River Thames History
London would never have become the city we know today, had it not been for the River Thames. In fact, this one river played a critically important role in moulding and shaping the United Kingdom as a whole.
To visit London without cruising the Thames by boat is to miss out on something truly special – let Thames River Adventures be your guide!
The city of ‘Londinium’ was born in the first century AD, when Roman invaders drove ancient Britons down the Thames River banks until a safe area to cross was found. A garrison was built to protect the location and earliest settlement of London was born. This was also the period during which the first bridge crossing the Thames was erected, not far from where Tower Bridge itself stands today.
But even after the departure of the Romans, London’s troubles were far from over. Viking raiders inflicted catastrophic damage on the region, which had already become a wealthy and important trading hub. Much of early London was neglected and fell into disrepair, though after the Vikings were expelled from the country by Alfred the Great in 886, the city would quickly enter a golden age of development.
Benedictine monks settled in London during the 8th century, occupying an area on the north bank of the Thames toward the city’s west. Their settlement would go on to become the royal residence of King Canute and Edward the Confessor. It was the latter of the two who made the decision to split London into two separate cities – the City of Westminster as a centre for government and the City of London as a centre for trade.
London’s Historic Bridges
Old London Bridge will always be the most famous and spectacular of all bridges to cross the Thames River. Originally completed in 1209, it first boasted a beautiful chapel at the half-way point, after which a series of shops were built and ultimately no less than 198 houses by the mid-14th century. It’s gates at the south entrance were often complimented by a grim reminder of the consequences of treason – the severed heads of traitors displayed on spikes.
19 huge stone piers supported the bridge and slowed the flow of the river so much that it would regularly freeze in the depths of winter. And when it did, special events and celebrations were held on the ice. The bridge would go on to be demolished in 1832.
The Great Fire of London
By the time the 1600s had rolled around, the City of London had grown in size significantly and was accelerating in terms of both power and importance. However, it was reduced to ashes almost in its entirety in 1666, when the Great Fire of London broke out. The fire is said to have started from a bakery in Pudding Lane, quickly spreading to the wooden frames and roofs of the City’s buildings and causing unimaginable devastation. Over the course of four days, more than 13,000 building were destroyed and hundreds of lives were lost.
The ferrymen operating simple boats to transport citizens from one side of the Thames to the other played a critically important role in rescuing those trapped by the spreading fire, rowing them to safety. Work would then begin on the new City of London, including the stunning central feature of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed by Christopher Wren in 1710.
Trading via the River Thames
London’s importance as a central hub for global trade would continue to accelerate at an incredible pace for centuries to come. The banks of the River Thames would soon become crowded with wall-to-wall shipyards, wharves and warehouses, helping intensify the wealth and prosperity of the City of London. Records from 1598 suggest that by this time, there were at least 40,000 workers who owed their livelihood to the river.
By the middle of the 17th century, it was common for ships carrying goods into London to have to wait in line for several weeks before having their cargo unloaded – such was the congestion. In fact, it was said to be possible to cross the Thames in many locations where there were no bridges, simply by stepping from one boat to the next. The first dock was built close to Tower Bridge in 1661, followed by numerous further docks over the course of the next 200 years or so – the final of which being the 1880 completion of the Albert Dock.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich would go on to be founded by Charles II in 1675, as a means by which to help English mariners navigate at sea. By the early 18th century, London was widely considered the most important commercial and financial centre in the world. The city’s wealth allowed for the construction of more bridges to ease movement throughout the city – Tower Bridge opening to the public for the first time in 1894.