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  • The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London
  • J.R. McNeill
The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. By Dale H. Porter (Akron: University of Akron Press, 1998. xvi plus 318pp. $49.95/cloth $24.95/paperback).

This book traces the story of a major public works project, the Thames Embankment, built between 1861 and 1874. The Thames Embankment radically changed the riverscape of London, replacing tidal flats and wharves with a smooth wall that hides a substrate of sewer mains and pipes. The Embankment was intended to improve navigation along the Thames, to improve the sanitary condition of the river, to provide a thoroughfare along the river’s edge, and to make London more aesthetically pleasing as befit a world city. By most reckonings, it succeeded on all these counts. Its most important function was as the housing for the sewer system, the London Main Drainage, that played a major role in reducing the incidence of water-borne disease in London. [End Page 248]

London authorities had contemplated embankments and other schemes for altering the Thames’ banks for many centuries before 1861. Some efforts had borne minor fruit. But it took the crescendo of growth in the early nineteenth century, the increasing torrents of pollution, and specifically the Great Stink of 1858 to catalyze local and national politicians into major action. In the Great Stink, drought and low water exposed the sewage-encrusted mudflats of the Thames, allowing the aroma of dead fish and human wastes to waft through the windows of the Houses of Parliament.

Dale Porter’s approach to this story is one borrowed from recent trends in the study of science and technology. He aims to show how the artefact, the Thames Embankment, was the outcome of numerous struggles among competing interests. Engineers, contractors, landowners, government all had ideas, plans and strategies, and built shifting alliances among themselves. There were many possible outcomes, and the one London (and the Thames) got emerged from the complex interplay of political and social competitions. The book, then, is a study of the ‘social construction’ of a public works project. As such, it is completely convincing.

To get at the nitty gritty of competing interests at work, Porter has spent long hours poring over Parliamentary Papers, collections in the Greater London Record Office, minutes of meetings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and aged issues of the London Illustrated News. Porter left few stones unturned. At times I thought he learned too much about his subject. He could not resist the temptation to describe, at some length, engineering ideas and plans that in the end lost out, bureaucrats who, in the end, had no influence, and financing schemes that, in the end, were unrealized. This is a risk inherent in the approach: Porter must follow the trails of outcomes that did not happen in order to show how they lost out. Judging how far to follow them is a difficult business. The prose is clear and serviceable throughout, with few frills. It would pass muster with Porter’s mid-Victorian engineers, except where (p. 108) the Embankment is likened to a “butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.”

Lovers of London will no doubt enjoy the book greatly. Scholars of public works history, of engineering history, and of Victorian Britain will find much to chew on. For others, the book presents some rough going. Few readers except cab drivers will have Porter’s intimate knowledge of London geography. The maps, which assist with the names of sections of the Embankment, are no help for the street names which pepper the text. The organization is sometimes confusing. The level of detail on, among other matters, the interpersonal politics of engineers, will be too much for all but aficionados of British civil engineering history. But for the right audiences, Porter’s book is a model. It clearly displays the virtues of the social construction of public works approach. It left me persuaded that the approach can do for public works history what it has done for the history of science and for the history of technology: embed it in the historian’s seamless web.

J.R. McNeill...

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pp. 248-249
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