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The Thames Of Old London

November 30, 2021
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 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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Hart permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Lovely old photos. Thank you

  2. Vicki Fox permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Love the uncluttered skyline. It makes one realise how ‘enclosed’ we are now.

  3. Peggy permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Alongside a group of magnificent photos of my home city, you have today written fewer words than usual, but very powerful words that remind me of my strong emotional attachment to London. I enjoy being reminded of how the city has evolved. As always, a perfect start to my day. Thank you GA.

  4. Peter Smith permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Wonderful photos of a time just beyond living memory when sail was a major means of moving goods on the river. Thank you for posting these evocative scenes.

  5. November 30, 2021

    Marvelous pictures and lovely text. Thank you.

  6. Mark permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Love The Thames, always have always will.
    Lovely old photos and as always, a pleasure to read.

    I start my day every day with this blog and The Diary of Samuel Pepys.
    I often have a pint in The Angel and The Mayflower overlooking the river and reflect on times gone bye.

    Thank you


  7. Helen permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Great photos, thank you. I’ve often wondered if there are any existing photographs of the view from (the older) London Bridge, down the river, BEFORE Tower Bridge was built! I’ve searched, and although I’ve found paintings, no actual photos. It would be fascinating to see such an image, to compare with later photos of Tower Bridge, with the traffic on the river and the buildings on the banks, either side! I’ve seen the images of the bridge being built and they are glorious, but I often wonder if there was at one time, just one more image of the river before work started!

  8. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Thank you you GA, photos of the Thames are very evocative for me as Thames water runs through my veins from the Tirau/Tearoe watermen who rowed the archbishop’s barge, through Thomas Simpkin, the Hampton ferryman and on to Richard Tiro, who was clerk of the works for Inigo Jones at the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Denton shipwrights and mariners , my great great grandfather Samuel Denton, a shipwright master,dying on Tower Hill from typhus caught from the river. Samuel’s cousin was a river pilot at Greenwich when all the vessels entering the Thames had to take on board a pilot to guide them through all the hazards and deliver them and their cargoes safely to the wharves to be unloaded. The pilot already had to have a master mariner’s licence and they took sole charge of the vessel. They were on call 24 hours a day as the river was so busy and their expertise and skill was essential in ensuring that cargoes were not lost.

    I cannot help but wonder what all those ancestors, who lived so close to the river all their lives, would make of it now, I guess that Thomas Simpkin would still recognize Hampton but it would all be so strange to the Tearoes and the Dentons and somehow I doubt if they would be impressed with what we have done to their city. The skyline has been ruined and the busy thriving dockyards and wharves have virtually all disappeared. Progress ?? No, I don’t really think so apart, of course, from the fact that the dire poverty has gone and we have to be grateful for that.

  9. November 30, 2021

    I was born in a barge on the Thames and the river remains at the core of my London identity.
    Even in that period there was more river traffic than there is now, but the fact that we were living there at all is a hint as to its end – as open fires died out and pollution laws changed, the battered old coal barges that used to work the East coast were being sold off cheap – and bought by people like my parents, who couldn’t afford houses. Now, of course, a Thames barge is a luxury very few could afford.

    Thank you for posting these fascinating photos.

  10. November 30, 2021

    Simply gasp-worthy. Each and every detail captured my imagination — from the grandest spire and dome, to the tiniest residential window-with-parted-white-curtains. For a short time, I was THERE. The sounds, the smells, the hubbub, the deserted riverfront (where IS
    everyone?), the solitary man in the rowboat (he seems to be holding a pipe to his mouth — just look), the intricate rigging. So much to observe, to imagine, to savor.

    Thank you, GA. Yours is a grand city. Waving from here in the Hudson River Valley.

  11. keithb permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Love those large format glass negatives (possibly 10×8″ then reduced and ‘printed’ onto glass slides). The emulsions of those days were orthochromatic, blue sensitive, hence the blank skies. Some photographers would line up their tripod mounted camera and take two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the sky and then combine them at the lantern slide/print making stage.

    Coasters: worth remembering that a lot of heavy stuff (stone, rope, alum, sand, pig iron, some finished goods of low value) was brought into cities by ships sailing coastal routes. Pre-war roads were not in good repair or designed for heavy traffic. Narrow boat canals were good where they existed but limited in reach – often feeding coastal docks. A small steam ship could shift a lot of stuff on a time scale of weeks. Coasters remained significant (although declining) until just after the second world war.

    A family friend’s Dad was a sailor on coasters from Liverpool to London and had tales to tell…

  12. Alfie permalink
    November 30, 2021

    Sweet Thames, flow softly

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