The River Thames: London’s Liquid History

By Stuart Robinson

The Romans developed Londinium during the first century AD, having found a site which had sufficiently deep water for its vessels, was tidal for easy access, had other rivers like the Fleet for fresh water supply, and where the gravel base could support a bridge. The small Celtic settlement was transformed into a six gated walled city.

By the 18th Century it had become the greatest port in the world, accommodating up to 800 vessels at any one time that had carried such items as coal and grain from British ports and other goods from across the world. Over the next century it expanded eastwards for the benefit of wider and deeper waters, providing new specific areas like the West India Dock for the sugar trade.

It was now a huge employer, with construction workers for the wharves and bridges, dock workers for loading, shipbuilders, market workers, innkeepers and customs officials. As well as the sailors themselves lighter men steered their boats, watermen provided a taxi service (with over 100 landing places in the 18 th Century), and ferrymen took passengers, horses and carriages until demand decreased after more bridges had been constructed. Others guided barges using sail power, some 2,000 by 1900, as these were ideal for the shallow waters. The disputes arising from such congestion led to the formation of a marine police force in 1798, later absorbed into the metropolitan police force.

The brackish water forced Londoners to rely on its other rivers for fresh water but seepage from cess pits led to increasing pollution with great implications for health. An outbreak of cholera in 1854 killed thousands, and only eventually were people converted to John Snow’s arguments that the problem lay in the water supply. The hot summer of 1858 brought the Year of the Great Stink, after which a whole new sewage system was introduced, the river was made deeper and narrower, and gradually became clearer.

The Thames provided an escape during the Great Fire of 1666. It has seen disasters such as when the Bow Belle recently struck the Marchioness, or when a collier rammed the Princess Alice steamship in 1878 and over 600 bodies were recovered. The river has provided entertainment through the University Boat Race, the Henley Regatta and, since 1715, Doggett’s annual race. The Jubilee pageant of 2012 had had precursors through the Lord Mayor’s pageant. Since Handel there have been firework displays.

A bridge has spanned the Thames since Roman times, apart from a brief period under Ethelred when “London Bridge is falling down, falling down,” collapsed by Norwegians. The first stone bridge was built in the 12 th Century and 200 years later supported 138 shops, as well as the heads of traitors spiked onto the south gate. It remained the only London bridge until the Westminster Bridge was constructed in 1750, Since Victorian times the demand for new road and rail links led to the construction of the bridges we see today.

The society applauded Stuart for a most entertaining evening.

David James  

November 2017

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