The Thames Embankment c. 1890-1900. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Dale H. Porter has written a fine book that possesses far more of general interest than first appears. Like Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold, he draws our attention to a phenomenon that to many might seem of little interest and less significance -- and then by brilliant acts of historical recovery transforms this phenomenon, the Thames Embankment, into an almost magical lens into the mind and soul of an age. As he himself readily admits, "Most people would not think of a five-mile concrete wall, backfilled with a million cubic yards of dirt, as a social or cultural informant. But, in fact, the voluminous files of technical reports and related construction correspondence tell a great many stories." And Porter unpacks those stories with great skill, explaining along the way how Victorians conceived and reconceived many things: how, for example, they redefined sewage from rainwater run-off to dangerous pollution; how they developed the idea of the Public Interest; and how people generally came to accept that green spaces were not only salubrious but a natural right for citizens.

Along the way, he provides a description of Oxford at 1850 that one won't find in Newman or Arnold, and with fine concision he explains the growth of civil engineering as a profession, which he then relates to a range of other professions and occupations necessary to produce a decades-long project like the Thames Embankment. As he explains:

We can no longer think of an artifact like the Thames Embankment as the result of purely technical processes. It did not emerge automatically from a set of technical or environmental needs, and, however concrete it may be today, its construction was a matter of competing interpretations and countless contingencies. Its very success as a piece of engineering changed the criteria by which people evaluated it. So there were as many "Embankments" as there were institutions, groups, and individuals involved with it.

Although many who would construct Foucauldian mentalités or pictures of competing social forces at work talk a pretty good game, unlike Porter, they often don't have enough knowledge of historical specificities to move beyond bland generalizations. Porter, in contrast, can insert the problems of, say, funding this major public works project into the knotted tangle of economic, political, and social forces, explaining, for example, the relations between this project and various governments' attitudes towards taxation and public expenditure; he also explains the effect of laws permitting limited stock companies, the Civil War in the United States, the occasionally disastrous effects of the Bank of England, and even how Victorians could invest their money. That's not all. In his attempt to show the different groups affected by building the Embankment, he not only discusses wages of all kinds of laborers, he also provides capsule descriptions of mudlarks, sweepers, and other kinds of petty criminals who made their livings on the Thames.

In other words, The Thames Embankment is one of those books like Asa Briggs' Victorian Cities that provides a kind of imaginative archeology, permitting modern students of Victorian literature, art, and culture to gain a sense of an age that simultaneously had so much and so little in common with our own.

Valuable as is The Thames Embankment, and as much as I enjoyed reading it, I have a few minor complaints. Porter gives voice to so many competing groups that one hesitates to request that he might have, here and there, quoted a bit more from them, so the modern reader would not have to take virtually everything through the medium of Porter's own voice and style. We could also use more plates and they could be better reproduced. I read The Thames Embankment in a paperback edition, and before I reached page 10, the front and back covers had curled themselves into most unbook-like shapes; it seems a shame for such a fine work of historical recovery to present itself in such an obviously impermanent and unaesthetic form. But these are just the required caveats: Porter's The Thames Embankment is a treasure trove for any one wanting to understand and experience more of Victorian England.

References

Dale H. Porter, The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.

Selected Passages from "The Thames Embankment" quoted or discussed in the Victorian Web


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Last modified 18 February 2008