The Metropolitan Board of Works was the principal instrument of London-wide government from 1856 until the establishment of the London County Council in 1889. Its principal responsibility was to provide infrastructure to cope with London’s rapid growth, which it accomplished. The MBW was an appointed rather than elected body. This lack of accountability made it unpopular with Londoners, especially in its latter years when it fell prey to corruption. Frederick Marrable, the architect of this building, was the board’s first chief architect. After the abolition of the MBW, the building was 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 offices for the council until 1958. It was subsequently used for central government offices and demolished in 1971 to make way for a new headquarters for the British Council.
From The Building News: “On the western side of the passage which leads into St. James park – on the site of Berkeley-house — the new building of the Metropolitan Board of Works is now very nearly completed. In a short time the stables, which at present disfigure that end of the Park, will be pulled down, and a dwarf railing in front of the new structure will range with the terrace of the houses in Carlton-terrace. The approach from the north-east will be thus considerably improved. The shape of the plot of ground imposed some restraint upon the architect. The passage from Spring-gardens runs at an angle of 45^ with the houses of Carlton-terrace. One front of the new building runs in a line with those houses, the other faces Spring-gardens passage. The angle formed by their junction is cut off to form the principal entrance. Each front is about 85 feet in length.
The ground-floor is rusticated with square headed windows. The first floor has three-quarter Ionic columns and pilasters, and in the second floor a composite order surmounts them, with the entablature broken round each column. The whole is crowned by an open balustrade, bearing enriched pedestals at the angles. The windows are square-headed, with trusses and cornices. Each story is more richly treated at and above the entrance.
On the ground-floor Doric columns flank the doorway, and a balustrade projects in front of the three-light window of the first floor. The entrance for the public to the board-room is a rusticated arched opening at the north end of the Spring-garden front. The building shows, externally, a careful study of Palladian architecture. The proportions are good, and the details are well defined, bold but not heavy, simple and yet not mean, and with a sufficiency of richness to accord with the character and purpose of the structure.
Entering by the principal doorway at the angle we find ourselves in a roomy hall, on one side of which is the porter’s office, with a staircase leading to his apartments on the basement ; on the other side is a waiting- room. Directly in front there is an opening to a large oral staircase with a passage right and left. This corridor is preserved on all the stories, and the different apartments and offices are ranged on either side of it to the depth of some 40 or 45 feet, but at the north-west corners the site is still further covered, as we shall hereafter see, by the board-room. From the passage on the left of the staircase we enter the Metropolitan Improvement office, 17 feet 6 inches by 14 feet 1 inch ; the Architect’s office 17 feet 6 inches by 20 feet 6 inches ; the Building Act and Architect’s office, 17 feet G inches by 22 feet 10 inches; a drawing office, 17 feet 6 inches by 28 feet ; and a fire-proof room for the safe stowage of papers, &c. This fire-proof room is repeated on each floor on both sides of the building, and a staircase at the end of each corridor communicates with all the stories, lavatories, &e., are also placed on each side on the different floors. On the right-hand side of the staircase we have the Assistant Engineer’s and Engineer’s Accountant’s offices, 17 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 10 inches and 17 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 1 inch ; the Rating Clerk’s office, 17 feet 6 inches by 14 feet 2 inches ; the Accountant’s offices, 17 feet 6 inches by 20 feet 6 inches and 17 feet 6 inches by 12 feet 2 inches. In the rear on this side there is a Clerk of the Works office, 2.’) feet 2 inches by 16 feet 1 inch, a Record Keeper’s office and a series of eight fire-proof strong-rooms under the board-room. The approach to this latter room is by the principal stairs for the chairman and members. A corridor on the first-floor, at right angles with the main corridor, leads backwards to a waiting-room, and thence communicates with the board-room at ;the western extremity of the site. The public entrance is at the opposite end of the room, and is gained by a stone staircase and corridor entered by a doorway at the north-end of the Spring-gardens front. This gallery is shut off altogether from the rest of the building so as to obviate any interference with the different officers. Raised seats are placed for the public and reporters immediately facing the chairman. The members’ seats are on either side. The board-room is 49 feet by 30 feet and 33 feet in height. The upper portion of it is decorated with pilasters with panels between them ; over the entablature springs the cove of the ceiling pierced all round with windows. The ceiling is panelled with an elaborately moulded oval centre and an opening for ventilation from which a sun-burner will be suspended. Flues for ventilation are likewise furnished in the walls of the apartment. The details of the plaster-work in this room and indeed throughout the building are well designed and .admirably modelled.
Returning to the landing of the principal staircase, which we hare ascended by three flights, one broad one in the centre and two wing flights, we turn into the corridor on the left, as in the ground floor, and find the offices of the clerk of the board, the chairman, the waiting or committee-room, and clerks’ office. On either side of the opposite or right-hand corridor, we find a retiring-room for the members, the branch corridor conducting to their board-room, the engineer’s office, his clerk’s office, and the offices of the assistant engineers. Over the entrance-hall, porters’-room, and waiting-room there is a spacious committee-room. The second floor is devoted to clerks’ drawing offices and private apartments, with strong rooms for papers and plans, as on all the other stories. The rooms in the basement are not yet appropriated. They are lofty and well lit. The height of the ground floor is 14 feet, and of the first floor 18 feet. The oval staircase ascends only to the first floor. Its walls are enriched by blank composite arcades, crowned by a decorated cornice, and it is covered by a panelled ceiling. The central panel is carried up and covered with curved glass, protected by an external lantern.
The building is very conveniently planned ; each department is kept, as far as practicable, to itself, with its separate lavatories, strong-rooms, staircases, &c. It is moreover exceedingly well built, and reflects credit upon the clerk of works, Mr. G. H. Julian, no less than upon the contractor, Mr. George Myers, and the architect, Mr. Frederick Marrable, whose constant supervision has borne its fruit in the harmony which exists throughout the work between the several mouldings and enrichments and the general proportions of the building. We should hare welcomed a little more vigor and originality in the fa9cde; but failing that we are glad to see the design so carefully worked out in all its parts. “