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From London's Ghost Acres

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This SSHRC Insight Development Grant funded project explores the environmental consequences of the expanding global commodity network that developed to supply London’s industrial economy during the second half of the nineteenth century. As Pomeranz argues, British industrial development was predicated on the resources contributed by distant “ghost acres” of land inside the British Empire and beyond it (2001). This study intends to map metaphorically and concretely the “ghost acres” that fed the factories of London.

The continuous growth of London’s industrial economy and population relied increasingly on “ghost acres” located outside of Britain. While the British economy broke free from the long-standing organic restraints on development through an increasing dependence on coal to fuel industrialization, they continued to required large quantities other raw materials. By the second half of the nineteenth century many of the products consumed in London originated overseas. These included soap, candles, bread, margarine, marmalade, Mackintosh rain jackets, leather shoes, and wooden furniture. These consumer goods were manufactured in factories in the Thames Estuary from raw materials imported from Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Peru, Brazil, Spain, West Africa, India, Ceylon, and New Zealand, among other locations. During the nineteenth century, the discovery and transfer of new plants, combined with the growing demands for food and raw materials, brought more and more of the world’s land into cultivation. Significant deforestation resulted from this expansion of agriculture and the growing demand for a wide range of forest products. In many cases, this in turn reduced biodiversity, helped spread plant diseases, and increased soil erosion. This historical research explores how the intersections between industry, science, consumer culture, empire, and markets in London transformed numerous environments around the globe through a series of interrelated case studies of London’s factories and their commodity chains.