A Mighty Capital Under Threat: the environmental history of London, 1800-2000

The London we know today traces its roots directly back to the modest settlement developed on the banks of the Thames in the late 9th century, in the time of the Saxon king Alfred the Great. In spite of fires, plague, and foreign invasions, it became a capital city, the largest and most prosperous in the land. But size alone is not always a measure of success, as this volume shows.

A Mighty Capital under Threat is a volume of nine essays by a series of leading scholars looking at the period when the population of London (or Greater London as it would now be called) increased from 1 million in the 1801 census, to an astonishing 6.25 million by 1901, reaching 7.1 million by 2001. These studies focus on the ‘array of emergent self-generated environmental threats’ that beset a city that expanded faster than its ability to secure clean water, clean air, or adequate systems of waste water or refuse disposal, and which struggled to contain industrial pollution, or provide adequate housing or urban green space for all of its large population. During these centuries, those environmental problems led to unhealthy living conditions for many, resulting in cholera outbreaks and other contributors to unnecessarily high mortality rates. However, high levels of inward migration ensured the population continued to grow.

The deteriorating conditions were exacerbated by a lack of good governance: the period under study opens in an era of ‘laissez-faire localism’, with the administrative burden laid on the shoulders of individual ecclesiastical parishes. The great urban sprawl was really no more than a forced conjunction of villages and small towns, often with their own independent approach to environmental matters. It was not until the Metropolis Management Act, with its Metropolitan Board of Works, was established in 1855, that city-wide improvements could be contemplated across the new 39 vestries. But this structure was dissolved in 1888, to be replaced by the London County Council, although even that new body was initially unable to protect water quality or contain air pollution across the capital, for example. Change for the better rarely came proactively from the authorities, but only after protracted negotiations and external persuasion.

In addition to the contributions by Bill Luckin and Peter Thorsheim, there are essays that consider the process of urban growth, on water supply, industrial pollution, urban green space, and on the development of the concepts of environmentalism itself, by Jim Clifford, Christopher Ferguson, Christopher Hamlin, Anne Hardy, Andrea Tanner, Joel A Tarr, Vanessa Taylor, and Leslie Tomory. Taken together, these Anthropocene studies of how one growing conurbation of unparalleled size initially misunderstood or ignored the environmental consequences of its expansion are sobering but instructive for a world in which urbanisation shows no sign of slowing down. For the first time in human history, more people live in towns than in rural communities, and to cope with a projected global population rise from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, many new towns will be (or are being) built. They say that the only lesson that history teaches is that nobody learns from the lessons that history teaches. But I hope that all those interested in urbanisation, especially tomorrow’s town planners, will read this volume and take heed.

Perhaps the title of the book should be changed to An Over-mighty Capital Threatens Itself? But it could be that the ‘new normal’ of a post-COVID era will be more understanding of the interrelationships between climate change, environmental change, and urban change. (Perhaps Current Archaeology 340, pp. 44-48, suggests a possible approach to this?)

Review by Gustav Milne.
A Mighty Capital Under Threat: the environmental history of London, 1800-2000, Bill Luckin and Peter Thorsheim (eds), University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 978-0822946106