The Thames is not one of the worlds longest rivers it is a mere 346 kilometres in length (215 miles) but it is one of the most famous, and it is the longest and most important waterway in England. Roman writers mention it as the Tamesis, and the name is probably a Celtic word which means broad river.
This natural highway connects the North Sea to the heart of southern England. From its source in the gentle hills of the Cotswolds down to the mighty Thames Barrier of the estuary. It is a magnificent river and many places of interest lie on its banks (Eton, Oxford, Henley, Windsor, Hampton Court, Richmond). In London the river flows past the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. Ocean tides move up the river to south-west London. The Thames is 250 yards wide (229 metres) at London Bridge and 700 yards (600 metres) wide at Gravesend. It widens until it joins the North Sea at the estuary.
When the tide falls, the foreshore or river bed is revealed, a neglected and unappreciated part of the river, whose mud and shingle conceals fascinating clues to Londons rich past. The river changes character many times as it flows to the nations capital: suburban gardens and parks rub shoulders with Georgian mansions.
In central London every foot of river has a tale to tell of former days palaces, docks, cathedrals and churches and fine bridges all jostle for attention. Past London Bridge the river widens as it sweeps down to Greenwich, a town rich in naval tradition and maritime history; a town that would have been familiar to Jane Austens sailor brothers.
Many of the key players in the history of England have lived on or around the Thames. For this reason, the poet, John Burns, describes the river as liquid history. It has inspired poets and playwrites. Take, for example, the poem of Wordsworth Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames at Evening composed in 1790 when Jane Austen was 15 years old.
It is clearly not Wordsworths best effort, but it captures one of the moods of the river. Much better his sonnet, written in September 1802, entitled Composed upon Westminster Bridge
The huge number of famous buildings lining its banks in London gave rise to the description of the river as a string linking a series of pearls. When Jane Austen visited London she would have seen from the Thames which incidentally she never mentions Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, the Tower of London et al.
By Jane Austens time the river was crossed in central London by three bridges: London Bridge, Westminster and Blackfriars. The stone London Bridge of 1176 was renovated in 1758. This required the removal of the Tudor houses built on the bridge and the doubling in size of the central arch by removing a pier. It was finally demolished in 1830 because, as the nursery rhyme tells us, London bridge is falling down.
Westminster Bridge was begun when £389,500 was raised by lotteries to build it, in 1739. It was just down stream from Lambeth Palace and had 13 arches. It was opened in November 1750. The hooded alcoves of the bridge were useful for prostitution and as hiding places for thieves.
£144,000 was raised for Blackfriars Bridge. Westminster Bridge had enjoyed the privilege of a green-field site, but the City had to manoeuvre for position. The first pile was driven in summer 1760 and was immediately smashed to pieces by a west country barge. The bargee was fined £5. The bridge was ready for pedestrians by 1766, horses 1768 and wheeled traffic in November 1769: hence it was quite new in Jane Austens day. It mildly exceeded estimates at £152,840 3s 10d. There was an idea it should be called William Pitt bridge, due to the popularity of that politician.
One of the features that Jane Austen would have noted about London Bridge was the water-wheels which had been there since 1581. There were four of them by 1720 and they constituted part of the London water supply. They were very sophisticated, and were automatically raised or lowered depending on the state of the tide. In 1763 they didnt work when the river was frozen and this caused all sorts of water supply problems in the City.
Watermen plied their trade on the Thames to ferry people across the river and up and down it. They were greatly affected by the building of the bridges and often resorted to strong measures to try to stop their construction.
Traffic on the river was very heavy fish were landed and sold at Billingsgate and colliers docked at the wharf or the Coal Exchange nearby (in summer there could be up to 700 colliers alone waiting to discharge their cargo). The shipping from Kent with fruit also came there. and it was the terminus for the wherries carrying passengers and light cargo to Gravesend. So great were the problems caused by London Bridge that the wherries needed to leave exactly at high tide to get through London Bridge.
There were water-taxis on the river: 4d for oars to cross the river directly, 6d from London Bridge to Westminster, 8d from Temple stairs to Vauxhall. One can see why the watermen were against any more bridges.
Father Thames saw many Great Occasions. In the 17th and 18th century, during winter freezes, a rare treat was the Frost Fairs, held on the river with ox roasting barbecues, stalls, fairground amusements and performing animals. The winter of 1788-9 brought one. The Public Advertiser declared on 5 January 1789: This booth to let, the present possessor of the premises is Mr Frost. His affairs, however, not being on a permanent footing, a dissolution or bankruptcy may soon be expected and a final settlement of the whole entrusted to Mr Thaw.
The winter of 1813-14 saw the greatest frost fair, with a grand mall running from Blackfriars Bridge and named City Road. It was the last. Though fun for many, the freezing of the Thames was a tragedy for boat skippers who could not move, nor could they leave their precious cargoes to find other work. The replacement of the old London Bridge in 1831 meant that the river flowed faster and no longer froze sufficiently to bear public events.
|When the Thames froze, as in the winter of 1739-40. it was traditional to hold a Frost Fair. Printing presses on the ice turned out these souvenirs. Near London Bridge people are watching bear-baiting. More people are waiting in line for a slice of ox being roasted nearby. Stalls sold jewellery and other fairings. Picard, Dr Johnsons London, 2000 p 266-7.||
The river was used for pageants and other great occasions. It provided some of the greatest shows ever seen on water, one of which was the Lord Mayors Show that continued until 1856. The participating barges of the City Livery Companies became more ornate and the processions more elaborate. Barges were covered with gold leaf and some rowed with oars of silver. In the 18th century, the procession included dramas and pageants.
It was an actor who established one of the most enduring of river traditions. In 1715, Thomas Doggett was so grateful to a local waterman for his efforts to ferry him home on a bad night, pulling against the tide, that he set up a rowing race for professional watermen. The winner receives not only prize money but also the coveted scarlet coat and badge, hence the name of the race, Doggetts Coat and Badge. The race is still rowed from London Bridge to Chelsea on August 1 so long as this does not fall on a Sunday.
Each new Lord Mayor of London went by barge to Westminster to be sworn in and in 1805 Nelsons funeral procession went from the Deptford Hard to the Vauxhall steps for his interment in St. Pauls. On that day there were waves of over a metre and the barge carrying Nelsons coffin nearly sank.
There was an enormous expansion in trade and by Jane Austens time London was the worlds busiest port, resulting in the building of London Docks to cope with increased trade. The construction of toll roads from the mid 18th century started to attract passenger traffic away from the river. The Industrial Revolution led to the rapid expansion of the canal system at the end of the century linking the south and the Thames with the industrial North and Midlands.
By the late 18th Century the City administered and taxed the Port of London, and formed the governing authority for the Thames from Staines Bridge to the Medway, rendering William Blakes phrase about the charterd Thames particularly apt.
Unfortunately the development of the City led to rising public-health hazards. Symptomatic was the worsening condition of the Thames (as discussed in Susannah Fullertons paper) -- ironically, the off-shoot of progress, with increasing amounts of sewerage being desposited. Yet most private water companies extracted their piped (drinking) water from the river between Chelsea and London Bridge. The introduction of the oil burning ships in the period just after Jane Austens death caused even greater pollution to the Thames.
Jane Austen does not mention the Thames in any of her novels or even in her letters. Perhaps by the time she visited London and was old enough to appreciate the river there was nothing worth saying about it.
29 January 2004