BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations’

81. History of the Port of London

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations

Author: Peter Stone

Total No. of Pages: 250

Rating Scale (1: very poor; 10: excellent):

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At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, London was described as being ‘The workshop of the world’. It was, according to the author of this volume, ‘…The [British] Empire’s economic capital… and at the heart of the vast emporium was the Port of London’. This book is that port’s story.

To state that this book is comprehensive is to be given to understatement. It is well researched, well-written and quite readable, with the qualification that it is more thesis than light romance. Because of its subject, it is also very wide-ranging in its narrative. When reading it the reader is taken from the Ice Age and the formation of both the British Isles and the River Thames, to the Twenty-first Century (specifically 2017), and the problems attendant to redeveloping a port system which technology and commerce have now passed-by. In the course of this perambulation through time, the reader partakes in the social and maritime histories which moulded and influenced the port and its surrounds, together with the occasional dose of warfare and politics for good measure. The result, as previously noted, is comprehensive and readable. It is also extremely interesting.

The bulk of this volume consists of eight Chapters preceded by an Acknowledgements section where tribute is paid to those who assisted the author in creating the book. That is in turn followed by a Preface This is six pages in length and summarises what is to follow. The Chapters are divided into sequential blocks, with each covering a specific time period. Subheadings within each Chapter provide additional detail about a specific topic appearing within that section. Reproductions of five lithographs appear within the volume to illustrate relevant points of the narrative.  They are supplemented by sixteen photographs placed within a small section in the book’s centre. The images are informatively captioned, although several give no indication of their source. There is no reference to the existence of the images (or even of the ‘Photographic’ section per se’) on the Contents page or within the Index. The volume also contains several Maps. These show both the development of the port itself over the centuries and its relationship to Great Britain, Europe and the larger world. As with the previously-mentioned images, neither the Contents page nor the Index contains any reference to the existence of Maps within the volume. A Selective Bibliography is placed after the last chapter, the author noting that the titles it contains ‘…Have been consulted to varying degrees’. An Index completes the volume. While comprehensive, this reviewer found the presence of unexplained italicised words within the Index puzzling.

While some were evidently the names of ships, others appeared to be Latin in origin. Unsourced quotations also appear within the volume. The discovery that HMS Belfast (p. 222) was a ‘Battle cruiser’ instead of her designated class of ‘Light Cruiser’ was also of interest. This reviewer hopes that this misclassification was only an isolated aberration and not indicative of other, similar, errors. There is no way to know.

Because it covers a multitude of topics under the broad umbrella of being a ‘History’ of the specific Port of London area, this book it is likely to have a wider audience than just those interested in ‘ships and the sea’. By default it is also a ‘Social’ history; its descriptions of social behaviour and micro-societies associated with the Port of London being possibly useful to social historians as a result. Political Researchers investigating British politics and their effect on the Port of London and international trade may also find it interesting. Those with an interest Twentieth Century warfare in general and the World War II London ‘Blitzes’ in particular,  may also find it worth perusing.

On a Rating Scale where 1: very poor; 10: excellent), I have given it an 8½.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of All Nations’

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