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The Old River Thames

March 14, 2024
by the gentle author

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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

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Bernie permalink
    March 14, 2024

    re the last image in this set: According to the caption it must date from before 1870 so the colour has been added much later. Can anyone tell what process was used to add the colour? It strikes me as being very realistic.

  2. March 14, 2024

    I so appreciated this group of photos, and especially your words about your love of “the mighty river”. We once lived just a couple blocks from the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, and the sounds, sights, smells of the river became a part of our daily lives. It lured us, captivated us,
    intrigued us, lavished us with curious sights and customs, and remains an eternal presence in a great city.

    Cities and Rivers………….endlessly fascinating.
    Many thanks, GA.

  3. March 15, 2024

    I so enjoyed looking at these old pictures. My mother, who has now left us, was born in 1920. She loved London so much that through my childhood, even though we lived in Wiltshire, we would make annual trips just to walk the streets. In the 1970s I lived on a boat on the Grand Union Canal. When we ventured onto the Thames, it was quite an adventure. I remember we had to moor up to a rubbish barge while we waited for the tide to turn as our tiny diesel engine could not cope with the strength of the flow. And I remember sadly losing my daughter’s Christening cup when the wake from some speedy vessel set our boat rocking so violently back and forth that the widows came open. Yes, a mighty river that must be respected.

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