A Potted History of the River Thames

What do I mean by a potted history? At one end of the spectrum, there are very brief histories on the Internet of perhaps a couple of pages of A4. At the other end, there are comprehensive papers and books that have been written by academics and professional, or sometimes amateur, historians. My potted histories sit somewhere in between the two extremes.

I regard them as tasters, for want of a better word. They vary in size from 5-6K words at the bottom end up to 20k+ at the top end. I hope that they provide a solid core of information, along with some context. And of course, I hope that they are readable.

For readers who want more information, I provide a modest bibliography and a reasonable set of links to information on the Internet. Anybody who is really keen will naturally progress beyond my simple offerings, no doubt being eminently capable of finding their own material.

Questions and feedback are welcome via the Contact Me page.

Contents

Introduction

Prehistory

Geology
Sacred River

Conflict

Romans
Anglo-Saxon Period
Norman Castles
Magna Carta
Tudor Defences
English Civil War
World War II Defences

Infrastructure

River Crossings and Bridges
Locks
More Bridges on the Lower Thames
The Canal Network
Management of the River
Law and Order
Water Extraction
Sanitation
Floods
London Dockland

A Working River

Trade
Water Power
Fish
Market Gardens and Farm Gardens
London Docklands Regeneration

Properties

Romano-British Villas
Abbeys
Properties of Royalty and Leading Churchmen
Properties of Nobles and the Famous

Leisure

Rowing
Boating
Walking by the Thames
Frost Fairs
Pleasure Gardens

Odd and Sods

Brief Notes on Selected Places
Swan Upping
Population

Bibliography & Further Reading
Acknowledgements
Version History

Introduction

My potted histories usually proceed in a generally chronological fashion. However, after mulling it over, I decided that it would make for a more readable tome if I addressed this particular subject by topic. You may (or may not) agree.

After a few words on prehistory, conflict is the first subject to be addressed. Much early writing, particularly from Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, concentrates almost exclusively on struggles between the Romans and the Britons, between individual Anglo-Saxon tribes and kingdoms, between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons, et cetera.

This is followed by what I have called infrastructure, which includes management of the river, river crossings, bridges, locks, the canal network, London docks, water extraction, sanitation, law and order and floods.

Despite the conflicts, the Thames was very much a working river until comparatively recent times and this section covers trade, the production of food and the use of water power.

There have been many outstanding properties along the river or close to it, including the residences of royalty, nobles and the famous, not forgetting a smattering of church abbeys.

Arguably, the Thames has increasingly become a recreational river over the last 150 to 200 years, and the leisure section looks at various pursuits.

Finally, there are brief notes on a selection of places along the river, upstream from London, plus any other topics that spring to mind in what I tend to call odds and sods.

I have tried hard not to be too preoccupied with London in this potted history, with the attendant danger that I may have overdone it. Mea culpa if that is the case.

Prehistory

Geology

A chalk-based trough formed between the Chilterns and the North Downs. Subsequently, around 50 million years ago, the sea deposited what is known as the London Clay which varies in depth from 150 metres in the London basin to 4 metres in Wiltshire. As parts of the London Clay eroded, sand and gravel terraces were formed.

The River Thames – note that links in captions provide information on attribution

During the last glacial period which started around 25,000 years ago, Britain was physically connected with the Continent, and the proto-Thames flowed across the Vale of St. Albans and on to Harwich, where it became a small tributary of the ancestor to the Rhine.

The ice began to melt around 14,000 years ago, leading to the sea encompassing low-lying land to the east, what would become the North Sea, and by 6500BCE the sea broke through the ridge of land between Kent and northern France, creating the Straits of Dover and making Britain an island.

Thames Head with no water in sight

The Thames was gradually being pushed southward during this period, partly by the ice, to roughly its current position.

The official source of the current river is Thames Head, near Kemble in Gloucestershire, although a small faction considers that it is actually 11 miles further north at Seven Springs, Gloucestershire. It meanders through parts of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Kent before flowing out of the Thames Estuary and into the North Sea.

Finally, where did the name “Thames” come from? It is considered that the orginal Brittonic Celtic name for the river in pre-Roman times was Temese, meaning the dark one, while the Latin version, as used by the Romans, was Tamesis. In Old English, the Anglo-Saxons called it Tamsye, while Thames has been in use from c.1600. The river, from the source to Dorchester upon Thames, is sometimes known as the Isis, particularly where it flows through Oxford.

Sacred River

Many major rivers around the world are considered to be sacred, most notably the Ganges, while in Greek mythology, Oceanus, the oldest Titan, is the father of three thousand stream spirits and three thousand ocean nymphs.

The Thames was considered to be a sacred river by Stone Age people, that is it was seen as a living spiritual being. It is only in more recent times, say from the 18th century, that the name of Old Father Thames came to be used to personify the river.

Many items have been found in the river over the generations. Bent and broken swords, as well as items of jewellery, are frequently considered to have been offerings to the gods. Human remains have also been located, including skulls. There is speculation as to whether they are related to burials near the river, or if they were in fact sacrifices.

In modern times, the Hindu community in London regards the Thames as a sacred river, as they do all major rivers that empty into the sea.

Conflict

The Romans

It is speculated, though not proven, that Julius Caesar crossed the Thames at Brentford in 54BCE during one of his two brief sorties into Britain. The conjecture arises because sea level was lower at that time, and in an era long before any dredging, the river was probably fordable at this point.

The actual Roman invasion of Britain began almost a century later, in 43CE under the leadership of the Emperor Claudius. It was around 50CE that they constructed a bridge across the Thames where Londinium would come to be situated. It may have been a military pontoon bridge initially, being replaced by a timber bridge around 55CE. Situated 30 metres downstream from the present day London Bridge, it was a simple crossing point, but it soon attracted private traders who saw the business opportunities that would be presented by the military and other travellers. The tidal range at this period was a modest 1.5 metres, presenting a benign environment for the simple vessels and port facilities of the age. Within a couple of years, the foreshore near the bridge was protected by wooden revetments (retaining walls).

Progress was halted when Londinium, and its bridge, was razed to the ground by Boudicca in 60 or 61CE. The normal Roman modus operandi had been to let conquered indigenous peoples get on with their lives, within limits: Civitates peregrinae were self-governing communities of non-Roman citizens. However, the Emperor Nero unfortunately decided that he preferred direct rule, and the subsequent insensitive treatment of locals during his rule almost inevitably led to unrest, and eventually to the uprising that was led by Boudicca, her forces destroying the Roman base of Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium.

After the uprising was quelled, Londinium was rebuilt, including the bridge. While the original site has been described as being akin to a frontier town, the new town had the appearance of being planned, with a forum, civic assembly hall and a timber amphitheatre being constructed between 70 and 80CE. A stone amphitheatre replaced the timber version early in the second century, the remains of which have been found in the Guildhall Yard.

The other Roman bridge was at Staines which was required to allow their main road to the west from Londinium to Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) to cross the river. Portway, the road’s official name, was more popularly known as the Devil’s Highway. The town of Calleva, population c. 10,000 by the 3rd/4th century, acted as one of the hubs in the Roman road system. Portway continued on to Durnovaria (Dorchester) in Dorset, while another road which started in Chichester passed through the town, and went on (as Ermin Way) to Corinium (Cirencester) and Glevum (Gloucester).

Anglo-Saxon Period

The Thames formed a natural border: between Mercia and Wessex for periods during the 7th and 8th centuries; and between Wessex and the Danelaw from the late 9th century.

The Thames, and indeed other rivers in Britain, proved to be something of a motorway for the Danish Vikings. Their longships with shallow draughts could quite easily get as far up the river as Oxford, possibly further. Their initial raids included the sackings of Chertsey and Abingdon Abbeys in the early 9th century.

It was in the 860s that opportunistic raiding turned into conquest when the “Heathen Army”, a force of around 5,000, arrived in Northumbria. After overcoming that area, they went on to subdue East Anglia and Mercia before reaching Wessex in January 871, where they set up a base at Reading. This conformed to their usual mode of operation, which was to carry out a surprise attack and then build a base which could be defended. They would tend to avoid pitched battles, if possible.

Alfred the Great, after being on the edge of total defeat, eventually turned the tables with a significant triumph at the Battle of Edington in 878. However, the Vikings still had control of London which they had previously raided on a number of occasions. The Anglo-Saxon settlement in Lundenwic, as London was now known, was just to the west of the Roman-walled town, around the area which is presently covered by the Strand, Leicester Square and Aldwych.

After his victory, Alfred put in place various measures to make any future invasions much more difficult for the aggressors. Part of his strategy was to create thirty plus burhs (or burgs). A burh was part fort and part urban settlement, making use of any Roman remains or Iron Age hillforts. Along the Thames, there were burhs at Southwark, Sashes (Cookham), Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade. One objective was that no burh should be more than one day’s march from another. Alfred also reclaimed London around 886, fortifying the old Roman-walled town and rebuilding London Bridge which the Vikings had torn down.

Norman Castles

The next series of defensive measures were put in place during the reign of William the Conqueror. There had been significant unrest in the years following his victory at Hastings, and part of his solution for addressing the problem was to construct castles across the land. He built a ring of motte and bailey castles around London, including Windsor Castle, built two miles upstream from the original Anglo-Saxon palace and settlement which probably dated back to around 800. Apart from the river, the House of Wessex had been attracted there by the hunting that was available in Windsor Forest. Other castles which date from the Norman period include Wallingford, which was important for its river crossing, Abingdon and Oxford.

In London itself, the White Tower was started in 1078. It formed the innermost section (or enclosure) of what would become the Tower of London, the remaining sections being added in the reigns of Richard I and Edward I.

Finally, at the time of the Civil War in the 12th century (note – this is the struggle between Stephen and Matilda, sometimes called the Anarchy, not the more celebrated Civil War in the time of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell), a motte and bailey castle was built in the grounds of Reading Abbey – something that was strictly forbidden, in theory. However, It proved to be temporary and was demolished in 1153, although Castle Street and Castle Hill are with us today as reminders of that period.

Magna Carta

King John has generally had a bad press. His poor inter-personal skills, coupled with a lack of political nous, helped to make him personally unpopular with a number of the English barons. This was exacerbated by the loss of John’s French possessions; the raising of taxes to pay for his attempts to regain them; and the requirement for him to pay reparations when those efforts failed with the defeat of his allies at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.

The rebel barons had had enough, and John was forced to agree to their terms. Magna Carta, a charter of rights which said inter alia that the king must obey the law, was signed in the water meadow at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames. There is some debate surrounding the choice of venue. Simplistically, the site was part way between the royal castle at Windsor and the barons’ base at Staines, and it was a place where any surprise attack from either side would be unlikely to succeed.

However, although Magna Carta is always associated with Runnymede and 1215, neither side adhered to its contents, and Pope Innocent III annulled it, leading to the First Barons’ War (1215-17). After John’s death in 1216, the regency government of young Henry III re-issued it, removing some of its more radical content. This document formed part of the peace settlement at the conclusion of the war.

The Great Charter, as it is sometimes known, was re-issued by Henry III in 1225, and by Edward I in 1297. The later version is still on the statute book although most of the articles have been repealed.

Although Magna Carta dealt with specific issues between the king and the barons, it acquired a general iconic status in later centuries, influencing America’s founding fathers, among others, when formulating laws concerning the rights of the common man. Its importance to the American legal system was indicated when the American Bar Association erected the Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede in 1957.

Tudor Defences

Gravesend Blockhouse (c) Chris Forsey

The English Reformation in the 1530s led to concerns about possible invasion from Catholic Europe, and Henry VIII built five blockhouses to protect the Thames estuary, supplementing the forts and other defences along the Channel coast. They were sited at West and East Tilbury, Higham, Milton and Gravesend.

Chatham became a Royal Navy Dockyard in 1567, early in Elizabeth I’s reign, which was supported by Upnor Castle, an artillery fort close by.

However, a century later, during the second Anglo-Dutch war in 1667, the Dutch came up the estuary, destroyed a number of English ships that were moored off the Dockyard, and then they embarrassingly towed away the flagship of the English fleet, HMS Royal Charles.

English Civil War (1642-1651)

The Parliamentarians were based in London and the Royalists in Oxford. Both sides constructed defensive earth ramparts: the one in London, called the Lines of Communication, was 11 miles in length and took 5,000 men to complete it; while Oxford’s was a more modest 3 miles.

George Vertue’s 1738 Plan of the London Lines of Communication

After their major victory at the Battle of Edge Hill in October 1642, the Royalists pushed on towards London, taking Abingdon, Maidenhead and Windsor (although not the castle). Brentford and Kingston had previously been fortified by the Parliamentarians in the expectation of possible attacks. It was Brentford that a modest Royalist force headed for, winning a small battle there on November 12th. However, their troops promptly sacked the town. This was a mistake, as the news resulted in a large number of London’s citizens, fearful of their city being sacked, joining the Parliamentary militia in order to stem the Royalists’ progress. A stand-off took place at Turnham Green, with King Charles eventually deciding to withdraw back to Oxford, as he did not want to alienate Londoners.

In April of the following year, 3,300 Royalist troops who were stationed in Reading were besieged by 19,000 Parliamentary militia. It lasted for twelve days until a truce was agreed, and the Royalists retreated to Oxford.

The river witnessed various other skirmishes during the war, notably at Wallingford, Abingdon, Henley and other river crossing points. Timber bridges allowed drawbridges to be cut into the road, which could then be raised to close the crossing. Examples could be found at Marlow, Caversham, Windsor and Kingston. An alternative approach was to put a bridge out of action, the structures at Maidenhead and Henley being badly damaged, while the one at Staines had to be rebuilt. When London was threatened in the autumn of 1642, a pontoon bridge was constructed between Fulham and Putney to stop vessels coming downstream. They were defended by earth works at either end.

It is difficult to believe that normal commercial usage of the Thames was possible during this period.

World War II Defences

Naval and army Maunsell forts were installed in the Thames estuary. There were four naval forts which were used to deter sea raids and the laying of mines: Rough Sands, Sunk Head, Tongue Sands and Knock John. There were also three army forts which were larger installations, each consisting of seven interconnected steel platforms, that were used for anti-aircraft defence: Nore, Red Sands and Shivering Sands. An additional three army forts were deployed during the war in Liverpool Bay.

British hardened field defences were small fortified structures, popularly known as pillboxes, that were part of Britain’s anti-invasion preparations. There were various designs depending on the weaponry which was to be used, e.g. rifle and light machine gun or hardened medium machine gun emplacements. In addition, there were pillbox-like structures which could act as observation posts / searchlight positions or light anti-aircraft positions.

28,000 pillboxes were built, and an estimated 6,000 survive. There are many useful articles / blogs on the Internet that have been written by individuals who have sought them out along the Thames.

Infrastructure

River Crossings and Bridges

There were various fords in the dim and distant past when the river was shallower and wider than it is today. Wallingford was the lowest point on the Thames that could be forded all year round, and it was here that William the Conqueror chose to cross the river after his victory at Hastings.

Most towns and villages operated at least one ferry, usually a privately owned commercial venture which charged a fee.

In London, the profession of waterman appeared, effectively providing a taxi service on the river. The Company of Watermen was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1555, operating between Windsor and Gravesend.

Drawing of London Bridge (1682)

A significant number of bridges appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries. To start with, Henry II took the decision to replace the timber-based London Bridge with one made of stone. It took 33 years to complete, with the costs being offset by selling building plots on the bridge – there were 200 by the end of the Middle Ages – and by charging tolls.

Elsewhere, bridges appeared at Caversham (sometime between 1163 and 1231), Windsor (1172), Kingston (possibly 1190s), Staines (1222), Marlow (1227), Henley (1232), Maidenhead (1280) and Chertsey (1410). There were also bridges across tributary streams, including Clattern Bridge over the Hogsmill at Kingston (1175) and Brentford Bridge over the Brent (1284).

The question of bridge maintenance naturally arose, and importantly the covering of such costs. London, and several other places around England and Europe, had bridge chapels. They were small places of worship, actually on the bridge or adjacent to it. The Chapel of St. Thomas on the Bridge (London Bridge) was built in 1209. They were intended to minister to the spiritual needs of the traveller. They might have a resident priest, or more likely a hermit, who would collect tolls and donations made towards the upkeep of the bridge. He might also be involved in making repairs. Chantries, as some of them were known, were abolished during the Reformation.    

Locks

The Thames Head is 108.5 metres above sea level, while the drop between Lechlade and London averages less than 20 inches per mile. There are 45 locks on the river which allow it to be navigable all the way from Cricklade, while the associated weirs improve fishing. The locks are still manned by staff from the Environment Agency, and many of them have a lock-keeper’s cottage, timber versions first appearing in 1774. Resident lock-keepers have been responsible for maintaining water levels in times of drought, and for preventing flooding after heavy rains.

The original locks were called flash locks. In essence, a gate consisted of a set of boards called paddles which were supported against the current by timber uprights called rymers. Boats going downstream would wait until the paddles were removed, causing a flash of water which would carry the vessels through. This was a tricky operation, requiring considerable skill. Upstream boats would be winched or towed through the lock when the paddles were removed.

Flash locks were eventually replaced by the pound locks with which we are familiar. It is a man-made chamber with heavy gates at either end. There are sluices within these huge gates which can be opened or closed to control the flow of water into and out of the chamber. The first three pound locks arrived in the 1630s at Iffley, Sandford and Abingdon in the Upper Thames. However, it was to be 1857 before the first pound lock appeared in the Lower Thames at Teddington.

More Bridges on the Lower Thames

Fulham Bridge, a timber construction, was built in 1730. It was the first new bridge on the Lower Thames for hundreds of years, mainly because various vested interests had prevented them from being built. However, Fulham heralded a rash of bridge building over the following century, including: Westminster (1750), Blackfriars (1769), Battersea / Chelsea (1771-2), Kew (1758-9 in timber and 1782 in stone), Richmond (1777), Hampton Court (1753), Vauxhall (1816), Waterloo (1817), and Southwark (1819). Fulham Bridge itself was demolished in 1880 and replaced by Putney Bridge in 1886.

Meanwhile, in the 1790s, the buildings were removed from London Bridge, the deck widened and rebuilt in 1831. This version lasted until 1967 when it was sold to Robert McCulloch, an American entrepeneur, shipped to America and re-sited at Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

A number of suspension bridges appeared in London in the 19th century: Hammersmith (1827), Chelsea (1858) and Lambeth (1862). The requirement for a bridge to service commercial traffic downstream from London Bridge led to a prolonged process of vetting possible designs, starting in 1877, the main problem being the need to allow sailing ships to pass under it. The design committee decided on a bascule bridge in 1884, effectively a drawbridge. Construction started in 1886, albeit with an adapted design which was part suspension bridge (outside the two towers) and part bascule (on the inner sides of the towers). Tower Bridge, an iconic symbol of London, was eventually opened in 1894.

And no, we have not quite finished. There are over 200 bridges on the Thames, but not to worry, I shall not mention them all! However, reference should be made to some of the 19th century railway bridges, including: Charing Cross (1864), Cannon Street (1866) and Blackfriars (1886). Further west, railway bridges appeared at Battersea, Putney, Barnes, Kew, Richmond and Kingston. Even further out, they can be found at places such as Maidenhead, Gatehampton, Moulsford and Osney (Oxford).

The Canal Network

The growing British economy needed better transport facilities by the 17th century. Various projects had made improvements to river navigation around the country, including on the Thames where a number of locks and weirs were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, turnpiked roads had started to appear in the early and mid-18th century.

They were all partial solutions, but industry actually required better, more reliable methods for transporting large quantities of goods. And so, businessmen eventually looked to canals to provide an answer, with a rash of expensive developments taking place from the mid-18th century through to the 1840s when the railways began to take over as the preferred method of transportation.

It was imperative that the network connected with the Thames to allow onward access to London. Canals included:

  • The Oxford Canal, completed in 1790, which ran from Bedworth to the Thames at Oxford
  • The Thames and Severn Canal, completed in 1789, which ran from near Stroud to Lechlade
  • The Basingstoke Canal, completed in 1794, which ran from Basingstoke to the Thames at Weybridge.
  • The Grand Junction Canal, completed in 1805, ran from Braunston in Northamptonshire to the Thames at Brentford
  • The Kennet and Avon Canal, completed in 1810, which effectively joins the River Avon near Bath to the River Kennet at Newbury, which in turn meets the Thames at Reading
  • And the Regent’s Canal, completed in 1820, which joined the Paddington arm of the then Grand Union Canal to the Limehouse Basin and the Thames in East London.

Management of the River

Which authority was responsible for the river and its maintenance? Richard the Lionheart, looking for funds to pay for his Crusades, sold the rights and responsibility of the tidal section (up as far as Staines in those days) to the City of London in 1197. It held these rights until 1857 when they were handed over to Thames Conservancy.

Further upstream, authority was very fragmented initially, with a mixture of large landowners and individuals with properties on the banks of the river each essentially doing their own thing. The condition of the river upstream of Henley was so poor by the start of the 16th century that normal commercial traffic found it very difficult, if not impossible. Examples included: the river choked with weed below Caversham and problems with the lock at Sonning. The bottom line was that there was little or no coherent investment.

Eventually, the Thames Navigation Commission was set up in 1751 to manage the river upstream from Staines. While it was able to make some improvements, such as standardising locks and tolls, it tended to struggle in its relationships with the 600 plus landowners and individuals that it was responsible to. It was eventually forced to hand over control to Thames Conservancy in 1866.

Thames Conservancy passed responsibility for the Tideway, downstream from Teddington Lock, to the Port of London Authority in 1909, and in 1974 the organisation was subsumed into the Thames Water Authority.

There were always conflicts between river transport users and local interests. Fish weirs, usually made of timber, and watermills were natural sources of arguments. One clause in Magna Carta called for the removal of all fish weirs across the country, a call that largely went unheeded. Two hundred years later in the 15th century, the Mayor of the City of London made another forlorn attempt to get rid of them on the tidal section of the Thames.

Law and Order

The Marine Police Force, the oldest in the country, was founded in 1798 to combat theft, looting and corruption on London’s docks. The primary drivers behind this move were Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate, and John Harriot, a master mariner. It merged with the Metropolitan Police Force in 1839, the latter having been formed by Robert Peel in 1829. In the merged organisation, the Marine Police Force was known as the Thames Division, a name which it retained until 2001 when it became known as the Marine Support Unit. This name only lasted for seven years when a further change brought the Marine Policing Unit.

It is unclear to me who was responsible for policing the Middle and Upper Thames. Perhaps, it was part of the remit of the various county police forces which were formed in 1856?

Increases in population, and hence crime, coupled with the number of enemy prisoners of war from various conflicts, all served to show that Britain’s prison capacity was woefully short. Transportation, first to America before the War of Independence, and subsequently to Australia, was seen as one solution to the problem. Another approach was the use of prison ships, more correctly known as prison hulks, principally in the 18th and early 19th century.

A number of these vessels were moored in the Thames at Chatham, Woolwich and Deptford. They were very unhealthy places, having no satisfactory facilities to quarantine individuals, and mortality rates were high. One prisoner brought typhus onto the Justitia, and over a seven-month period in 1778 there were 176 deaths among the inmates (28% of the prison ship’s population).

Prison hulks eventually disappeared around the middle of the 19th century after the large-scale Victorian prison building programme had got underway.

Water Extraction

Initially, people in towns got their water from local springs. The Great Conduit in London was built from 1247. It was an underground channel which carried water from the spring at Tyburn through Charing Cross, the Strand and Ludgate to a large tank in Cheapside. As demand in the capital rose, this was followed by the New River, an artificial channel which was built between 1609 and 1613 to bring water to the capital from Hertford.

However, the ongoing requirement to meet the demand from a growing population led to the extraction of water from the Thames in the 18th century by a number of private companies, including the Chelsea Waterworks Company which was founded in 1723. The number of companies increased in the following century when London’s population doubled between 1800 and 1850. The water was not safe to drink. This age-old problem could be tackled by drinking weak beer for hydration, a solution that went back to the Iron Age, and possibly even earlier.

Elsewhere on the Thames, Oxford’s first waterworks, founded in 1694, extracted water from the river, as did Maidenhead, while Reading began using underground aquifers.

The use of filtering techniques to purify water from the river began to appear in the 19th century, with the Chelsea company employing a sand filter from 1829. Regulation, in the form of the Metropolis Water Act of 1852, dictated that all water in the capital should be filtered from 1856 onward. This led to new water intakes being established upstream from Teddington Lock, that is the non-tidal part of the river.

Other places followed, with Oxford implementing water filtration by the 1880s, leading to all houses in the city being connected to mains water by 1885.

Sanitation

Cholera outbreaks were widespread in Britain between the 1830s and 1860s. Although it was not recognised immediately, sewage which crept into the water supply was a prime source of the problem. The most publicised event was the outbreak in Soho in 1854 when 616 people died. John Snow, a local doctor, eventually identified the cause as being germ-filled water which stemmed from a water pump in Broad Street.

Liverpool had already started to clean up its act by beginning the construction of a sewer network in the 1840s. In London, it was the Great Stink of 1858 when Parliament had to be suspended, that the powers that be were persuaded to adopt a similar solution. Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer, was given the responsibility for building London’s ultimately impressive sewer network.

Unfortunately, treated sewage still ended up in the river, and on occasions untreated sewage in overflow situations. This led to the Thames being declared “biologically dead” in 1957, although significant work has been undertaken since that time to improve the quality of water in the river.

Floods

Being a seasonal river, the Thames has often flooded. It is not a new phenomenon. There is archaeological evidence of flooding in prehistoric and Roman times, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions unusual floods.

In more recent times, there were a significant number of floods in the 19th century, 1852 being a particularly bad year. Central London suffered in 1928 when part of the Chelsea Embankment collapsed and Tate Britain was flooded, leading to damage to a number of major paintings, including some by Turner. The Thames Valley was affected by the 1947 flood which followed blizzards in January and heavy rains in February, resulting in over 2,000 homes being flooded in the Maidenhead area; and the town was also hit in 1954, eventually leading to the recent construction of the Maidenhead Flood Relief Channel. More recently there have been floods in areas near Maidenhead (2015 and 2020) and near Lechlade (2020).

Canvey Island, out in the estuary, was badly hit by the North Sea flood of 1953 when 59 people died and 13,000 were evacuated from their homes. This disaster, coupled with the 1928 flooding in Central London, led to the construction of the Thames Barrier, which was started in 1974 and opened in 1984.

London Dockland

Up to and including medieval times, ships tended to dock at small quays in the present-day City of London or Southwark in an area known as the Pool of London, which included some shipbuilding and repair facilities at Shadwell. However, the Pool was exposed to the elements, lacked adequate security, and was ultimately too small to support the increasingly larger vessels. The Howland Great Dock in Rotherhithe, built in 1696 to address these problems, was able to cater for 120 large vessels of the day.

The success of the British economy, including its overseas trade, led to the rapid expansion of ports such as Liverpool and London. The latter’s dockland grew rapidly in the late Georgian and the Victorian ages. It comprised: West India (1802), London (1805), East India (1805), Surrey (1807), the Regent’s Canal Dock (1820), St. Katharine (1828) and West India South (1829), Royal Victoria (1855), Millwall (1868) and Royal Albert (1880).

A Working River

Trade

A large riverside site of two hectares has been found at Runnymede which dates back to the late Bronze Age. It is speculated that it controlled the movement of bronze and prestige goods on the river. Smaller riverside sites of the period have been found at Wallingford Eyot and Vauxhall. In addition, numerous findings in the river between Richmond and Mortlake suggest a possible lost site in that area.

Londinium (Roman London) had a population of 30,000, possibly more, by the end of the first century CE. Its port was situated between London Bridge and the River Walbrook, and it continued to flourish in the next century. Major imports included fine pottery, wine and jewellery.

Londinium was effectively abandoned after the Romans departed in the early 5th century. Lundenwic, the early Anglo-Saxon settlement just to the west of Londinium, is first mentioned in the 7th century. It was an important port for continental trade, although the population was only 5 to 10 thousand, significantly down on the Roman figures.

The first Royal Charter which mentions the Corporation of the City of London dates from 1067, although it is considered that it existed prior to this date by “Common Law Prescription”. King John made the Mayor of the City of London one of the first elected offices; guilds were developed over time; and various markets came into existence, viz. Cheapside, Smithfield and Billingsgate.

Wool became an important export commodity from the late Anglo-Saxon period, right on through the 13th and 14th centuries, some of it travelling down the Thames to London, and thence on to the Continent. In particular, Abingdon became the centre for a thriving wool trade.

Other commodities which went downstream in the later Middle Ages included malt, grain and timber. However, navigation difficulties in the Upper Thames at this time often meant that heavy commercial traffic had to use roads beyond Henley until improvements were made in the 17th century by the Oxford-Burcot Commission.

By the late 18th century, a greater range of items were being shipped along the Thames, including metals, manufactured goods and even cheeses from Lechlade.

By the end of the 19th century, the Port of London was the busiest in the world, boasting 11 miles of wharves and quays which handled a wide variety of goods. It spawned various industries, including sugar refining and edible oil processing, while hosting the largest shipbuilding and repair outfits in Britain until the rise of the Clyde in the middle of the 19th century eclipsed it.

Water Power

The last active watermill on the Thames is on the Mapledurham estate, dating from the 15th century.

It was water power that drove the Industrial Revolution initially in the late 18th century, with steam gradually beginning to take over from around the turn of the 19th century. Water-powered mills were deployed in various tributaries of the Thames, including: gunpowder mills at Bedfont and Hounslow, paper and corn mills at Harefield converted into copper mills in 1803, corn and oil mills at Tottenham, a mustard mill at Staines, corn mills at Isleworth, and paper mills at Bromley-by-Bow.

Fish

Fish traps of the early and middle Anglo-Saxon period have been found at Putney, Chelsea, Isleworth and Shepperton. Fish weirs, a permanent variety of fish trap, had actually been used as far back as the Mesolithic Age. On the Thames they were deployed to catch a variety of fish, including sturgeon, trout, bream and occasionally salmon, while eels were caught in nets, often to the east of the City of London. The first jellied eel, pie and mash shops in London date back to the 18th century.

Market Gardens and Farm-Gardens

The greatest demand for fruit and vegetables naturally emanated from London. It is therefore no surprise that it was the initial centre of the market gardening trade in Britain, encouraged by immigrants from the Low Countries, particularly Holland, where market gardening was already well established.

The Worshipful Company of Gardeners, a guild for those market gardeners who were operating within 6 miles of the City of London, received its royal charter in 1605. By 1649, a total of 1500 labourers and 400 apprentices were employed within the guild, the average member of the company employing around 6 labourers plus 1 or 2 apprentices.

The City of London was surrounded by market gardens in the 17th century: in the west the alluvial soil around Chelsea, Fulham and Kensington was excellent for growing crops; while in the east, Hackney, Houndsditch and Mile End were established growing areas. Neat House Gardens in Pimlico was arguably the most famous area, eventually growing to 200 acres with a gross income of £200k per annum by the end of the 18th century. The area had been owned by the Abbots of Westminster until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The early market gardens were mostly congregated by the Thames where the best soil was to be found and transportation (by river) was easiest.

As development pressures increased, market gardeners were forced to move out to places such as Twickenham and Isleworth in the west, Plaistow and Barking in the east and the Lea Valley to the north.

Market gardeners needed lots of manure and fertiliser. They would take animal and human waste from London where it was stored in laystalls at the edge of the city before being transported to the market gardens by barge. The manure was stored in heaps until fully rotted, although it was also used when fresh in hotbeds to produce a variety of early crops. Asparagus is a good example although the plants were spent after a single season.

In addition to market gardens, there existed a hybrid called a farm-garden, part garden and part field. Farm-gardens varied in their similarity to market gardens. Places that were close to market gardens were likely to copy their techniques quite closely, e.g. Fulham, Putney, Barnes and Richmond. More remote farm-gardens were less likely to crop the land as intensively or to use large amounts of manure. They would tend to concentrate on crops that would travel well, such as root vegetables, onions and cabbage.

London Dockland Regeneration

The shipping industry’s move to using containers to transport the majority of goods sounded the death knell for many existing docks in Britain and around the world. The significantly larger vessels required deep water berthing facilities that were offered by the likes of Tilbury and Felixstowe, and London’s docks were all closed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up in 1981 to regenerate 8 square miles of derelict land. Over the following 20 years, a significant area was converted into a mixture of commercial, light industry and residential properties, the most publicised project being Canary Wharf.

Transport improvements were essential in an area that had long suffered in this respect. Projects included: the construction of the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) which made use of existing railway infrastructure; the development of the City Airport on the spine of the Royal Docks; and the eastward extensions of the Jubilee Underground line.

Properties

Romano-British Villas

It is thought that there are the remains of some 600 Romano-British villa-like buildings along the Thames Valley, with the highest concentrations in the Upper Thames and North Kent. There are a small number in the Middle Thames, near Goring, Henley and Maidenhead and a couple to the north east of London.

Abbeys

Chertsey and Abingdon were Benedictine monasteries which date from the 7th century during the early years of the Christian Church in England. They were both sacked and destroyed by the Vikings in the early 9th century, before being re-founded in the later part of the 10th century. Abingdon is a good example of an abbey that acquired significant amounts of land via bequests from the wealthy (in the hope that they would stop them going to Hell). It had over 30 manors and large tracts of other land in Oxfordshire.

The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, more usually known as Westminster Abbey, dates back to the 960s/970s. It was another Benedictine establishment. Edward the Confessor rebuilt the church between 1042 and 1052 to provide a place where he could be buried, and it subsequently became the site of coronations, officially starting with William the Conqueror. Construction of the present church commenced in 1245 during the reign of Henry III. It had cathedral status for a while, until Elizabeth I re-established it as a “Royal Peculiar”, that is a church of the Church of England responsible directly to the Sovereign, as opposed to a diocesan bishop.

The Abbey of Reading was established by Cluniac monks, while the house at Dorchester upon Thames was initially populated by a group of Augustinian canons. Both abbeys date from the 12th century.

The Cistercian Order of Monks was founded in Citeaux, near Dijon, in 1098. It spread rapidly through western Europe during the course of the 12th century, including the abbey at Medmenham that lies between Henley and Marlow, which was a daughter-house of Woburn Abbey.

Finally, Henry V gave land to the Bridgettine order of nuns from Sweden on the banks of the Thames opposite Shene Palace where they built a monastery. Subsequently, Henry gave them Isleworth Manor, and in 1431 they chose a new location for Syon Abbey, as it was called, which is now the site of Syon House.

Properties of Royalty and Leading Churchmen

Edward I acquired a manor house west of London in 1299, which he subsequently demolished to make way for Shene Palace, a property that stood until 1497 when it was destroyed by fire.

In 1337, Edward III gave the manor of Kennington to his son Edward, the Black Prince, who built a large palace. Edward III himself had a relatively modest manor house near the Thames at Rotherhithe. It was built around 1350 and may have been used for falconry.

Drawing of Richmond Palace by Wyngaerde c.1558-1562

Henry Tudor, subsequently Henry VII, had been the Earl of Richmond (in Yorkshire). In 1501, now king, he rebuilt Shene Palace after it had been destroyed by fire, but he called it Richmond Palace. It was the favourite residence of Elizabeth I, and the place where she eventually died.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, originally built Greenwich Palace in 1443. It was later rebuilt by Henry VII between 1497 and 1504, and then served as a royal residence until the interregnum when it fell into a state of disrepair, as did Richmond Palace.

Leading churchmen were also building prestigious homes around this period: Lambeth Palace (1435) for the Archbishop of Canterbury; York Place (1240) for the Archbishop of York – subsequently known as the Palace of Whitehall; and Hampton Court (1515) for Cardinal Wolsey who passed it on to Henry VIII in an attempt to cushion his fall from grace in 1529.

Finally, the Kew Palace complex was a home for George II for a period, and subsequently for George III’s family. It ceased to be a royal residence in the 1840s when the gardens were given to the state.

Properties of Nobles and the Famous

Work on Mapledurham House had been started around the time of the Spanish Armada by Sir Michael Blount. The Blounts were Recusant Roman Catholics, and the house, which is still in the Blount-Eyston family, contained several priest holes. In the Upper Thames area, Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, dates from 1570. It was the home of William Morris, the designer, writer and socialist, from 1871 until his death in 1886.

The original house on the site of Cliveden was built in 1666 for George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. It was subsequently the home of the Prince of Wales, son of George II and father of George III, and various other nobles.

Syon Abbey, which was mentioned above, was dissolved in 1539, and Syon House was built by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to the young Edward VI. The house and estate were subsequently acquired by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland in 1594, and it has remained in the family ever since.

Twickenham and Richmond became popular residential areas for the wealthy in the 18th century. Marble Hill House in Twickenham was built in the 1720s by Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and the mistress of George II. In the late 1800s it was rented by the Prince Regent (the future George IV) for another royal mistress, Maria Fitzherbert.

One of Henrietta Howard’s neighbours in Twickenham was the poet Alexander Pope who had moved into his villa by the riverside at a place called Cross Deep in 1719.

Another contemporary was Sir Hugh Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, who built Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, starting in 1749.

Other 18th century celebrities who built homes in the general vicinity included: Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter, at Wick House, Richmond Hill; and David Garrick, the actor manager with his villa in Hampton.

Leisure

Rowing

Doggett Coat & Badge Race

Watermen who plied their taxi trade on the Thames in London raced against each other for money in the 18th century. These events became quite popular, some attracting large crowds.

William Doggett, an actor manager at the Drury Lane Theatre, was so impressed by the skill of one waterman who ferried him home to Chelsea on a stormy night that he funded what became known as the Doggett Coat and Badge race. It was first run in 1715, and it still exists today, starting at London Bridge and finishing at Cadogen Pier in Chelsea. There are two related pubs in existence today: Doggett’s Coat and Badge on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge; and the Coat and Badge in Putney.

Significant amateur rowing events appeared on the river in the first half of the 19th century, with the first Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race taking place in 1829, and the initial Henley Regatta in 1839. Both remain major events in the British sporting calendar.

The growing popularity of the sport saw the formation of a significant number of amateur rowing clubs along the Thames, many being formed in the late 19th century. This led to a proliferation in the number of regattas and other races, the most well-known being the Head of the River Race which was first held in 1926.

Boating on the Thames

The Thames had been essentially a working river, apart from occasional recreational use, students in Oxford being attracted to pleasure boating from the 17th century.

However, the sheer volume of commercial traffic would not have made it particularly attractive to pleasure seekers until the arrival of the railways which changed matters for two fundamental reasons: commercial traffic tended to move onto the railway; and the railway could bring people out from London and its suburbs to places along the Thames.

It was in the 1880s that recreational boating on the river became increasingly popular, a trend which continued until World War I. The success of Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (published in 1889) and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (published in 1909) no doubt helped to sell the river’s popularity, if it needed promoting. A post-war boom started in 1945 which reached a peak in the 1970s.

The arrival of steamboats around 1815 was an important moment. Initially, paddle steamers operated in and around the estuary. Their speed helped to make places such as Margate more popular with pleasure seekers. On the river itself, steamboats were not allowed upstream of Teddington Lock before 1843 because of narrow locks and weeds. Improvements made by Thames Conservancy eventually led in 1878 to a service operating between Kingston and Oxford which took three days. Salter Bros, who became the best known operator of pleasure boats on the river, established their first service in 1888.

Walking by the Thames

The Thames Path is a National Trail, following the river from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier, a distance of some 184 miles. The idea was first mooted in 1948, but the path was not opened until 1996. It can be walked, and some sections can be cycled, although parts may be flooded at times, such as west of Oxford after heavy rains, or east of Teddington after particularly high tides.

Frost Fairs

The Thames occasionally froze over sufficiently to permit the holding of frost fairs, the first known taking place in 695 and the last in 1814, with the majority happening between the 17th and early 19th century. In this later period, freezing was helped by the fact that the river was slow-moving in London, due to the narrow arches and wide pier bases of the Old London Bridge.

The winter of 1683-84 was the severest with the Thames being frozen over for two months. Activities at the fair of that year included: football, horse and coach racing, ice skating, nine-pin bowling, puppet plays, and sledding. 

Pleasure Gardens

Open Spring Gardens in Kennington was opened in 1660, being mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1662. It incorporated several acres of trees and shrubs with attractive walks. Food and drink were available which helped to support the venture. It became known as Vauxhall Gardens in 1785 when it was opened as a pleasure garden, and an admission fee was charged for its attractions. It became hugely popular until its eventual decline in the mid-19th century. Rival pleasure gardens included: Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, Cremome Gardens, also in Chelsea, and Cuper’s Gardens in Lambeth.

And So …

I feel more convinced that approaching the history of the Thames thematically was preferable to a chronological tale.

I hope that I have provided a reasonably solid, readable document on the river, one that might encourage more detailed study if your appetite has been whetted, or even a visit to explore England’s most historic river.

Odds and Sods

Brief Notes on Places Upstream from London

Cricklade was founded in the 9th century. Its importance lay in the fact that it was by the Thames and also on the Roman road, Ermin Way, which ran from Glevum (Gloucester), through Corinium (Cirencester) and on to Calleva (Silchester). Alfred the Great built one of his burhs at this strategic point. Cricklade was one of the places where coins were minted between 979 and 1100.

Lechlade. The Thames is navigable downstream by larger boats from this point. Archaeological finds indicate that there are traces of human habitation from Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman times. The church of St. John the Baptist in the village of Inglesham, just outside Lechlade, has Anglo Saxon origins although the current building dates back to 1205. Domesday tells us that the manor of Lechlade was gifted to Henry de Ferrers, a Norman magnate and administrator. The town was granted a charter in 1210 to allow a market. It eventually developed transport links via river, canal and railway, and it became a bustling town.

Oxford was a border town in Anglo-Saxon times, between Wessex and the Danelaw. Many Danish settlers were massacred there on St. Brice’s Day in 1002 by order of Æthelred the Unready. It gradually became a university town from the 12th century onward, and it formed a base for the Royalists during the English Civil War.

Dorchester upon Thames was the site of a Bronze Age hillfort and a Roman settlement, with a road linking it to a military camp at Alchester. For a brief period in the early days of the Christian Church in England there was a Bishop of Dorchester whose diocese covered most of Mercia and Wessex. A group of Augustinian Canons settled here in the 12th century.

Wallingford was a Roman river crossing point. The first settlement appeared in the Anglo-Saxon period. Alfred the Great subsequently built one of his burhs here. William the Conqueror crossed the Thames here after his victory at Hastings, and subsequently built a castle to defend the river crossing point. The Priory was established soon afterwards. The town was granted a Royal Charter by Henry II in 1155, only the second town in England to receive one.

Abingdon was occupied from the early / middle Iron Age. Its Benedictine Abbey dates from 675. From the 13th / 14th century it became an agricultural centre and it developed a thriving wool trade.

Reading. There is evidence of a settlement in the 8th century, after which it came to be known as Readingum. When the Vikings invaded Wessex in 871, they set up their base here. Reading Abbey was founded in 1121. It temporarily housed a castle in the ground during the Civil War in the 12th century (which was theoretically illegal). By 1521 Reading was the largest town in Berkshire and the 10th largest in England. It became rich due to its cloth industry. The 18th century saw the introduction of iron works and the appearance of the brewing trade, and it grew rapidly in the 19th century as a manufacturing centre with the population increasing six fold. Transport links were good – it was on the road from London to Oxford and the railway arrived in 1841.

Henley. There is evidence of a Romano-British property with associated 2nd century pottery. Henley is first mentioned in 1179 when Henry II bought some land for building. A market charter was granted by King John, while its bridge is first mentioned in 1234. A workhouse for the poor was built in 1790, the building becoming the Henley Union when Poor Law Unions came into existence in 1834. Henley is naturally famous for its rowing regatta which was first held in 1839.

Maidenhead. Remains of Roman villas were found in Cox Green and Castle Hill. Maidenhead is recorded in the Domesday Book as the settlement of Ellington in the Hundred of Beynhurst. The construction of a bridge across the Thames in 1280 led to its subsequent growth as a river port and market town. It has been affected by flooding at various times, which has led to the building of the Maidenhead Flood Relief Channel.

Windsor had two attractions to the kings of Wessex in the 9th century: it was on the river and there was good hunting to be had in Windsor Forest. The West Saxon royal residence was situated in what is now Old Windsor. However, William the Conqueror built his castle on an escarpment at Clewer. Windsor became a market town, being granted a Royal Charter in 1277. It had a weekly market, and from 1350 there were two annual fairs.

Kingston is first mentioned as the meeting place in 838 between King Ecgberht of Wessex and Cealnoth, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was on the border between Mercia and Wessex. Kingston became the site of several Anglo-Saxon coronations, viz. Æthelstan (925) and Æthelred the Unready (978). There may have been others but the evidence for them is less clear. The coronation stone in the market place was reputedly used in these ceremonies. The date of Kingston’s great bridge is not known, but may be sometime after 1190. It was for a considerable period of time the first bridge upstream of London Bridge. The town received various royal charters, starting in the 12th century. From the 13th century it had weekly markets and two annual fairs. It became a more important place after Henry VIII began to use Hampton Court, and a demand developed for properties that were near to the king.

Richmond was known as Shene until 1501. It was the site of a palace which had been built by Edward I. It burned down in 1497, and Henry VII built a new palace in 1501, renaming it Richmond Palace. It was the favourite residence of Elizabeth I who enjoyed hunting in what is now the Old Deer Park, and the place where she died. The palace was partly demolished during the interregnum, and never recovered. The area was generally agricultural until the 18th century when it started to become a fashionable place to live.

Isleworth and Twickenham. Isleworth was first mentioned in a charter of 695 when it was called Gislheresuuyrth (Enclosure belonging to [a man called] Gīslhere). It was a hundred, although for some reason it is called Hounslow hundred in Domesday. It comprised Isleworth, Twickenham and Heston. The Manor of Isleworth was granted to the Duchy of Cornwall in the 13th century, and there was a medieval manor house in Old Isleworth. Henry V gave the Manor to the Bridgettine nuns in 1431. They set up home at Syon Abbey until they were evicted in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was demolished and Syon House was constructed near the site. It has been the home of the Percy family, the Dukes of Northumberland, since the 1590s. From the 18th century, Isleworth and Twickenham were celebrated for their nurseries, orchards and market gardens, helping to feed London. Twickenham became a fashionable place to live at this time.

Brentford stands at the confluence of the river Brent and the Thames. Neolithic remains have been found in the area, and the original settlement predates the Romans. There have been two Battles of Brentford: the first was between Cnut the Great and Edmund Ironside (1016); and the second between the Royalists and Parliamentarians in the English Civil War (1642).  Nurseries became popular in the 18th century. Ronald’s was a particularly successful and famous nursery, which was established in the 1750s. It was particularly noted for its apple varieties.

Kew was part of the Hundred of Kingston. Being close to the royal estate at Richmond, it naturally developed royal associations. Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, lived there for a period in the 1520s, as did Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s favourite, from 1558. Kew Palace was built in 1631, and was home to various members of the royal family from 1728 to 1818. Princess Augusta, mother of George III, founded a 9-acre botanic garden within the pleasure grounds at Kew. Joseph Banks, the botanist, sent seeds back to Kew while on his journey with Captain Cook in the South Seas. Banks subsequently became the unofficial director of the botanic gardens on his return to England. The Crown passed Kew to the Government in 1840, and the Gardens were opened to the public.

Swan Upping

This activity, effectively a census of the Monarch’s swans, has been going for at least 600 years. Swans were considered to be a culinary delight, and the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans that were not otherwise identified, although it subsequently extended ownership to two City Livery companies: the Company of Vintners and the Company of Dyers. Each of the three owners had their own identifying marks on the birds.

Any unauthorised person who was found guilty of killing a swan could be sentenced to transportation for seven years, and as recently as 1895 could receive seven years hard labour.

Swans are no longer considered to be a delicacy, and such punishments no longer apply. It is now more a pageant which takes place in July, starting from Sunbury on a Monday and finishing at Abingdon on Friday. The birds are identified by putting an identifying ring on their legs.

Population

It is important to realise that before the arrival of coincident full censuses in 1801, any figures that are quoted by historians are necessarily “guestimates”.

At the time of Domesday, while London was far and away the largest town in England with a population of possibly 18K, Oxford and Wallingford were both significant towns with populations of 5K and 3K respectively, although they arguably reach their zenith in terms of relative size to other towns around this time. Reading had a population of 700 and Old Windsor around 500.

Population growth was halted when the Black Death arrived in the middle of the 14th century. Estimates of the number of deaths vary, with more recent figures tending to be higher than those in previous studies, typically in the range of 40-60% of the total population. Some villages in Berkshire disappeared.

There were other epidemics: outbreaks of the Tudor sweating sickness occurred at various times from 1485 to 1551 with significant death rates in London in 1528; and several outbreaks of the Plague in 1603, 1625 and 1636, culminating in the Great Plague of 1665 when London suffered particularly badly with an official death toll of 68K+, although some estimates put the figure at over 100K. Winchester and Southampton were other towns that were both badly affected by the 1665 plague.

Unlike the Black Death, population figures quickly recovered from these later epidemics. In addition, advancements such as smallpox inoculation and younger marriages (or do I mean partnerships?) helped to increase the population markedly in the 18th century. A selection of figures from 1801: London 950K, Windsor 15K, Oxford 12K, Reading 10K and Kingston 8K.

Increases in life expectancy, the success of the economy and the significant levels of immigration all helped to see population numbers soar in the 19th century. Figures in 1901 include: London 6M, Windsor 9K, Kingston 55K , Reading 70K and Oxford 49K. The rises in London and Reading are obvious indicators of their economic successes.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Sargent, A., The Story of the Thames, 2009 and 2013, Amberley Publishing, Stroud

Inwood, S., A History of London, 1998, Macmillan

Ackroyd, P., London The Autobiography, 2000, Chatto & Windus

Thick, M., The Neat House Gardens, 1998, Prospect, Totnes Devon

the-river-thames.co.uk is an excellent website on all matters relating to the river. It includes a very comprehensive bibliography of books published up to 2005.

The River Thames – British History Online

Simon Wenham’s History of the Thames concentrates on the period from the 19th century onward.

History of Royal Berkshire by David Nash Ford

Histories of places along the Thames can be found in Wikipedia, although significantly more detail can be found on the British History – Online website.

The River Thames Society has a very useful website, including a comprehensive set of links to other sites.

Various places along the river have their own historical societies. Hint – search for Thames history society.

Alfred the Great’s Burhs – The Burghal Hidage 
Norman castles 
Magna Carta – Wikipedia
Oxford Fortifications
Battle of Brentford (1642) 
Stand Off at Turnham Green
Abingdon at War 
Maunsell Forts
Pillboxes

Bridges 
Bridge Chapels
Locks
London Docks
Oxford’s flood history 
1928 Thames Flood
1947 Thames Flood 
The History and Future of the Thames Barrier  

Henley and the River Thames Trade

Rowing on the River Thames
Thames Rowing Club  
London Rowing Club
Simon Wenham’s excellent History of Boating on the Thames 
Thames Steamers
River Thames Frost Fairs

Swan Upping

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank the following individuals who agreed to read my initial draft and who provided useful feedback: Peter Jackson, Janet King, Helena Molyneux and Phil Roberts. All errors in this document are mine.

I have located the various images on the Internet. Captions typically contain links to information on the source / attribution of each image. Please contact me if you consider that I have infringed any copyright.

Please note that this website is not a commercial venture. There are no adverts, and all the content is freely available for readers to access.

Version History

Version 0.1 – June 20th, 2020 – very drafty
Version 0.2 – June 21st, 2020 – changes re JEK’s feedback
Version 0.3 – June 22nd, 2020 – added prison ships plus water supply and sanitation
Version 0.4 – June 29th, 2020 – incorporated feedback from HM and PR; added section on population
Version 1.0 – July 6th, 2020 – minor changes.