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London’s Rivers

An engraving by Charles Grignion, after Francis Hayman, of the insalubrious Fleet River; since it was the last resting place of dead dogs, corpses, human waste and noxious refuse, it is hard to believe that anyone actually swam in it.


You Cannot Take the Thames with You

It has always been the river of commerce. The watercress-growers of Gravesend, the biscuit-bakers and store-shippers of Tooley Street, the ship-chandlers of Wapping, the block-makers and rope-makers of Limehouse, all owe their trades to the Thames. The great paintings of its business, with its warehouses, refiners, breweries and builders’ yards, all bear testimony to its power and authority. Its predominance within the city was understood long before the Romans came. Copper and tin were transported along it as early as the third millennium BC; as a result of commerce upon the river the area comprising London acquired, by 1500 BC, supremacy over the region of Wessex. That is perhaps why ceremonial objects were thrown into its waters, where they lay hidden until recent archaeological discoveries.

The city itself owes its character and appearance to the Thames. It was a place of “crowded wharfs and people-pestered shores,” the water continually in motion with “shoals of labouring oars.” The movement and energy of London were the movement of horses and the energy of the river. The Thames brought in a thousand argosies. Venetian galleys and three-masted ships from the Low Countries vied for position by the riverside, while the water itself was crowded with wherries and ferries transporting the citizens from one shore to the other.

The other great commercial value of the Thames lay in its fish, and in the fifteenth century we read of “barbille, fflounders. Roaches. dace. pykes. Tenches,” all caught in nets with baits of cheese and tallow; there were eels and kipper salmon, mullet, lamprey, prawn, smelt, sturgeon and “white bayte.” A vast range of vessels also plied their trades upon the water. Barges and barks sailed beside chalk-boats; they were joined by cocks, or small work boats, by pikers, rush-boats, oyster-boats and ferry-boats, by whelk-boats and tide-boats.

Most Londoners earned their living directly off the river, or by means of the goods which were transported along it. Documents of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reveal a host of Thames employees, from the “conservators” who were in charge of river safety to the “tidemen” whose work on embanking or building upon the river depended upon the state of the tide. There were boatmen and chalkmen, eelmen and baillies, gallymen or garthmen, ferriers and lightermen, hookers and mariners, petermen and palingmen, searchers and shipwrights, shoutmen and piledrivers, trinkers and water-bailiffs and watermen. There are recorded no fewer than forty-nine ways of trapping or catching fish, from nets and weirs to enclosures and wicker-baskets. But there were many other activities such as the erection of dams and barriers, the construction of landing-stages and jetties, the repairing of watergates and causeways, quays and stairs. We may call this the early stage of the Thames when it remained the living centre of the city’s development and trade.

But then it first touched the imagination of poets and chroniclers. It became the river of magnificence, used as a golden highway by princes and diplomats. Barges were “freshly furnished with banners and streamers of silk” while other boats were “richly beaten with the arms or badges of their craft”; there were many covered with awnings of silk and silken tapestry, while around them the wherries took their course heavily weighted with merchants or priests or courtiers. This was a time when, in the early years of the sixteenth century, the oars of the London watermen might become entangled in water lilies while they kept stroke “to the tune of flutes” which made “the water which they beat to follow faster.” The Thames has always been associated with song and music, beginning with the watermen’s chant of “Heare and how, rumblelow” or “Row, the boat, Norman, row to thy lemen” dated respectively to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

More formal music, beating not to the ebb and flow of the current but rather to its history, could be heard on diplomatic or nuptial occasions. When in 1540 Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, removed to Westminster by water on their bridal day they were accompanied by “instruments sweetly sounding” in barges “gorgeously garnished with banners, pennons and targets richly covered.” On the previous ceremonial entrance of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn from Greenwich into London in 1533, “there were trumpets, shawms, and other divers instruments, all the way playing and making great melody.” Her welcome provided one of the richest pageants upon the Thames ever recorded, with the state barge of the mayor leading the procession “adorned by flags and pennons hung with rich tapestries and ornamented on the outside with scutcheons of metal, suspended on cloth of gold and silver.” It was preceded by a flat vessel, rather like a floating stage, upon which “a dragon pranced about furiously, twisting his tail and belching out wildfire.” Here the freedom of the river inspires extravagance as well as music. The barge of the mayor was followed by fifty other barges belonging to the trades and guilds, “all sumptuously decked with silk and arras, and having bands of music on board.” Here commerce makes its own music upon the water, which was itself the conduit of its wealth.

It is clear, however, that the Thames can harbour and accommodate supernatural forces as well as more conventional goods. It was typically described as the colour of silver, the great alchemical agent; the “silver streaming Thames” in Spenser is followed by “the silver-footed Thamesis” in Herrick and the “silver Thames” in Pope. Herrick introduces nymphs and naiads, but his central tone is one of mournful regret upon being forced to abandon the river in leaving London for the country—no more sweet evenings of summer bathing, no more journeys to Richmond, Kingston or Hampton Court, no more departures “and landing here, or safely landing there.” Drayton invokes the “silver Thames” also, and uses the familiar metaphor of a “clearest crystal flood,” where Pope describes “Old Father Thames” whose “shining horns diffused a golden gleam.” It has often been suggested that rivers represent the feminine principle within the general masculine environment of the city, but with the Thames this is emphatically not the case. It is the “Old Father,” perhaps in a somewhat menacing or primeval way equivalent to William Blake’s vision of “Nobodaddy.”

It looked, from a distance, as if it were a forest of masts; there were approximately two thousand ships and boats each day upon the water, as well as three thousand of the then notorious watermen who transported goods and people in every direction. “The Pool of London,” the area between London Bridge and the Tower, was filled to capacity with barges and barks and galleons, while a map of the middle sixteenth century shows boats moored beside the various stairs which were the transportation stops of the capital. Upon this map the streets are depicted as almost devoid of activity while the river is a hive of business; it was a pardonable exaggeration, designed to emphasise the paramount importance of the Thames. There is a London story which is appropriate. One sovereign, more than usually irate about the reluctance of London to subsidise his adventures, threatened to move his court to Winchester or Oxford; the mayor of London replied, “Your Majesty may with ease move yourself, your Court and your Parliament, wheresoever you wish, but the merchants of London have one great consolation—you cannot take the Thames with you.”

When Wenceslaus Hollar arrived in England in December 1636, he travelled to London by barge from Gravesend. He was given lodgings in Arundel House, beside the Thames, so that his first and earliest views were of the river. His sketches and etchings are filled with its breadth and light, while its continual activity spills over upon its banks and embarkation points; the wherries and barges are crowded, seeming to skim the water before the small quiet buildings which line its shores. It is the river which breathes life within his great panorama of the city; the streets and houses seem deserted, as if all London were gathered by the riverside. The names of each wharf are prominently displayed—“Paulus wharfe … Queen hythe … The 3 Cranes … Stiliard … Cole harbour … The Old Swan”—while their stairs and landing-stages are busy with the activity of tiny human figures. The great sheet of bright water is lent depth and interest by the numerous craft, some of which are named; “the Eel Ships” lie among barges carrying vegetable produce, while small boats with two or three passengers voyage from shore to shore. Below London Bridge many great ships are moored while around them teems the marine business of the port. In the right-hand corner of this engraving the figure of a water god, Father Thames, holding an urn from which pour a multitude of fish, completes an image of the river as the source of power and life. Just as its swans were in the pre-Christian era under the protection of Apollo and of Venus, so the river itself lies under divine tutelage. It is of some significance, too, that the classical deity, depicted by Hollar as pointing to the cartouche of “LONDON,” is Mercury who is the god of commerce.

Hollar’s prospect is taken from a high point south of the river and just west of London Bridge; it was a real location, on top of St. Mary Overy (now Southwark cathedral), but it also became a conventional or idealised vantage point. An earlier etching by Claes Jansz Visscher takes approximately the same position but from a theoretical high locality further westward; this allowed him to suggest a great central sketch of the busy river, and he emphasised the point with the Latin inscription of London “emporium que toto orbe celeberrimum” (the most famous market in the entire world). The power and persuasiveness of this slightly fictionalised topography affected many later artists and engravers, who kept on borrowing each other’s mistakes and false perspectives in their continuing effort to celebrate the Thames as representing the commercial destiny of the city. Just as the river had been the great subject of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London poetry, so it became the central theme of London painting.

As trade and commerce increased, so did the significance of the river. It has been estimated that the volume of business grew three times between 1700 and 1800; there were thirty-eight wharves on both sides of the river, from the bridge to the Tower, and nineteen further below. It has been estimated that, even by 1700, the London quays were handling 80 per cent of the entire country’s imports and 69 per cent of its exports. Within the river’s banks sailed tea and china, as well as cotton and pepper, from the East Indies; from the West Indies came rum and coffee, sugar and cocoa; North America brought to the Thames tobacco and corn, rice and oil, while the Baltic states offered hemp and tallow, iron and linen. When Daniel Defoe wrote of trade “flowing” in and out of London, he was using the river as a metaphor for London’s life.

It rare to find a picture of London that does not contain a glimpse of the river; there are views from Westminster Pier and from Lambeth as well as from Southwark. Three very popular collections of river prints were published in the latter part of the eighteenth century—Boydell’s Collection of Views (1770), Ireland’s Picturesque Views of the Thames (1792) and Boydell’s History of the Thames (1794–6)—in which the most usual “views” were those west of London Bridge where the newly renovated city was matched by images of a dignified and elegant river.

Of course Canaletto is the master of these riverscapes in which he creates a city aspiring towards magnificence. Two companion portraits, in particular, The Thames from the terrace of Somerset House, Westminster in the distance and The Thames from the terrace of Somerset House, the city in the distance, take the measure of London as essentially a noble European city. It seems likely that Canaletto came to London in the 1740s specifically to paint the recently constructed Westminster Bridge and to give an aesthetic imprimatur to the city’s latest public building, but his is an idealised city and an idealised river. The sky is free of fog and soot, so that the buildings shine with expressive clarity; the river itself is luminous, its surface iridescent, while the activity upon it is so calm and bright that it is no longer a picture of commerce but of contentment.

A more direct and intimate depiction of the eighteenth-century Thames is found in what is generally classified as the British School, but might as well be termed the London School. William Marlow’s Fresh Wharf, London Bridge and The London Riverfront between Westminster and the Adelphi, for example, acquire much of their strength from their detail. The view of Fresh Wharf shows the work of the wharf with its wooden barrels and olive jars and bales of merchandise being inspected or unloaded; scaffolding and fencing on the north side of London Bridge are an indication that the shops and houses which were once located there have been only just removed. The painting of the London riverfront also acquires its power from its specificity. Here can be seen Buckingham Street and Adam Street, together with the tower and chimneys of the York Buildings Waterworks Company. In the foreground are displayed all the multifarious activities of a messy and grubby river. A coal barge is being unloaded by men in dirty smocks while a woman, surrounded by a pile of baskets, is being ferried towards the shore.

It was in just such a place, and among just such activity, that the youthful imagination of Turner, born in 1775 in Maiden Lane, first moved towards the Thames. In Modern Painters (1843) John Ruskin describes the painter’s early life as involved intimately with “the working of city-commerce, from endless warehouses, towering over Thames, to the back shop in the lane, with its stale herrings.” Here he ventured into the world of barges and ships, “that mysterious forest below London Bridge—better for the boy than wood or pine or grove of myrtle.” Turner was, in other words, a child who derived his inspiration from the city and its river rather than from more conventional and pastoral settings. “How he must have tormented the watermen,” Ruskin goes on to suggest, “beseeching them to let him crouch anywhere in their bows, quiet as a log, so that only he might get floated down there among the ships, and by the ships, and under the ships, staring and clambering;—these the only quite beautiful things in the world.” The great world itself was for Turner contained within the city and its river.

The Thames flowed through him, giving him light and movement. As a child he walked down from his birthplace in Maiden Lane and crossed the Strand to wander among the myriad small streets which led to the river; as an old man he died looking over the Thames in Cheyne Walk. For most of the intervening years he lived “on or within easy reach of its banks.” So we must consider Turner, more than Canaletto or Whistler, as the true child of the river—or, rather, one through whom the spirit of the river emerged most clearly and abundantly. On certain occasions he clothed it with classical beauty, invoking the gods and nymphs which once haunted its banks, while in other paintings he depicted all the immediate and instinctive life of its waters. One of his early sketches was of Old Blackfriars Bridge where he emphasised the tide of the river by painting the piers of the bridge as if they were still dark and wet. An early watercolour of Old London Bridge exhibited the same intense and absorbed observation: here the water wheel of the London Waterworks Company is the central focus, with the force of the water rushing upstream at precisely twenty-five to eleven according to the clock of St. Magnus the Martyr just beyond the bridge.

Vessels were moored side by side, with each ship being assigned its place on its arrival. Barges or smaller boats came alongside in order to receive the goods, which were then rowed upstream to the various official quays and wharves. It was a cumbersome procedure, given the general overcrowding of the Pool, and one which obviously led to theft and dishonest dealing on a large scale. As a result of various parliamentary inquiries, however, a decision was eventually taken to build proper docks, where cargo could be more expeditiously handled and enclosed. So began the great scheme of the “wet docks.” In 1799 the West India Dock Company Act was passed, and the whole Isle of Dogs began its transformation into its home. It was followed by the London Dock at Wapping, the East India Dock at Blackwall and the Surrey Dock at Rotherhithe. It was the largest single, privately funded enterprise in the history of London. Great fortress-like structures with gates and high walls were built, beside what were essentially artificial lakes covering some three hundred acres of water. The Isle of Dogs, formerly a wasteland of marsh, was turned into something like an elegant prison island; the sketches and aquatints of a contemporary artist, William Daniell, show grand avenues of brick warehouses. A new road was built connecting the docks to the City of London, from Aldgate to Limehouse; hundreds of houses were demolished in its path, and it entirely changed the aspect of east London. The Commercial Road was in that sense aptly named since this transformation of the city was done solely in the name of profit. The foundation stone of the West India Dock was inscribed with the motto: “An Undertaking which, under the Favour of God, shall contribute Stability, Increase and Ornament, to British Commerce.” Further changes followed with the building of the Regent’s Canal to connect the docks with the greater world, by means of a waterway going westward until it met the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin. Once again the city was opened up to more transport and traffic.

The whole enterprise was considered at the time to be an almost visionary undertaking, and the apotheosis of successful commercialism. The tobacco warehouse at Wapping was celebrated for “covering more ground, under one roof, than any public building, or undertaking, except the pyramids of Egypt.” Many of these Wapping warehouses were the work of Daniel Asher Alexander, who also built the huge prisons of Dartmoor and Maidstone; we may see here the association between money and the nature of power. One architectural historian has compared the edifices of Alexander with the architectural engravings of Piranesi. “While Coleridge turned the plates of the Opere Varie and young De Quincey drugged himself into Piranesian frenzy,” Sir John Summerson wrote in Georgian London, “Alexander built these reminiscences of the Carceri into gaols and warehouses.” Here money and power are given visionary, or mythic, potential.

The drawings and engravings which display the dock works in progress also command grand vistas and vast numbers of workmen to emphasise the scope of the enterprise. There were crowds when the work was completed, crowds when the waters of the Thames were allowed to flow into the basins, crowds when the first vessels were admitted. These were schemes of immensity, and resembled “the hydraulic works of ancient river civilisations,” suggesting that London’s great riverine adventure revived memories of ancient empires. “The docks are impossible to describe,” Verlaine wrote in 1872. “They are unbelievable! Tyre and Carthage all rolled into one!” He and his companion, Rimbaud, spent hours in the vast region noting the myriad goods and the myriad types of humanity jostling together; “they heard strange languages spoken,” Enid Starkie wrote in her biography of Rimbaud, “and saw printed on the bales of goods mysterious signs that they could not read.” James McNeill Whistler is generally considered to be the painter who evokes the poetry of the Thames when it is subdued by mist and occluded light, but that opinion neglects half of his achievement as a painter of the river. In his early sketches of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Wapping, the central images are of wharves and warehouses where work and trade are the persistent, essential London element. These etchings in fact elicited a remark from Baudelaire that they manifested “the profound and complex poetry of a vast capital.”

Here the experience of confusion is compounded by the sense of mystery—of something living and alien—that lies at the heart of the city’s life. This is also the effect manifested in Gustave Doré’s engravings of the docks where the carters and the porters, the sailors and labourers, become darkly anonymous figures tending to the trade of London like ancient votaries; the warehouses and custom houses are generally enmeshed in shadow and chiaroscuro, like the thick netting of sails and masts which dominates the foreground. Fitful gleams can be seen upon the dark water “black with coal, blue with indigo, brown with tides, white with flour, stained with purple wine, or brown with tobacco.” These are the ranges of colours which Doré knew, at first sight, to be “one of the grand aspects of your London.” Again his scenes conjure up images of Piranesi, with the rigging and the spars and the ropes and the land bridges and planks blending together to form a picture of endless turmoil. “A whole people toil at the unloading of the enormous ships,” another French observer, Gabriel Mourey, wrote, “swarming on the barges, dark figures, dimly outlined, moving rhythmically, fill in and give life to the picture. In the far distance, behind the interminable lines of sheds and warehouses, masts bound the horizon, masts like a bare forest in winter, finely branched, exaggerated, aerial trees grown in all the climates of the globe.”

Since the docks had become one of the wonders of creation, many travellers felt obliged to visit them. It was necessary to obtain a letter of introduction for the captain of each dock, and then hire a boat from one of the stairs to take advantage of the ebbing tide. “You see shipping at anchor on both sides, many Dutch, Danes, Swedes, with licences I suppose, and many Americans”: this is from the 1810 diary of a French visitor. A German had pronounced upon the same subject in 1787: “It is an area of restless activity,” he wrote, “of constant noise, and of the hubbub of people … broad quays, large splendid warehouses like palaces.” This visitor also commented that “nearby rural pleasures seem to be very far away.” Since those pleasures, at Greenwich and Gravesend, were themselves upon the Thames the sheer imposition of the city’s trading machinery seemed to have obliterated their presence. When Prince Herman Pückler-Muskau visited the docks in 1826 he conceded “astonishment, and a sort of awe at the greatness and might of England … Everything is on a colossal scale” with “sugar enough to sweeten the whole adjoining basin, and rum enough to make half England drunk.” He might have commented, too, that nine million oranges arrived each year, together with twelve thousand tons of raisins. The peripatetic prince had just visited the great breweries of the city and, after his journey to the docks, he went to a freak-show. So the spectacles of London merge into an unnatural phantasmagoria.

The history of the docks is in fact the central story of the commercial Thames in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is the story of a riverside thoroughfare busy for 150 years. In Commercial Road, and Thames Street, and a score of narrow streets between them descending to the riverside, there were wagons and vans; Mile’s Lane, Duck’s Foot Lane and Pickle-Herring Street were filled with the sound of carts, horses, cranes and human voices mingling with the whistles of the railway. On the banks themselves there was a profusion of commercial activity, with factories and warehouses approaching as close to the water as they dared, while its wharves and mills and landing-stages pulsated with the energies of human life and activity. Further upriver, between Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, the riverside scene subtly changed; the warehouses and houses here were older and more dilapidated. They leaned towards the river, narrow and lopsided, while between them were the openings of little alleys, through which sacks and barrels were taken from the river into the city. By Ludgate a huge steam flour-mill could be seen, while on the other bank lay a whole range of factory chimneys. This was a true avenue of commerce, with its institutions on both sides.

But there was also less serious business upon the Thames. There were halfpenny steamers, penny steamers and twopenny steamers going to Greenwich or Gravesend, Ramsgate and Margate. There was a Dover boat and a Boulogne boat, an Ostend boat and a Rhine boat; there were coasters to Ipswich, Yarmouth and Hull, and steamboats to Southampton, Plymouth and Land’s End. There were slower boats which made the journey to Kew, Richmond and Hampton Court complete with musical bands.

Then beyond the shoreline itself lay a whole host of commercial properties dependent upon the river and its tides—ship yards, sailors’ lodgings and public houses, marine stores, the hovels of porters, apple stalls and oyster shops waiting for custom. The whole panoply of street life attended the river, then, with a group of sailors getting out of hansom cabs to descend upon a public house, a breakdown of a wagon in the streets attracting a crowd of spectators, the endless chaff of speech resounding against the walls and bridge. “Go it!” “I can come it slap.” “She can be very choice!”

By 1930 the port and docks of London gave employment to a hundred thousand people and carried thirty-five million tons of cargo within their seven hundred acres; there were in addition almost two thousand riverside wharves. In this period, too, heavy industries such as gas production and food processing clustered around the river as if in homage to its ancient mercantile past; other industries such as timber and chemicals made use of the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea as avenues to and from the Thames.

In the following decade the business of the river was amplified by “rapid handling” methods which lifted cargo by fork-lift trucks and fast-moving cranes, but by the 1960s the equally rapid changes in the industrial process left the docks almost literally high and dry. The new phenomenon of containeri-sation, whereby goods were transported in vast boxes from ship to truck, precluded the system of warehousing; the vessels were too large for the original early nineteenth-century docks to handle.

The docks are silent now, and, within memory, the great buildings of the early nineteenth century have become a wasteland. The East India Dock closed in 1967, while the London Dock and St. Katherine’s Dock followed just two years later. The West India Dock survived until 1980, but by then the active and busy life of the region seemed to have gone for ever. The economy of the East End was severely depleted, and unemployment among the population reached very high levels. Yet out of this dereliction, ten years later, rose the shining edifices and refurbished warehouses known as Docklands, confirming that pattern of deliquescence and renewal which is at the heart of London’s life. As Mrs. Cook said of the Thames in Highways and Byways of London (1902), “nothing destroys antiquity like energy; nothing blots out the old like the new.”

In place of a derelict St. Katherine’s Wharf a new hotel and a world trade centre were constructed, the latter at least an appropriate edifice beside the ancient river which had for two thousand years carried the trade of the world. The restoration of other dock areas continued in a similar manner, although the greatest scheme of all was the regeneration of what became known as the East Thames Corridor between Tower Bridge and Sheerness. There will be no diminution in the mysterious ability of the commercial Thames to attract money and enterprise in the twenty-first century. The building of great offices upon the Isle of Dogs can be compared only with the original development of the West India Dock upon the same site; in both cases, that of 1806 and that of 1986, the enormous scale of the enterprise was noted. In typical London fashion both giant works were funded by the private money of speculators and businesses, with discreet public help in the nature of tax-incentives, and on both occasions new forms of transport had to be provided. The Docklands Light Railway, in its size and character, is the late twentieth-century equivalent of the Commercial Road. On the western quay of the Brunswick Dock, built in the late eighteenth century, stood a great mast-house of some 120 feet which for many years dominated and symbolised the area as one of marine commerce and London’s maritime power; now, only a little distant, the Canary Wharf Tower fulfils a similar function in the celebration of power and commerce. The Thames runs, softly or powerfully according to the tidal currents, and its dark magniloquent song is not over.

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