Monday, 5 May 2014

Canal Cuttings (13)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines the last 200 years or so of the inland waterways. With particular interest in the issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 

Danger to the Upper Thames.

The Spectator 2nd July 1904

While thousands of visitors are taking daily delight in the beauties of the Thames, and thousands more will be enjoying the first week of July at Henley, few of 'them realise how precarious, and how absolutely at the 'mercy of chance, is the maintenance of the charm of the river. The sweet and silver Thames means more to Englishmen than ever the Rhine did to Germans. Yet in a short period it 'is very possible that it will be deprived of any guardianship which it ever had, and will be without any protecting power charged with its preservation. 

It seems fairly certain that when the Port of London authority is constituted, the Thames Conservators will cease to act, at any rate below London Bridge. There is also a movement on foot to deprive them of any powers they have on the Upper Thames, and to hand over the most remarkable organic whole among all the natural features of England namely, the water system of the Thames, with its tributaries—to County Councils and Urban Councils on one bank or the other, with interests conflicting with each other, and not identical with the interests of the general public, to deal with in lengths and samples as seems good to them. 

There is much to be said for continuing in office an existing body such as the Conservators, even if their name and functions are merged in a fresh constitution with greater powers. It will usually be found that an active Corporation recruited from influential bodies, as an increasing proportion of the Conservators has been, acquires wider powers than those with which it started, and that this process goes on, partly by the energy of the Corporation itself, and partly by a process of attraction. Precisely because it exists, when new measures are needed the existing body is selected to manage them. This has been the case in a very marked manner with the Thames Conservators. Originally their functions, so far as they were concerned with the upper river above the tideway, were limited to furthering its navigation. The Upper Thames was not thought worth considering as a waterway much before the days of William III. Since the introduction of railways its importance in this respect has greatly decreased, but its popularity as a pleasure resort and for boating has grown. 

The Conservators have enlarged their powers in several minor directions to preserve the amenities of the river for the public. They have secured powers to stop shooting on the river, and so preserved the birds; they have obtained certain acts to prevent illegal fishing ; they have also taken the river flowers, especially the water-lilies, under their protection; and they have sometimes interfered to stop unsightly buildings, when they deemed it possible, though under what construction of the Acts it is difficult to say. Probably in such cases it was found that the offending building infringed some by-law. On the other hand, they have been chosen as the potent instrument for enforcing one of the most beneficent, if arbitrary and expensive, reforms known on any great river system in this country. When London decided to go on using Thames water the Conservancy were given the extraordinary power of compelling every village on every tributary to discontinue putting sewage and drainage into even the smallest brook.

But the nature and calibre of any future Board of Control of the Thames is perhaps best suggested by a short review of what the Thames Conservators have not been able to do upon the river and on its banks. As regards navigation there is no ground of complaint. The river was practically canalised more than a century ago, and the number of locks is, if anything, rather a nuisance to the pleasure traffic. But they have no real status in regard to unnecessary disfigurements of the banks, or the erection of hideous buildings, or even of hideous bridges. It is very doubtful whether they could stop the creation of any horrible nuisance on the banks merely in the interests of the preservation of the beauties of the river. It is certain that, even if they could, they have only partly succeeded. For years the whole length of the Middlesex bank between Chiswick and Grove Park House was a dumping ground for the refuse of London, which was carried up in filthy barges, and piled on the foreshore of the Duke of Devonshire's property. The powers for preventing the pollution of tributaries do not apply to any stream falling in below Teddington. Consequently the Brent became a sewer, and the Beverley Brook, which flows through Richmond Park and past Barnes Common, was sometimes nearly as bad. 

As a matter of taste, it would be interesting to compare the increasing hideousness of Thames bridges with the pictures and views of what the old bridges were like. At a recent and famous sale of pictures the highest price was fetched for one the subject of which was Old Walton Bridge. But though the New Walton Bridge is very inferior to the old one, it is a gem of architecture in comparison with some of the iron girder bridges recently thrown across the Thames. It may safely be predicted that, so far as the river is concerned, the new iron bridge at Sonning will be the sensation of the season. The last of a very beautiful and picturesque series of bridges and causeways at this lovely little village was pulled down by the Oxfordshire County Council, who, in spite of every protest, and although alternative plans in brick and timber were submitted to them free of cost, and involving less expenditure, substituted for the last part of the beautiful series an appalling " reach-me-down " erection of iron girders and blue brick. Matthew Arnold used to say that the truss manufacture in Trafalgar Square was always a token to him that he was destined for a happy immortality, if only on the ground that so long as he had to contemplate something so hideous and inappropriate on "the finest site in Europe," in this world, something better must be awaiting him in another. The new Sousing Bridge arouses much the same feeling.

It is now within the power of any freeholder to erect hideous or squalid buildings either on the bank or on an eyot, or to start a bone mill or fish-manure factory on any meadow by the stream, providing that it is not a legal nuisance to existing houses, just as the suburbs between Richmond and the London County border are able to foul the river air with the odours from two sets of sewage works. Also in many places the tow- path is a kind of "no-man's-land," especially in the tidal parts, where steam merry-go-rounds and coconut shies are set up by day, and unchecked rowdyism goes on late into the night.

On the other hand, the value of the scenery of this splendid waterway, bowered almost from end to end in beauty, is of ever-growing value, especially to Londoners. It was estimated in the Times recently that London suburbs were spreading and filling so fast that as many as nine hundred thousand people settled in them, in new houses, in five years. This makes it even more difficult than formerly for the millions of the great city to find rest and refreshment in natural scenery. But while they have the change of scene and of motion supplied by the incomparable beauties of the river and its easily navigable waters, they can obtain the needed change, and the mental, and even moral, stimulus given by it, quickly and cheaply. To let it be injured is to forego a privilege which cannot be recovered.

The question is, how far, in order to obtain this, should private rights be interfered with, and to what kind of body should the protection of this national amenity be entrusted ? In regard to the first, it will be noticed that nearly all the injury done already is in the nature of intrusion, or assertion, or indifference to the amenities of the river. Very little of what , may be called "natural mischief," of the kind which economic forces produce, has been done. The river has not been encroached upon in the slow, irresistible growth of great industrial populations, or by the need for using its water to drive mills, or to aid in tanning or dying. On the contrary, there are fewer water-mills on the river than there were centuries ago, and its upper waters are not fouled by manufactures . Far more mischief has been done by indifference to the river than by any desire to use it or its banks for highly productive purposes. Except Reading, there is no manufacturing town of the fourth size near it. On the other hand, its beauties as a whole are a very valuable asset to the prosperity of the entire Thames Valley. 

The financial basis of such schemes as a Board of Thames Trustees would possibly have to combat would probably be slight, and their objects trivial, such, for instance, as the building of a row of " shoddy " cottages with their back-yards to the river, or an ugly bridge, or the establishment of a "nuisance trade" on the banks, unless the river were handed over to local bodies to make a convenience of. But it would be necessary in any Bill drafted for the establishment of Thames Trustees to postulate that the preservation of its natural beauty was part and parcel of the objects of their appointment. In the case of the New Forest the principle was laid down, in direct opposition to the thoroughly well-meant and genuine theories of the economists, simply because the economic value of the amenities of the Forest for the delight and health of the public far outweighed its value as a timber farm. In the same way, the preservation of the Thames is worth a cash sacrifice of the positive kind, in place of the foregoing of revenue, as was done in the case of the Forest. But the Trustees should be of a standing and social position commensurate with the importance of the matter dealt with. It can hardly be that the national questions involved in the preservation of the beauties of the Thames are of less value to the health, and less educative of taste and imagination, than the treasures of the British Museum.

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