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What the Victorians have done for us

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Climate change, congestion and poor land management are modern-day challenges, bu twho got us into this state? Could it be the Victorians?

“We’ve got the car, airplane and electric telegraph so we could talk from one side of the world to the other. We’ve got railways speeding all over the country and exported them worldwide. The technology was unstoppable. They were a remarkable set of people.”

Adam Hart-Davis, author of ‘What the Victorians Did For Us’, is an admirer of Victorian inventions. Yet his passionate views on 19th-century engineering have been challenged. For some, such as Dr Hugh Hunt, reader in engineering dynamics at the University of Cambridge, the Victorians aren’t heroes of their time, but the villains of ours, with their engineering schemes being catalysts for environmental destruction. “We were left with climate change, poor air quality and land management issues,” he declares.

The worth of our Victorian engineering inheritance has been questioned for decades. “There was a long-standing movement to get rid of Victorian infrastructure which began in World War Two,” says Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum, London. “The Luftwaffe just finished off what planning developers had started to do already. A lot was rebuilt in the ’50s to the ’70s and nowhere near as good as what it replaced.”

Russell believes it was wrong then, and continues to be wrong now, to simply destroy buildings that are past their designated use. Adapting is better than demolishing. “Most of our historical infrastructure is Victorian in origin,” he says. “It’s been tweaked around the edges, but the sewage system in London, for example, was built by Bazalgette. We are very, very lucky it was built to last.”

We should cherish these robust remains, rather than remove them. “The amount of CO2 locked up in a building is considerable. Just crashing it down is inappropriate in the long term,” he says. “Look at the Lancashire mills that survive. Because of what they were required to do, they had to be made robustly. Now they’re being adapted for small businesses and housing.”

Russell argues the Victorians themselves aimed for energy efficiency. “The steam engine was designed to extract as much useful heat as possible. If you had a fireman fuelling the boilers and it was only smoke, he’d be in serious trouble, as smoke is inefficient combustion. They wanted it to run efficiently,” he says.

Hunt is more scathing about Victorian ingenuity. The idea that the fossil-fuel revolution made things better is nonsense, he says. “The poor didn’t see the benefit at all – bad health, sweatshops, squalid living conditions, no health and safety considerations. The Victorians looked after the wealthy pretty well: they had electric light and flushing toilets. But the poor didn’t.”

Crucially, Hunt believes the Victorians did have a choice between long-term sustainability and short-term profit, but often chose the latter. He sees plumber Thomas Crapper’s invention of the ballcock and U-bend, leading to sophisticated sanitary ware, as symbolic in taking the wrong engineering turn. “Where would we be without it? Well, we might be as we were before, putting manure on to a field so we wouldn’t have to use nitrogen-based fertilisers. The flushing toilet meant poo and wee started going to sewage treatment plants instead of on the land. What if the Victorians had used composting toilets instead? What science is finding now is it’s very damaging. The decisions made back then have taken us along this path. We’ve got to turn around and undo all of this.”

However, we all still want to benefit from Victorian developments. Even Hunt doesn’t have a compost toilet or a septic tank, which he also advocates. He points out that the problem isn’t only our refusal to give up our luxuries, but our adherence to Victorian attitudes towards newly engineered marvels. “We’ve spent the last 150 years getting to where we are now without paying too much attention to whether it’s been a good thing or not. It’s happened too fast. The Victorian idea of creating fantastical inventions quickly is something we’re not out of the habit of. We still love our new-fangled inventions.”

There’s another way in which we haven’t shaken off an admiration for 19th century engineering – our unmitigated pleasure in prestigious projects. The Victorians loved large-scale engineering schemes, leading to money spent lavishly in some areas, while other more pressing needs suffered. Former Tory MP Andrew Tyrie pointed out, when chair of the Commons Treasury committee: “It may be that even some of the apparently most successful Victorian projects from which we are still benefiting were over-specified. More money was spent on them than needed, and there were a good number of projects which didn’t get built because that money was absorbed in over-specified public-sector contracts.”

The London sewer system, built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s to clean up the Thames after the Great Stink, is often given as an example. Peter Bazalgette, Sir Joseph’s great-great-grandson, defends his forebear’s ambition. “Sir Joe did secretly over-spec the system so the Chancellors lent him more money,” he admits. “He designed for 4.5 million when London had a population of just two million. But he knew that London would gain. It would allow London to expand without the fear of pandemics. In doing so, he set the template for city life today.”

Russell believes the real question is not whether our inheritance from the Victorians is to be celebrated or blamed for our climate crisis, but whether we can successfully make an energy transition similar to that we made in the 19th century. “We’ve done it once before from water and wind to fossil fuels. We’re at another historic transition point now. Can we do it again?”


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