Four Forgotten Schemes to Straighten the Thames

This would have totally changed London

I love dogs. Again: Isle of Dogs. A place so abject that it disguises its name as a declaration of affection to man's best friend. Not to mention that its canine connection is tenuous at best, and that it wasn't even an island for most of its history. Yet this forlorn corner of East London, famed mainly for its lack of distinction, could have been the focal point of Truly Great Things. If only Willey Reveley's plan to straighten the Thames had come to fruition.


Alas, Reveley's reputation mirrors that of the Isle of Dogs itself. Although an extremely ambitious architect, Reveley (1760-'99) is virtually forgotten nowadays - remembered only for the fact that most of his grand schemes came to nothing.

In 1790, he was commissioned by Jeremy Bentham, the great theorist of utilitarianism, to design and build the Panopticon – a prison policed by a single watchman, able to observe all inmates at all times while remaining unobserved himself. Although that concept has since proved inspirational for dystopias both literary (Hello, Big Brother!) and and actual (Hi there, NSA!), the prison as envisioned by Bentham and designed by Reveley was never built. Other large projects left unfinished by Reveley include an infirmary in Canterbury, and a public bath in, of all places, Bath.

But the architect's most ambitious project was a design he unfolded three years before his death: a plan to force the Thames into a new, straightened channel between Rotherhithe and Greenwich. Eliminating one of the Thames's largest meanders, which bounds the Isle of Dogs in the west, south and east, this would facilitate and simplify shipping up and down the Thames; and turn those obsolete river bends into giant wet docks for the ocean ships which were at that time clogging up the limited docking space.

As an added bonus, the river's straightened channel would improve the outflow of the heavily polluted waters of the Thames, which then still served as the receptacle of London's raw sewage - only after the Great Stink of 1858 would the government commission Joseph Bazalgette to build the sewerage system that is still largely in place today.

Reveley's scheme, on the other hand, came to nothing. But the scant references to his plans do him the injustice of focusing to just one variant of his grand idea: the plan to cut through three peninsulas (at Rotherhithe, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich), creating three new islands and as many wet docks. In fact, as these images from the British Library demonstrate, there were (at least) four different plans in circulation.

Plan No. 1 is the most modest of the four proposals, suggesting a new channel at the northern edge of the Isle of Dogs, completing its aquatic encirclement and thus validating its insular nomenclature. To accommodate that channel, and the uninhibited flow of Thames water, this plan also entails shaving off the tips of both Rotherhithe and Greenwich peninsulas. Locks would seal off the southern bend of the river, turning it into Greenwich Docks.

Under Plan No. 2, the channel would slant southward from the river's bend at Rotherhithe, island-ifying not just the Isle of Dogs but also a much smaller North Greenwich Island (presently the location of the O2 Arena, formerly known as the Millennium Dome). Additional locks would create an extra wet dock, called Blackwall Dock.

Plan No. 3 is the most radical one, and perhaps this is why it is the best remembered (or least forgotten) of the four schemes, with the new channel slicing off a third island (Rotherhithe Island) and creating a third dock (Ratcliff Dock).

Finally, Plan No. 4 proposes two new channels, slicing off larger islands at Rotherhithe and Greenwich, but leaving the Isle of Dogs attached to the mainland (except by a narrow channel, if required). The result would be the elimination of Greenwich Dock, and two much more extended Ratcliffe and Blackwater Docks.

Only a few years later, but on a lesser scale than Reveley's Plans 1 through 4, docks would slice off the Isle of Dogs from the mainland. The West India Docks, opened in 1802, and the East India Docks, opened in 1806, virtually cut off the Isle of Dogs from the rest of Poplar, and locks on its east and west sides eventually did turn it into a proper island.

The docks brought thousands of dockers and their families: the Isle of Dogs once had England's highest concentration of council houses. After the closure of the docks from the 1960s onwards, unemployment and deprivation blighted the area. To highlight the area's problems, the Isle of Dogs proclaimed itself an independent republic on 3 March 1970 – swiftly reabsorbed by Britain's body politic.

Later, redevelopment of Canary Wharf created a new financial district, bringing opulence to the northern edge of the Isle of Dogs, in stark contrast to continuing deprivation elsewhere in the area.

But what of that curious name? The first mention of the Isle of Dogs goes back to 1520, but the origin of the name is lost in time. There are plenty of theories, though.

Some claim the island is named after Edward III's greyhounds, others that its original name was Isle of Ducks, after the wildlife populating what was once known as Stepney Marsh, or the Blackwell Levels. Yet another theory is that the present name is a corruption of Isle of Dykes, which were built by Dutch engineers in the 17th century to reclaim the land lost in the catastrophic flood of 1488. Or it could just be a contemptuous reference to the dog's life of anyone unlucky enough to reside in that inhospitable wasteland. In 1597, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nash wrote The Isle of Dogs, a play whose title unsubtly referred to England as a whole. The play was swiftly repressed for its 'slanderous nature', relegated to the obscurity suffered by Willey Reveley's river-straightening schemes two centuries later.

 

Maps from The Thames and its Docks - a Lecture, With Plans, by Alexander Forrow. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Images in the public domain. Found here on Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Maps #699

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
popular
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.