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A Cinderella Service - Middlesex County Council 1889-1965

2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of the former London and Middlesex County Councils. The London County Council (LCC) has acquired an assured place of importance in the history of London, but less is known of and acknowledged about the Middlesex County Council (MCC).

This is a summary of a paper presented by Charlotte Scott, Assistant Director (Collections) London Metropolitan Archives at the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society's (LAMAS) 50th Local History Conference 'Middlesex: Our lost county' in November 2015. The paper was first published in LAMAS's journal Transactions 66 (2015). LAMAS was founded in 1855 'for the purpose of investigating the antiquities and early history of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Metropolitan County of Middlesex'.

Creation

The MCC was created under the terms of the 1888 Local Government Act - legislation which broke up the old counties of Middlesex and Surrey, and to a lesser extent Kent, to form the new county of London. London was made up of the area defined of the 1855 Metropolis Management Act, and the "new" Middlesex was left as a rural, much smaller area. The new County Councils as administrative units were created at the same time.

The MCC kept its headquarters at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster (and in the County of London) however, enlarging the site in the early 1890s and then rebuilding the Guildhall completely just before the First World War. When the MCC moved back into Guildhall after the building works of the early 1890s, a dispute arose with the LCC as to which of the two authorities should care for the archives of one of their predecessor bodies, the Middlesex Sessions. Both wished to "claim" this history of the old county of Middlesex and the argument was only finally settled some years later in the High Court - in favour of the MCC.

The new County of Middlesex was at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century a rural place, very different to what it has become today. There was a two tier system of local government at the time, just as there is today with the London Boroughs and the Greater London Authority. Then there were the MCC and local authorities, which changed from sanitary districts to urban and rural districts in the 1890s. Up until the overhaul of the entire system in 1965 there were many changes here as rural districts became urban districts, and then some urban districts became municipal boroughs. Powers and responsibilities came and went as the MCC and its local authorities shared and shifted services at the decree of central government.

Heyday

One of the biggest changes to Middlesex during the lifetime of the MCC was the huge rise in population in the inter war period. The 1889 population in the new Middlesex was a bare half a million; after the First World War this rose at a rate of over 27% (5 to 7 times above the normal rate and more than any other administrative county). The rise was due less to a rising birth rate, although this did happen, and more to adult migration as people moved to Middlesex to work in the new factories and light industries which sprang up along the new arterial roads into London.

The MCC was pivotal in the planning, design and construction of these new arteries into the capital. The first of these was the Great West Road, which has left us with an interesting architectural legacy (including the former Gillett Factory, the Pyrene Building and the late lamented Firestone Factory). Lack of planning control at the time also meant that houses could be built very close to the new roads, something we can see evidence of today. Other arterial roads built by the MCC include the North Circular, Western Avenue and the Cambridge Road.

Map of the administrative county of Middlesex

​Map of the Administrative County of Middlesex

The MCC also led on the West Middlesex Main Drainage Scheme, a major engineering project which aimed to solve the problems presented by the pressure of the rising population on the existing services (in 1930 there were 30 small sewage systems in the west of the County, serving 7 boroughs and 8 urban districts). The MCC secured hard won funding from the government to finance the construction of 70 miles of sewers and a new sewage treatment plant at Mogden in Heston and Isleworth, along with a sludge works at Perry Oaks. The cost was over half a million pounds and at the time the scheme and Mogden in particular, were highly praised for their efficiency and size. The East Middlesex Drainage Scheme followed and was opened in 1963.

The MCC worked closely with its local authorities on both these projects, a pattern which followed in the delivery of numerous other services. The most complex of these, as well as being the largest, was education. Education itself became a huge area of activity, responsibility and debate for local government in the first half of the twentieth century. Under the 1902 Education Act the MCC became responsible for the delivery of all higher education in the County and elementary education for the least populated areas. The MCC greatly increased the number of schools and school places following this. After the passing of the 1944 Education Act the County Council took responsibility for all education (much to the chagrin of those of its local authorities which had previously been allowed to run elementary education) and again, confronted with a post war baby boom and continuing adult migration, had to provide many more new schools. During the twenty years after the Second World War the MCC built more schools than any other local authority in the country. It also worked with central government to pioneer new methods of education, such as the use of technology as a teaching aid.

The end

By then, however, the existing model of local government in the "greater London" area was under scrutiny. The Herbert Commission on Government in Greater London opened in 1957 and presented its report in 1960. The Commission ran over a hundred public meetings to examine and question the workings and effectiveness of local government. During this process very deep, and at times bitter divisions, between the MCC and its local authorities became apparent, far greater in fact than between any other equivalent bodies. Many of the municipal boroughs in Middlesex were clamouring for county borough status by this date; this would have taken them out of the County's administrative framework altogether and made the MCC's job of running services in the County around them difficult if not impossible. The Herbert Commission sounded the death knell for the MCC and in effect the County of Middlesex itself.

Conclusion

The Middlesex County Council lasted for some 76 years, during a time of immense change to the country and of course two world wars (with aerial bombardment on the County for the first time). It was also a time of enormous possibility, with local government at its most effective and empowered (to date). The MCC rose to the challenges of the time; it was committed to high standards of service; not afraid to take risks and think on a big, strategic scale. It worked with its local authorities to provide Londoners with infrastructures we still have today. So, in the sense that it has been given less attention than it deserves, the Middlesex County Council is a Cinderella service.

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Published:
07 February 2017
Last Modified:
22 August 2018

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