[This passage has been excerpted from Dale H. Porter's The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London, which is reviewed eleswhere in the Victorian WebGPL.]

decorative initial In the 1830s and '40s, as cities rapidly grew unmanageably crowded and polluted, the countryside emerged, in contrast, as an area of relative salubrity, a haven of fresh air and breezes, of sunshine undimmed by pu- trid fog, of room for exercise. Factory operatives and dockworkers, who had no cause to feel sentimental about the rural degradation from which they had been expelled, nonetheless sought open spaces for conversation and companionship. The railway allowed them to visit the country on Sundays. It also enabled city merchants to commute from modest country houses as far away as the Chilterns, where they took a proprietary interest in the natural environment. The countryside thus became an amenity rather than just a pretty sight. Like the new urban parks, it took on moral and hygienic qualities. Enjoying it provided an opportunity for personal enrichments As an amenity, nature fit rather awkwardly into the liberal economic assumptions of the day. On the positive side, it could be regarded as a resource with specific productivity values. Fresh air and water made workers healthier, women more fruitful, and managers restored to competitive competence. Air and water were essential for many new manufacturing processes and were still needed by farmers and fishermen. On the negative side, precisely because air and water were "natural" and available over an extended area, their quality was only minimally regulated by the voluminous body of property law that distinguished and defined so much of British society. That body of law protected rights to exploit the country- side by mining raw materials and polluting streams, but the law said little about nature's amenity value for weekend wanderers and sentimental residents. As Garret Hardin pointed out long ago, it may have been to everyone's advantage that the supply of air and water be kept clean, but it was to no individual's advantage to be held responsible for that condition. [149-50]


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

Last modified 1999