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Navigability and the improvement of the river Thames, 1605–1815

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Through ‘improvement’ the Thames was subjected to a bureaucratic regime of engineered discipline that was brought into effect by the early nineteenth century. Over recent years, rivers have been explained with reference to their materiality and their social identity, and the Thames of the past can perhaps best be understood as a discursively produced materiality. In the medieval and early-modern periods, the Thames was perceived as a gift or as a burden by those who used it, its socioecology administered by a series of overlapping administrations. From the seventeenth century it was administered and re-engineered by regulating organisations – in particular by the Corporation of London, the Oxford Authority, and the Commissioners of the Thames – that established a comprehensive system of locks as part of creating an improved river. The new socioecological order of the Thames provided an engineered resolution to the conflicting uses of the river by the milling and barging industries, and enabled an accommodation to be reached with the new canals. It represented the work of the ‘hidden geography’ that had expressed itself in the remaking of the river in accordance with the requirements of capital.

Keywords: Thames; archives; locks; navigability; value; ‘improvement’

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2010.00354.x

Affiliations: St Mary's University College, Waldegrave Rd, Twickenham, London TW1 4SX, Email: olivers@smuc.ac.uk

Publication date: June 1, 2010

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