This passage has been excerpted from Dale H. Porter, The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998, which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian Web GPL.

decorative initial In the Middle Ages, the public interest had been defined in terms of the King's peace, a domain of law in which the ruler claimed the right to intervene on behalf of the good of the realm and its subjects. Gradually, the Crown was subjected to the rule of the law as interpreted by the courts, and, after 1688, Parliament took over much of the royal claim. In the nineteenth century, three developments precipitated new questions about the public interest. Rapid urbanization, coupled with the invention of mass circulation newspapers, generated a sense of community with often radical overtones. Unlike the eighteenth-century mob agitation that supported John Wilkes and Henry Hunt, however, this new community image was identified with local parishes, boroughs, neighborhoods — in other words, urban territory. Second, turnpike and railway 1egislation and the various reform acts passed by Parliament (especially the Factory Acts, the Poor Law administration, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835) highlighted tensions between local authorities and royal government. Finally, public construction projects brought subjects and rulers face to face with the question, whose property is public property? Political authorities obtained the legal right to confiscate real estate and buildings that stood in the way of approved projects, so long as the owners were properly compensated. But who had a vested interest in the new landscape and structures that replaced them? The local vestry or borough council? The central government? An autonomous "improvement commission"? Residents? In the case of the Thames Embankment, some fifty-two acres of prime real estate were literally dredged out of the river in the heart of London. They were authorized by Parliament and the Treasury, claimed by both the Crown and the City Corporation of London under ancient law, built under the auspices of the recently created Metropolitan Board of Works, defended by aristocratic residents — and requisitioned, in the end, by the people of London for their own use. This new concept of public property was to have important consequences for future environmental issues. To cite a single instance, by the end of its institutional life, in 1889, the Metropolitan Board of Works came to manage over 2,600 acres of parks and commons, most of them taken over from private landowners as the metropolis swallowed up the manors and villages. [16]


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Last modified 11 October 2002