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How the urban environment changed under the influence of industry and technology




The Industrial Revolution caused an uncontrolled growth of cities

the industrial town The population of London between the beginning and the end of the 19th century increased from 1 million to 6.7 million.
At the start of the 18th century, Manchester had a population of fewer than 10,000, by the end of the century it reached 89,000, a growth to continue in the 19th century, doubling between 1801 and the 1820s and again between then and 1851. In 1901 its population figure was around 700,000.
The same happened in every industrialising town and region.

In the German Ruhr the number of inhabitants of Oberhausen rose from 5590 in 1862 to 100.000 in 1915. Bochum was a small town where 2200 people lived in 1800, 117.000 in 1905.The population of the French textile town Roubaix rose from 8.091 in 1806 to 121.017 in 1906. Barcelona had 100.160 inhabitants in 1787, and 544.137 in 1900....















Housing the crowd

Bois-du-Luc In regions where industry was established in an uninhabited countryside (as often happened with coalmining and industries depending on locally discovered raw materials, industrialists had to provide and build company villages to attract workforce

But the impoverished proletariat that migrated from the countryside to the cities, often ended up in cheaply built slums, where they were exploited by slumlords and rackrenters.  James Kay reported in his 'Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Class' (1832) that “’houses are noisy, ill ventilated, unprovided with privies…the streets which are narrow, unpaved, and worn into deep ruts, become the common receptacles of mud, refuse, and disgusting ordure…’” These conditions of course contributed to the ill health of those living in them.

In 1845 two physicians, J. MARESKA & J. HEYMAN, wrote a booklet about the condition of cotton workers in Ghent , wherein they described one of the biggest workers houses complexes, the so-called ‘Batavia-beluik’ which was demolished after 1883. Although they said this city-in-the-city was not even the worst they encountered, their description leaves nothing to the imagination...After calculating the surfaces they conclude that each house occupied an average of 17 sqm. Most of the houses only had a ground floor serving as living room, sleeping room and kitchen, some had a storey which could be reached via a ladder. Taking in consideration that each household consisted, on average, of at least 5 persons the total population of the ‘Batavia-beluik’ counted 585 inhabitants, who each could claim 3,4 sqm or less...

beluik 1
Batavia Batavia se trouve dans la partie haute de la ville (...) Il a trois issues (...) Ces entrées n’ont que la largeur d’une porte ordinaire et peuvent facilement être confondues avec celles des maisons voisines. Il a 100 mètres de longueur sur 30 mètres de largeur moyenne, se compose de 117 habitations et comprend quatre rues, dont trois parallèles et une transversale. Les petites demeures qui les bordent sont disposées de manière à ce que celles qui font face dans une rue sont adossées à celles qui font face dans une autre. Les rues ont 2m,70 de largeur et tiennent lieu de cour; un ruisseau coule par le milieu et des cordes sont tendues d’une façade à l’autre pour le séchagedu linge. On y compte six latrines et deux pompes à l’usage de toute la population. A l’extrémité de la rue transversale se trouve un égout considérable, où viennent aboutir tous les ruisseaux et les conduits des latrines (...)”

These courtyards were not built by the factory owners, who didn’t have the need to bind their workforce to their textile mills - there were plenty of candidates to replace a worker when he was fired or when he left for another job. Worker’s houses were, with some exceptions, built by speculating middle classes, shopkeepers, pub holders, bakers and butchers, and by persons living off of their own investments.

beluik 2
profits And renting these poor houses was very rentable as Mareska and Heyman calculated: between 17 or 18% a year.

Infectious diseases spread from the workers' districts

The concentration of population in poor housing and hygienic conditions, with only a few water pumps and primitive or even no toilets, was the cause of many diseases that during the 19th c spread through the industrial cities. One of the most notorious diseases was cholera, while also typhus, yellow fever, etc. ravaged cities.

In 1830-1831cholera epidemics across Europe gave rise to the Cholera Riots in Russia and England. In 1832 cholera claims 6,536 victims in London and 20,000 in Paris, and is responsible for about 100,000 deaths in France as a whole.
In 1853–54, a cholera epidemic in London claimed over 10,000 lives, and there were 23,000 deaths for all of Great Britain.
In 1866 cholera caused 43400 deaths in Belgium, most of them in the industrialised provinces and towns. In Ghent, notorious for its slum courtyards one counted 2.769 deaths on a total of 115.354 inhabitants.


Yellow fever also accounted for a large number of the 19th-century's epidemic outbreaks. It is most prevalent in tropical-like climates, but was imported to Europe via harbours as a result of intensive trade and transport. Major outbreaks occurred in Gibraltar in 1804, 1814, and in 1828. Barcelona suffered the loss of several thousand citizens during an outbreak in 1821.

Hygienic conditions were soon suspected to cause the spreading of diseases, and this resulted in regulations. The Public Health Act 1848 establishes the first local boards of health in England and Wales. The boards would ensure proper drainage in homes and dependable water supplies.
In 1854, during an epidemic in London, John Snow demonstrated that the transmission of cholera is significantly reduced when water is provided to the population.

Purifying and providing pure drinking water becomes a priority in the overcrowded towns

The overcrowded slums and threat of disease provoked a reaction in which sanitation improvement was the first demand. Significant betterment of public health resulted from engineering improvements in water supply and sewerage, which were essential to the further growth of urban populations.
The first drinking water supply system to power an entire city was built in Paisley, Scotland in 1804 by John Gibb, to supply water to his laundry and the entire city. For three years the filtered water was also transported to Glasgow. Paris got in 1806 a major project of water treatment plant. The water was decanted for 12 hours before being filtered. The filters consisted of sand and charcoal and were replaced every 6 hours. In 1827, the Englishman James Simpson built a sand filter to purify the drinking water.
water tower ca 1880

It is not enough known that the rise of the water towers however is intimately linked to the development of the railways, where steam locomotives in the main railway stations hat to be refilled. This needed a tank at some hight from where the water could flow into the engine.

The modern use of water towers for pressurized public water systems developed during the mid-19th century, as steam-pumping became more common, and better pipes that could handle higher pressures were developed. The German engineer Otto Intze discovered, around 1860 the advantages of steel in the construction of water towers. He enacted the principle of frustoconical tanks, built at the top of a pile masonry: provisions that balance the pressures of water on the structure and save the volume of masonry, so works.

Between 1850 and 1950, the distribution of water in cities was at very low pressure with low-flow water towers.
In the 19th century masonry water towers with Intzen-reservoirs where built on the highest points of many cities, but at the turn of the century concrete water towers - many according to the Hennebique system - became popular.



Watertower Poblenou Barcelona Masonry water tower Hennebique water tower Hasselt Hennebique water tower Sabadell reinforced concrete water tower



The challenges of the expanding towns

Due to the strong developments of the cities, the municipal authorities had to take more and more measures and build up facilities. One of the most important challenges was to keep urban development under control, with regulations and planning.

In many towns, from the mid-19th c onwards, the old Medieval city walls were demolished to create space for city extensions, while building houses and establishing factories went out of control, public and private transport jammed, and security was difficult to maintain.
New ideas rose about the layout of modern town

Paris In Paris Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), started a new philosophy of spacial planning on a grand scale, advocating straight arterial boulevards, with straight direct sightlines,a symmetry of squares and radiating roads. The resulting urban form was widely emulated throughout the rest of continental Europe. He broke down the barriers to commerce presented by medieval Paris, enabling efficient transportation of goods, but also the rapid mobilization and deployment of military troops.





In Barcelona Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer (1815-1875) developed in 1859 a visionary city planning, the Eixample. His main objective was to overcome social problems by using quadrangular blocks of a standard size, with strict building controls to ensure that they were built up on only two sides, to a limited height, leaving a shady square or garden in between. The most characteristic feature of Cerdà's plan is the 45º angled corner of each block. The idea behind this was to ensure more fluid traffic in all directions, above all for the steam trams.
The construction of the Eixample also did see the development of a specific type of building: the quality apartment block, with large flats on the lower principal floor, and on the top floors apartments with roof gardens.





Later in the 19th c recognition of the need for recreation rises. Parks were developed to provide visual relief and places for healthful play or relaxation. Later, playgrounds were carved out in congested areas, and facilities for games and sports were established not only for children but also for adults, whose workdays gradually shortened. Supporters of the parks movement believed that the opportunity for outdoor recreation would have a civilizing effect on the working classes, who were otherwise consigned to overcrowded housing and unhealthful workplaces.


Power and light where it is needed.

While the modern town grew, public authorities had to take care of and provide more and more facilities and services to the inhabitants.
Water and gas were the first to be centrally produced and then distributed to the consumer and to places where they were considered useful, indispensable or agreeable - water in public fountains, gas for street lighting.
To keep streets safe at dark, street lighting was indispensable.

The first public street lighting with gas was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London on 28 January 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first gas company in the world came into being. Less than two years later, on 31 December 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas - followed by other streets and squares
Following this success, gas lighting spread to other countries.
The First gas lamps on the streets of Paris appeared in January 1829 on the place du Carrousel and the rue de Rivoli, then on rue de la Paix, place Vendôme, rue de Castiglione; by 1857 the Grands Boulevards were all lit with gas.



Gas-Pall-Mall gas1 gas-DP Gas-nieuwjaar



poste de transformation

At the end of the 19th century, when electricity came into use, electrical current had to be transported from the power stations to the places where it was needed. Electrical lamps replaced gas lamps for street lighting, electromotors drove machines, and ball rooms and houses where lighted by electricity.
Low voltages were inefficient for transmission. Long-distance transmission needed high voltage. Transformers would play the decisive role in the victory of alternating current over direct current for transmission and distribution systems. In 1876, the Russian engineer Pavel Nikolayevich Yablochkov (1847-1894) patented a precursor of a transformer, prior to the Paris Exposition demonstrating his arc lamps.

The French scientist Lucien Gaulard (1850-1888), together with the British engineer and financier John Dixon Gibbs (1834–1912) developed a more efficient device (the ‘secondary generatoir’, later called ‘transformer’) to transport electricity in the form of alternating current. The transformer was first exhibited in London in 1881 and demonstrated in 1883 at London's Royal Aquarium, where it attracted the attention of several scientists, including the American George Westinghouse

The first demonstrative long distance (34 km) AC line was built for the 1884 International Exhibition of Turin, Italy. It was powered by a 2-kV, 130-Hz Siemens & Halske alternator and featured several Gaulard secondary generators with their primary windings connected in series, which fed incandescent lamps. The system proved the feasibility of AC electric power transmission on long distances. After this success, between 1884 and 1885, Hungarian engineers Zipernowsky, Bláthy, and Déri from the Ganz company in Budapest created the efficient "Z.B.D." closed-core coils, as well as the modern electric distribution system.

poste de transformation 2
transformator house transformator house
transformator house transformator housetransformator house


transformator house transformator house transformator house transformator house transformator house




The top of the iceberg

Magasins du Printempsmural publicitycooperativethe post office

The above described elements however are only the top of an iceberg.
During the 19th and 20th century cities saw the most radical changes and developments in history - and in each town innumerous traces of this history are left.
But too often we don't remark them,or we don't understand them.

The distribution and communication structure was enriched with telegraph, post and telephone offices, phone and post boxes, telex, and recently fax and internet...
The labour unions created its their meeting places and banquet halls, health insurance, printing offices, collective bakeries and pharmacies, cooperatives, ...
Workers met in pubs and dance halls - where they spent their wages, discussed politics, housing and working conditions
In individual shops shopkeepers were selling the in factories mass-made products - not what they produced themselves as artisans before did. In shop windows the goods they offer are shown to attract customers. But soon they get the competition of covered passages, shopping malls, department stores, chain-stores and supermarkets.
And of course one had to advertise the products. Publicity was painted on walls, billboards came into use since the mid-1860’s,...

Bien travaillen, bien s'amuser

the shop window the socialist palace 'Vooruit' in Ghent the union.

In our towns the industrial heritage can be read as in book - but one has to learn to read it.
We want to stimulate citizens and public authorities to read that book. To pay attention to the large and small traces witnessing of the industrial, technical, social and economic past. To look at the elements that make our cities so fascinating - but that too often are threatened and disappearing.

You, as an individual, as an association, museum, library, public institution, can contribute to increase the awareness and respect for this heritage. To get fellow citizens interested and involved in safeguarding and interpreting it.

Organize a guided tour in your town and tell inhabitants and visitors about these traces and their importance.
Have an evening lecture or debate, an exhibition with old photographs or postcards, a photo competition,...
Be creative and help to secure the industrial and technical heritage for future generations.
And ask for the official label of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018

From EFAITH we do want to prioritize three themes, namely
- compiling a European database of transformer houses and one of water towers
- stimulating networking and cooperation for the preservation and interpretation of workers' districts and company towns and villages

the lamented red phone boixes
market hall
wallsn tell a story
the work of miners in a stained glass window
a recently demolished shop window
What a pub ... empty that barrel



  • help to build a European database of transformer houses
  • help to buil a European database of watertowers
  • join efforts to establish a European network on workers housing
> more details soon


country town event
BELGIUM Brussels Building Brussels' Baukultur
BELGIUM Kortrijk Reading the traces of the industrial past of Kortrijk
BELGIUM Londerzeel Inhuldiging gerestaureerde reclamemuurschildering ‘Olijfje’ / festive inauguration of restored publicity mural
BELGIUM Mortsel Gevaert sneukeltocht in Mortsel / Lieven Gevaert walks
FRANCE Gréasque Rallye pédestre dans les cités minières / Pedestrian rallye in the mining villages
FRANCE Lyon Découverte de l'ancienne usine de Saint-Clair d'alimentation en eaux de Lyon
PORTUGAL Portalegre The Robinson Way / Percurso Robinsoniano
SPAIN Bilbao Bombeadora de Elorrieta
UNITED KINGDOM Caithness and Wick Caithness Industrial Archaeology Conference

For this theme month YOU still can register YOUR events

traditional crafts on a walltraditional puba newspaper stand.

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