construction of the Italianate building designed by the Vestry Surveyor Andrew Wilson were invited in March 1860. The contract was won by Thomas Ennor, builder and contractor of 38 Hardinge Street, whose tender of £4675 had been accepted on 29 March. Work began on 16 July 1860 but strikes in the building trade (especially among the masons) and then adverse weather conditions caused considerable delays, and the building was not completed until June 1861. It was officially opened on 22 August of that year, and still stands as a fine stylistic example of an early post-Metropolitan Management Act East End vestry hall.
- Steven Friar, The Local History Companion (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2001)
- R. H. Hadden, An East End Chronicle (London: Hatchards, 1880)
- David Hey (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (Oxford: OUP, 2010)
- Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, The History of East London (London: Macmillan, 1939)
- Royal Commission of the Historical Monuments of England, London's Town Halls (London: Architectural Survey and National Monuments Record
London Office, 1999)