Henry Norris at the Metropolitan Water Board 1907-12

Last updated: July 2008


Arsenal fans be warned: theres not much about football in this file! Even the most fanatical supporter does have a rest of their life.


The Metropolitan Water Board (MWB) was set up by an act of Parliament in 1902 to manage Londons water supply. It covered an area rather bigger than the London County Council (LCC). It raised its revenues by levying a direct rate on its users: that is, a rate separate from and in addition to the rates charged by the local councils and the local Boards of Guardians. The MWBs governing board was elected but not directly by the population. Its members were councillors chosen by its constituent bodies: two from each the boroughs and urban district councils within its borders and two from the LCC. They were chosen every three years and served for three-year periods, but as with so much in local government, once you were in, you carried on, and on... If any member was absent from meetings for more than six months without explanation, they were deemed to have lost their seat and the MWB would contact the relevant constituent body and suggest they selected a replacement.

The MWB had the right to send representatives to the governing board of institutions whose activities impinged on their own - such as the Lee Valley Drainage Commission and (from 1908) the Thames Conservancy. Norris was not elected by the MWB to serve on any of these other bodies.


In 1907 the MWBs head offices was in Savoy Court on the Strand; however it didnt have an office big enough for board meetings so these were held at the offices of the Metropolitan Asylums Board on The Embankment. The MWB was organised rather like the LCC: there were meetings of all the board members, every fourth Friday at 2.30pm unless there was a crisis in which case 12 members could sign an agreement that an extra meeting was necessary. The daily work of the MWB was carried out by various standing committees which met at other times. Members of these were elected at the June meeting and served for twelve months. The names of MWBs standing committees are an indication of their responsibilities:


Appeals and assessment which dealt with appeals by water users against the rates that they had been ordered to pay; and assessment of the amount of rates payable on new and refurbished properties. The rate at which all users had to pay for their water (how many pennies in the pound) was set by the vote of the whole MWB membership. This standing committee also defended MWBs interests as a rate-payer where it had installations on property owned by other institutions.


Finance Pretty obvious what this did: try to assess an amount of rates that would keep the MWB in funds without infuriating too many of its users; then try to spread the amount raised around all the waterworks and office staff that MWB was responsible for.


Works and Stores did the daily work of the MWB: hiring and buying equipment; structural work and maintenance of the MWBs water supply system including pipes, reservoirs and buildings.

Law and Parliament Like all similar bodies, the MWB was entitled to put bills before Parliament when they were deemed necessary for it to do its job. This standing committee prepared the wording of these bills, liaised with other interested parties and did their best to steer the MWBs bills through the parliamentary process. The standing committee also kept an eye on other bills going through parliament in case they would affect the way the MWB did its job if they became law. This kind of bill was usually one put forward by other bodies working in London: the LCC, local borough councils, tram companies, railway companies etc. In addition, it was this standing committees job to pursue through the courts water users who hadnt paid their rates.


General purposes did everything not covered by the other standing committees: hiring and firing, paying the bills, deciding MWB policy etc.


Water examination committee oversaw the monitoring of the MWBs water supply and the maintenance of the quality of water laid down by law.


The job of the Friday meetings of all the MWB representatives was to hear the reports of the standing committees and make decisions based on the information in them. Most standing committee recommendations were okayed without much debate. It was unusual for any issue to need a debate and a vote.


My impression of the MWB from reading its minutes of proceedings was that it had been set up to do a job crucial to Londons residents without enough revenue-raising capacity to do that job properly in an era in which suburban London continued to expand at a frantic rate - a rate to which the Allen and Norris partnership contributed. The MWB had been given the right to raise money through charging rates for the use of its water; and by selling shares in its building projects - like the reservoirs at Richmond and Norwood, both of which were begun in Norris time. But money at the MWB was tight. For example, it didnt have one office where all its staff worked. Its office staff were scattered - one department here, one there - through several government buildings in central London. However, in 1907 the MWB was still jogging along.


June 1907 was the start of one of the MWBs three-year periods in office, so all its constituent bodies needed to select new representatives or re-select the incumbent ones. Councillor E G Easton had already served on the MWB as one of the London Borough of Fulhams two representatives for at least three years; he was willing to serve again so his re-election was a formality. The post of the boroughs second representative was vacant and the councillors chose Henry Norris for that, on 8 May 1907. Its not clear from the minutes whether or not Norris was chosen with his full consent, but you had to be willing to do all the extra work it would involve so I guess he volunteered. No doubt the councillors thought Norris skills and experience in building law, land law and ratings assessment would be useful to the MWB; but Easton didnt have either of those skills, he was a journalist, so perhaps you got chosen if you were willing, whoever you were! Henry Norris might have thought that some time spent on MWB would benefit Allen and Norris; theyd have very early warning of the MWBs building projects - to avoid the sites or cash in on them, as Allen and Norris decided was best. As a representative who was a Conservative, Norris would also have a chance to keep the water rates down, for example by voting against big projects going ahead.

Norris attended his first meeting on Friday 7 June 1907. On that day he will have met two men he later knew in other connections. G S Elliott was one of the representatives on the MWB sent by the London Borough of Islington: he later served many years as its mayor and, as its mayor, chaired the meeting in April 1913 at which the LBI decided to oppose the arrival of Woolwich Arsenal FC on its patch. J B P Karslake was already a member of the Feltmakers Guild; Norris joined the Guild in 1917 though he didnt do so at Karslakes invitation. Both Elliott and Karslake had been MWB representatives for some time. Elliott was a particularly dedicated member: he served on its Law and Parliament, its Appeals and Assessment and its Works and Stores standing committees - a heavy commitment of time and effort.


As the meeting of 7 June 1907 was the first of a three-year term there were elections to choose the MWBs chairman and vice-chair. Sir R Melvill Beachcroft was elected chairman - his second term in the post; E B Barnard MP was elected vice-chairman. Then the members of the MWBs standing commitees were picked. Elliott and Karslake were put on the Law and Parliamentary Committee again, and Henry Norris joined them, filling one of its vacancies. Norris was also put on the Appeals and Assessment committee, again with Elliott. At the first meeting of the new Law and Parliament standing committee, Norris was elected as one of its representatives on the MWBs General Purposes standing committee. Norris membership of these three standing committees, and the duty of members to attend the MWBs full Friday meetings, laid down his commitment of time to the MWB for the next 12 months.


Im not going to set out in this file details of what happened at every MWB meeting. I shall just give an overview of the work of the standing committees that Norris served on and some indication of when he missed meetings, though in the MWBs minutes of proceedings there is no coverage of the standing committees daily business, just the reports they produced for the main meetings, so I dont know how many of those meetings Norris went to.


Over the winter of 1907/08 MWB was in dispute with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners over rights of way across the ECs land at Fortis Green; the two sides reached agreement without needing to go to court over it. The MWBs Appeals and Assessment committee heard submissions by a series of deputations from its ratepayers, including the London Chamber of Commerce, about the way the water rates were assessed on properties where there were domestic premises and business premises in the same building (virtually all the shops in the MWB area, in fact, and a huge number of other institutions). MWB also got bogged down in masses of litigation resulting from the 1905 re-valuation (upwards, of course!) of all Londons rateable values.


On Friday 22 May 1908 the MWB had its last meeting of its year. The chairman, Beachcroft, announced his resignation, only one year into his three-year term, so the meeting elected his vice-chairman, Barnard, to the vacancy. In March 1913 Barnard was one of the guests at the big reception Henry and Edith Norris gave at Fulham Town Hall.


At the meeting of Friday 19 June 1908 membership of MWBs standing committees for the next 12 months was sorted out. Norris continued on the Appeals and Assessment Committee and on the Law and Parliament committee. The MWB needed a new vice-chairman. Norris voted for Karslake, but Elliott was elected, and served for the remainder of the period Norris spent on the MWB.


During the autumn of 1908 the Appeals and Assessment committee continued to deal with the objections it had been hearing during the spring, about how the MWB calculated the water rates for multi-use buildings. Institutions such as the Bank of England and the Royal Albert Hall were arguing that they were a special case; in October 1908 the Appeals and Assessment committee decided that they couldnt be treated as special. So in November 1908 a lot of the institutions affected, or the bodies that ran them, started to retaliate: the Corporation of London and Westminster and Shoreditch borough councils all increased the rates that were due to them from the MWB for MWB property within their boundaries. The Corporation of London also organised a protest meeting for all the ratepayers whod been adversely affected by the MWBs decision. The MWB duly received a list of resolutions taken at the meeting. Shortly afterwards the MWB had to defend their decision in court in several test cases brought by the objectors.


Another quandary the Appeals and Assessment committee was facing up to during the winter of 1908-09 was what its response should be when government departments wanted to claim a rebate on their water rates. At the Friday meeting of the full MWB membership on 12 February 1907 this issue was so contentious that it actually went to a vote. Henry Norris voted with the majority (24:18) that the government should be allowed to receive rebates like any other water user.


When votes were necessary they were often on whether to continue debate of a difficult issue at that meeting or to put it off until the next one or for further investigation. It is characteristic of Henry Norris that he always voted in favour of deciding issues there and then rather than postponing them.


Norris missed the meeting of Friday 18 June 1909 when the staffing of the standing committees over the next 12 months was decided. However he must have signified that he was willing to carry on as in 1908/09 - as most representatives did - because he was re-elected to the Appeals and Assessment, and the Law and Parliament committees. However, unlike his first year at the MWB he wasnt chosen to sit on the General Purposes committee. Nor was he elected onto the Finance committee despite its ending up rather short of members. I dont know which day those two standing committees normally met that Norris stood down from; perhaps their meetings conflicted with his other commitments. Shortly after the first-of-the-year meeting, on Friday 16 July 1909, he resigned from the Law and Parliament committee, curtailing his commitment to MWB even further. The minutes of proceedings dont record what reason he gave. I suggest it was pressure of work at Allen and Norris: the partnership was entering its busiest phase with big house-building projects in both Fulham and Wandsworth.

In the autumn of 1909 the MWB was in dispute with various London borough councils about the rateable values of its properties in their areas. The Appeals and Assessment committee - the only standing committee Norris now served on - led the MWBs case in these disputes. Eventually this led to the LCC and the MWB arguing over how rateable values were calculated, the Appeals and Assessment committee of the MWB taking the view that it couldnt think of a better way to work them out than the one MWB was using.

There was also ongoing discussion amongst the representatives about whether to continue to pay the MWBs chairman a salary: hed been earning 500 a year. From the minutes of proceedings its not clear to me, but Ive just realised while typing up these notes that an attempt to deprive the chairman of his salary is often a way of forcing a debate on his competence. At the meeting of Friday 8 October 1909 there was a series of votes in which Norris consistently took the path which would lead to the chairman not being paid a salary in future. However, he was on the losing side in all of these and the chairman kept his salary (and his job if that had been under threat).


The biggest issue for the MWB in late 1909, however, was the building of offices where all MWBs staff could be in the same building and the MWB would have its own meeting room. By December 1909 the General Purposes standing committee had got as far as looking at suitable sites including the one in Rosebery Avenue which was picked in the end; and the Finance standing committee had decided to allow 100,000 to complete the project. Some of the minutes of the meetings held at the end of 1909 are missing so I dont know how Norris voted on whether the MWB should undertake such a big and expensive project; my feeling is that he would have voted against it.


At the beginning of 1910 the MWB began to prepare a new bill to put through Parliament which would give MWB powers to buy new land on which to build reservoirs. The Appeals and Assessment standing committee would have been the one drafting the wording of this. It would also have been doing the legal work in MWBs ongoing dispute with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company. MWB had just lost the case at the lower court level and was considering whether to appeal.


At the end of May 1910, Norris three-year term as a representative at the MWB was up. However, he agreed to serve for a further three years and so was present on Friday 3 June 1910 when MWBs new three-year period began. Barnard and Elliott were re-elected as MWBs chairman and vice-chair. Norris continued to serve on the Appeals and Assessment standing committee but not on any others. Its first task in the summer of 1910 was to negotiate a bulk-supply deal for the water supplied to London water users by Richmond Corporation.


The autumn of 1910 seems to have been a relatively quiet time at MWB, after two years of big activity especially on the legal front. The biggest issue was the coming five-year reassessment of Londons rateable values: MWBs Appeals and Assessment committee was involved in negotiating with all the rating authorities in the area MWB covered. When the revaluation was finished, the rateable value of Fulham had gone down - and it had been on the low side compared to other boroughs to begin with. Perhaps Henry Norris had played a part in achieving an outcome which would please Fulhams water rate-payers. Islingtons rateable value, on the other hand, was recalculated to three times what it had been when the revaluation process began.


By the winter of 1910-11 the MWB had established a low-key but continuing policy of redundancies. On Friday 16 December 1910 Norris voted against abolishing the job currently done by a Mr Couper and making him redundant; Mr Coupers job was saved by the slender majority of 23:21.


In the spring of 1911 the MWBs new parliamentary bill, the Metropolitan Water Board (New Works) Bill was not getting an easy ride. There had been a large number of objections to it. And a joint committee of the houses of commons and lords had recommended that as part of the bill the MWB should give up its right to extract 130mill gallons per day from the Thames. Parliament wanted that right to be replaced by a restriction whereby the water flowing over Teddington Lock would never drop below 170million gallons per day. The MWBs Law and Parliament standing committee recommended that the MWB fight the parliamentary dictat on the grounds that, to abide by it, the MWB would have to go to the expense of building more efficient pumping stations. However on Monday 15 May 1911 the MWB held one of its rare emergency meetings to discuss whether the MWB should back down. The Law and Parliament standing committee had changed tack and now suggested MWB try and reach a compromise with Thames Conservancy on the issue, saying that if they didnt the bill might not get through Parliament, and Thames Conservancy might raise its prices. Norris managed to get to this emergency meeting despite the short notice - so short that MWB couldnt book its usual meeting room and the representatives had to crowd into an office at Savoy Court. On this occasion Norris departed from his usual custom and voted for a motion to put off a decision for three months; but he was on the losing side (11:33). Thames Conservancy seems to have been driving MWB pretty hard over the new bill: on Wednesday 31 May 1911 MWB held a second emergency meeting; this time Norris couldnt be there. The meeting voted to accept a compromise that the two institutions had negotiated; as a result the MWBs new works bill became law in August 1911.


By this time you can read in the minutes of proceedings clear indications that MWB was getting short of money. During June 1911 the Appeals and Assessment standing committee was counting the cost of a Court of Appeal decision the previous year about the rateable value of licensed premises. MWB had lost this decision and was 16000 worse off as a result.


On Friday 16 June 1911 the MWB held the meeting at which membership of the standing committees was sorted out. Norris continued to serve on the Appeals and Assessment standing committee but not on any others: like the past couple of years.


During the summer of 1911, the Appeals and Assessment standing committee was preparing another court case over MWBs income: at Lambeth County Court in October 1911 lawyers for the MWB argued that the MWB should be allowed to keep money paid to it in water rates that later turned out to have been charged in error. The judge thought otherwise and MWB lost the case; so badly that on the advice of its lawyers it didnt appeal. However, that was not the end of MWBs embarrassment on this issue. The councillors of the London Borough of Hammersmith - most of them probably acquaintances of Henry Norris - organised a meeting to protest about the way MWB handled over-payments of water rates. When the protest meeting took place, on 15 December 1911, 81 delegates attended it on behalf of a wide range of MWBs institutional water users. They prepared a letter condemning MWBs practice of usually decided to keep over-payments rather than refund them; and sent the letter to every London borough that had sent someone to the meeting.


At its meeting on Friday 26 January 1912 the MWB discussed what to do about the protests. Its Appeals and Assessment standing committee reported that their policy on over-payments was widely misunderstood; amongst those who misunderstood it were the delegates at the protest meeting. The Appeals and Assessment standing committees policy on over-payments was to treat each case on its merits, and considering each case one by one took up a lot of time at their meetings. After the protest meeting they had sent a circular to all the boroughs involved, explaining this. They had now received a reply from the London Borough of Hammersmith demanding a formal enquiry into the MWBs current policy. The Appeals and Assessment standing committee (remember, Norris serves on it) was now recommending that the full MWB reject Hammersmiths demand on the grounds that it would serve no useful purpose - which I take to be code for it would expose the MWB to admitting in public that the MWB took money that didnt belong to it. The meeting also heard that the General Purposes standing committee was recommending that MWB didnt proceed with the project to build itself an office headquarters until the economic times looked more certain.







Copyright Sally Davis July 2008