The Infrastructure of Empire: London’s Liquid Networks

By Elizabeth Bishop

In the nineteenth century the urban fabric of London changed as the British Empire expanded. Trade routes connected the metropole to cities all over the world. The warehouse is an example of a building type developed during the era that exemplifies how forces of global trade had tangible effects in London’s built fabric. Extensive warehousing was built in the port during the London Dock Boom, from 1799-1815.

When the British gained control of the seas, imports to London more than trebled from 1700 to 1770. The increase in imports caused intense congestion in the port. Several plans were proposed to alleviate the congestion, and what was eventually built was a system of wet docks and warehouses. A type of warehouse urbanism grew in the port to accommodate imports.

London grew to be the entrepôt par excellence. The construction of the docks was viewed as part of this imperial creation, and their construction was celebrated as an event that benefited the entire nation. In London 1900, Jonathan Schneer describes London’s docks as the “nexus of empire”. Admittedly, Schneer is writing about the metropolis over a hundred years earlier than this study. However, his description of the docks touches on aspects of the built response to forces of global trade that are examined here.

Schneer writes, “The London docks linked the tiny mother country with the rest of the world and with Britain’s vast empire. They were a nexus and a facilitator of incoming and outgoing people and products, raw materials and finished goods, attitudes and values.” This statement was written about the docks as they were beginning to become obsolete. This study explores an earlier time when the docks were the cutting edge technology of the era. Each chapter of the thesis focuses on an aspect of trade flowing into the city through various distributed networks and how this flow changed patterns in the infrastructure of empire.