Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering

By Jamieson, Alan G. | The Journal of Transport History, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering


Jamieson, Alan G., The Journal of Transport History


Adrian Jarvis (ed.), Studies in the History of Civil Engineering VI, Port and Harbour Engineering, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot (1998), 450 pp., L85.00.

Adrian Jarvis of the Merseyside Maritime Museum has been a forceful critic of historians' neglect of the role played by port and dock engineers in the industrial revolution. By the mid-nineteenth century Britain may have been `the workshop of the world' but without adequate port facilities the island nation could neither have imported raw materials for the workshop nor have exported its products. Britain was the leading economic power but was handicapped by its many inadequate harbours, most having a considerable tidal range. It was the construction of the extensive enclosed wet dock systems at ports such as Liverpool and London that kept trade flowing and made dock engineering a distinct specialism within civil engineering.

Harbour development became an almost continuous process in Britain during the nineteenth century. No sooner was one new dock completed than technological changes imposed the need for it to be improved or even replaced altogether by new construction. The principal causes of change were threefold. First, the ever-increasing size of ships during the the century. Second, the rise to dominance of the steamship, whose high capital cost demanded ever shorter turn-round times in port to ensure its maximum utilisation. Third, the changing nature of cargoes, with refrigerated meat, bulk petroleum and bulk wheat demanding special port facilities by 1900. Port users, especially shipowners, drove British port authorities into expensive competition with each other, often promoting wasteful rivalry. For example, Birkenhead made a vain attempt to equal Liverpool, only to fall under the control of the older port, while Grimsby's efforts to challenge Hull were kept going only by subsidies from the railway company that took control of the port.

The government made no attempt to impose a national scheme of port development that might have prevented such wasteful competition, so it continued into the early twentieth century. Dock engineers found ready employment, but continued port development was based on expectations of ever-growing world trade. Such expectations came to an end in 1914, and by the time another period of rapid expansion occurred, after 1945, the great ports created in the Victorian and Edwardian periods proved increasingly unable to cope with modern trade flows.

Historical interest in old port and dock systems and their construction began to arise only during the 1960s, when they were being swept away by the new harbour facilities required for containers and roll-on/roll-off traffic.

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