12 July 2012

Making Improvements: The Street Commissioners

Map of 1810 drawn up by John Kempson for the Street Commissioners.
West is top. It shows the administrative boundaries drawn up.

Apologies, there is no close-up of this map yet.

As Birmingham grew over the eighteenth century the old manorial and parochial institutions became insufficient to maintain the streets and the built environment of the town. With so many inhabitants flocking from all around, buildings were popping up, sometimes with little concern for others, and the medieval streets, that had served well enough before, were now struggling to support the growing town. In 1769 and Act of Parliament was passed to appoint 50 Street Commissioners who could control how buildings were being erected, to improve lighting, to remove obstructions in roads and to widen the narrow medieval streets. Some of the main concerns were to achieve a more effective running of the markets which frequently caused congestion and for the safety of inhabitants by installing lighting. The Street Commissioners were basically an early form of planning body, controlling the way that Birmingham grew for the benefit of the residents as a whole. They Commissioners were deemed to work successfully (most of the time) and their powers were increased by a number of subsequent Acts until the Commissioners were replaced by the Corporation in 1851.*

Following is a list of the Acts that initiated and then added to the work of the Street Commissioners. Their work always centred on improving the markets. The list is not comprehensive, but gives a good outline of their duties over the 81 years of their work.

1769: 50 Street Commissioners were appointed and the first meeting was held at the Castle. To levy the rates, based on the value of inhabitants properties. To make the markets work more effectively (this involved a great deal; Hutton described the markets as "completely choked with buildings and filth). To improve lighting (700 lamps* were introduced and this was so successful that the Act became known as the Lamp Act). To acquire and demolish buildings in order to widen streets (this included houses at the junction of New St/High St, a house by St. Martin's & Upper Roundabout House). To enforce the removal of refuse from in front of properties by householders (they were later responsible for drainage and other waste disposal).*
1773: Number of Commissioners raised to 79. A room to be hired for use as an office. To be able to borrow money at a limit of £1,000. To acquire and demolish houses in Moor Street, New Street, Bull Lane, Temple Tow & Smallbrook Street and to widen New Street, Temple Row & Mount Pleasant (Ann Street). During this period the Commissioners also demolished the Old Cross (1784).*
1801: Number of Commissioners raised to 121. A Public Office and prison to be built (eventually built on Moor Street in 1807). To be able to borrow money at a limit of £5,000. To acquire and demolish the Welsh Cross, houses and shops in Bull Street, Swan Alley, Worcester Street, Moor Street, around St. Martin's and in Bull Ring, including the Shambles (butcher's shops). To control the levels of new streets, to number houses more effectively and to erect street signs. To issue licenses and regulate hackney carriages and sedans.*
1812: Number of Commissioners raised to 220. To be able to borrow money at a limit of £24,000.  To repair and maintain the streets, including responsibility for drainage. Gas lighting was introduced during this period (1818). To move the pig and horse markets from Worcester St/Peck Lane to New Street as well as relocating the beast and hay markets (in 1817 markets moved to Smithfield market, opened 29th May, the day of the Whitsun Fair).*
1828: Number of Commissioners raised to 308, which included the Justices of the Peace. The Public Office to be enlarged. To be able to borrow money at a limit of £100,000. To acquire and demolish buildings (300 buildings in 34 streets were demolished). To build a Town Hall (initiated in 1825) and raise funds for it through a special rate.*

The Commissioners were often local notable and wealthy gentlemen, and they chose replacements for vacancies among themselves. William Hutton noted that in his time (written 1795) the Commissioners were sometimes 'irresolute', it being difficult 'to find five men of one mind', and weren't always enthusiastic to attend meetings and get to business.* Hutton also described how Birmingham was 'overgrown with encroaching weeds' which the commissioners seemed to decide was too 'arduous work'.* As well as the body of Commissioners a few staff were hired, for example, treasurers, clerks, rate collectors, scavengers (refuse collectors), surveyors, inspectors of nuisances, market toll collectors and lamp lighters, but sometimes a single individual would cover many roles.*
By 1810 (see map above) the markets were well on the way to becoming clear open spaces; some streets disappeared at this time, like Cock or Well Street and Corn Cheaping.

* References on request
 Minutes from a meeting of the Street Commissioners, 7th May 1777, plus excerpts from 1777 and 1778.

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