Historic Street Furniture - Outer London Areas History

Local administration in England has a history which stretches back over a thousand years. The Ancient Counties were derived either from Anglo-Saxon kingdoms whose size made them suitable administrative units when England was unified in the tenth century, or as artificial creations formed from larger kingdoms. The ancient counties were divided into Hundreds, but their later reorganization and sub-division into Parishes as the centuries progressed, and their gradual loss of administrative importance, are matters too complex for these notes and much has necessarily had to be omitted. Further information about the history of ecclesiastical and civil parishes, with particular reference to London, can be found here:

Towns within a parish might have the status of a Borough. The English borough is a unit of government of ancient origin. Originally it might mean a walled town or similar place of safety. Gradually the borough came to be understood to be ‘corporate’, that is, a body with corporate action and identity in its own right, entitling it to have legislative and administrative powers. In more recent years ‘borough-privilege’ could only be granted by means of a Royal Charter, though in earlier times such rights could be granted in other ways too.

The atomised state of local administration in England through most of the nineteenth century was well summarized in 1933 by A E Lauder, Charter Town Clerk for Southgate Urban District Council, writing in Southgate’s Charter Day, the commemorative booklet and programme for the presentation of the Charter of Incorporation to Southgate for its formation as a municipal borough, 30th September 1933:

The history of local government in England shows the national characteristic of tardy adaptation to changing circumstances. In 1881, when Southgate achieved self-government, the Boroughs of England were either large towns which owed their existence to the expansion of industry and commerce, or ancient small Boroughs to whom reigning monarchs had granted Charters in recognition of their loyalty or their political or financial assistance. There was then a wide difference between the municipal powers exercised by the Councils of Boroughs and those of ordinary Urban Districts. There were also other local authorities in the field. Parliament had the habit when new duties were required to be performed, of setting up a special body to do the work. Thus, we had Boards of Guardians for the relief of the poor, Overseers for the assessment of properties for rating, Commissioners for managing Public Baths, School Boards for elementary education, Highway Boards for the care of the roads, and Burial Boards for the interment of the dead. Gradually, this administrative anarchy gave way to order, and nearly all local government is now carried out by the County Council and the Borough or District Council.

The gathering together of monopoly control of local administration is attractive to politicians and bureaucrats, if not necessarily to the general public (as it usually involves loss of basic freedoms at greater public expense), and its gradual progression is marked by a number of Acts of Parliament passed during the nineteenth century. It must be acknowledged that in most instances until recently the public benefit outweighed the disadvantages.

Perhaps one of the earliest moves away from the long-standing system of local administration by the parishes and the vestries was the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. This established Poor Law Commissioners for the creation of poor law unions throughout the country. These were usually groups of local parishes and were responsible for looking after the old and poor in their district. The health concerns in the 1840s largely engendered by cholera epidemics led to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848, which established Local Boards of Health in towns. The 1848 Act was replaced by the Local Government Act 1858. The act came into force in all existing local board of health districts. It made some changes to the procedure for constituting a local board and gave them some additional powers. The authorities created by the 1858 Act were simply entitled Local Boards and their areas as Local Government Districts. Whether the existing local boards of health eventually abbreviated their titles in everyday usage, or whether those created by the 1858 Act sometimes added the words ‘of health’ to the name unnecessarily, is difficult to determine from the surviving evidence. Additional local boards continued to be formed in new districts until the early 1890s.

Industrialization and increasing populations in urban areas meant that public health remained an important issue and further measures were introduced by the Public Health Act 1873 and the Public Health Act 1875. The latter designated local government districts as Urban Sanitary Districts with the local board becoming the urban sanitary authority. The titles of the district and board did not change, however, the local board assuming extra duties as a sanitary authority. Rural Sanitary Districts were formed in all areas without a town government and followed the boundaries of existing poor law unions formed in 1837, less the areas of urban sanitary districts.

The Local Government Act 1888 (effective 1889) brought in a new scheme of Administrative Counties, based on the ancient counties. It also conferred the status of County Borough on a number of the more important boroughs, this entailing the complete independence from the surrounding or adjacent county from which it had once been dependent. In January 1889 the County of London became a county by an amendment to this Act. It took over the former Metropolitan Board of Works area (whose boundary was established in 1855) and involved the loss of significant parts of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent to the new county.

The Local Government Act 1894 (effective 1894) was a significant item of legislation and one of its most important elements was the creation of Urban Districts and Rural Districts, their areas being based on the existing sanitary districts whose boundaries had themselves usually followed the existing parish boundaries. Representation on the Urban District Councils and the Rural District Councils was by popular election as distinct from the methods used for the superseded local boards, which were by weighted elections by selected freeholders or by appointment. Women could now stand for election to the councils, though women (over 30) were not entitled to vote until 1918, universal suffrage (at age 21) not following until 1928.

The London Government Act 1899 (effective 1900) divided the County of London into 28 Metropolitan Boroughs, replacing the 41 parish vestries and District Boards of Works previously administering the area. Further details can be found in the section on the Inner London Areas History.

Map of the City of London and Metropolitan Boroughs, from London Statistics, Vol XLI, 1936-38.


So matters remained for the following half-century. In the 1920s and 1930s many of the urban districts in the ‘Extra-London’ area (that is, outside the County of London) petitioned successfully for Charters of Incorporation as Municipal Boroughs. ‘Charter Day’, when the sovereign’s representative visited the district to present the charter, was locally celebrated as a public holiday with processions and a range of special activities and entertainments. During this time, too, the outward expansion of the London built-up area filled in most of the gaps between the boundary of the County of London and the various boroughs and urban districts beyond, up to about twelve miles from the centre of London. Middlesex in particular became largely built over. The administrative situation in London was by the 1930s perceived to be a muddle and much thought was being given, both officially and unofficially, as to how the region now known as Greater London was to be governed in the future. Possibly this would involve the merger of existing districts and boroughs into larger units though this was not necessarily ideal, as the Local Government Boundary Commission’s report for 1947 observed. Their remarks were aimed country-wide but were of particular relevance for London:

The general aim, in our view, should be to make the local administration of a local government service as local, that is, the area of administration as restricted, as is compatible with securing an effective service. This fundamental consideration should be specially borne in mind at a time like the present when the practical advantages of a large-scale organization need no emphasis. It is of the first importance if local interest is to be preserved and encouraged and full use made of local knowledge. As the unit becomes larger, the element of public control by elected representatives tends to diminish and be replaced by officialdom.
[Quoted in Michael Robbins,
A New Survey of England: Middlesex, London, 1953.]

Needless to say this excellent advice was ignored and in the London Government Act 1963 the Metropolitan Boroughs, the Municipal Boroughs and the Urban Districts in the Greater London conurbation were merged into just 32 over-large London Boroughs, which together with the City of London formed on 1st April 1965 the administrative county of Greater London. In this process the County of Middlesex was abolished completely. Thus were created the present bureaucratic oligarchies whose relationship with local democracy is tenuous at best and which have led to the almost total loss of genuine local civic pride. How much empathy can an inhabitant of (for example) West Ruislip feel for a local celebration in West Drayton? Yet both districts are in the same London borough (Hillingdon). It is difficult to imagine the wholehearted local pride and pleasure shown in the 1930s for an urban district’s Charter Day (Southgate, quoted above, being a typical example) being repeated for a similar activity today.


Southgate 1933: [8½ x 5½ inches (216x140mm)]


Wood Green 1933: [9¾ x 7¾ inches (248x186mm)]


Finchley 1958: [8½ x 5½ inches (216x140mm)]


Even in the 1950s the 25th anniversary of becoming a borough may have been marked by special celebrations. In 1958, for example, the Municipal Borough of Finchley issued a ‘Silver Jubilee Edition’ of its publication Know Your Finchley, while the Municipal Borough of Wood Green mounted a carnival procession through the streets and several local organizations arranged special exhibitions. In contrast, the 25th anniversary in 1990 of the founding of the London Boroughs passed unnoticed, as did the 50th in 2015.

For those who care, though, the former borough and district names which still survive on certain items of street furniture provide a reminder of a time when, for many people, ‘local’ meant something to be proud of.

Note: in compiling these notes and the accompanying table the author acknowledges with gratitude the information contained in Frederic A Youngs, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England. Volume I: Southern England (London, Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1979), which is an astonishingly detailed and comprehensive work of research. The appropriate volumes of the Victoria History of the Counties of England and various editions of the former London County Council’s London Statistics also provided useful detail. Certain other facts and dates were obtained from Wikipedia, which is a helpful source if used with care.


The tables list all Municipal Boroughs (Mun B) and Urban Districts (UD) beyond the former County of London boundary but within the present boundary of the ceremonial county of Greater London. For convenience it represents them with their district boundaries as shown in the ‘London Areas’ map below, issued with London Statistics, Volume XLI, 1936–38, dated April 1937, but with all later incorporations added up to their abolition at the time of the creation of the London Boroughs (LB) under the London Government Act 1963. Details are also shown for certain Urban Districts which were created in 1894 or later but were subsequently renamed or merged with another district before the date of the map. In one instance an Urban District (South Hornsey) was merged with a Metropolitan Borough (Met B). This is also included. The Notes column includes details of places which were part of a Rural District (RD) in 1894 but which later became Urban Districts or were merged with existing UDs.




scroll with the mouse to zoom in and out; click and drag to pan
scroll with the mouse to zoom in and out; click and drag to pan
scroll with the mouse to zoom in and out; click and drag to pan

Source: the base map is derived the London County Council 1937 ‘London Areas’ map in London Statistics, Vol XLI, 1936-38 (reproduced in this section above the Local Authorities tables) with revisions to 1965.

< back to the main Street Furniture page
* * *
  top of page                                                         If you do not see the side menu bar, click here.