London's growth had rapidly accelerated with the increase in railway commuting from the 1830s onwards. However London's local government was chaotic, with hundreds of specialist authorities (few of them elected) representing parts of streets. All had to agree in order to provide services which crossed their boundaries.
In 1835 elected municipal boroughs had been set up covering every major city except London. The City of London, only the very core of the sprawling metropolis, was untouched by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and resisted all moves to expand its borders to include the poorer inner-city districts surrounding it. This meant that three counties had authority over the metropolitan area: Middlesex covered the area north of the Thames and west of the River Lee, Surrey the area to the south and south-west, and Kent the far south east.
In 1837 an attempt was made to set up a London-wide elected authority, however the wealthier districts of Marylebone and Westminster resisted this and ultimately defeated the move. In 1854 it was proposed to divide London in to seven boroughs, each represented on a Metropolitan Board of Works. The proposal to divide the city into boroughs was abandoned but the board of works was set up in 1855.
Its other activities included slum clearance, and the driving through of new streets to relieve traffic congestion. The most important streets built were Charing Cross Road, Garrick Street, Northumberland Avenue, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Southwark Street. From 1869 onwards the MBW acquired all the private bridges crossing the River Thames and freed them of tolls. It also rebuilt Putney Bridge, Battersea Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge. The Board wanted to build a new bridge to the east of London Bridge, which had been discussed for many years; in 1878 Bazalgette drew up plans which were estimated at costing £1.25 million. Despite the Treasury refusing to help by extending the coal and wine dues which paid for the Board, it went ahead with the plans, but saw its Private Bill rejected by the House of Commons.
From 1865 the MBW became responsible for administering the Metropolitan Fire Brigade
The MBW at first had its meetings in the Guildhall of the City of London and its headquarters at Greek Street in Soho. It then built its own headquarters at Spring Gardens, (which became a metonym for the MBW), designed by its first chief architect Frederick Marrable and built in an Italianate style in 1859. When John Thwaites died (August 8, 1870), he was eventually replaced by James Macnaghten Hogg, later Lord Magheramorne, who remained Chairman until the MBW was abolished. There was an increase in the membership to 59 in 1885 when some district boards were divided and others were given more members.
The essence of the scandal arose from the purchase by the MBW of the old Pavilion music hall in Piccadilly Circus in 1879, when the site was thought necessary for the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue. As the street was still in the early stage, the site was leased to music hall proprietor R.E. Villiers for the time being. In addition to his regular payment to the Board, Villiers paid a small Sub rosa amount to F.W. Goddard, who was Chief Valuer for the Board, for favorable treatment.
In 1883, it seemed likely that demolition of the site for road construction was likely to take place, and Villiers met with Goddard and Thomas James Robertson (Assistant Surveyor) to ensure that the remainder of the site was granted to him for a new Pavilion. They agreed to help him, in return for one corner of the site being a public house under the landlordship of W.W. Grey. Grey was in fact the brother of Robertson, though this was of course not immediately apparent.
In November 1884 Robertson told Villiers that the time had come to make a formal offer to the MBW to lease the site, and Villiers duly offered £2,700 ground rent per annum. The Board instructed its superintending architect, George Vulliamy, to value the site: however, Vulliamy was old and left practically all of the work to his subordinates – Goddard and Robertson (it was said by the Deputy Chairman of the Board that "Mr. Goddard and Mr. Robertson were Mr. Vulliamy"). They prepared a report valuing the site at £3,000 per annum, which Villiers immediately accepted; this was then hurriedly pushed through the Board which agreed the lease despite a higher offer of £4,000.
The site was leased off in two portions, £2,650 for the largest part, and £350 for the western corner of the site. Goddard continued to collect his extra payments from Villiers, and the western corner was transferred to Grey – who sold his existing public house on Tichborn Street and divided the £10,000 profit between Goddard and Robertson. In December 1886, Villiers sold the Pavilion, and Goddard received a total of £5,000 of the proceeds.
On a more base level, the Assistant Architect at the Board, John Hebb, had responsibility for inspecting theatres for safety. He began to write to the managers of theatres with upcoming inspections to suggest that they might want to send him free tickets. Given the power of the board to close theatres, most complied. However, displeased by the inspections themselves, and by the attempt to extract gifts, the managers tended to send Hebb tickets for seats that were at the back of the house or hidden behind a pillar.
The Commission was headed by Lord Herschell and found the main allegations of the Financial News to have been correct, and indeed understated. Some other scandals were also discovered including the corruption of architects who were members of the Board. However, the Commission repudiated the view of critics that corruption was endemic in the Board.
Finally, the MBW received the tenders for the Blackwall Tunnel and decided to take a decision to award the contract at its final meeting. The LCC again wrote asking the MBW to leave the decision to them. The Chairman of the MBW replied (March 18 1889) that it intended to continue. At this the LCC decided to appeal to the Government which exercised its power to abolish the MBW and bring the LCC into existence on March 21, 1889.
The MBW's headquarters were taken over by the London County Council as its headquarters until County Hall was built and occupied in 1922; the building was then renamed 'Old County Hall' and continued as a subsidiary office for the LCC until the original hundred-year lease on the site expired in 1958. It was subsequently used for central government offices and demolished in 1971 to make way for a new headquarters for the British Council. The site is adjacent to Admiralty Arch, off The Mall.