Tag Archive: History

Apr 23 2017

Book review: Man of Iron by Julian Glover

This review is on man-of-ironMan of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover. Telford fits in with my interest in the Industrial Revolution, which are longstanding – in my very early teens my first stay at a hotel was in Ironbridge for a weekend of visiting the museums in that area. More recently I moved to Chester which is not that far from the famous Pontscysyllte Aqueduct and the Menai bridge and London to Holyhead roads, all works Telford was involved in.

Telford was born in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders in 1757, a tightknit rural community from which a number of great names have emerged  – William Pulteney (formerly William Johnstone) key amongst them, as an early patron of Telford. His father, a shepherd, died shortly after he was born.

He originally apprenticed as a stonemason in Eskdale before travelling to Edinburgh and London, where he worked on the refurbishment of Somerset House. He next worked in Portsmouth where he started to be involved in architectural design. He moved to Shropshire to become (eventually) county surveyor in 1786, where he was engaged in a wide range of projects.

As we head into the 1790’s the projects he is involved in expand enormously. Starting with the Ellesmere Canal, which includes the Pontscysyllte Aqueduct. Originally it was intended as a lower level, stone structure with locks taking the canal into the valley, at one point it was proposed that it should carry a rail-way. However, when the moment came the economy and lightness of iron led to the high level structure we see today.

Telford then went on to an enormous construction project in Scotland including harbours, the Calendonian Canal, numerous bridges and roads which necessitated extensive biannual visits over a period of 20 years or so. This project was put in place by the government, keen to see development in the Highlands, and later in the period having more cash to fund such work having finished fighting the French.

In common with William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, and Erasmus Darwin he was tremendously mobile forever travelling at a time when travel was hard. (Both of these men were his contemporaries). Telford knew the Darwin family and admired Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of Plants”, an epic scientific poem (a genre that has long fallen into disuse). In his earlier years Telford turned his hand to (not particularly good) poetry in the manner of Robert Burns who again was also a contemporary and was born not far from Eskdale.

In addition to this he directed the construction of the London to Holyhead road including the Menai Bridge, and with spurs along the North Wales coast to Conwy. He also planned the Göta Canal which crosses Sweden from the North to the Baltic Seas. The book includes a lengthy appendix listing his works (and the resident engineers on those projects, where relevant), I did consider mapping all these works but decided the list was too long!

Much of his inner motivation we learn from his correspondence with Andrew Little, a boyhood friend which sadly ends in 1803 with the death at age 48 of Little. Telford never married and there is scarcely a hint of any relationships with any women, Glover suggests in passing that his relationship with Little may have been very deep.

In his correspondence with Little we see Telford’s voracious appetite for continuous learning, but also a degree of cunning in his ambitions. He is not just a skilled technician in his fields but also a skilled worker of contacts, and project manager. He had a keen eye for his progress.

There’s some discussion in the book as to how much we should consider the projects he was involved in as his individual successes or as part of a team. This seems to me to be something of a trap, we tend to seek out the hero, the individual in any venture rather than truly appreciate the team effort. Think for example the way in which individual footballers are adulated. This carries over into histories of science and engineering, much of popular history of science is about the “great man” rather than the broader sweep or the group effort. Telford was no doubt technically able across a wide range of topics, he knew how to work his patrons, and he seems an excellent project manager. It’s clear there were often others like William Jessop who were notionally his superior for projects such as the Ellesmere Port canal and some of the Scottish work and likewise he had strong independent subordinates, particularly in Scotland, who delivered the work. Often biographers seems to fall into the trap of considering their subject “not sufficiently recognised”.

Telford died in 1834, a somewhat diminished figure. By that time the railways were starting to spread across the country and they would soon displace the canals and roads that had been his life’s work. I can’t help thinking that the projects that he worked on such as the Menai Bridge, the London – Holyhead road and the Ellesmere Canal demonstrated that the railway lines which were to come were feasible, if not always economically viable. Many times whilst reading this book I googled for the bridges he had built and found them still standing, sometimes still in use, sometimes by-passed by newer versions built to carry traffic unimaginable 200 years ago. Nevertheless they represent an impressive legacy. 

Apr 08 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden_figuresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of Africa American women who worked as “computers” at NASA and its predecessor NACA during and after the Second World War.

In a first, this means I am currently reading both fiction and non-fiction by African-American women. (I’m also reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)

The Hidden Figures worked initially in the West Area Computing Group at the NACA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, which did reseach on aircraft and then rocket design. The Computing groups carried out calculations at the behest of engineers from around the Centre, this was at a time when calculation was manual or semi-manual compared to today. Over time they were co-opted directly into research groups, some of them to ultimately become engineers. The West Computing group was mirrored by the East Area Computing Group – comprised of white women.

There is some history for women acting as “computers”, and the necessity of World War II led to the government taking on Africa American women for the job, in face of historic segregation. For African American women this was a rare opportunity, until then the only recourse for African American woman with advanced training in maths was teaching. For a very few the Computing group ultimately acted as a stepping stone to working as an engineer.

Shetterly sees these women as a vanguard to the African Americans in the modern US who have every opportunity open to them. This jars a little to me when I see constant news from the US of, for example black people being more likely to be killed by the police, or a senior African American being brought together by the President with the policeman that aggressively interviewed him on his doorstep because the house looked too nice to belong to a black man. Or African Americans being purposefully disenfranchised.

The shocking thing to me, as a Brit, was the degree to which US society was absolutely, formally segregated on racial grounds. In Virginia, where this story is set, segregation was preserved by the Democratic Party (perhaps some explanation as to why African Americans are not necessarily whole-heartedly Democrats). In Prince Edward County, Virginia they went as far as shutting down all the public schools for 5 years in order that black and white children would not be educated together – white children were given grants to study at private schools. Britain may have been racist in the past, it may still be racist today but it never enshrined it so deeply and widely into law.

In response to this Africa Americans ran a parallel community, segregation didn’t end because the segregation laws were repealed. It ended because African Americans saw the end of those laws as a door ajar which needed a serious push to pass through. Thus when Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Katherine Goble (from this book) went to university and Ruby Bridges went to school they didn’t do so entirely alone. They had the support of their community and the organisation of the NAACP to help them. They had to be twice as good as a white person to get the same job. At the same time they also saw themselves as representatives of their race, and examples to their children.

When you look at a man the age of Donald Trump, 70, it’s worth bearing in mind that his teenage years were spent during the end of segregation by law and his parents were the white generation which fought so hard to keep it.

The focus of the book is mainly the personal lives, and ambitions of the women. There is some description of the work they, and the Research Centre did, but not in any great depth. The book highlights again the transformative effect of, particularly, the Second World War on society in the US. The seeds of theses changes could be seen after the First World War. This mirrors similar changes in society in the UK.

Once “computing” became the realm of high capital machinery the importance of women as computers waned, high capital machinery being the preserve of men. We see the consequences of this even now.

The book finishes with the part Katherine Johnson, in particular, played in John Glenn’s first trip into orbit and her subsequent work on the Apollo moon landing and Apollo 13 recovery. Shetterly emphasises the legacy of this group of women that normalised the idea that Africa American women could ultimately become engineers, scientists or any other sort of professional.

Interestingly my wife and I disagreed on the prominence of the men on the cover of the book (see above). She thought they were central and thus important, I thought they were small and thus unimportant. In the text the men are bit-part players, they are husbands and sons, or drift in and out of the narrative having spoken their line.

Dec 24 2016

Book review: Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason

roman_chesterI recently realised that I live in a city with rather remarkable Roman roots. Having read Mary Beard’s book, SPQR, about the Roman’s in Rome, I turn now to Roman Chester: Fortress at the Edge of the World by David J.P. Mason.

The book starts with a chapter on the origins of the study of the Roman origins of Chester, and some background on Roman activities in Britain. The study of the Roman history of Chester begin back in the 18th century, with the hypocaust under the old Feathers Inn on Bridge Street a feature promoted by its owner. The Spud-u-like on the site now similarly boasts of its Roman remains. The original Roman east gate was still standing in the 18th century, and there exist several drawings of it from that period. The Victorians were keen excavators of the Roman archaeology, and formed the Chester Archaeological Society in 1849, and built the Grosvenor Museum in 1883.

A recurring theme of the book is the rather wilful destruction of substantial remains in the 1960s to build a couple of shopping centres. The Roman remains on the current Forum Shopping Centre site were destroyed after the rather fine Old Market Hall had been knocked down.

The core Roman activity in Chester was the fortress, established in 75AD under the reign of Vespasian. The fort is somewhat larger than other similar forts in England and the author suggests this was because it was, at one time, intended as the provincial governors base. Vespasian died shortly after the building of the Chester fortress started and the work paused. At the time of its Roman occupation Chester had a very fine harbour, the local sandstone was suitable for building, a brickworks was setup at Holt, further up the River Dee, and there was metal mining in North Wales and there was salt sourced from Northwich – all very important resource at the time.

Standing on the river Dee meant Chester could serve as a base for the further conquest of Britain and Ireland – although these plans did not come to fruition.  The evidence for this is some unusual buildings in the centre of the old fortress, and the rather more impressive nature of the original walls than the average Roman fort, and the discovery of rather classier than usual lead piping.

The book continues with a detailed examination of the various parts of the Roman fortress and the buildings it contained: the public baths, granaries and barracks. This is followed by a discussion of the surrounding canabae legionis, including the amphitheatre, the supporting Roman settlement and the more detached vicus. This includes the settlement at Heronbridge which was excavated relatively recently.

The third part of the book travels through time, looking at the periods c90-c120 in which the fortress was rebuilt, c120-c210 when the legion stationed at Chester was sent elsewhere to fight leaving the fortress to decline significantly. c210-c260 when the original impressive buildings at the heart of the fortress, not initially completed, were finally built. c260-c350 when the fortress fell and rose again. To finish in the period c350-c650 when Britain became detached from Rome, and fell into decline. The Roman fortress was robbed to provide building stone for the medieval walls and other structures including the cathedral.

Roman remains are visible throughout modern Chester. The north and east parts of the modern city walls follow the line of the walls of the Roman fortress. Some pillars are on display in front of the library, the hypocaust found under the Grosvenor shopping centre can now be found in the Roman Gardens, the amphitheatre is half exposed, parts of the walls particularly near Northgate and parallel to Frodsham street are contain Roman elements, the mysterious “quay wall” can be found down by the racecourse.

The book finishes with some comments on the general character of the investigations of Roman remains in Chester, and suggestions for further investigations and how to better exploit Chester’s Roman history. On the whole Chester has done moderately well in its treatment of the past, study started relatively early but much material has not been published. These days archaeology is mandated for new developments in the city but these tend to be rapid, keyhole operations with little coherent design.

Roman Chester is a rather a dry read, it is written much I would expect an article in a specialist archaeology journal to be written. The book could have done with a full double page map of modern, central Chester with the archaeological sites marked on it. As it was I was flicking between text descriptions and Google Maps to work out where everything was. Perhaps a project for the Christmas holiday!

If you are a resident of Chester then the book is absolutely fascinating.


I’ve started making a map of Roman Chester on Google Maps.

Aug 17 2016

Book review: The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence

edwardiandI’m currently working on providing some data for domestic properties, mainly for the purpose of making the process of getting a buildings insurance quote easier. One of the parameters the insurance industry is interested in is the age of a home.

And so I came to The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence. I picked the book up partly out of curiosity but I also hoped to pick up some ideas as to how I might date a house based on the information to hand.

The book starts with some general comments about the period and what had gone before, leading to a discussion of Edwardian architecture. This is followed by a similar discussion of interwar architecture. The book finishes with a whole load of short chapters on individual elements of the home, bricks, tiles, lighting, wireless and telephone and so forth. As well as simple domestic architecture there is some discussion of high end homes of the period.

The second half of the 19th century saw the expansion of British cities, driven by industrialisation and enabled by the growing railway system and, for the capital, the London Underground. This led to the building of an awful lot of terraced houses at high densities, generally to be rented to workers. The 1877 Model Bye-laws Act and the 1878 Building Act set some requirements on how houses could be built in terms of their size, distance from facing houses and sanitary facilities.

This situation continued into the beginning of the 20th century, with a growing middle class looking for better homes than the terraces offered. The First World War brought house building to a complete stop, after the war there was a housing shortage of something like 850000 properties and a fear in government that there would be fighting on the streets if “Homes Fit for Heroes” were not supplied. The Interwar period saw a huge increase in home ownership, the building of 4 million homes (the majority semi-detached) and the first council houses. Public housing was built following the specifications of the Tudor Walters Report (1918), which specified a minimum size of 760 square feet, a maximum density of 12 houses per acre and preferred wider houses, semi-detached or in short terraces. Private housing sought to differentiate in stall from public housing but could scarcely offer poorer specifications.

This is interesting because sizes and spacings of buildings can be determined from the Ordnance Survey’s mapping data.

Earlier regulations, following the Great Fire of London, had banned the building of timber-framed houses in cities and windows had to be recessed in their openings for similar reasons. This, and details such as how bricks are laid, can give further information on building age but they are not readily amenable to automation or determinable from public data.

Gross style seems to be of relatively little help when dating buildings, many Edwardian and Interwar houses were built in neo-Georgian style which as the name implies can look very Georgian. Also popular was Tudorbethan which emulated an old English style with mock, black wooden beams painted or nailed to a white exterior. Chester’s city centre is rife with an elaborate form of this style, mainly built in the Edwardian or very late Victorian period, although there are some examples of the genuine article.

Internally, the period saw the evolution of the kitchen, scullery and kitchenette as new-fangled gas and electric ovens replaced old ranges. There was also a discussion as to whether buildings for workers should have a separate parlour and living room. I’m well aware that my grandparents generation would often reserve a room for “best”, which as family did not get invited into.

It struck me as I read The Book that houses I would have been fairly confident were post-Second World War I now suspect are interwar. It surprised me that modest houses started to get a garage as an option as early as the 1930s, the big increase in car ownership had started before the First World War, a bit earlier than I expected.

I learnt some new useful vocabulary, a “catslide” roof is one on a two storey house which terminates at the top of the first storey. A “hipped” is one that has slopes on more that two sides, rather than having gable ends (previously I’d have called this a “roof”).

This is something of a coffee-table book, with lots of photographs, I found the text in the early part more readable than the long litany of descriptions of individual architectural details. I have a few ideas to try out on the dating of houses.

Aug 05 2016

Book review: The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

the_companyThe Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is indirectly related to my reading of the history of science and technology. The commercial world impinges on stories such as that of the development of the railways, the story of Mauve and Lord Kelvin’s work on telegraphy. Scientific expeditions were motivated, in part, and supported logistically by merchant interests. The “search for the longitude” was driven by needs of merchants and navies. 

The Company is particularly concerned with the limited liability joint-stock company, created in approximately its current form by the 1862 Companies Act in the UK but repeated across the world. In this system, the owners only risk the money they put into a venture (rather than all their worldly possessions), and shares in that company can be traded on the stockmarket.

The book starts with some prehistory, there is some evidence in Mesopotamia as back as far as 3000 BC for arrangements which went beyond simple barter. And by Roman times there were various forms of company used for collecting tax, for example. The Romans also had a developed legal system. These arrangements tended to be relatively short lived and in the form of partnerships, where the owners were the managers and if things went wrong they could lose the toga off their backs.

The Middle Ages saw the rise of “corporate persons” in Western Europe which included guilds, monasteries and corporations. The Aberdeen Harbour Board, founded in 1136 can lay claim to be the oldest still existing. In China there was a tendency towards large, long-lived state corporations. Italy had compagnie literally “breaking bread together” with shared total liability, and thus requiring high levels of trust. Banchi were the campagnies banking equivalents, often built around family ties. The relationship between banks and companies is a theme throughout the book.

England and France were scarred, separately, by the collapse of the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company in the early 18th century. Created in the spirit of the East India Companies, monopoly corporations with a Royal Charter, they came to grief through rampant speculation and dubious government decisions on debt.

The railways provided the impetuous for the reform of company law. They required substantial investment, once formed they needed substantial workforces and management structures. In the early days each railway company had to make its case in parliament to gain its charter, this was a costly, slow undertaking. And so there were reforms culminating in the 1862 act.

A quote attributed to Edward Turlow in 1844: “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned, they therefore do as they like”, encapsulates an ongoing concern about companies. This from a lawmaker but a similar concern was echoed by economists of the time, they thought that a partner or manager/owner was going to do better job of running a company than a servant of shareholders.

The Company compares developments in the US, UK, Germany and Japan in the latter half of the 19th century. The US forte was in professionalising management, enabling them to build ever bigger companies. The UK had a more developed stockmarket but positively spurned professional management (a blight that has afflicted it since then). Germany had strong oversight boards from the beginning, complementing the management board. These included workforce representation, and companies were seen as a social enterprise.

This is the second tension in the company: whether it is solely interested in its shareholders or whether it is responsible to a wider group of stakeholders which might include its employees, the local community, environment and so forth.

The book continues with developments in the latter half of the 20th century, closing in 2002. These include the wave of privatisations across Europe (the French keeping substantial government control), and the decline of many big companies. In the case of Enron and WorldCom these were precipitous declines in disgrace but there were also leveraged buyouts and subsequent dismantlings. Another theme here is the balance between transaction costs and hierarchy costs. Companies succeed when the cost of running a hierarchy is lower than the savings made by carrying out transactions in aggregate. These costs and savings change over time, transaction costs have recently been much reduced by technology.

I was surprised by the recency of the commercial world we see today. The modern company and the stockmarket only really came into being in the final quarter of the 19th century with the great corporations rising to dominance in the first quarter of the 20th century. Harvard’s business school was only founded at the beginning of the 20th century. This is little more than a lifetime ago.

The same is true of trade tariffs, they were initially introduced by the US and Germany in the 1880s with Britain and the Netherlands holding out as “free-traders” until 1932. One wonders whether this is the origin of Anglo-Dutch conglomerates such as Unilever and Shell. The book is not explicit on the differences between tariffs and customs duties and taxes – a clarification which I would have found useful.    

The authors are clearly enthusiasts for capitalism in the form of the company. The book is short and readable, and I felt enlightened for having read it. The bibliography has some good pointers for further reading.

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