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The Old River Thames

March 9, 2016
by the gentle author

There is a dark and glistening river that flows through my dreams – it is the old river Thames, 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 courtesy © 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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. March 9, 2016

    A wonderful collection showing the Thames as a working river.

  2. March 9, 2016

    Wonderful photos, I still very much miss the sight and smell of the Thames. I live near the Rhine now, which is beautiful, but not the same! Valerie

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 9, 2016

    “You might think that the river has become merely a conduit for drainage”
    No, I’m afraid. That would have been all too true in the 1950’s when it STANK, & there were virtually no fish.
    Now the river is a lot cleaner with fish & wildfowl ….

  4. Annie G permalink
    March 9, 2016

    That final image is great. Never seen it before. I hope, GA, that you have read the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If not, hie you immediately to a bookshop and settle down for hours of joy.

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    March 9, 2016

    As always some great photos from the Bishopsgate Institute. What I find surprising is how many boats were still carrying sail in the 1920s. To me some of these scenes could be from fifty years previous.

  6. March 9, 2016

    Gentle Author and Bishopsgate at their best. Good views of Thames sailing barges designed for river and estuary work can be seen on the river today. There is something about black & white photos a certain magic. John


  7. Leana Pooley permalink
    March 9, 2016

    I enjoyed looking at these lovely photos. But I felt slightly sick, too, at the realisation of how much skyline we’ve already lost to the inelegant clusters of tall tower blocks that have appeared in recent years – and over 200 more on the way. In these old pictures St Paul’s and the Tower of London stand up proudly. Sadly now their venerable human-sized outlines are dwarfed and demeaned.

    And it’s not just our skyline that’s disappearing. Unlike, say, the three-storey 1970s office building in Lower Thames Street which shelters the remains of a Roman villa in its basement, each recent skyscraper will have needed massive deep foundations, the digging of which will have obliterated that area of London’s archeology. Above and below ground, the damage is heart-breaking.

  8. Liz L permalink
    March 9, 2016

    Wonderful pictures showing the Thames as a working river.
    And thank you Annie G for the recommendation of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. I’m definitely on the case. They sound an excellent read.

  9. Hugh permalink
    March 9, 2016

    Dear GA, I can’t understand the orientation of the Lots Rd Battersea Bridge picture.
    Has that road been built over?

  10. Ian Perry permalink
    March 9, 2016

    A wonderful collection of images, particularly of the nautical traffic, thank you as always. I would just ask whether the date of the ‘Lots Road and Battersea Bridge’ is c. 1910? Battersea power station wasn’t built until 1930 and the road vehicles look more 30’s to me. I am happy to be told I’m wrong….

  11. pauline taylor permalink
    March 9, 2016

    These are good, but I like to look as well at much earlier paintings of the Thames in London, and to wonder just how much water traffic there was then, rather a lot I think. As mentioned before, I have the river Thames in my blood as my ancestors were watermen at Lambeth from the 16th until the 18th century, one being employed on the Archbishop’s barge. How I would love to see a picture of that!!

  12. March 10, 2016

    Hmm threw me at first but then I noticed the First slide is backwards Houses of Parliament

  13. December 8, 2017

    The photo titled “Ice floes on the Thames” is the wrong way round. If it was the right way round, it would should, from left to right: Island Gardens (complete with Osborne House, which is now gone), Sapon Wharf, Christ Church and Cumberland Oil Mills – on the Isle of Dogs, viewed from Greenwich.

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