A River Runs Through It: A multidisciplinary investigation of the impacts of the Thames Embankment construction at Chelsea, 1850-1891

  • Hanna Steyne Chamberlin

Student thesis: Phd


Nineteenth century London was a place of massive upheaval and change, with rising population, expansion of the built environment, and construction of urban infrastructure projects including overground and underground railways, roads, sewers, and the Thames Embankments. These works were conceived within the discourse of modernisation and improvement, whilst the working class population faced deteriorating living and sanitary conditions, and successive waves of fatal diseases. The increasing need for public health measures and sanitary reform framed discussions about the modernisation of urban spaces in Britain, yet there has been little exploration of the impacts of this on the lived experiences of poor residents. These changes in London took place within a global context of colonisation, capitalist expansion, and industrialisation, the success of which was largely due the river that runs through London; the Thames. This thesis takes a posthumanist feminist approach to the investigation of the social and economic impacts and effects of the Chelsea Embankment construction on the riverside residents. It examines the river and the riverside assemblage, and views the water of the Thames as a vibrant component entangled in relationships with people, things, places, ideas, and events at varied spatial and temporal scales. This thesis explores change through time via deep mapping and creative writing. The methodology created for this thesis combines maritime cultural landscapes, historic landscape characterisation, and ethnographies of place to weave together data from historic census and trades' directories, historic mapping, contemporary descriptions, photographs, paintings, and archaeological remains on the foreshore. The result is the creation of deep mapping that characterises the Chelsea riverside assemblage at three points in the past: 1851, 1871, and 1891. Using assemblages as a way to understand the complexities of relationships in the past, the methodology allows for analysis of the data through creative writing at multiple scales from the global, to the localised study area, the street level, and individual people. The methodology enables new narratives to be written that undermine the traditional, linear, and celebratory narratives of Victorian engineering triumphalism centred upper class white men, which persist in existing research about the Thames Embankments. Instead, this thesis uses the results of its analysis to explore stories about real people, places, and things, rooted in historical and archaeological data, that illuminate the lives of previously marginalised residents of Victorian London, including women, working class families, children, Black, queer, and neurodivergent individuals. The vibrancy of the river runs through all their stories and as a result this thesis makes an important contribution to broadening understandings of the process of embankment and the social lives of nineteenth century Londoners.
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJohn Emrys Morgan (Supervisor) & Hannah Cobb (Supervisor)


  • GIS
  • History
  • Digital Humanities
  • Industrial Archaeology
  • Creative writing
  • Historical Geography
  • Deep Mapping
  • Archaeology
  • Urban Archaeology
  • Maritime Archaeology
  • Nineteenth Century
  • Urban History
  • Victorian London
  • Chelsea
  • London
  • Thames
  • Post-Medieval Archaeology

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