London’s Ghost Acres

1850 - 1919

Trading Consequences data showing the text-mined commodity-location relationships for 1895

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.

Map of all the factories found on the first revision of the Ordinance Survey of London (c.1890s). We’re in the process of doing quality control on this data and will share it in 2015.

Directed by Prof. Jim Clifford, this research further develops digital humanities approaches to historical questions. The project builds on Trading Consequences, which involved two years of adapting text-mining and visualization technologies to historical records. This new stage will begin the process of using the massive database resulting from the text mining to research the many relationships between rapid industrialization in nineteenth-century Greater London and environmental transformations throughout the world. To supplement this text-mined database, we’re also using the Annual statement of the trade and navigation of the United Kingdom with foreign countries and British possessions series of documents found in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers to create a new relational database recording British imports of raw materials in the second half of the nineteenth century. Dr. Elizabeth Scott, an ICCC Postdoctoral Fellow, will focus on the relationship between British migration to non-settler colonies and the commodities shipped back to the United Kingdom.


  • Jim Clifford, Principal Investigator, Rachel Carson Center and University of Saskatchewan
  • Colin Coates, Co-Applicant, York University
  • Elizabeth Scott, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Saskatchewan
  • Andrew Watson, Collaborator, York University
  • Jon Bath, Collaborator, Collaborator, Digital Research Centre, University of Saskatchewan
  • Anne Janhunen, PhD Candidate, University of Saskatchewan
  • Steven Langlois, Undergraduate History, University of Saskatchewan/Oxford University

Presentations, Blog Posts and Publications:

  • Jim Clifford, Uta Hinrichs, and Bea Alex”Trading Consequences Visualizing Text Mined Geospatial Results: Exploring the Trading Consequences Database,” Social Science History Association, November 2014.
  • Jim Clifford, “Mapping London’s Ghost Acres 1860-1900: A Digital Approach,” World Congress of Environmental History, July 2014.
  • Andrew Watson with Jim Clifford, “Mapping Supply Chains for 19th Century Leather,” The Otter, August 2014.