• The River Lea

  • Humans and nature

    "In this actual world there is then not much point in counter-posing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature. We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out." - Raymond Williams (1980)
  • Favourate Quote:

    We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." - Aldo Leopold (1938)
  • Lea Valley and River Photos

New Website

I’ve moved this website to JimClifford.ca.

Podcast: An Environmental History of the Lower Lea River Valley, Site of the 2012 London Olympics

From ActiveHistory.ca:
The Lower Lea Valley, currently undergoing a massive redevelopment project in preparation for the next Summer Olympics, underwent a number of equally remarkable transformations as London’s heavy industry migrated to the city’s eastern periphery in the second half of the nineteenth century. In this talk, Jim Clifford explored some of the findings of his PhD dissertation on the environmental problems created by half a century of urban-industrial development, and the challenges this history poses for redevelopment.

His lecture, “From a Pastoral Wetland to an Industrial Wasteland, and Back Again? An Environmental History of the Lower Lea River Valley, the Site of the 2012 London Olympics,” is part of the pan-Canadian NiCHE Speakers’ Series and the Mississauga Library System’s ‘History Minds’ series.

Click here to listen to the talk.


Dissertation Defended

On January 20th I successfully defended my dissertation, “A Wetland Suburb on the Edge of London: a Social and Environmental History of West Ham and the River Lea, 1855-1914.”  Now I’ve just got the small job of converting it into a book ahead.  I’ve included the abstract for this project below. If anyone has suggestions on where I should try to publish an urban environmental history of London/West Ham, I’d be happy to hear them.

This dissertation examines the multifaceted connections between ecological change on the wetlands where the River Lea meets the Thames Estuary and the development of a young suburb on the edge of London. West Ham was a patchwork of heavy industry, rivers, slums, farmlands and low-lying marshes. The difficult environmental conditions of this wetland suburb provided compelling material for a study of the links between the environment and urban society and politics. West Ham was not a typical suburb: growth of industry and working-class housing outpaced growth of commuter residential communities. Nor was it much like London’s older industrial core, as pockets of the wetlands and farms remained undeveloped, distorting boundaries between the city and the receding countryside.  As industry transformed the wetlands, socially marginalized people in West Ham suffered alongside the natural environment from pollution and flooding.

This dissertation, by placing environmental change, and the interconnections between social and ecological degradation at its centre, demonstrates the importance of the environment in shaping urban, social, and political history.  Droughts, disease, and floods highlighted the dysfunctional environmental conditions in this wetland suburb.  The deteriorating condition of the Lower Lea contributed to economic problems and to the end of industrial growth.  These conditions caused both the public and the electorate in West Ham to increasingly demand action from the borough council to ensure the water supply, improve housing conditions and health, and to protect the low-lying districts from floods.  Crisis after crisis caused by the suburb’s location on the wetland edge of Greater London demonstrated that the population of West Ham could not rely on private interests to protect the public good.  These particular environmental conditions, along with the connected social distress, contributed to the rise of Labour and socialist politics in the suburb and to a more general transition from liberalism to social democracy in West Ham.  The public demanded stable environmental and economic conditions, and they increasingly turned to government and its experts, instead of private enterprise and market forces, to solve the many problems facing this industrial wetland suburb.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The River Lea and the Thames in West Ham: the River’s roles in shaping industrialization on the eastern edge of nineteenth-century London
  3. Suburbanization in the Urban Periphery and the Rural Fringe: West Ham’s Hybrid Landscape
  4. The Politics of a Water Crisis in West Ham, 1898
  5. Environment and Health in West Ham, 1890-1914
  6. Remaking the Bow Back Rivers: environmental and social intervention to decrease flooding and unemployment in West Ham, 1888-1909
  7. Conclusion

Historical Maps on the Internet

Here is my monthly blog post for ActiveHistory.ca: Historical Maps on the Internet.

The River Lea in Crisis: Suburban growth and Environmental Decline in the Lea Valley, 1855-1898

Here is an audio recording of a paper I presented at the American Society of Environmental History Conference in Tallahassee Florida.  The paper entitled: “The River Lea in Crisis: Suburban growth and Environmental Decline in the Lea Valley, 1855-1898” was a part of a panel called “Engineered Improvements and Unintended Consequences: Urban River Pollution and Water-Borne Disease in Three National Contexts, 1830-1940”.  For more audio recordings of conference papers (most of which focus on Canadian Environmental History), check here: http://niche-canada.org/audio-video


Early Industrial Development on the Lower River Lea

The development of railways [1839] and docks [1855] in the parish of West Ham corresponded with significant industrial development in the mix of wetlands and rural landscapes on London’s suburban fringe in the mid-nineteenth century.  That being said, the Lower Lea and the parish of West Ham had some industrial development centuries earlier.  Along side the early industry, human transformation of the physical landscape began with marsh reclamation for agriculture, which also started centuries before the suburban and industrial boom in the second half of the nineteenth century.  To fully understand the landscape transformation of the nineteenth century we need to better understand the long history of human labour that transformed the wetlands of the Lower Lea through to the early nineteenth century.

To accomplish this goal, I’ve been doing some work to map the early industrial transformation on the Lea, before the heavy industry began to arrive in the mid-19th century.   I found that the Lower Lea was a site of industry at the time of the Norman Invasion of England and the Domesday Book.  Millers on the Lower Lea used the tides to grind grain and other products.  These mills remained in place during the early nineteenth century and at least the Three Mills remained operational through to the twentieth century.  This long continuity of industry in the parish of West Ham foreshadowed the massive industrial growth in the second half of the nineteenth century.  New industries, such as Calico Printing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then the chemical and animal rendering industries of the nineteenth centuries started near the old mill sites, before spreading along the banks of the Stratford Back Rivers.  The GIS map below provides a conservative estimate of the industrial footprint near Stratford High Street in 1810 .

Stratford Back Rivers Industry 1810

The Lea: A Suburban Industrial River, 1855-1915.

I am working on a paper about the transformation of the Lower Lea River (including the Bow Back Rivers and Bow Creek) into an industrial river network, during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  As I write the paper I will be creating some GIS maps of the area from that I will post on this blog.  I’ve included the abstract for this paper below.  Here is a very early map of the rivers I’m researching.

Early GIS map of back rivers

Early GIS map of back rivers

Continue reading

Water Famine, Social Injustice, and River Failure

The conservative newspaper, the West Ham Guardian, roundly criticised the East London Waterworks Company (ELWC) for putting dividends before people after it was announced on August 22 of 1898 that West Ham, along with much of East London, was going to face another period of intermittent water supply.  The bundle of correspondence kept by the company, together with the local newspapers, make it clear that the majority of the public did not accept that the record low rain fall during the preceding year was the cause of the shortage.   Instead the public blamed the monopoly control of the ELWC for not investing the necessary capital to increase the water supply.  The population of West Ham had grown by over two hundred thousand people in the past two decades, but there was little reflection on the possibility that the urban growth east of London was overtaxing the capacity of the already strained water supply provided by the Lea.  Instead it was seen as another example of the wealthy failing to meet their obligations to the less fortunate.  In West Ham the anger that developed as a result of the water famine help unite the electorate behind a socialist led Labour Group in November 1898 elections, resulting in the first labour majority on a municipal council in Britain.  This paper will examine the politics of the 1898 water famine within the context of West Ham.

GIS Map of West Ham’s Hybrid Landscape

This map shows the patchwork of land uses in West Ham at the end of the nineteenth century.


West Ham and the River Lea

West Ham was located east of London on the Essex side of the River Lea that formed the eastern border of London. The Lea was an important part of West Ham from the very beginnings of industrial growth in the area. Tidal mills harnessed the river for power and calico and silk printers relied on the purity of the water for their work. The river was also source of drinking water and used for sewage disposal. During the mid-nineteenth century chemical factories, a large railway engineering works and a shipbuilding works were built along the banks of the Lea and its back rivers in West Ham. These many uses of the river also started to come into conflict with each other. Pollution in the river forced the calico and silk printers to leave West Ham. Sewage in the water supply was identified as the main cause of the 1866 Cholera epidemic in East London. The diversion of too much water for drinking disrupted the other uses of the Lea, causing sewage and other wastes to collect in the otherwise drying river beds and disrupting the barge traffic that industry relied on to supply raw materials. The Lea was also a threat to the growing borough of West Ham as the suburb was mostly built on land below the natural high water mark of both the Lea and the Thames. The relationship between the industrial suburb of West Ham and the river Lea is the central topic of my dissertation. My second chapter, that I have now begun researching, looks at the water famines of 1895, 1896 and 1898 when the East London Waterworks Company restricted the water supply by turning off the flow of water to East London and eastern suburbs like West Ham for between 18 and 20 hours a day. I will post another blog entry focusing on these famines in a few weeks when I’ve done more of the research.