Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering

Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering

Jamieson, Alan G

Adrian Jarvis (ed.), Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot (1998), 450 pp., L85.00.

Adrian Jarvis of the Merseyside Maritime Museum has been a forceful critic of historians’ neglect of the role played by port and dock engineers in the industrial revolution. By the mid-nineteenth century Britain may have been `the workshop of the world’ but without adequate port facilities the island nation could neither have imported raw materials for the workshop nor have exported its products. Britain was the leading economic power but was handicapped by its many inadequate harbours, most having a considerable tidal range. It was the construction of the extensive enclosed wet dock systems at ports such as Liverpool and London that kept trade flowing and made dock engineering a distinct specialism within civil engineering.

Harbour development became an almost continuous process in Britain during the nineteenth century. No sooner was one new dock completed than technological changes imposed the need for it to be improved or even replaced altogether by new construction. The principal causes of change were threefold. First, the ever-increasing size of ships during the the century. Second, the rise to dominance of the steamship, whose high capital cost demanded ever shorter turn-round times in port to ensure its maximum utilisation. Third, the changing nature of cargoes, with refrigerated meat, bulk petroleum and bulk wheat demanding special port facilities by 1900. Port users, especially shipowners, drove British port authorities into expensive competition with each other, often promoting wasteful rivalry. For example, Birkenhead made a vain attempt to equal Liverpool, only to fall under the control of the older port, while Grimsby’s efforts to challenge Hull were kept going only by subsidies from the railway company that took control of the port.

The government made no attempt to impose a national scheme of port development that might have prevented such wasteful competition, so it continued into the early twentieth century. Dock engineers found ready employment, but continued port development was based on expectations of ever-growing world trade. Such expectations came to an end in 1914, and by the time another period of rapid expansion occurred, after 1945, the great ports created in the Victorian and Edwardian periods proved increasingly unable to cope with modern trade flows.

Historical interest in old port and dock systems and their construction began to arise only during the 1960s, when they were being swept away by the new harbour facilities required for containers and roll-on/roll-off traffic. Since 1970 port history studies have proliferated, and, although much remains to be done, Adrian Jarvis has reprinted seventeen articles on the subject in this volume. All but two have appeared since 1970, and they have been taken from a variety of sources, including the Journal of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Transactions of the Newcomen Society and The Mariner’s Mirror. Two articles are by Jarvis himself, and he has provided a valuable introduction to the volume, giving an overview of the history of port engineering, with a useful bibliography.

The two opening papers by Kirkpatrick and Savile are the oldest, dating back to the 1920s and 1940s respectively. Although they give useful accounts of the historical development of harbour and dock engineering, and of a number of harbours of the ancient world, one feels they should be used with caution, since modern archaeology has certainly advanced our knowledge of ancient harbours since they were written. Articles by Jackson, Skempton, Matkin, Baldwin, Bidder, Guillery, Buchanan and Rennison then give detailed accounts of harbour development at Grimsby, Sunderland, Ramsgate, Hull, London (two articles), Bristol, and the river Tyne, covering chiefly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Clarke gives a biographical study of Thomas Steers, Liverpool’s first dock engineer; Naish examines the work of Joseph Whidbey in building the Plymouth breakwater; and Jarvis has two articles on Liverpool, one about G. F. Lyster as dock engineer in the late nineteenth century and the other about efforts to remove the Mersey bar, 1890-1923. Studies by Twyman of Port Natal in South Africa and by Tull of Fremantle in Australia look at port development outside the British Isles, and Broeze, Reeves and McPherson continue this theme with their very useful joint article on port development around the Indian Ocean in the decades after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

This substantial collection of articles, well produced and illustrated, presents in one volume a wide range of detailed information about port and dock engineering, mostly in the period from 1700 to 1930, while Adrian Jarvis’s excellent introduction helps to set the individual case studies in the context of the wider themes of port history.

Alan G. Jamieson, University of Exeter

Copyright Manchester University Press Mar 1999

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