Autobiography of William Joseph Dibdin F.I.C., F.C.S.
Analytical Chemist
1850 - 1925

Section 8

Bribery Corruption

Just before the London County Council displaced the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, the political party then rising to power thought fit to make charges against officers and members of the Board wholesale as to their good faith and honesty with the result that a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the truth of the charges. In the course of this inquiry it came out that two officers had formerly been guilty of accepting bribes, but not a single charge was proved, or ever seriously made, against members, or the rest on the staff of nearly 2000 officials.

Amongst the insinuations thrown out certain people thought it fit to try to make out that the chemist (myself) had treated them unfairly, in not adopting their pet schemes for the treatment of sewage on London before its discharge into the River Thames. I was properly requested by the Commission to prepare a report on the whole matter and to give a full account of myself and the members of my staff. When the case came to before the Commission, our Counsel said " Now my Lord I propose to put Mr Dibdin, the Chemist to the Board , into the box in order that you may examine him on the sewage question which has been raised here and to give your Lordship full particulars on the whole matter" The reply was "Oh! I don’t think we need to go into that" So I sat down again. The fact is the Commission had my written statement and knowing what I had to say, thought it not worthwhile taking up time in going over it.

My statement was a complete answer to those who, to promote their private ends, did not hesitate to throw mud. I had been the target for every sort of attack with the means of denouncing me in order that I might be cleared out of the way to make room for their schemes which would have cost London many millions sterling against the one million for which my proposals were ultimately carried out.

When I was making permanganate of soda at the Southern Outfall at Crossness, as already described, I bought a cargo of oxide of manganese from the agent of a foreign firm who sent it from the Black Sea. Some weeks after the account had been paid I received at my private house an envelope enclosing a sum of £15 odd. At first I could not understand it but thinking I recognised the writing I took it to the laboratory at Spring Gardens and calling in my two chief assistants asked them if they could tell from whom it came. They did so and referring to the account for the manganese found that the money was equal to 2½% on the amount of the account. As the agent was not an Englishman, I did not make a complaint against him, but write him a note expressing my regret that he should have such a poor opinion of me and returned to him the amount, taking the precaution to get my chief clerk to register the letter and check its contents. The man apologised and afterwards tried to get further orders, but I would have nothing more to do with him, as shown in the correspondence attached hereto, and there the matter ended for ten years, about which time I was asked to go to the Deputy Chairman of the Council, Mr Dickenson, who I noticed was looking very grave and formal, to my surprise, as we were generally very friendly.

He asked me to take a seat, and then asked if I had anything to do with Mr -----. I replied "yes" He then said "did you every receive any money from him" "Hulloh" I thought "what’s up now" and felt inclined to have some fun, but the matter was evidently too serious, so I simply replied "yes" seeing that he evidently was really distressed, I said "But you do not ask me what I did with it. Will you ring that bell and send for my chief clerk and tell him to bring all papers relating to Mr -----

He looked up in surprise so I said " to cut a long story short, the simple facts are" and then I shortly told them to him.

I never saw anyone so relieved in my life. He requested me to see him a little later and bring my clerk and the papers. I did so and the formal way in which Mr Livingstone, my clerk, put the various documents before him and would up by giving the number of the Bank notes and postal order was as good as a play. Dickenson was pleased , as he well might be and there the matter remained without any explanation. Some years afterwards Livingstone found out that the agent in question had coolly charged the amount sent to his firm and on my returning it put it in his own pocket. His affairs later went wrong and on his firm looking into them, found the item supposed to have been received by me. They then wrote to the Council and so the matter came out.

On another occasion a certain party who wanted to sell chemicals to the Metropolitan Board of Works for treating the sewage offered to pay me ten per cent on the amount of the purchases which he estimated would cost about £144,000 per annum. "What" I said " You will pay me £14,400 a year" "Well" said he if it answers you purposes it will answer mine" I replied "Where’s your tail, you must be the Devil himself" Needless to say he never sold a single ounce to the Board. He coolly informed me that it was a common practice and unless he did it he could do no business. If I could have got him to give me a chance I would have exposed him, but he took care to speak when no witnesses were about. From collateral information, I concluded that his statement was quite correct and that bribery was more rampant than I ever imagined.

Another gentleman tried treats and wrote to strongly advising me to "hedge for fear of the Board rounding upon me" in the event of my pans proving to be a failure, which he was certain they would do. It is true that after my process had been demonstrated as correct, he called and apologies and said "You were right and I was wrong"

The attempt to intimidate me, nevertheless was not what I had a right to expect.

Another gentleman sent some 4 or 5 sheets of foolscap to the chairman making charges against me which were absolutely groundless. These are but examples of what one had to go through and at the same time to submit to the sneering and tacit opposition on all sides from those who did, could or would not understand the principles upon which I was working. It is a remarkable fact that the sewage question seems to have brought out the worst side of human nature and I often think that the cleanest thing about the sewage question in the sewage itself, on the principle that it matters not how dirty we make our hands so long as we can wash them clean with soap and water.

As showing the suspicious nature of some of the first members of the London County Council who firmly believed that all the officers of the Board were a set of thieves, an amusing incident occurred in connection with a visit to the Northern Outfall at Barking Creek. When inspecting the screening chamber, the chairman of the committee saw a cheque amongst the debris and without thinking gave orders, in very presumptory manner, that it was to be cleansed and sent to him! It was accordingly posted, but, unfortunately to another member of the Council having a somewhat similar name. This gentleman, a little Butter-man in the East End of London with no more knowledge of affairs than those he had gained in his little butter shop and his local chapel immediately came to the conclusion that he was being tempted and instead of asking what it was about, quietly kept watch for the offender. In the meantime the Chairman was making repeated inquires and suspiciously asking why the cheque had not been sent to him.

At last the error was discovered and the cheque duly handed to the chairman who inspected it and then discovered that it was an old used cheque which had been discarded as waste paper and threw it away with the remark that it had evidently found its way into the sewers "in the most disgusting manner possible"

That cheque ought to have been recovered and framed as a monument to the wise-acres of the first L.C.C.

Royal Commission Details

67. Metropolitan Board of Works 1888-89

App. 20 March 1888. Rep. (1) pres. 6 Nov 1888, C.5560, lvi; (2) 8 Apr 1889, C.5705, xxxix, 319. Cost £927.

Lord Herschell; F.A. Bosanquet; H.R. Grenfell.

Secretary: V.A. Williamson. (Not named in either Warr. or report; HO file [below] records his appointment [24 March 1888] on Herschell's recommendation.)

To inquire into and report upon the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and into the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place in connection therewith. (In full.)

This Commission was given additional powers to compel the attendance of witnesses under the Metropolitan Board (Commission) Act 1888, 51 Vict. c.6. Following publication of the first report the Home Office sought an Opinion from the Treasury Solicitor as to whether proceedings should be brought against certain named officials of the Board who had already resigned their positions, but it was recommended (10 Nov 1888) that no further action should be taken. (PRO.HO.45/9776/B1926; B1926C)