I’ve often wondered, in my few moments of serious thought, why could they do it so much cheaper then, than it seems to be now?
What I am talking about is the ability of people from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, to build immense town halls, magnificent bridges, super-efficient tarmacadam roads and glorious parks, often dotted with bronze statues of worthy citizens; marvellous icons of a bygone time, still impressive and capable of making our present urban landscape more attractive!
Virtually every town had its town hall, more often than not built in stone, along ancient Grecian lines with large porticoes held up by Ionic or Doric pillars, while massive stone stairways inevitably led up to these grand frontages, all helping to create the image of power and success we associate with the Victorian period. There would have been no doubt in the minds of the populace, that the authorities really were running the place and were in charge!
The Victorians also loved to build bridges and other colossal works of heavy engineering. They built steam engines that weighed many tons, containing steel or bronze parts that would be a challenge, even to today’s foundry-men, despite the wealth of modern equipment now available to them. The Victorians built the famous Forth Railway Bridge between 1882 and 1890 and it was the longest single cantilever bridge in the world, until a new one was built in Canada in 1917. And it is still the second longest even to this day. It cost £15million to build in 1890 and the mind boggles at what that would equate to in today’s terms – but the Victorians managed it!
Virtually every road in Britain, was Macadamised, a process involving the digging of a trench the full width of the intended road, then applying a layer of broken rocks along the whole length, followed by another layer, this time of small rocks, followed by a third layer of large gravel, each layer rolled and cambered before the next layer was applied. Finally, the whole stretch of road was sprayed with hot tar and left to cool. The compacted stones carried the weight of vehicles; the tar bound it all together and the camber drained rain water quickly off the surface. Some of these original roads are still in use today, and still employ Mr McAdams techniques!
The Victorians built wonderful parks in most cities, for the benefit of residents, large areas levelled and landscaped, myriads of trees and shrubs were planted and lakes were dug, most of them still in evidence today. They were, and are, a terrific asset, despite the fact that most of them sit on real estate worth many millions of dollars, but no one in their right mind would wish to see them go!
But then a thought occurred to me – of course, all these great works had to be paid for somehow, so how was it done.
It really didn’t take much thought, once I put my mind to it; you only have to read Dickens and other socially conscious writers from the period to realise just how truly poor the poor were, and without any of the benefits of a welfare society such as we enjoy today. They had no free health care, no pensions, ‘slum’ dwellings, filthy air – due to the burning of coal, no control over the quality and safety of food and an infant mortality rate that would cause uproar today. All this is just the tip of the iceberg and was done for the profit of the few wealthy landowners, to whom virtually everything belonged.
So, we may complain about the roads, the quality of health care, education and the rather sterile new buildings we are presented with today, but it seems to me you can’t have it all ways and if I had to choose between the Victorian system and ours, I know which one I would pick! (But I would like a new set of politicians please – that’s one area where we don’t seem to have improved at all!)
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