Skip to content

The Thames Of Old London

April 30, 2013
by the gentle author

There is a dark and glistening river that flows through my dreams – it is the Thames of old London, carrying away the filth and debris of the city and, in return, delivering the riches of the world upon the flood tide rising. How much I should like to have known London as it is recorded in these photographs – with a strong current of maritime life at its heart.

The broad expanse of water in Central London is curiously empty today, yet a century ago when many of these magic lantern slides from the Bishopsgate Institute were taken for the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, it was a teeming thoroughfare with wharves and jetties lining the banks. In the (reversed) glass slide above, you see barges unloading their cargo next to the Houses of Parliament and you might deduce that this method of transport could provide an answer to the congestion problems of our own era, if it were not for the fact that all the wharves have gone long ago.

Each day the tide goes up and down by twenty feet. For half the day, the water flows in one direction and for the other half in the other direction, with a strange moment of stillness in between while the tide turns. Such is the surge engendered that the force of the current at the centre presents a formidable challenge to a lone rower and would defeat any swimmer. In spite of our attempt to tame it with the flood barrier, the Thames manifests a force of nature that deserves our respect, especially as the water level rises year by year.

You might think that the river has become merely a conduit for drainage and an itinerary for tourist trips these days, yet do not forget that this mighty river is the very reason for the location of London, here on the banks of the Thames.

Shipping near Tower Bridge, c. 1910

St Paul’s Cathedral from the river, c. 1920

Tower of London from the river, c. 1910

Wandsworth Creek, c, 1920

Off Woolwich, c.1920

Greenwich pier, c. 1920

Steamboat pier at Chelsea, c. 1870

St Paul’s Cathedral from Bankside, c. 1920

Billingsgate Market, c. 1910

Houses of Parliament from South Bank, c. 1910

Tower of London from the Thames, c.1910

Ice floes on the Thames, c. 1920

St Paul’s Cathedral from Bankside, c. 1910

Victoria Embankment, c. 1920

Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race at Putney Bridge, c. 1910

St Paul’s Cathedral from Waterloo Bridge, c. 1920

London Docks, c. 1920

Customs House,  c. 1910

Lots Rd and Battersea Bridge, c. 1910

Somerset House was on the riverfront until the Victoria Embankment was constructed in 1870.

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

The Tombs of Old London

The Bridges of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

16 Responses leave one →
  1. April 30, 2013

    Thanks for another great post. I love these old images and am glad that you and Bishopsgate Institute make the available to us.

  2. Irene permalink
    April 30, 2013

    As a Londoner, I believe the Thames runs through all our veins. Thanks GA

  3. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    April 30, 2013

    Endorsing once again Dr. Johnson’s dictum – thank you.

  4. April 30, 2013

    Remember the school holidays in the 60s, spent most of the time at my cousins in garnet st, look forward to jumping on the bus at Kings cross, in 20 Min’s was at the seaside, well that’s how I saw it.
    Thanks GA for posting these old slides, although it was years after the views and scenes were so similar, unlike today.

  5. Vicky permalink
    April 30, 2013

    Oh to see St Pauls and the Tower dominating the skyline, and it wasn’t so long ago that it was still like that.

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    April 30, 2013

    Fantastic pictures. Are there any more please? The first one is strangely disorientating when trying to work out which way the camera is looking.

  7. April 30, 2013

    An amazing collection of photographs. Thanks for showing them.

  8. Chris F permalink
    April 30, 2013

    What an amazing variety of ships & boats. I did however pause for a minute over the photo of the boat race (1910) and thought that only a few years after that race, nearly all of those young rowers would more than likely have been young officers on their way to the trenches.

  9. sprite permalink
    April 30, 2013

    vieille ville –
    tout ces muscles de rivière
    qui prennent
    qui rejettent

    old town –
    all those river-muscles

    (sounds better in French…)


  10. April 30, 2013

    Another great post, thank you

  11. Susan Goldman permalink
    May 1, 2013

    Another great post, such wonderful pictures, thank you.

  12. Hilary Peters permalink
    May 3, 2013

    I did see the Thames when it looked like that.
    It was very beautiful
    When Celia Feines saw it in the 1690’s, 80 sailing ships passed in an hour, the river was full of fish and lined with gardens and the industrial Thames was as unimaginable as it is now.

  13. Janine Evelyn-Wilson permalink
    May 4, 2013

    Wonderful old photos! Where do you find them? Nostalgia and a sense of loss – but important to remember the smells! And the social context. Thanks for your offerings.

  14. Helen J permalink
    May 5, 2013

    These are great! The first image is mirrored though, I think? The view is looking downstream, not upstream.

  15. Terence Saunders permalink
    July 5, 2019

    I’ve just recently found this amazing site.

    The images are wonderful but I’m saddened at how many architecturally-stunning buildings have been pulled down and replaced by concrete and glass monstrosities, especially on the river and in The City.

  16. Duncan Mirylees permalink
    March 26, 2022

    For what it’s worth, I think the photo of the Customs House is far earlier than 1910. Given the kinds of ship you can see, I should say nearer 1870 – 1880.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS