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London's Thames: The River That Shaped a City and Its History

London's Thames: The River That Shaped a City and Its History

by Gavin Weightman

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Without the Thames, there would be no London or England. From earliest times, the city's needs--whether for stone, gold, or coal, for hay to feed livestock or food, wine and spices for human beings--were supplied from the river, as the fierce tides brought ships upstream or carried them down again. Only with the age of trunk road and rail did London's global


Without the Thames, there would be no London or England. From earliest times, the city's needs--whether for stone, gold, or coal, for hay to feed livestock or food, wine and spices for human beings--were supplied from the river, as the fierce tides brought ships upstream or carried them down again. Only with the age of trunk road and rail did London's global importance as a port diminish. Even after that the tides continued to drive the great power stations.
Gavin Weightman's fascinating book London's Thames, a compendium of often surprising information, is the best possible introduction to the water and its ways, the buildings that line the banks, and the people who lived by the river, their customs and ancient knowledge. Everything is to be found here: trade and tide, lightermen, watermen and dockers, bridges, funnels and ferries, frost fairs and regattas, clear water, fish and wildlife, pollution and waste, fortification and defense. Above all, one feels the presence of the great waterway itself, a force of nature in our urban midst.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
There are many great cities situated on rivers, but none has been shaped so profoundly by its aquatic artery as London, or "London-on-Sea," as Weightman, a documentary filmmaker, author and expert on the city's history, wittily calls it. As he points out, the Thames is different from, say, the Seine, in that it is tidal in both directions, meaning that "a sailing ship could weigh anchor near the mouth of the Thames as the flood tide began, and for six hours it would be carried inland"; it could then "get a free ride back to sea on the ebb tide." For centuries, these powerful Thames tides helped the world's sailors provide an expanding London with the food and raw materials it craved. Given the modern predominance of the road and the airport, rivers may not be so important anymore to urban growth and commerce, but Weightman makes a persuasive case that the "strong brown God" (as T.S. Eliot dubbed it) continues to bestow on London its unique dynamism. Thanks to 25 concise chapters covering everything from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race to sewers and bridges, Weightman's book makes an amiable companion for Londoners and tourists alike. B&w photos. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Weightman (The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story), who is also a documentary filmmaker, delivers a slim, entertaining act of devotion to the Thames and the city that has killed it, revived it, and grown around it. Embarking on a Thames trip through London's centuries, we begin with a river choked with boats, and a source of salmon and smelt before it became a public sewer. We see the river as an avenue of commerce, a major factor in public health, and part of England's social history. In his very readable book, in which most chapters run under nine pages, Weightman delivers thumbnail portraits from diverse points of view, mixing classic sources, anecdotes, and his own observations. Not scholarly, enough for academic collections, not large enough for coffee tables, this book will be useful for public collections with little on the Thames. It could spark further interest, in which case readers might seek out Jonathan Schneer's The Thames, which offers with a history of the river in a broader context.-Robert Moore, Bristol Myers Squibb Co., N. Billerica, MA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Julius Caesar to the Millennium Wheel-a look at London's history with its storied river ever in the foreground. To say this is a brisk book is to understate the speed of its current. Many chapters-all aptly and generously illustrated-comprise fewer than 10 pages, and most summarize situations that other writers have found sufficient to fill sturdy volumes of cultural and riverine history, some of which appear in the bibliography. Weightman has a different agenda, however: He wishes to introduce us to the richness of his subject by offering slivers with the certain knowledge that the curious will proceed to the local library for more sizeable slices. The author, who demonstrated that ice is nice in his previous work (The Frozen Water Trade, 2003), sketches the history of the earliest settlements along the river (the Romans were looking for a crossing, not a site for a city), narrates the stories of London's many bridges (some of which, indeed, fell down), offers us snippets about the Great Fire and the infrequent frost fairs held on the frozen surface, tells the tales of some significant sites along the river, most notably St. Paul's and the Tower. He examines the cloacal function of the river through most of its history and notes that in the 1830s Londoners who drank city water were essentially consuming their own sewage. Although pollution prevented fish from living in the waters, clean-up activities over the past half-century have worked so well that some 120 species now swim by Parliament each day. Weightman offers snapshots, as well, of the Cambridge-Oxford rowing race, of early tunneling under the river, of the arrival of the railroads. Most eerily, he ends with a discussion ofthe dangers of catastrophic flooding, a threat that most Londoners ignore. A very appealing snack that whets the appetite for more substantial courses.

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London's Thames

The River That Shaped a City and Its History

By Gavin Weightman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 Gavin Weightman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6218-0



Moored just above Tower Bridge is the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Belfast, which has been a tourist attraction for the past thirty years. It is a sizeable ship, 11,000 tons, and a reminder of something which is not very evident today – London is, or was, a seaport. There was a time when this stretch of the river just below London Bridge was crammed with ocean-going vessels: such was the scene in Charles Dickens's day and it continued so long afterwards. One of the most vivid descriptions of the riverscape in the mid-nineteenth century is by that meticulous chronicler of London life, the journalist and contemporary of Dickens, Henry Mayhew:

As I stood looking down upon the river the hundred clocks of the churches around me – with the golden figures on their black faces winking in the sunshine – chimed the hour of two in a hundred different tones, while solemnly, above all, boomed forth the monster bell of St Paul's, filling the air for minutes afterwards with a sweet melodious moan; and scarcely had it died away than there arose from the river the sharp tinkle of 'four bells' from the multitude of ships and steamers below. Indeed there was an exquisite charm in the different sounds that smote the ear from the busy Port of London. Now you would hear the tinkling of the distant purl-man's bell [a beer seller on the river] as in his boat he flitted in and out among the several tiers of colliers. Then would come the rattle of some chain suddenly let go; after this, the chorus of many seamen heaving at the ropes, while, high above all, would be heard the hoarse voice of someone from the shore bawling through his hands to his mate aboard a ship in the river ... As you looked down on the endless vista of masts that crowded each side of the river you could not help feeling how every power known to man was used to buy and diffuse the riches of every part of the world over this little island.

There are retired dockers in London who can still recall going up on to Tower Bridge in the morning in the hope of seeing a ship moored, unloading bacon from Denmark. For them it might have meant a day's work at one of the riverside wharves. But no sea shanties have been heard on the river for many years and the old sailor town along Ratcliff Highway has long since disappeared. London has the feel now of an inland town on a river, like Paris. But it is not: London is still 'on sea' and though the ocean-going merchant shipping has vanished, cruise liners now ride the tides up to Tower Bridge, where the passengers get a special thrill to see the bascules of London's Thames 'Gateway' open for them as they ease in to moor alongside HMS Belfast.

On their way upriver to Tower Bridge, the cruise ships pass through the glistening shields of the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, designed to shut out the sea when the tides rise dangerously high, then past the Greenwich Royal Observatory where the meridian line for the world's shipping was fixed in 1884, and on past what was once the vast dockland region now given over to new blocks of flats, offices and all kinds of watery recreation. But exciting as it is to see London from the Thames, very few foreign visitors arrive by ship as they once did.

However, if you fly over London and the weather is clear, you can in many ways get a better sense from a few thousand feet up of London's relation to the sea than you would on the river itself. The Thames Valley, in which London lies, spreads out below like a page from a school atlas. It is wide and shallow and the river estuary very long and narrow so that it appears to slice southern England halfway through from east to west. In fact the river was for much of its history a great natural frontier dividing the tribes of pre-Roman Britain. If you can pick out Tower Bridge – something the German Luftwaffe had no difficulty in doing even in their night-time bombing raids during the Second World War – you will see that the built-up area of the metropolis spreads around it in a great, rough-edged circle. Though London is a long way from the east coast, it became in the nineteenth century the greatest seaport in the world. For this, according to the most authoritative historians, Londoners can thank the Romans who, nearly two thousand years ago, were merely looking for the most advantageous place to build a bridge across the river.


The first London

It is possible today to stand on the spot where London was founded. You will be surrounded by office blocks on a busy road, Lower Thames Street, in the City of London two hundred yards or so away from the northern end of London Bridge. Imagine the River Thames washing in on the flood tide and lapping at your feet. Looking back across the widening river you would see to the south a low-lying area with several gravel islands. Behind you on the north bank would be a low wooded hill. When it was founded, Londinium was no more than a Roman military encampment in a wild and sparsely inhabited river valley.

The Romans had no intention of founding a city here. Their only purpose was to establish a short cut from the Kent coast in the south, where they had made the Channel crossing from Gaul, to their garrison town of Colchester to the north-east. They were consolidating a foothold they had established on this far-flung outpost of their empire nearly a century earlier, when Julius Caesar landed on the Kent coast, near Deal, and marched north as a would-be conqueror. Reaching the river called the Tamesis, he searched for a crossing. His legions might have forded the river at low tide in the region of Westminster or further west at Brentford: his descriptions of the river and our knowledge of what it then looked like are too imprecise to be certain. But it was clearly not at the point where the Romans later chose to build a bridge, for the river here would have been too deep and too wide.

Caesar came and went without mentioning any place called Londinium, and without building a bridge. Almost a hundred years later a more concerted effort to subdue the Celtic tribes of Britain was made and this time the Romans established a route from the south coast which crossed the Thames at Westminster. The surviving pattern of roads shows this clearly. But there was still no bridge and the marshy banks of the Thames did not look promising for a permanent crossing. Instead the Romans are thought to have looked for a site further east suitable for a wooden bridge and, with this in view, chose a place where sandy islands on the south bank faced rising ground on the other side of the river. There is some evidence that this was the tidal limit of the Thames then, and a favourable place to land supplies.

The first bridge was completed around 47 AD and the military encampment on the north bank was established to defend it. The development of a port came later. This first Roman settlement had no defensive wall and was vulnerable to attack. According to legend it was pillaged and burned in 61 AD by Boudicca, leader of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia who had been incensed by the annexation of their territory and the treatment of her and her daughters at the hands of the Romans. Leading the whole of south-east England in revolt she was defeated in battle and committed suicide. The Romans re-established the settlement with improved defences. Around 100 AD a wall of regular stone blocks arose around the township enclosing 330 acres of land with the river as its southern boundary. This became known as 'The Square Mile', a term still used as a synonym for the City, London's financial centre.

Stone for the defensive wall around Londinium was not available locally. The Romans brought it from quarries on the tidal reaches of the River Medway, in Kent. Barges loaded with Kentish ragstone would ride on the Medway tides out to the North Sea, sail up the east coast, and wait for the flood tide on the Thames to carry their cargoes up to Londinium. It was the beginning of the 'coasting trade' which was to be so important for London over the centuries. To bring such heavy loads over land with teams of oxen would have been much more time-consuming. The tidal Thames, linked by sea to another tidal river which could provide the building blocks of a new town, was vital to the city's development.

Within the defensive wall the Romans established a classic provincial town which in time had a temple, bathhouses and a forum. Only recently, beneath the Guildhall, part of the wall of an amphitheatre, where entertainments were held and gladiators would have fought, was discovered and is now preserved under glass. By the early third century Londinium had become the Romans' provincial capital, with a thriving port where building materials, food and a host of goods were unloaded from galleys arriving from all parts of the east and south of England as well as from the Rhine and the Mediterranean. It was modern London in microcosm. But it did not last.

In 410 AD the Romans ceased to defend Britain as their empire crumbled and Rome itself became vulnerable to invaders from northern Europe. Archaeologists, excavating the layers of earth deposited over four centuries after the Romans left Londinium, have come to the conclusion that the city was abandoned. However, this ghost town was so sturdily built that a good deal of the structure survived, including the wall enclosing the square mile of the city.



Covent Garden, first laid out as a piazza in the seventeenth century by the architect Inigo Jones, is today a thriving district of shops and restaurants and home to the Royal Opera House. Visitors to the bustling streets get no sense that the River Thames is close by, just across the Strand. However, in Anglo-Saxon times, after the Romans had gone, the area which is now Covent Garden was open ground on the north bank of the Thames. It sloped down gently to the river's edge where traffic now roars along the Victoria Embankment.

From time to time, when the area of Covent Garden has been excavated for redevelopment, relics of an Anglo-Saxon settlement have been found there. They mostly date from about 500–600 AD, a time when the old Roman town appears to have been abandoned. During this period, the Anglo-Saxon people arrived in Britain from northern Europe and Scandinavia, bringing with them a Germanic language and a literature such as the unlettered Boudicca and the early Britons never had. But the Anglo-Saxons did not, on the whole, colonize abandoned Roman towns, preferring to establish their own, less sophisticated, settlements near by.

When, in 1994, a major extension was undertaken to Covent Garden Opera House, archaeologists had a chance to delve into the layers of history beneath. They found not only Anglo-Saxon pottery and other artefacts but a clear pattern of streets. This they were sure was the site of the settlement referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Lundenwic. Bede wrote of it as a bustling place with a lively trade along the Thames. Other finds were made when excavations were undertaken for the building of a new Jubilee Market in the Covent Garden piazza and archaeologists were able with some confidence to map the boundaries of Lundenwic, the name of Anglo-Saxon London.

These recent finds appear to have solved for good an age-old puzzle: how could Bede describe a thriving London when Roman London had clearly been abandoned? What he referred to was a new town quite different from Roman London, just a mile or so upriver. Lundenwic survived for perhaps three hundred years, though it was always vulnerable to attack. It had no bridge across to the south bank of the Thames and raiders could cruise in on the Thames tides and plunder its riches. The Vikings presented the greatest threat and their continual harassment persuaded the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred, in 886 AD, to move back into the ruins of Roman London and the protection of the old wall. Thereafter the settlement of Lundenwic appears to have been abandoned and was known as Aldwic – the old town.

When the area just to the east of the Strand was being redeveloped around 1900, an antiquarian suggested that a suitable name for the new crescent would be Aldwych to commemorate the former Thames-side settlement of the Anglo-Saxons. In fact the centre of old Lundenwic appears to have been below the Covent Garden piazza which was, until the 1970s, a famous market place for fruit and vegetables established in the mid-seventeenth century by the 5th Earl of Bedford.

Once the Anglo-Saxons moved back into Roman London the history of the city's development became one of almost continuous growth, with the river its vital lifeline. The position of London on the Thames was fixed for all time by the Anglo-Saxon desire to defend it from Viking invaders.



You can get a good idea of how much the landscape of the Thames has changed since Anglo-Saxon times by visiting Westminster Abbey. The Abbey stands well back from the Embankment, a view of the river obscured by the Victorian Gothic of the Houses of Parliament. Yet it arose on the site of a Benedictine monastery which had been built on an island, or 'eyot', known as Thornea close to the north bank of the Thames. There is disagreement among historians about the nature of this island. Some say it was formed by a fork in the Tyburn stream which ran into the Thames here, others say that it was just one of many sandy islands in the river.

Although some believe there was an earlier religious establishment on the site, the first written record is in a charter of King Offa around 785 AD which mentions 'St Peter and the people of the Lord dwelling in Thornea at the awesome place called Westminster'. There was a legend that St Peter himself had founded a monastery here, promising the locals a good catch of fish if they rowed him across the river. Offa, King of Mercia, was an early convert to Christianity.

The influence of the Christian church on the history of London has been profound. Although the first Christians would have arrived during the Roman occupation, they were banished to the west and north of the country by pagan invaders. In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine to southern Britain and, arriving at Thanet, he converted King Ethelbert of Kent, then the most powerful ruler in England, whose capital was not London but Canterbury. A bishopric was first established in London in 604, when the church of St Paul was founded on the site of the present cathedral. For the next two centuries London was disputed territory, and the influence of Christianity waxed and waned. By the tenth century the church was firmly established, with St Paul's (already burned and rebuilt more than once) the favoured place for the established ruler to worship.

It was Edward the Confessor, ruler from 1042 to the momentous year of 1066, who first took royalty to Westminster, rebuilding the Abbey which is featured in the Norman Bayeux Tapestry. Edward had a mausoleum built here, and William the Conqueror had himself crowned in the Abbey after his defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From that time on, the Abbey of St Peter in the west became the focus of political power, and St Paul's in the east the focus of the City's commerce and trade, the two linked by the Thames which was the main highway of London. In the sixteenth century some of the money collected for the upkeep and building of Westminster Abbey (dedicated to St Peter) was transferred to the coffers of St Paul's – probably the origin of the expression 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'. Whereas Westminster Abbey has been added to over the centuries, St Paul's was entirely rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666.

On the south bank of the Thames there are two other great ecclesiastical buildings, Lambeth Palace and Lambeth Church, which have later origins than either the Abbey or the Cathedral. They are, it seems, on the wrong side of the river, cut off from the twin centres of Westminster and the City. The land was first acquired by the church in the twelfth century by Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, who intended to build there a college for monks. This scheme apparently came to nothing, but by 1197 a house had been built which became the official residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. A ferry which could carry a coach and horses was established to link Lambeth with Westminster, handy for the Archbishops both for their own trips into town and for the toll charges which gave them a substantial income. The Lambeth horse ferry had a chequered history, about which more later.


Old London Bridge

The London Bridge you can walk across today is constructed of prestressed concrete, spans the river on three arches and was completed in 1972. It bears no resemblance at all to the historic Old London Bridge which stood just to the east of the present bridge, from its completion in 1209 until it was demolished in 1831. This first stone bridge spanned the river on nineteen arches, each of which was supported by two 'starlings', boat-shaped breakwaters which cut through the force of the tides and river flow. For five centuries the narrow roadway of Old London Bridge was like a tunnel between the shops, houses and chapel built along its length.


Excerpted from London's Thames by Gavin Weightman. Copyright © 2004 Gavin Weightman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

GAVIN WEIGHTMAN is a documentary filmmaker, author, and well-known specialist on London. He is the author of The Frozen Water Trade, Industrial Revolutionaries, and Signor Marconi's Magic Box.

GAVIN WEIGHTMAN is a documentary filmmaker, author, and well-known specialist on London. He is the author of many books, including London's Thames, The Frozen Water Trade, Industrial Revolutionaries, and Signor Marconi's Magic Box.

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