• 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

Photo Essay

Birds eye view of Thames Ironworks (Newham Story)

Two years ago I published a photo essay entitled “The Urban Periphery and the Rural Fringe : West Ham’s Hybrid Landscape” in a special environmental history issue of Left History (Spring/Summer 2008).  The issue is now online and I’ve uploaded the PDF of my essay here.  To see a lot more historical photos of West Ham take a look at the Newham Story website.

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Podcast Interview

Here is an Exploring Environmental History podcast on my research:

Podcast 31: Environmental History of the 2012 Olympic site: the Lower River Lea

Here is Jan Oosthoek’s introduction to his interview with me:

Former industrial sites worldwide are constantly reinvented and redeveloped reflecting changes in economies and societies over time. Nowhere else in Europe is regeneration of a former industrial site more spectacular than the 2012 Olympic site on the banks of the River Lea in West Ham, East London. The creation of the Olympic park promises the rehabilitation of the Lower Lea Valley by restoring its eco-system and revitalising the community of the area.

But the Lower River Lea has a long history, going as far back as the 11th century, of industrial development and associated environmental degeneration. Jim Clifford, a doctoral student at York University in Toronto, talks in this episode of the podcast about the environmental and social history of West Ham and the Lower Lea River. He highlights that there have been attempts in the earlier 20th century to improve the Lea River’s environmental and social conditions but that the high expectations of these schemes were not always met.

Find other podcasts in this series by Jan Oosthoek here.

Remaking the Bow Back Rivers: environmental and social intervention to decrease flooding and unemployment in West Ham, 1905-1935

The recent past

The future

Promotional literature for the 2012 Olympic games promises to transform the environmental and social conditions in the Lower Lea Valley: “The natural river system of the valley will be restored, canals would be dredged and waterways widened… The rehabilitation of the Lower Lea Valley lies at the heart of the Olympic legacy to east London, restoring an eco-system and revitalising an entire community.”[1] This, however, is not the first time the Bow Back Rivers have been the focus of a major public works project with the goals of improving social and environmental conditions in West Ham.  Half a century of rapid industrial and suburban growth left the tidal Back Rivers of the Lower Lea in rough condition by the end of the nineteenth century.  The polluted and silted streams decreased the rivers utility for transportation, threatened public health, and increased the threat of flooding. Continue reading

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

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Olympic site begins to take shape, but the Lea remains polluted


http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/30/stratford-london-2012-olympics

The Guardian published another article on the Olympic transformation taking place in West Ham.  Anna Kessel is impressed by the changes in the landscape and she looks forward to the time when the Lea is transformed into a more pleasant river.  Interestingly enough, she is not the first person to bemoan the condition of the Lower Lea and its back rivers that flow through the 2012 Olympic site.  In 1844, decades before the height of the industrial boom in West Ham, James Thorne, in his book Rambles by Rivers, talks about the Lower Lea and its degraded industrial condition:

But by this time our river has ceased to be either picturesque or interesting: lime-kilns, calico-printing, and distilleries are the most prominent objects along its banks; and however useful these may be, they are not agreeable to either nose or eye. Continue reading

The River Lea’s modern pollution problems covered in the Guardian

Leo Hickman’s article on the current condition of the river Lea shows how little has changed since the rapid period of suburban and industrial expansion into its wetlands and river valley in the nineteenth century.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/09/river-lee-polluted-source

Sadly, the problems identified in this article are not new.   The pollution of the Lea gained national attention a number of times in the second half of the nineteenth century.   Continue reading