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Reading the Thames: An Introduction

Alexandra Warwick

The Thames Symposium

The idea for the symposium held at Tate Britain in May 2005 arose from the exhibition, Turner Whistler Monet, which was then on show in the gallery. The exhibition featured a number of paintings and drawings of water and rivers, and all three artists had produced views of the river Thames. The organizers of the symposium, from the University of Westminster (Alexandra Warwick and Alan Morrison) and Tate Britain education department (Sylvia Lehav) , saw the exhibition as a good opportunity to hold the symposium in Henry Tate’s river-facing gallery, and to consider aspects of the representation, history and significance of the Thames. Several of the essays in this issue of Literary London are among the papers that were given.

Turner’s paintings at the beginning of the nineteenth century are of a river that was still a wide and meandering flow that regularly flooded the land on its banks. It was used, as it had been for centuries, for pleasure and trade alike, although the pollution of the stretch of the Thames in central London was already appalling. By the time Whistler and Monet were painting the river had been embanked, reclaiming some 37 acres of ground. Huge commercial docks had been constructed downstream, and the Thames was arguably the most important river in the world, at the heart of Britain’s imperial web. Although Turner’s, Whistler’s and Monet’s views of the river span a time of rapid change, they depict only a very short period of its history, and they are only a few of the vast number of representations that appear in every possible medium and genre. It was not until the Renaissance that any visual record was made, but the Thames features in the earliest written accounts of Britain.

Reading The Thames

Although the Thames rises in the Cotswolds and flows over 200 miles out to the North Sea, for most people it is the ten miles or so that pass through London that really define its identity. The river is, of course, the reason for London’s existence, so much so that London should be thought of as the river’s city, rather than the Thames as London’s river. The city originates in the bridging of the Thames by Roman legions on their arrival in Britain in 43 CE. Neolithic settlements have been discovered, but there is no evidence that the region was permanently settled before the Roman occupation. Although it seems from archaeological finds that the tribes in the area regularly forded the Thames (mainly between Battersea and Kew) they do not appear to have had any permanent bridges. The Romans established theirs a little to the east of the present London Bridge, which was as near as possible to the sea while still remaining above the tidal reach, and on a spot that had firm enough ground on both sides to allow the bridge to stand above floods. This concentrated both their land and sea communications at one point, with easy access to continental Europe across the North Sea.

After the Romans left Britain, London was not a functioning city for the Saxon peoples, though some may have lived in the ruins, but there was a gradual return to the area and by 604 CE London was sufficiently important to warrant a Christian mission and a bishop, who built the first St Paul’s from wood. Even when Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66) established the second heart of London at Westminster, it was still next to the river. His effort to rebuild the abbey at Westminster effectively began the pulling of the crown and government away from trade and finance, and the beginning of one of the many real and symbolic divisions of the city. The same geographical advantage exploited by the Romans continued to serve the growing city: the Thames estuary faces the Rhine estuary, and it provided access to the Low Countries that were the prosperous centre of power in the Middle Ages. While serving the growth of London, the river still retained its natural power and unpredictability: it flooded, it froze, it dried up, and while some of these events enabled Londoners to enjoy entertainments like the Frost Fairs held on the frozen water, it also presented a challenge in dividing the north from the south side.

Until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750 and Blackfriars Bridge in 1769, London Bridge had been the only one downriver from Kingston. In the 70 years after the Norman Conquest there were ten major fires in London and every one destroyed or damaged the bridge. The building of a stone bridge began in 1176, and although patched and repaired over the centuries, it stood until the early nineteenth century, when the demolition that started in 1830 took two years complete. Before the new bridges were built, crossing the river was not easy: London Bridge was always heavily congested with traffic, and the small water craft that ferried passengers and goods were frequently imperilled by the fast-flowing currents.

Until the mid-nineteenth century London existed primarily on the north side, with the south side consisting of little more than Southwark and a strip running east to Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. Because the southern part was beyond the jurisdiction of the City, under the Tudor dynasty it became a flourishing site for the unregulated pleasures of theatres, brothels, and bull and bear baiting. In contrast, on the north side, after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s when the former ecclesiastical properties were confiscated, many aristocratic families established grand palaces along the Strand, the traces of which still remain in the street names.

Despite the importance of the Thames to London’s life and economy, the history of the riverside since the seventeenth century is one of a gradual turning away from it by the middle and upper classes. As pollution increased only those who relied most immediately on the river for their income, like watermen, ship builders and those who sorted through its refuse for re-saleable items, remained living in close proximity to it. In the central part, there were no new grand buildings constructed with river views or frontage, and nothing like the riverside vistas or walks such as those by the Seine in Paris were built. Even the grand embankments that were built as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s scheme were not primarily designed to celebrate the river, but rather to contain and control what had come to be seen as a dirty and dangerous problem. This was not without reason, as the Thames and its tributaries were by then little more than sewers, and there were regular outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera, which killed 5000 people in 1832.

The nineteenth century was a dark time in imagining the river. After Wordsworth’s uncharacteristically positive ‘Lines on Westminster Bridge’(1805), it increasingly comes to be symbolic of death, corruption and despair. Many of Dickens’ most desperate scenes and characters are linked with the river, such as Bill Sykes’ grotesque death on Jacob’s Island (Bermondsey) in Oliver Twist or the dragging of the body from the river by the scavengers in the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend. In nineteenth-century painting the positioning of a solitary woman by the river was enough to indicate her ‘fallen’ status, and to suggest, if not actually to depict, as many did, her drowned body. At the end of the Victorian period the marker of Sherlock Holmes’ engagement with the criminal underworld is his easy traffic with the riverside dwellers, as in The Sign of Four, and the mention of visits to Limehouse in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is enough to evoke the picture of the degraded opium dens and the exotic sexual immorality associated with them. Perhaps the nadir of symbolic representation of the Thames is T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), in which the degradation of the river stands for the loss of meaning and spiritual connection in modern life and society.

Despite these perceptions of the river, it remained crucial to the prosperity of the city and its inhabitants. Perhaps the turning away from the Thames is only a manifestation this reliance and, as is frequently the case, those who profit from trade or industry distance themselves both geographically and socially from the origins of their money. The money in the Victorian period came from the industrial revolution and the centrality of shipping to the huge trading empire that developed. The first dock warehouses had been built by the West India Company on the Isle of Dogs in an attempt to put an end to the pilfering experienced at the wharves, and these were soon followed by the London Dock at Wapping in 1805, the East India Dock at Blackwall in 1806, and later by Surrey Docks on the south bank and St Katharine’s by the Tower. If they were not celebrated by their owners they were nevertheless a source of fascination to travellers and there are many accounts of wonder at the great warehouses and the variety of goods to be found in them. The docks also supported a great network of allied trade and industry, as well as the invisible earnings from insurance and shipping.

Even as the power and influence of the British Empire began to decline in the first half of the twentieth century the trade centred on the river continued to be important, and its collapse came only after the Second World War. During the war the Thames served a more terrible purpose, as an unmistakable trail that led the bombers of German airforce to the centre of the capital. After the war there was a brief resurgence of the river side in the Festival of Britain, and the subsequent construction of the Royal Festival Hall on the site. This was perhaps a false start in the regeneration of the Thames – the plans to construct an opera house next to the Festival Hall faltered and both sides of the river remained largely run down and neglected. Most dramatic though, was the death of the docks in the late 1960s. There was a brief boom after the war but, with independence gained by many Empire countries, trade declined and what remained turned to the Channel and North Sea ports like Dover and Felixstowe.

The Port of London Authority began closing the docks from 1967, but there were no plans for what to do with the buildings and vast areas of land left abandoned.Edward Heath’s government of 1970-1974 received recommendations to change the docklands entirely through the construction of luxury housing and leisure facilities, but the Labour-controlled Greater London Council elected in 1973 proposed industrial estates, social housing and a new tube line instead. No money was forthcoming from government for either set of plans, and docklands lay there decaying for another decade.

When the Conservatives came to power in 1979 the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed with the aim of regenerating the area through the attraction of investment and taking in land from Wapping to Woolwich and with heavy concentration on the Isle of Dogs. For a long time, it looked as though these plans would come to nothing, and it seemed that the 800 foot tower of Canary Wharf, which had bankrupted its owners and still stood unoccupied in 1994, would stand as a monument to the doomed project.

But then, suddenly as it appeared although the planning and construction had been happening for several years, the transformation happened. The old plans for luxury housing and leisure facilities attracted customers, the architectural wonders of the millennium, the London Eye and Tate Modern, opened on the edge of the river, and on the south side there is now an open public riverside walk through centre of the city. Canary Wharf is now the centre of what may be a second financial heart, and in a parallel to the earliest trade/government division between Westminster and the City the seat of Mayoral power has been built on the waterside at London Bridge.

These then are some of the paradoxes of the river. It is the foundation and the unifying symbol of London, yet it also structures that bitterest of rivalries: between the north and the south Londoner. It is the source of the city’s power and prosperity, yet it has also been the scene of neglect, death and misery. Where it brought the water that sustained life, it also harboured pollution and disease that killed tens of thousands. It has been the place of grand spectacle and celebration and of unrecorded daily lives and small tragedies. And despite all that has taken place on and beside it, the oldest of its characteristics remains: it still retains the power to rise and destroy all that it has created.

To Cite This Article:

Alexandra Warwick, ‘Reading the Thames: An Introduction’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].