Treasures of ecological history… the Southampton Historical River Data Archive

To mark Earth Day we have chosen to publish a piece from our upcoming newsletter on the Historical River Data Archive written by Terry Langford, Visiting Professor at the Centre for Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment.

The River Trent upstream of Burton on Trent, 2010

The River Trent upstream of Burton on Trent, 2010

“On the day the photograph was taken in 2010, the river water was clear, showing waving water weeds on a clean gravel bed. Large numbers of brilliant blue Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-flies (Calopteryx splendens) were flitting over the water and landing on the marginal vegetation prior to mating. An impressive sight for any conservationist or ecologist. Standing on exactly the same spot almost 50 years previously I had seen a flow of black, foetid, fishless water with a layer of foam up to 1m thick in places. A hand-net sample of the river bed produced nothing but a Gordian knot of writhing bright red sludgeworms, the product of millions of gallons of poorly treated sewage and untreated industrial effluents from Birmingham, the Black Country and Stoke on Trent all many miles upstream. Biological diversity was virtually nil.

The change over 50 years was almost unbelievable, but how had it come about and what were the processes involved? Although there were a few scientific papers from the 1950s and 60s, the processes of change had not been well described, mainly because there appeared to be no access to early data. However, as a result of some personal enquiries, a treasure trove of raw data was located, in the shed of one of the biologists who had worked on the rivers at that time. The hoard consisted of over 22,000 individual records of biological surveys in the River Trent Catchment all carefully organised in date order, plus reports and contemporaneous field notes. The material was retrieved very rapidly by staff in the Centre for Environmental Sciences.

Thanks to their foresight and the willing and enthusiastic assistance of the staff at the University of Southampton Archives and Manuscripts, these raw data from biological and chemical surveys, which were about to be ditched by the Agencies, were saved from destruction and the individual records, the products of thousands of man-hours work, are now safely stored and catalogued for academic analysis, future management planning and future work by students. In addition, similar data for eastern rivers were sent to the archive by the Environment Agency in East Anglia, again some dating back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. These data form the longest run of raw river ecology data in the England and perhaps in Europe. Added to this are reports and grey literature that augment the story of the cleaning up of rivers in the English east and west midlands.

Diagram showing pollution and biological conditions observed during 1951 in the River Trent and tributary streams, from MS 347 Historical River Data Archive

Diagram showing pollution and biological conditions observed during 1951 in the River Trent and tributary streams, from MS 347 Historical River Data Archive

The records kept so carefully catalogued and preserved in the Archives and Manuscripts based in the Hartley Library have so far formed the basis of two book chapters, one academic paper, eight MSc projects with a ninth in progress. Most of the work has been done with close collaboration and help by staff of the Environment Agency. As a regular user of the archive, I have found everyone there so helpful and professional both with me and the students. We in CES, intend to develop more work with the Archives and exploit, we hope, their contacts with other archives in Britain and perhaps in Europe. The work on the recovery of British rivers will, we hope, be of great assistance to countries such as China and India who have severe river pollution problems at the present time, mostly caused by exactly the same economic,technical and socio-political history as those of 1950s industrial Britain. There are other archive data round the country that could be linked with the Southampton Archives including those from the Environment Agency and local library archives. For example, much of the peripheral data for our studies came from the Birmingham archives, recently rehoused in the city and from the Lincoln City Archives. The work on rivers is based on the old adage that “those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it”. The return to the black, foetid fishless river in Britain cannot be contemplated. “From there to here” will be a pattern, we hope, for all the newer industrialised countries.”

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One response to “Treasures of ecological history… the Southampton Historical River Data Archive

  1. Pingback: “The poetry of the earth”: exploring the natural world in the Hartley Library Special Collections | University of Southampton Special Collections

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