Reference numberCB/4
TitleCambridge Improvement Commissioners
DescriptionThe board of Cambridge Improvement Commissioners, (also known as the Urban Sanitary Authority for Cambridge from 1874 following Cambridge's constitution as a district under the Public Health Act, 1872) was set up by a 1788 act of parliament for 'the better Paving, Cleansing, and Lighting of the Town of Cambridge; for removing and preventing Obstructions and Annoyances; and for widening the Streets, Lanes, and other Passages within the said Town.' Their first meeting took place on 9 June 1788. The act superseded an act for the paving of Cambridge of 1544.

The Commissioners were appointed to represent the University and Colleges, including the Chancellor, High Steward, Heads or Governors of colleges; the Corporation of Cambridge, including the Mayor, and Aldermen; and an elected commissioner from each parish, voted by parishioners with a right to vote for the election of churchwarden. The original number of nominated Commissioners in 1788 was 62. Those elected were expected not to act in their own interest or to profit from the requirements of the Act.

Although the University was well represented on the Improvement Board the act did not extend within the courts or walls of the University or colleges.

Decisions had to be agreed by five or more Commissioners, for example to authorise: the appointment of officers, payments by the treasurer, the election of new Commissioners, or to verify accounts.

The 1788 act gave the Improvement Commissioners powers to raise finance by the introduction of a paving rate, decided once a year and related to the level of the poor rate, levied against tenants or occupiers of all properties within the town according to the annual value of their property. They were also empowered to raise money with a paving toll (in addition to existing tolls taken by the Corporation) and they were permitted to borrow against future rates, duty and tolls. The quota given by the University of two fifths of the yearly evaluation of funds needed for the following year, and the quota of one twelfth of the remainder from the Corporation raised further finance.

The Commissioners were given multiple powers to carry out the work of paving, lighting and draining the town including: power to purchase, and make compensation for, any property within Cambridge to widen or alter the streets; order the streets to be paved and sewers and drains to be made; make contracts for work and impose penalties on delays for inadequate work as inspected by the surveyor; issue warrants to empannel juries to settle disputes; prosecute offences in front of the Justice of the Peace; issue penalties to members of the University for breaking or damaging lamps; remove obstructions or annoyances from footways including pumps, frames, trade signs and window shutters, and charge owners for the costs of the work; issue fines for carts left in the streets, or wandering swine or cattle; order houses to be numbered; regulate the water flowing from Hobson's conduit; and issue fines to anyone who altered a pavement, sewer, or drain without permission. Any infrastructure that was erected or fixed as a result of the act became the property of the Commissioners.

General meetings of the Improvement Commissioners, or Improvement Board, would take place approximately once a month to authorise or make orders on the recommendations of committees appointed to investigate specific issues or areas of responsibility.
Prominent committees included the Finance Committee, the Gas Committee, the Lamp Committee, the General Purposes Committee, the Paving and Drainage Committee, the Graveyards Committee, the Tolls Committee, the Parliamentary Committee and the Sanitary Committee. There were also multiple committees or joint committees formed to investigate specific nuisances, conduct surveys or bring new legislation into operation. Joint committees were often formed with representatives of the Corporation and the University where an issue was of interest to each party.

Appointed officers like the clerk, treasurer, surveyor and, after 1848 and 1872 public health legislation, an inspector of nuisances and a medical officer of health, would support, inform and advise the work of these committees. These individual officers became offices as the work of the Commissioners expanded.

A large proportion of the records in this collection were created or kept by the clerk to the Commissioners. His duties included preparing notice papers for board meetings; attending and taking minutes at board and committee meetings; attending borough Petty Sessions and conducting cases against people summoned for non payment of rates, or the abatement of nuisances; conducting the correspondence of the board; attending tradesmen and contractors and advising the board. The first clerk to be appointed at the initial meeting on 9 Jun 1788 was Edward Randall.

The Commissioners put up notices, issued individual orders, and placed advertisements in the newspapers to inform the population of their new responsibilities. For example builders were forbidden from constructing encroachments beyond existing foundations and occupiers were required to sweep in front of their houses. The population also had certain rights, for example any two householders could complain of the quality of paving work, and if the surveyor agreed the Commissioners would order a repair within 4 days. People in financial difficulty could appeal for relief against the new rate and complaints against the Commissioners could be referred to the Justice of the Peace.

In 1794 there was a further act to "Amend and Enlarge the Powers of an Act, passed in the Twenty-eighth Year of the Reign of His present Majesty, intitled "An Act for the better Paving, Cleansing, and Lighting of the Town of Cambridge; for removing and preventing Obstructions and Annoyances; and for widening the Streets, Lanes, and other Passages within the said Town."

This act increased the powers of the Commissioners, the University and the Corporation to raise finance for the requirements of the act. Between 1788-1794 the Commissioners has contracted considerable debts and works were still unfinished. The amended act enabled the University to borrow money in order to pay their quota, forced the Corporation to pay it's outstanding contribution, and allowed the Commissioners to sell land not required for the purposes of the act. It also granted further powers to address specific issues for example, powers to remove spouts and gutters, and to issue penalties to the Sheriff or the Coroner for neglect of duty. It also increased the number of Commissioners representing the parishes and the University. Each parish could now elect two Commissioners and the University and Colleges could elect a Master and a Fellow from each college, (two from Trinity and St John's) in addition to existing representation. The number of commissioners was only reduced as part of the reconstitution of the board within the Cambridge Improvement Commissioners Bill in 1885.

The role and responsibilities of the Commissioners expanded with the town's population. The passing of the Public Health Act in 1848 and the public response in favour increased the need and demand for public services such as water, lighting, and an adequate sewerage system. The Commissioners became the Urban Sanitary Authority following Cambridge's constitution as a district under the Public Health Act in 1872. Providing the population with better public services, in particular an adequate sewage system, demanded increased finance. Negotiations between the Improvement Commissioners, the Corporation and the University on each party's financial contribution and responsibility can be traced through the legislation that attempted to settle these matters, including the Cambridge Award Act, 1856; The Cambridge University and Town Bill, 1874, the Valuation Bill, 1877; the Cambridge Improvement Commissioners Bill, 1885, and the Cambridge (University and Colleges) Rating Bill, 1886.

The Cambridge Improvement Commissioners were abolished as a body by a provisional order in pursuance of section 52 of the Local Government Act, 1888 and under section 297 of the Public Health Act, 1875 and they ceased to exist on the 9 Nov 1889. Their powers and responsibilities were transferred to the Borough Council. The records of the Cambridge Improvement Commissioners passed to the Borough Council, (later City Council) and were transferred to Cambridgeshire Record Office in 1975.
CreatorNameCambridge Improvement Commissioners
RepositoryCambridgeshire Archives
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