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london's industrial heritage, geoff marshall

I’m so pleased about this book which has very recently been published, and I know of many others will be too. It covers a vast topic which as far as I know hasn’t properly been addressed as a popular history. I know already that this review won’t do it justice.

One is often inclined to relate the word “industrial” with regions far-flung from London, particularly the Midlands and “oop-North”.  One can also find it difficult to uncouple the word from “industrial revolution”, the idea that industry, even heavy industry didn’t exist before the late 18th Century. For these reasons alone, London’s Industrial Heritage is most welcome.

As you might expect, the book is organised by industry starting with emerging public utilities such as gas and electricity but including older ones like the postal service and fresh water.  Yes, we’re inclined to think of these last two as largely Victorian endeavours, Bazalgette, Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope and all that. But we discover that these gentlemen were more improvers and innovators of industries which were already technologically rather mature. The New River story (1613, 400 years old next month), was an astounding feat of pre-industrial engineering. Similarly, early plastics – typically used in combs, buttons etc. – were developed in London a good century before we think of their 20C ubiquity.

The drivers of industrial growth were need and opportunity. As London’s influence and wealth grew, so did its population which needed to be clothed, fed, housed, kept warm. Simultaneously, the rapidly developing  port and merchant marine made London ideally situated for goods in and out both domestically and on a global scale, leading to factories, chemicals, engineering and so on. These by dint of geography and prevailing westerly wind saw the East London in particular transformed into a steaming, stinking, noisy manufacturing global powerhouse.

Before modern concepts of branding, hundreds of enterprises sprang up with wonderful names of the type which have now all but disappeared: The Impermeable Collar and Cuff Company; The India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company; and so on. This last was based in Silvertown, named after industrialist Stephen Winkworth Silver. The area became the world capital of cable insulation at a time when the telegraph system was burgeoning around the globe with transatlantic and trans-Pacific cable being laid. At the same time, the post-Faraday generation of chemists were opening factories for dyes, acids, finishing agents and much besides. Again in Silvertown was the Brunner, Mond chemical works. Not a household name, for sure, but when it was converted to TNT manufacture during WWI, the perhaps inevitable result was the Silvertown Disaster of 19 January 1917, an explosion which killed 73 people and destroyed nearly a thousand homes.

brunner and mond

Brunner and Mond, archetypical late Victorian industrialists.

The coverage of industry in this absorbing book is comprehensive indeed: utilities, industrial chemicals as we have seen; transport; shoes and clothes; clockmaking; glass; pottery; print; shipyards; arms and munitions; silk, rope, brushes, matches, lighting, luxury goods, construction, textiles, leather goods, food; beer and spirits. The list is almost endless.

Among all of this, there are common themes. Rise and fall; mergers, acquisitions and unfortunately in most cases, extinction.  The companies with the exotic and evocative names, as noted. But of course, history is all about people, and where this book really scores for me is that the author has taken great care to weave into the narrative the stories of the businessmen and women, inventors, entrepreneurs, carpetbaggers, go-getters, chancers and visionaries who made London such a vibrant hub of commerce and manufacture. Many were Londoners, many more were attracted from elsewhere – even abroad – so compelling were the challenges and rewards of what had become the world’s largest city.

In fact, there is an astounding amount of close detail that the author has managed to cram into 250-odd pages, which include several dozen excellent photographs and illustrations, including a colour section in the middle. It’s a work of great detail without at any time being overbearing.

In summary, well-researched, well-written and well-overdue. Highly recommended.

London’s Industrial Heritage, 255pp, is published by the History Press with a cover price of £16.99.
Special Offer: London Historians members can purchase signed copies direct from the author for £10 + £2 shipping (UK residents). Details in August Members’ Newsletter!

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