When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Although all centuries begin in a double zero year, historians sometimes use a major event that took place around the turn as a point of transition. For example, the death of Elizabeth the First and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand have both been seen as pivotal markers between one era and the next. From this point of view, perhaps the C19th didn’t really begin until the Battle of Waterloo.

The changes which took place in England in the four decades after Napoleon was packed off to St Helena altered London much more than those in the previous hundred years. Perhaps the promoters who drew up the prospectus for the Regents Canal had some inkling of what developments might follow, but they would have been prescient indeed had they seen how soon technological development in the form of the railways would help accelerate the pace of industrial change. The houses shown in photograph 1 are on Paradise Row, right opposite Bethnal Green. They were built at the beginning of the C19th, before the final line of the Regents Canal was laid out. Prospective purchasers who lived in the City of London may well have hired a Hackney Carriage for the journey to view, carefully negotiating the price with the coachman before setting off. As the standard charges were based on distance, a timid resident, fearing a row over computation of miles and furlongs, might well have hailed a cab in Artillery Lane. The stipulated regulatory fare from there to Bethnal Green was just one shilling, so there was no room for subsequent argument with a surly saucy Hackney coachman like the one shown in this Rowlandson cartoon (2) dating from 1814.

In whatever way they arrived potential residents in a portion of Paradise were no doubt told how convenient the properties were for both access to ‘Town’ and the newly developing ‘docklands’ and reassured they were in an area which still had a pleasant rural feel. Moreover, from the top floors, St Paul Cathedral could easily be seen and was, in fact, the main feature on the horizon. Such an idyll was not to last. When the first London to Colchester railway service was established in 1843 it had no direct impact on the area, but when a branch line opened some time later it sliced off the gardens and sliced off the view too. Steam, sparks and bricks now replaced a clear prospect of Sir Christopher Wren’s finest achievement. Picture 3 shows how close the railway viaduct runs to the rear of Paradise Row.

Canals facilitated economical transport, but at a speed not much faster than that of horses pulling carts on good roads. The arrival of steam locomotives changed everything, collapsing travel times. The mid-1840s were years of ‘railway mania’ which, like the canal mania of the 1790s, spawned many projects that were doomed to failure from the start. Nonetheless, a number of viable lines did come into existence and these were of prime importance in maintaining the economic growth of what was, essentially, the capital of the most powerful state in the world. By 1855 the Regents Canal had been crossed by lines leading to Euston, Kings Cross, Shoreditch and Fenchurch Street and there were important transhipment points at each crossing.

Given the status of Great Britain, industrialisation, which really got going after 1815, was bound to have a worldwide impact. Insistent demands for commodities and raw materials and the need for markets for manufactured goods swept aside objections and complaints in places as far away as China and Japan. It was almost as though a kind of international ‘compulsory purchase’, similar to the ones which drove canals and railways through areas where landowners did not want them, was in operation. But those countries subject to pressure were generally treated with far less consideration than someone like Councillor Agar, the instruments of policy were often treaties rather than land titles and no money changed hands on settlement, at least not from the buyer to the seller.

The economic philosophy underpinning this expansion was called free trade and gained credence as new political movements saw power flowing to the middle classes, particularly after the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832. Many of those who benefited from this shift in the landscape of government were anti-monopolist, laissez-fair industrialists, who believed that reductions in tariffs (particularly on foodstuffs) and the opening foreign markets would bring enormous benefits. One of the most significant parliamentary achievements of the free traders was the repeal, in 1844, of the Corn Laws, which had been introduced to protect domestic corn producers, but tariff reduction continued on other basic commodities, such as tea, after that.

This section of the website will look at the voyage of HMS Saracen, a survey vessel which sailed from Britain in early 1854. Everything the ship did would be linked to the expansion of free trade in areas of the world where many of the governments were resistant to the concept. But at the end of the day they would be no more successful in keeping their markets closed than the Paradise Row residents were in keeping their gardens and views.

In 1811 a member of the House of Lords commented that if the Regents Canal was built it would make the metropolis an island. Forty years later, if he were still alive and able to review what had happened in his lifetime, he may have thought that no-one could have foreseen just how much things would alter. Everything seemed to be so much faster and, sometimes, much less expensive. Letters, for example, sent from London to report the famous victory of the Duke of Wellington would have cost ten pence to be carried to Glastonbury, eleven pence to Pocklington and one and thru’pence to Inverness. Rowland Hill’s free trade reforms cut the cost of sending a letter between any two places in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to just a penny. The aristocrat may well have concluded that if such a pace of change were to continue the metropolis would eventually become the first ‘World City’, which indeed it did. And canals like the Regents and vessels like the Saracen would all play their part in feeding this remorseless expansion of the British economy.

This section will be published gradually. It is in much the same format as the rest of the site. Click below to read the chapters which have been uploaded so far or click on the blue button at the bottom to return to the Home Page.

Chapter 1 - The Hydrographer and the Hydrographic Office

Chapter 2  - Why sail, not steam?

Chapter 3 -  The captain and his preparations

Chapter 4 - The problem of longitude

Chapter 5 - Exporting free trade, importing tea

Chapter 6 - Plymouth to the Sunda Strait - February to June1854

Chapter 7 - The Sunda Strait to Hong Kong - June to August 1854

Chapter 8 - Trouble in China

Chapter 9 - An American squadron, an American pirate

Chapter 10 - Tea to the Pagoda Anchorage

Chapter 11 - Eclipsing clippers

Chapter 12 - At the mouth of the Min

Chapter 13 - Richards imposes the ‘red-checked shirt’

Chapter 14 - From Gull Point to Saracen Head

Chapter 15 - Hunting Putiatin

Chapter 16 -To Port Hamilton

Chapter 17 - To Hakodadi

Chapter 18 - Escape and Capture

Chapter 19 - To Nagasaki

Chapter 20 - A new focus

Chapter 21 - Bowring and Siam

Chapter 22 - To the Gulf of Siam

Chapter 23  -  A tricky time in Siam

Chapter 24 - Gulf of Siam surveys - To Tringano

Sources and acknowledgements