The Colourful Past of the Thames

Today it’s mostly regarded as a tourist attraction, but the river Thames has played a vital part in the development of London.

Today it’s mostly regarded as a tourist attraction, but the river Thames has played a vital part in the development of London; simply put, without it, there would be no city. Despite how synonymous it is with the capital, its course through London is actually pretty short. The water rises at Thames Head in Gloucestershire, running through Oxford, Reading, London, and finally ending at the Thames Estuary beyond Southend-on-Sea. It’s also had an extremely colourful history, filled with conflict and erm, sewage.

A new route for commerce
Named Tamesis by the Romans, the river was used as a thoroughfare to transport goods backwards and forwards between Europe and Britain. The trade resulted in settlements springing up on either side of the river – in fact, old Londinium was merely a small settlement the Romans established as a port before it became a great capital city. Commerce prospered and by the 16th century London was the world’s busiest port. But of course, growth this tremendous would attract many problems, most of which sprang up in the 19th century, coinciding with the massive expansion of the city.
The Great Stink
The summer of 1858 was not a good time to be in London. House waste was pumped from homes into the Thames, and because of the inefficient way the cesspits were arranged some of this water would be pumped right back in to people’s households. The increase in population, the introduction of flush toilets (which increased the volume of waste) and the fact that the temperature was atypically high that summer, led to an unbearable stench throughout the city that meant the House of Commons had to be evacuated.

In the Victorian era certain professions associated with the river existed that one wouldn’t dream of today. Mudlarks, usually children or the elderly, would scavenge in the river looking for items of value to sell, and given the insalubrious condition of the Thames at the time it meant they were exposed to large quantities of excrement, general waste and even corpses. The toshers had it even worse, working their way through the sewers of the city they literally waded through faeces, something which didn’t garner them many invites to dinner parties. On the plus side, their exposure to crap meant that they would develop immunity against diseases like typhus.
Back in the present day, despite its muddy appearance the Thames is a fair bit cleaner – last year it even won the International Thiess River Prize for conservation – but don’t go swimming in it just yet, as the danger of collision with one of those cruise ships where ‘Agadoo’ is played to an inebriated crowd is just too great. And what a terrible end that would be.

Worker unrest
Once upon a time, trade unions had power, and the dock workers’ strike of 1889 resulted in a well-earned victory for the poorly paid workers. The ship building industry had grown over the centuries, and an influx of dock workers had arrived from all over Britain with the promise of a good wage. There were various reasons for the strike, amongst them the casual nature of the work (some workers were employed for just one hour here and there), the low pay, and that some employers had become accustomed to receiving bribes to take on employees. The strike got nationwide sympathy from both working and middle classes, and the strikers were granted their wishes: a minimum of four hours continuous service at sixpence an hour.

Unfortunately, before the construction of the Thames Barrier in 1982, the river was prone to flooding, something which had disastrous consequences once the areas surrounding it became densely populated. After periods of particularly harsh rain the river would burst its banks, and families would witness water rising through their floorboards whilst having their tea. Phone lines and power would be cut, and food had to be delivered via boat and step ladder as the ground floor of most buildings became part of the river. One of the worst floods recorded was in 1928, when the Chelsea Embankment collapsed and almost all of central London was affected, from Woolwich to Hammersmith. 14 people drowned and thousands lost their homes.
On a lighter note, the Thames has been an important focus for the city’s entertainment over the years. Up until the 17th century, Theatreland was not in the West End, but by the river, where numerous theatres and music halls were located. Occasionally plays took place on boats, and river processions were commonplace. A little later on, in the 18th century, some of London’s biggest winter celebrations were on the iced-over Thames, including fairgrounds called Frost Fairs, however when London Bridge was replaced with wider arches the river could no longer freeze enough to carry the weight of the crowds. Today the South Bank is still London’s cultural hub, not to mention being the location of the London Eye and a plethora of overpriced eateries that have their eye on tourist money.

Socially significant?
At least it is to those who perpetuate the divide between north and south London. Those who live north of the river claim the south isn’t worth bothering with – there isn’t even a tube! – while south Londoners love their leafy neighbourhoods. Some argue that only those born outside of London would dare to agree with such a divide, in a desperate bid to belong to one side or the other.
Before north and south started bickering, east and west were at loggerheads, way before East London became the epitome of all things cool and fashionable. When dock workers poured in to the East End they attracted the trade of prostitutes – in fact prostitution and the maritime industry became so intrinsically linked that there were numerous terms in naval slang to refer to a woman. Hence the docklands area was generally frowned upon by the rest of London, a far cry from the capitalist empire that inhabits the area today. And that’s not all - the closer a house is to the Thames the more expensive it is, making riverside homes the preserve of millionaires only. Who would have thought a bit of water would have so much power.


Author: Leila Hawkins