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‘The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.’
These words were spoken by MP, John Burns in 1929, and point to the richness of the history surrounding London’s most famous meandering river.
The Thames is 215 miles (346 km) long, and is the longest river in England, and the second longest in the UK, following the Severn.
Despite its fame, there is still doubt as to the exact location of the river’s source. It is usually cited as Thames Head, near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire, but Trewsbury Mead nearby has been recognised officially as the source by such authorities as The Environment Agency and map-makers The Ordnance Survey.
Others are adamant that the source is found around eleven miles north of Thames Head in Seven Springs. Anyway, it begins its journey somewhere in that vicinity, even though we might disagree on the exact point.
The name Thames probably came from the Celtic name for the river ‘Tamesas’, recorded in Latin by the Romans as ‘Tamesis’. It is thought to mean ‘dark’. When in London, it is referred to most commonly as ‘the river’, as in ‘south of the river’.
The river we now know as the Thames began its story millions of years ago, as a tributary of the Rhine. This was before Britain separated from the European landmass and became an island.
10,000 years ago, the Thames flowed a lot faster and was around ten times bigger than at present. Its high speed, apparently pushed on by ice sheets melting from a Great Ice Age, allowed the river to shift its course, and it began to flow through the Chiltern Hills, past a site known as the Goring Gap. Over the next 7000 years, its pace slowed down, and experts think that the Thames has had its familiar, meandering form for around 3000 years.
The north side of the river was likely the first place to be settled by ancient Britons, and would become the site of the Port of London, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was the busiest port in the world. The Britons identified the point, near where London Bridge stands today, as a good trading route, as it allowed access to deep water while being near a shallow river ford.
Around 50 AD, the Romans invaded Britain and built, among other structures, a garrison and the first bridge across the Thames. The trading settlement that grew around the bridge became known as Londinium. The port and bridge were rebuilt several times over the next thousand years, notably damaged during Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans, by the plundering Viking raiders before the arrival of Alfred the Great, by Elthered and Olaf’s recapturing of the city in 1014, and more recently the bombings of WW2. The bridge also suffered under the elements, including a terrible tornado in 1091, and destructive fires in 1212, 1381 and 1633.
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Alfred the Great took over control of London and its valuable port in 886, and the Anglo-Saxons drove out the Vikings, moving the city into a prosperous era of trade.
The riverbanks were built up with many beautiful structures: monasteries at Chertsey and Abingdon, abbeys like Dorchester and Westminster (commissioned by Edward the Confessor), and even royal palaces. King Cnut built his palace where the Houses of Parliament stand today. So much so that the Thames was referred to as the ‘string’ that joined these gorgeous pearls together.
In the 16th century, London gained prominence as a centre of shipbuilding and repair, and by 1576, the port was the busiest in all the world. New docks had to be built over the next decades and centuries to accommodate the bustling trading, including the East India Dock, Millwall Dock, and the Royal Albert Dock, all completed during the 19th century.
The Thames was crucial for transporting trade, but it also had the important function of transporting people to safety when disaster threatened the lives of citizens. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of the centre of commerce, the City of London (as opposed to the City of Westminster, where the government was based). The fire is said to have started in a bakery on Pudding Lane and spread quickly, devouring the timber buildings of the old City. In the space of four days, around 13,200 houses were destroyed and over 100,000 people became homeless. Thames ferrymen played a vital role in rowing Londoners to safety during this fire, and other fires that raged in the city.
In more recent history, the Thames and the London docks were a key target in Second World War bombing from 1939 until late 1941.The Port was badly damaged, suffering nearly 900 missiles, countless incendiary bombs and many other attacks.
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The late 1940s and early 50s were years of post-war reconstruction on the Thames, and by the mid-60s, trade at the port was back to its former heights. The year 1964 was a record-breaking year for the London docks, with 61 million tonnes of traded goods passing through. However this level did not last, as containerisation in the latter part of the 60s meant a severe decline in dock use. The containers introduced were effective at holding vast quantities of cargo, but the roll on/roll off method it used put many dock workers out of a job.
In 1983, major work on the Thames Barrier in Woolwich was finished. The £500 million project is now one of the most recognisable shapes on the river.
Today, we can see evidence of the amount of regeneration on the Thames, which has been transformed by business, leisure, and education facilities, as well as plenty of housing projects. The development of Canary Wharf, the Docklands Light Railway and the Excel Centre are just a few examples. The Thames is still home to some of the UK’s busiest ports, boasting over 70 operational wharves.
Back in smellier times, before Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system was introduced in 1865, London’s waste was dumped in the Thames. On one famous occasion in 1858, the stench was so choking that Parliament was actually suspended, while they all went home and thought about how to fix the sewage problem.
Before the 19th century, the Thames used to freeze over completely, and ‘Frost Fairs’ were held on the ice. Londoners danced and drank at the final frost fair in 1814, after which the river flowed too quickly for it to freeze.
The Thames is home to around 119 different species of fish. Other inhabitants of the river include otters, eels and river vole. Jellied eel is a traditional East London dish.
Numerous artists have historically drawn upon the river for their creative endeavours, including French Impressionist Claude Monet, who painted the Thames three times. ‘The Thames below Westminster’ is the most well-known of these. Kenneth Grahame, author of the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows, lived near the Thames and is said to have been inspired by the river when working on the story.