As we are on the Thames, let us look at a swamp which is called
a town - Canning-town,-unknown to the great mass of Londoners.
We all know the consequences of planting large populations on ill-adapted lands, without making provision for that most important necessary of accumulated life, drainage; and it might have been hoped that the sad effects in known instances would have led to the prevention of other similar mistakes. It is, however, not so; for in the Plaistow Marshes, Canning-town has been commenced, without the provision of either proper roads or drainage.
On one side of the new town an earthen embankment dams off the water of the Bow Creek. The level on which all the houses are placed is below that of the ordinary half-height of the Thames. Standing near the iron bridge which crosses Bow Creek, let us take a peep at the scene which presents itself. Near at hand is the new town, and on all sides of the green level London is marching with giant strides. A few years since, if a dozen people were seen crossing this bridge in the course of a day, it was a matter of wonder: now the bridge has become a great thoroughfare. Nine or ten years since there were only two or three houses, and now look at the number of them!
In the view of Canning-town, as it appears from near to the iron bridge, the green level is shown spreading over a great extent. Along the margin of this flat land, in every direction, houses, shops, public-houses, and churches, are to be seen skirting the level, and gaining every week further and further upon the space, which is chiefly several feet below the high-water mark of the Thames. The new town, which already consists of several long streets, will, in the course of a few years, spread out and meet the approaching houses, and all this level will be planted with dwellings and inhabited by many thousands of people. The artificial bank of Bow Creek and the embankment of the Thames are all that prevent the houses here from being flooded every high tide. To provide for the effectual drainage of this district, by the ordinary means, is impossible. The houses here have been erected without the means of either carrying off the refuse or properly avoiding damp. In course of time the debris of these and other houses will raise the level ; but in the mean time what will be the sacrifice of human life which must take place without prompt measures. With some difficulty we managed to reach the place on foot from the turnpike road, and found the condition of the streets miserable : many of them, although the day was tolerably fine, were almost impassable, and vehicles sank nearly up to the axletrees in the mud. In many parts were great pools of stagnant water. At the beginning of 1856 the writer said, "If something is not done, in two or three years' time the ground will be poisoned by cesspools, water will stand on the surface, and evils of a serious nature will follow. In a score of years or less, Canning-town will be an important place, with its churches, omnibus and cab stations, and its masses of rich and poor. Let us hope for the introduction of measures proportionate to the extent of the future requirements. Flesh and blood are precious materials."
George Godwin, Town Swamps and Social Bridges, 1859