The River Thames

For thousands of years the River Thames has played an important role in the development of England and to this day continues to delight and inspire millions of people. The politician John Elliot Burns (1858-1943) once described the Thames as “Liquid History,” a fitting tribute to a river whose tale stretches back so far.

Southwark Bridge
Old Southwark Bridge

One of the earliest written accounts regarding the Thames can be found in the military records of Julius Caesar who first invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. The Emperor Claudius would himself launch an invasion of the island in 43 BC and from hereafter Britain came under Roman rule. It is believed that it was around these periods of invasion that the Romans erected the first major manmade bridge across the river near the site of what we now know as London Bridge. Early industry included milling, fishing and farming along the rivers fertile banks, and trade links were quickly established with foreign ports.

Throughout the centuries Britain would continue to be invaded. Both the Anglo-Saxons (5th century AD) and the Vikings (9th century AD) settled here and built fortifications along the Thames to protect their land. Following his invasion in 1066 William the Conqueror would make many recordings about the Thames in his infamous Domesday Book, and had the Tower of London built on the rivers north bank. King Williams’s laws financially crippled many people, and a notable result of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 was the boom in trade along the river and growth of market towns.

The Tudors and Stuarts built a number of magnificent palaces along the Thames such as those at Richmond and Greenwich. Continued conflict with Spain also prompted the Tudor`s into building Tilbury Fort in Essex to protect London from sea attacks. By the 18th century London had the busiest port in the world which was reflected in the level of activity up and down the Thames. London docks were built to accommodate the trade coming in and going out of the city.

The Thames played a big part in the lives of 19th century Londoners. The Victorian practice of flushing waste straight into the river led to pollution and a cholera epidemic which claimed the lives of thousands. In the summer of 1858 things came to a head when parliament had to be suspended because of the foul smell coming from the river (remembered as the “Great Stink”). A new sewage system engineered by Sir Joseph Bazalgette was the answer to many a Londoners prayers and the cholera epidemic was resolved.

Leisure and entertainment have always been a key attraction of the Thames and from as early as 1608 the first frost fair (a fair which took place on top of the frozen river) was recorded. Rowing, sailing, punting and canoeing are just a few of the sports which take place on the river, and it is of course home to the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race. A number of history’s most creative minds have also been inspired by the river, such as the writer Charles Dickens who referred to it in a number of his stories.

Southwark Bridge as seen from the Millenium Bridge

Today the Thames is no longer alive with cargo ships and many of the docks are now home to restaurants, hotels, flats and offices. The introduction of container ships was a key factor in the decline of the docks as was the progress in road transport.