The British Empire at its peak was the largest in the history of the world, and the cornerstone of the Empire was foreign trade. Empire and trade fed off each other, as new colonies made available new resources and markets for British factories, and by the late 19th century Britain had an estimated quarter of all world trade. The prodigious production levels needed to fuel this trade were made possible by the new systems and technologies of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As the first major nation to industrialize and use these new production systems, Britain gained a tremendous advantage in advancing both its Imperial and its commercial interests. In the process, many of its cities were changed irrevocably and sometimes unrecognizably, with vast demographic shifts and even topographical changes as canals were dug, rivers were shifted, or hills were mined.
Some of the cities most affected by the Industrial Revolution were those that became the industrial giants of Northern England in the 19th century, such as Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, or Nottingham. However, despite its apparently disruptive effects on these urban centers, the Industrial Revolution was not wholly an external phenomenon that happened to them, nor a fundamental disruption of their existing order. Rather, it was a period of highly accelerated development, and its seeds had been sown centuries earlier as individual cities like these had began to specialize in certain industries and to export manufactured goods to mainland Europe or to other parts of Britain. Though seemingly sudden and even cataclysmic because of the allometric processes of industrial and urban growth, the Industrial Revolution actually flowed naturally out of the evolving systems of production that these cities had been developing over the course of centuries.
Cities like Sheffield, for example, which had long been famous for its knives and tableware, had developed a craft-oriented economy that passed knowledge and techniques from one generation to the next, slowly developing technologies and mass-production capabilities while maintaining links to resources like coal, iron ore, and distribution networks. Bradford, which in the 18th and 19th centuries became a phenomenon of urban and industrial expansion in the wool trades, had already been processing wool and textiles almost from the time of William the Conqueror. Through its long history this city had likewise honed its production methods, established channels for supplying itself with raw materials, and worked to develop markets for its products. It was the pre-existing industrial economies in cities like these that brought forth the inventors, technologies, transportation networks, and entrepreneurs that made the Industrial Revolution possible and even inevitable.
And what had sustained the early industrial economies of Northern England’s cities in prior centuries? In almost every case, it was rivers that had played the most vital roles—powering mills, transporting goods, and providing the water needed for industry. Centuries before steam power, it was their locations on waterways that allowed towns like Bradford (on the Bradford Beck), Sheffield (on the River Sheaf and Porter Brook), Manchester (on the River Medlock, River Irk, River Irwell, and the Gore Brook), or Birmingham (on the River Rea and the River Tame) to thrive and in some cases to even develop economies based on production of specific goods using water-powered, mechanized processes. These and many other river-rich towns in Northern England were ideal incubators of industrialism, and the success of that incubation was demonstrated by their explosive growth and economic success in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Successful cities build over their history, and these cities, which changed so radically in size and character during the course of the Industrial Revolution, did so in particularly obvious ways. In each of the cities mentioned above, all but the largest of the rivers are now underground. The Bradford Beck, the Sheaf, Porter Brook, the Medlock, Gore Brook, and the Irk—all of these waterways were at one time vital to the development of the cities through which they flow, and each is now partially or completely culverted within their respective cities. In cities throughout England, and particularly Northern England, similar sites exist. London, for example, has over a dozen named watercourses that were once significant to the developing city but that now are integrated into the sewer system and completely invisible from the surface.
Though underground, and usually unseen, the changed role of these watercourses does not mean that they no longer offer insight into the cities they run through. On the contrary, they can offer a connection to the early days of a city, because often the small, polluted urban waterways that are likely to be culverted in a large city are the same small and centrally-located streams that would have been most useful to the early settlement that was the predecessor of the city. Moreover, the process by which a river was culverted or integrated into a sewer system not only tells about that particular period in the city’s history, but it also strongly reflects changes and developments the city underwent between the time that the watercourse was a useful resource above-ground, and when it was relegated to the underground. The growth of Sheffield from a small village of artisanal knife-makers to a water-powered metalworking town, for example, was reflected in the Porter Brook’s complete diversion into a series of millraces and millponds by the 18th century, and Sheffield’s shift away from water-power and its continued growth in the 19th century is reflected in the culvert, which functions as a city storm drain, that encloses the Porter Brook today.
On a recent trip to England, I set out to find some of these disappeared watercourses and to see what they could tell me about the history of the cities under which they now ran. In cold November weather, I took off from London with two companions: Chris, an Australian computer programmer and photographer, and John, a Londoner who divides his time between his work as an arborist and his hobby of researching London’s sewers. We had three goals: Nottingham, to find the remnants of a small stream once known as the Beck Burn; Sheffield, to find the River Sheaf; and Bradford, for the Bradford Beck. John woke us up at five o’clock a.m., and Chris and I piled into his little two-door sports car amidst piles of rubber boots, helmets, winter jackets, tripods, cameras, and headlamps.