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Trading Nations: Architecture, Informal Empire, and the Scottish Cast Iron Industry in Argentina

PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr Alex Bremner and Ali Davey (Historic Environment Scotland), The University of Edinburgh, 2018
Lucia Juarez
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Lucia Juarez, Trading Nations: Architecture, Informal Empire, and the Scottish Cast Iron Industry in Argentina, PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr Alex Bremner and Ali Davey (Historic Environment Scotland), The University of Edinburgh, 2018

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

fonte, fer, Empire britannique

Index by keyword:

cast iron, iron, British Empire

Indice de palabras clave:

hierro, fundición, Imperio británico


Gusseisen, Eisen, Britisches Reich

Parole chiave:

ghisa, ferro, Impero britannico

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1Bridges, railways stations, warehouses, bandstands, fountains, shop fronts, lamps, gates and other cast-iron elements can still be found throughout Argentina. Some of these elements are impressive, others humble; some are abandoned, others are still in use. Many are part of important monuments; others are so incorporated into the urban landscape that they almost go unnoticed. When one’s attention is drawn to these features, however, a company nameplate and place of origin—“London,” “Liverpool,” “Glasgow”—is usually visible. These elements are so far from Argentina that their appearance begs several questions: why are most of the visible nameplates British? Are they the same as those found in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, or in former British colonies like India, South Africa or Australia? If so, why? Can we think of these elements as British imperial architecture in Argentina? In what context can their arrival in Argentina be understood? Who commissioned and designed them? Are there more Scottish nameplates than English, or any other? Does it matter? Did these elements act as models that were later copied or imitated by local manufacturers? Did they affect architecture and urban development in Argentina? If architecture reflects the view of a society, what do these elements reflect?

2Trading Nations: Architecture, Informal Empire, and the Scottish Cast Iron Industry in Argentina attempts to answer these questions, via coherent analysis of the architectural, historic, cultural and economic dimensions of the phenomenon of Scottish architectural ironwork in Argentina. In so doing, the study hopes to shed light on larger questions concerning British “informal” imperialism, considering exports of cast iron as a significant component in Britain’s attempts at economic leverage and coercion in Argentina during that country’s most dramatic period of development and urbanisation.

3In recent years, imperial, transnational, and “global” history have become essential to understanding processes of imperial expansion. Moreover, the study of global architectural history, and those processes behind globalisation that characterised the modern world in which we now live, can be better understood from a wider perspective. In order to realise this, it has been necessary to study buildings and other architectural products not only through architects, engineers, and styles, but also through a broader historical framework that considers the aspirations, actions, agents and global networks at work behind such buildings, as these made possible the materialisation of Argentinian cities while contributing to imperial expansion.

4The dissertation is structured in three sections dealing with the three most significant aspects of the thesis: informal empire in Argentina, the iron trade, and Scottish cast-iron architecture in Argentina. Due to the coverage of the dissertation and quantity of figures, it has been divided into two volumes, with Volume II containing all figures. Tables and graphs have been kept within the text of Volume I.

Section 1: Informal Empire and the British System: Britain, Scotland and Argentina

5This Section includes four chapters that demonstrate, from a theoretical point of view, how the British global system and networks of empire worked, how the Scots contributed to the empire, and how colonial patterns of investment, migration, and involvement in the railways and public works were followed in Argentina. This section provides the whole historical and economic background to the establishment of informal empire in Argentina, along with some insight into the relationship with Scotland.

  • 1 John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” The Economic History Review, (...)

6More than half a century has passed since John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson presented their thesis for re-thinking the characteristics of British imperialism.1 Their argument that it is impossible to define imperial history without considering its “informal” aspects has become significant. Even though a definitive definition of “informal empire” has not yet been established, it is now widely recognised that these forms of informal influence were an integral part of the British world system.

7While the significance and consequences of the British Empire have been the subject for much scholarship, it has been established that the concept needs to be re-examined and the phenomenon of British imperialism needs to be understood as a whole, with a greater interdisciplinary framework that considers the contributions of, and implications for, different nations. This thesis represents an opportunity to explore the subject from the standpoint of architectural history, as a way of shedding light on our understanding of the British world system between 1852 until 1948.

8That system was unplanned but powerful. It relied upon the links created via numerous elements, such as diplomacy and military force (with asymmetrical treaties and armed intervention if needed), commerce and finance (boosted by free trade), communication (including the development of the railways and boosted by technology) and migration (including British professionals) and culture. All these elements helped Britain to draw Argentina into its world-system of imperial power.

9As yet there is no middle ground between British and Argentinian scholars. As the concept of informal empire has been analysed mainly by British scholars, there is a demand for new, more “local” perspectives, which I consider in this thesis, although this is not the only topic developed. Imperial theories and networks of empire span the main body of the dissertation in order to provide analysis of how the British Empire worked as a complex “world system,” and to determine who its agents were in Argentina, what the role of iron was, and what the implications for Argentina and its architecture were.

10Even though the “British” world system suggests an idea of integrity and cultural coherence, Britain was in fact a union of more than one nation, and these nations contributed to the empire to differing degrees. If industrialisation, advanced transportation, technology and manufactured goods, “capitalism,” financial instruments, banks, engineers, insurance companies, and British settlers were so important in the imperial system, the question arises as to who were the people that drove it and where did their ideas come from? Do the roots of modern capitalism lie with the Scot, Adam Smith, and industrialisation with James Watt’s steam engine? What about transport and manufactured goods? Glasgow was not called the “workshop of the empire” for no reason. What was the role of iron in all this—in shipbuilding, munitions, engineering, manufacturing and architecture?

  • 2 John M. MacKenzie and Thomas M. Devine (eds.), Scotland and the British Empire, Oxford, New York, (...)

11Although many enterprises were managed from the City of London, it does not mean that there were only Englishmen working there. The majority of Scottish companies were headquartered in London, but that does not mean they were not Scottish, or not spreading Scottish ideas, materials and goods. So, to what extent did Scotland boost or contribute to Britain’s empire? John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine in their volume Scotland and the British Empire (2011) have developed many of these themes.2 However, the relationship between Scotland and Argentina has not yet been properly investigated.

12Indeed, Scotland’s involvement was outstanding, not only from a military and diplomacy perspective, but also financially, especially through the promotion of Adam Smith’s ideas on free trade that drove the imperial economy. Scotland also contributed substantially to several inventions and innovations that were essential for positioning Great Britain as a world leader in terms of infrastructure and communications. The development of the iron-founding industry in Scotland was closely connected with these.

  • 3 Gary B. Magee and Andrew S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capi (...)

13The Scots had a huge impact in Argentina. Scottish Highlanders were part of Britain’s invasion force that attempted to make the River Plate part of the formal British Empire in 1806. Scots were the first merchants, and Scottish immigrants formed the first organised European “colony” or enclave in Argentina. They introduced tools to work the land, they also introduced their churches and societies and freemasonry, which was connected to the political elite. Scots introduced football, as well as Angus and Aberdeen cattle to improve the quality of meat in Argentina. Railwaymen, engineers and architects born in Scotland or trained there constructed railway lines and stations. They worked with other Britons, using British investments, bringing material from Britain, in British ships, thus reinforcing the networks that Gary Magee and Andrew Thompson talk about in their study.3 This dissertation connects those people that contributed to Argentina’s development with British imperial expansion to uncover the “invisible” networks of empire that have left such a visible and material mark on Argentina’s heritage.

Section 2: Iron Trade and Production in Britain and Argentina

14This section of the dissertation includes five chapters that demonstrate the significance of the iron industry for the British Empire. It discusses iron production and trade, showing the development of the industry that made Great Britain a leader and Argentina a dependent customer. It highlights the role of the Scottish foundries within the empire, and the importance of Spanish-language trade catalogues in boosting trade between Britain and Argentina

15The British Empire was founded on commerce, and iron was an excellent product for trade, as it could so easily be adapted to different purposes. Sometimes these purposes were related directly to power, as when iron was used for guns and canons. But sometimes they brought power indirectly, as when iron was used for railways, sanitation projects, and engineering and architectural projects in general.

  • 4 Robin W. Winks, “On Decolonization and Informal Empire,” The American Historical Review, vol. 81, (...)

16For some time, Britain had the most advanced iron industry and the greatest production output in the world. This supremacy was directly related to technology and, as Robin Winks has shown, the imperial relationship that Britain sometimes had with informal colonies such as Argentina, was shaped by the higher-technology society exerting influence on the lower-technology one.4

17The need for iron was so great in developing countries like Argentina that they could not live without it. Yet, they failed to develop their own iron industry not only because they lacked good iron deposits, but also because they depended on British railway tariffs, which in turn marked their dependency on Great Britain, at least until 1914.

18The iron trade between Great Britain and Argentina proved to be extremely significant for both countries, but in very different ways. Great Britain needed important customers outside the European continent to safeguard the future of the industry, while Argentina needed iron for their railway system, sanitation works, parks and other urban developments; developments that were, in fact, financed by British investments, managed by British professionals, who in turn chose British materials, particularly Scottish. Argentina depended on British iron because it could not produce its own in the quantity and at the speed needed, but also because the local industry could not be efficiently developed.

19Even though it was not possible to measure the quantity of Scottish iron exported to Argentina, this section of the dissertation demonstrates that Britain could only achieve its dominant position in the iron trade thanks to Scotland. Without the combination of factors that helped Scotland make its distinctive contribution to the empire—such as the early development of iron manufacturing, an abundance of good and well-placed iron ore deposits, and business and trade capacity nursed by the development of new means of transport—Britain’s influence in places like Argentina would have been significantly reduced. Yet, Scotland could not have developed as it did without the symbiotic relationship with England offered by the Union of 1707. The Union gave Scotland access both to trade with English colonial markets, and to English investment, which helped fund the early stages of the establishment of the iron foundries.

20Access to global trade was undoubtedly one of the most significant factors that allowed the iron industry to develop not only in Scotland, but also in England and Wales. But Scottish foundries, especially Walter Macfarlane, capitalised on this opportunity by developing trade catalogues that could reach the whole world.

21If in recent years historians have reconsidered the specific contributions of Scotland and its people to the growth and expansion of Great Britain as an imperial power, this dissertation takes this analysis into the realm of cast iron as an export industry. If British cast iron was ubiquitous throughout the developed world during this period, how do we begin to understand the Scottish cast iron industry as a major contributor to this trade? Here Argentina is used as a micro-study in an attempt to measure and understand that contribution.

Section 3: Scottish Cast Iron in Argentina: Case Studies

22This section presents examples of Scottish ironwork found in Argentina. The chapters are divided according to usage; mainly Scottish ironwork used for infrastructure and public buildings, and iron used for private buildings.

23Section 3 demonstrates that Britain was intricately involved in projects related to public services in Argentina, especially in the construction of communication networks. The railways served to connect national and international markets, providing transport for people and goods, and, perhaps most importantly, facilitated the opening of new business connections. The railways were also the main consumer of cast iron, and it is along the railways where one can find a huge amount of Scottish cast iron in Argentina, as evidenced by the railway stations at Tornquinst (1883), Iraola (1885), Coronel Vidal (1886), Tandil (1883), Monte Grande (1890), Tucuman Mitre Station (1891), Lobos Junction (1898), La Plata (1906), Hipolito Irigoyen (1908), Retiro (1909–1915) and Plaza Constitucion (alterations done between 1902–1907), and in some pedestrian and railway bridges such as Palermo bridge (1914), and many others in northern Argentina.

24While clean water supplies, proper drainage systems, and the proliferation of public parks played an important role in improving sanitary conditions, which had a knock-on effect for the overall health of the population, they also used a great amount of Scottish iron for piping and plant buildings, as at Wilde Plant (1887) and the Palace of Running Waters (1887–1894). In addition, as part of new hygiene programmes, parks were built or extended using Scottish cast-iron elements. Parks such as 3 de Febrero Park (inaugurated in 1875 but with further alterations in 1888, and later between 1892 and 1912), the Buenos Aires Zoo, and San Martin Park (1907–1908) in Mendoza all featured Scottish cast-iron elements.

25Private buildings that used Scottish cast iron were also connected with British business, as in the case for the Maple Furniture Store (1914), or with the British professionals, as with Alexander Hume’s home (1893).

26All the case studies demonstrate that Scottish iron foundries were significantly involved in the supply and maintenance of cast-iron products in Argentina, and that they made an important contribution to the country’s development at the same time as they contributed to the expansion of British commercial and political power. These studies serve as evidence for theories regarding informal empire. In particular, they demonstrate how the networks of the British Empire worked, showing how immigrants and professionals served as vehicles for disseminating Scottish iron and British styles of architecture and other cultural expressions. These professionals—who were frequently decision makers—and their ideals and practices, also affected patterns of economic behaviour. British architects and engineers not only spread new technologies and commercial practices across distant markets, they also set norms of desirable lifestyles.

27In addition, the case studies show that the Scottish people working in Argentina as directors, engineers or architects definitely had an influence on decisions to choose Scottish materials. The Scottish cast iron trade catalogues facilitated these new norms for an eager audience around the world.

28The British Empire, both formal and informal, left a material legacy all over the globe. This dissertation demonstrates that British cast-iron elements found in Argentina are the same or similar to elements found in Great Britain and its colonial empire because they arrived in Argentina through a process of commercial expansion that involved imperial trade routes, global networks, cooperation between British architects and engineers, as well as migration and the assistance of the pro-British elite in Argentina. It is argued that British iron in general, and Scottish in particular, contributed to the expansion of British power and influence in the region through helping shape the architectural and urban environments of Argentina.

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1 John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 6, no. 1, 1953, p. 1‒15.

2 John M. MacKenzie and Thomas M. Devine (eds.), Scotland and the British Empire, Oxford, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011 (The Oxford history of British Empire. Companion series).

3 Gary B. Magee and Andrew S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capitals in the British World, c.1850‒1914, Cambridge, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

4 Robin W. Winks, “On Decolonization and Informal Empire,” The American Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 3, 1976, p. 540-556.

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Lucia Juarez, « Trading Nations: Architecture, Informal Empire, and the Scottish Cast Iron Industry in Argentina »ABE Journal [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 12 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Lucia Juarez

PhD Candidate, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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