Nations and Identities

A short history of the great River Thames

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A short history of the great River Thames

The River Thames, showing the Oxo Tower and Blackfriars Bridge.

‘One might almost have walked over the Thames and through every part of it on the boats, which could scarcely pass by each other.’ This description of a regatta in 1775 can be followed by ‘Paddler,’ a newspaper correspondent on 3 July 1880, who seeking relief ‘in the enjoyment of a leisurely paddle on the river in these long twilight evenings’ faces ‘the noisy and immodest proceedings of the evenings’ and their ‘foul and disgusting language which assaults one’s ears and serves to call attention to the immodesty which might otherwise pass unnoticed,’ or by TS Eliot, working for the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyd’s Bank, and finding in Thameside London intimations of the prospect of salvation described in The Waste Land (1922):

‘“This music crept by me upon the waters’
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O city city, I can sometimes hear
Besides a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
and a clatter and a chatter form within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.”’

At once barrier and route, the river has been crucial to London’s history, development and identity. It helps explain much about London’s role in the history of England and its leading place in England’s interaction with the wider world.

The role of water as obstacle is specific to the location of particular cities at convenient bridging points. The role of water as the means for trade, by sea and river, is the other crucial player. Until the development of bridges and tunnels able to cross large expanses of water, and of aircraft, more particularly air-freight, there was a reliance on ships as the means to move people and goods overseas. That, obviously, was crucially important for England, and made it different, for example, to France. Moreover, even for England, the problems of overland routes, and, more particularly, for the bulk movement of goods, made transport by water preferable. Such transport faced many problems, notably prior to the application of engineering in the eighteenth century and of steam power in the nineteenth. In large rivers, it was not always easy to sail against the current. Variable water levels increased the hazards of navigation. Winter freezing, snowmelt spate, and summer drought were all issues. The large-scale canalisation of rivers did not begin until the eighteenth century.

All these issues posed problems. They also ensured that particular rivers had attractions. The Thames was one such – its flow being more equable, and its course easier to manage, than most major European rivers.

There was also the crucial issue of hinterland. This was pertinent in terms of the opportunities offered and with reference to the particular character of individual ports. For Britain, the significant face prior to the sixteenth century was that with continental Europe. Ireland, in contrast, offered prospects, but not the same prosperity. It was a source for raw materials, but not a significant market. The westward facing ports, such as Bristol, did not rise in relative significance until England became a major player in the Atlantic economy.

Prior to that, the choice of ports essentially ran from Southampton to Leith, with Dover, London, Ipswich, King’s Lynn, Hull, Newcastle and Berwick all being worthy of discussion. There were opportunities and drawbacks for each of the ports. Leith, Berwick, Newcastle and Hull all had hinterlands, but none on the scale of those further south, while the extent of the North Sea that had to be covered was greater, thus introducing greater unpredictability. Anglo-Scottish hostilities also ensured that there were major protection costs in the case of Leith, Berwick and Newcastle.

Had England’s destiny focused on links with the Viking world, as seemed to be the case with the kingdom of York in the tenth century, and with Danish rule and Norwegian invasion in the eleventh, then Hull would presumably have had a greater role, with the alternative being a direct passage to York. However, the success of the Old English monarchy in the tenth century, its revival under Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66), and the triumph of the Normans, successively ended this option. Power was to be located further south.

This ensured a range of ports from King’s Lynn to Southampton. All were important, and, had the Old English state continued to be based in Winchester, then Southampton would probably have been the key port. King’s Lynn and Ipswich were well suited to serve East Anglia, and there were a host of ports to service Kent and Sussex. Yet, all these options faced problems if looking at a wider market, both politically and economically. The extent of the Midlands, and notably of the West Midlands – the centre of Mercia, were best linked to Continental Europe via the Thames Valley. From King’s Lynn and Ipswich, there was much territory to cover to Mercia, and much of this could be waterlogged. Dover and the Cinque Ports faced major issues of distance, which were exacerbated by the Greensand of the Weald and the need to cross the Rivers Medway and Thames.

London received a key boost from being a transition point politically, and one where it was possible to draw on links with East Anglia, Kent and Mercia, as well as Wessex. London’s potential, as a political and economic centre, had been perceived by the Romans, as had that of York. However,  the concentration of wealth and power in the South, as well as proximity to the Continent, ensured that, of the two, London won. It was a city defined by crossing the Thames and developing links to the Continent. The first was represented most particularly by the bridge, but much traffic was also by boats.

The significance of London Bridge was a testimony to the importance of the river. London was established at a strategic location on the north bank of the Thames, which was much wider than today. Not only was the southern bank characterised by marshy tidal inlets, but, on the northern shore, land had been reclaimed over the centuries, and the riverbank moved progressively out into the river, in part to allow the construction of successive lines of river defences and new wharves. The waterfront that the Romans  would have came across lay along the line of modern Upper and Lower Thames Street. Today, the river is tidal as far west as Teddington, but, in Roman times, possibly not much further upstream than the low gravel banks on the northern side , providing a good site for the Romans to build the first bridge. The two low hills of Ludgate and Cornhill were also attractive factors in the initial Roman choice of site.

The initial balance between military and civilian uses for bridge, harbour and settlement would have favoured military use, as lowland Britain was conquered, but this balance rapidly changed. As the lowest bridging point on the Thames, London was a key point in the internal transport system, and more suitable as a centre than the original official capital, Colchester. The role of London as a leading port, and its proximity to the English Channel, made it different to other Roman major centres, such as York, Lincoln, Chester and Gloucester, although each was also a river port.

The river’s prominence for trade helped ensure resilience in the Anglo-Saxon period. Initially, the location parameters of settlement under the Anglo-Saxons reverted to those of the pre-Roman centuries. However, in time, trade revived, and a new port town – Lundenwic, developed to the west of Londinium.

The revival of commerce in part reflected the improvement of Merovingian Gaul, with which there was considerable trade via the port of Quentovic near Boulogne. There was also trade to the Low Countries. Initially, the two major water systems centred on the Wash/Humber and Severn/Avon respectively, but the latter declined from the late sixth century as the related trade from the Mediterranean via Atlantic Spain and France to Cornwall fell. Instead, the Thames system, centred on London, grew in significance, a system that also benefited from tributaries such as the Lea. The advantages of Roman London, linking a key water route to land routes along the better drained ridges, were rediscovered. The greater role of bridges in the period is suggested by the extent to which, from the 740s, labour service for bridge-building and repair became an important provision in charters. The Roman bridge in London was possibly rebuilt in the mid-ninth century and later repaired under Aethelred the Unready.

Moreover, the spreading authority, first of Mercia, and then of Wessex, diminished the role of the Thames as a boundary from the eighth century, which greatly benefited London.

London’s dynamism interacted with that of England, both politically and economically. From the ninth century, English cloth exports were earning large amounts of Continental silver, which helped to make England particularly wealthy. The strength of the English monetary economy gave London an advantage as a commercial city, as well as assisting the process of government which encouraged its focus in London. Control over London was important in the politico-military crises of 1016, 1052 and 1066 and a major factor in the city wars of Stephen’s, John’s and Henry III’s reigns, and later in the Wars of the Roses.

Commercial dominance remained a theme, a dominance that owed much to the use made of the opportunities provided by the Thames. There were key magnifiers provided by the links in London between domestic and international trade and the more general opportunities that the river, roads, sea and city offered for transhipment. This was important to the profit derived from an intermediary role. London benefited from its ability to play a major part in serving trades to the north, the Low Countries, and the south. Moreover, transhipment helped to increase the gap between London’s position and that of the other east-coast ports.

Moreover, growth in Thames trade was helped by developments in commercial infrastructure and organisation. The movement of anchorages downriver to Deptford, Wapping and Ratcliffe provided more space. London’s first dry dock was built at Rotherhithe in 1599, followed by another, for the expanding East India Company, at Blackwall in 1614-17. In 1661, the diarist Samuel Pepys took a barge to Blackwall and ‘viewed the dock and the new Wet dock, which is newly made there, and a brave new merchantman which is to be launched shortly.’ Ships could be repaired and fitted out, but the docks were not yet used for loading; that would have to wait for a later succession of dock schemes from the end of the seventeenth century. The value of London’s docks led Valentine Knight, in his proposal for rebuilding the City after the Great Fire, to suggest building a canal from the Thames via the heart of the City to the Fleet River in order to provide additional space for wharves.

Organisation sophistication, financial firepower and the rule of law were all significant to the development of trading companies, such as the East India, Hudson’s Bay and Levant Companies, which could raise investment and share risk from a wide range of participants. The Thames economy also benefited from the protectionist legislation of the Navigation Acts of 1650, 1651 and 1660, and from measures to prevent foreign shipbuilding. Indeed, in 1698, Peter the Great of Russia came to the Royal Dockyards at Deptford in order to see shipbuilding in progress, as he searched for foreign models for the industry he intended to establish. Shipbuilding reflected the powerful role of the Thames, not only in shaping London and its transport links, within and outside the city, but also in its economy.

Around the time of the visit, London and Britain’s first commercial wet dock was constructed. Built at Rotherhithe, initially as a safe anchorage and ship repair facility, it came to be known as Greenland Dock because of its links with the whaling industry.

The Thames became important to a direct trading economy, rather than an intermediary one dependent on the Dutch. This trading, which required more capital resources and expenditure, and a more sophisticated organisational structure, enabled the London merchants to bear the bulk of the transaction costs themselves, and also to take much of the profit.

This organisational capability interacted with the continued benefit from trade routes and their focus on London. By 1682, 70 per cent of the coal shipped from the Tyne went to London. Water routes also remained crucial within England. At the start of the eighteenth century, cloth was generally taken from Stroud to London by Thames barge from Lechdale. With the introduction of  turnpikes (bodies set up to collect road tolls for maintaining the principal roads in Britain), road links became accessible to individuals, but water remained crucial for freight. It cost 33s 4d (£1.67) a ton to move goods by road from London to Reading in 1792, but only 10 shillings (50 pence) by water.

At the same time, the barrier of the river was increasingly tackled, reflecting the importance of London and the availability of resources to undertake the task. Several river ferries were replaced by new bridges, in a development that reflected human control over the environment, as ferries were subject to river conditions such as ice and other adverse weather. The first new bridge was built at Dachet, near Windsor, in 1706; demolished in the 1850s, this is the only Thames bridge no longer to exist. Dachet was followed by Putney (1729), Westminster (1739-50), Walton (1750), Hampton Court (1753), Kew (1758-9), Blackfriars (1760-9), Battersea (1771-2), and Richmond (1774-7). Although it challenged the passenger traffic by ferry, the building of Westminster Bridge markedly helped development on the southern bank of the Thames, but, as a reminder of potent social tensions, the ½d toll demanded from those who crossed Blackfriars Bridge led to a riot.

Meanwhile, the status and confidence brought by trade led to the depiction of Father Thames as a reborn Neptune, for example in James Barry’s paintings for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures, executed between 1777 and 1783, and in John Bacon’s 1789 bronze statue of George III in the courtyard of Somerset House. As in Rome, where Father Tiber is an ancient symbolic figure, the derivation of the phrase (Old) Father Thames comes from the centrality of the river to the city’s origin, fortunes and growth. Malachy Postlethwayt, in his influential Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (1766), referred to London as the ‘grand central mart,’ while the press focused its reports on grain prices at Bear Quay, where grain was landed.

In the nineteenth century, the growth of trade was accompanied by a major expansion in shipping and docks, with a drive for new docks in the first years of the century. The first to open, in 1802, were the pair of docks known as the West India Docks, which cleverly cut across the neck of the Isle of Dogs in order to provide entrances at both ends of the dock; the northern dock was used for ships unloading, while the southern, Export, was for loading. Meanwhile, the excavations for London Dock at Wapping had begun in 1801. Like the West India docks, this 20-acre dock was furnished with a comprehensive range of warehouses and was later extended to the east – in part to provide a second access from the river. Further downstream came the East India Docks, at the north-east end of the Isle of Dogs, in 1805. On the southern bank, work began on the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1807.

The dock-building reflected the acute congestion on the Thames and its wharves in the 1790s, as overseas and domestic trade expanded. In 1800, some 1,800 vessels were being moored in the river, rising to 16,000 in 1824. There were innumerable complaints of lengthy delays before a berth was available, exacerbated by flotillas of cargo ships often arriving simultaneously, when the winds and tides gave favourable sailing conditions. Vessels would moor in the river, their cargoes transferred to small, unpowered barges, known as lighters, which would take the goods to the wharves. The lighters were manoeuvred using only long oars known as ‘sweeps’ and by taking advantage of the tides and winds, a highly skilled job that required considerable knowledge of the ‘set’ of the tides. At low water in dry seasons, the Thames is not particularly deep, even today often less than two metres in places. This depth could be reduced by silt deposition, and by ships dumping ballast, so dredging was important at a time when the river wharves were so busy. Later on, steam tugs took on the job of towing the lighters.

Unlike at Liverpool, the building of the docks on the Thames was done by private companies, rather than the municipal authority, and was generally undertaken in an unplanned, chaotic fashion. A major factor in this was the ‘Free Water Clause,’ initially a provision of the West India Dock of 1799 and later applied to the other dock schemes. This allowed lighters free access to the docks, where they could unload ships and move the goods out into the river to be landed at the river wharves, all free of toll or charge. This system cost the dock companies dear, but helped preserve the bustling, congested and chaotic trade of the many river wharves to an extent and in a manner not seen in any other British port.

The importance of the Thames within Britain’s commercial system was enhanced by canal construction, enabling greater quantities of goods to be transported to the city and port of London from elsewhere in London. By the late 1760s, London’s first true canal, the Limehouse Cut, had connected the ancient River Lea Navigation with the Thames. More importantly, from the 1790s, the Grand Junction Canal provided a link between the Thames at Brentford and the Midlands, eliminating the need for the long river journey to Oxford to join the earlier Oxford Canal. A further connection was provided between the Grand Junction and the Thames at Limehouse Basin via the Regent’s Canal. Completed in 1820, the latter also wound its way around parts of north London which were undergoing rapid development at this time, providing a transport link for them.

More docks followed the Napoleonic Wars. In a major development involving the demolition of 1,250 houses, the St Katharine Docks were shoe-horned into the space between the Tower of London and the London Docks, becoming, in 1828, the furthest upstream excavated dock.

As shipping increased in size and volume, new docks became ever larger and were built further downstream. The Royal Victoria Dock of 1855 was able to cater for the large steamships of the day, and could handle massive quantities of goods; like Liverpool’s Albert Dock, it was a pioneer of hydraulic power for handling goods. Millwall Dock followed in 1868, the Royal Albert Dock in 1880, and Tilbury Docks in 1886. The total investment was formidable. Royal nomenclature reflected the grandeur of the docks as well as official endorsement of their purpose. London’s waterfront housed at any one time more vessels than any other port in the world, and was a counterpart of the city’s role in the financial architecture of the world.

Sea-borne coal, mostly from Newcastle, was crucial. Only in 1869, was the amount of coal brought by sea to London, matched by that moved by rail. Ten years later, some 3.5 million tons still entered the Thames by ship. This encouraged the location of gasworks and industries near cities. The Thames, however, was less important than hitherto for shipbuilding. Ship-building had focused on the Clyde, the Tyne and Wear – each near centres of iron-working. London’s shipbuilding was also hit by the higher costs of industry in London, including higher wages and overheads.

This contributed to the failure to develop a broader base of heavy industry in London’s downriver. Meanwhile, a cosmopolitan maritime population crowded the riverside areas, embarking on, or disembarking from, vessels. This was very much an environment moulded by man. In 1913, Arthur Sarsfield, a crime reporter who, under the pseudonym Sax Rohmer, published the successful novel The Mystery of Fu Manchu, about a sinister Chinese master-criminal based in Limehouse, described a journey down the Thames, the ‘oily glitter of the tide’ and ‘on the Surrey shore a blue light … flicked translucent tongue against the night’s curtain … a gasworks.’ The pollution had already brought the fishing industry on the Thames to an end.

Maritime trade ensured specialisation and diversified the industrial base. Individual wharves specialised in particular trades: Hubbuck’s Wharf in paints, Morton’s Sufferance Wharf in preserved foods, chocolate and confectionary, and Millwall Dock in grain. Canary Wharf handled fruit from the Canary Isles.

The situation was to be very much less favourable by the late twentieth century. In part, this was due to factors general to the British economy, but, also, to more specific issues. The docks were thriving in the 1950s, but declined rapidly thereafter, with the redrawing of global trade routes as imperial flows ebbed. These challenges were exacerbated by the failure of the port to match competitors benefiting from post-war development.

In particular, industrial militancy encouraged the shift in freight business to Rotterdam. The first British container ship sent to Australia, the Encounter Bay, sailed from Rotterdam in 1969 because of an industrial dispute at Tilbury. Moreover, ports such as Felixstowe and Dover proved better able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of containerisation because they were less unionised, whereas the London docks faced serious and persistent labour problems. Aside from containerisation, there was a rise in roll-on, roll-off trade, with lorries driving directly onto ferries, which benefited Dover, Felixstowe and Harwich.

With London’s maritime trade focused 26 miles downriver at Tilbury, the derelict Docklands provided an unprecedented development opportunity near the centre of a major city. The redevelopment of St Katharine Docks, closed to commercial traffic in 1968, was followed in 1981 by the establishment of the London Docklands Development Corporation. By 2003, Canary Wharf contained 13.1 million square feet of office space.

The river, meanwhile, lived in a variety of ways, with the first salmon for a century caught in the Thames in 1974. Very differently, installed between that year and 1982, the Thames Barrier was designed to prevent excessively high water levels from reaching central London. The Thames remained a central challenge to London’s future, even if this challenge was far less apparent to its citizens than had been the case in the past.

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