Friday, May 1, 2020

The Thames: England’s Liquid History

by Julian Stockwin

Customs House
My particular interest in the River Thames is its role in the Georgian age. London at the turn of the eighteenth century was much smaller than it is now of course. Upstream of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were green fields and the country, while downstream the great city spread out, mostly on the left side. The river did a single bend to the right, and on the way was Whitehall, the Bank of England, St Paul's. Then it was the Tower of London, and before the Thames had time for another wiggle it was all over, green fields again.

The Port of London

But the real heart of London, its real reason for being there, was the Port of London. This was the biggest in the world at the time, a wonder of the age. It was the undisputed centre for handling cargoes to and from all over the newly explored world. If you were to stand on London Bridge looking downstream you’d see the most amazing sight. In a space of water not a couple of hundred yards across was crammed a great mass of shipping – snows, galliots, hermaphrodite barques, cats, tilt boats; every conceivable type under every kind of flag. There were 8000 ship movements in and out of port in 1793, these increased to 16,000 by 1824, all in this one part of the river. One great forest of masts. From big ocean going East Indiamen to colliers from the north, they all rafted up together, for there were no quays to come alongside. The ships would tie up to each other, and lighters would come out to load or take out the cargo.

The Port of London was not all that big, in fact the whole thing was really concentrated at the point which was as far up the Thames as big ships could go. This was the impassable barrier of London Bridge (that’s the one next up from present day Tower Bridge). And here they all arrived, handily right in the centre of the capital. The Port of London is a stretch of river from London Bridge a couple of miles down river to the first bend. The ships would have to make their way up from Tilbury at the mouth about 25 miles upstream and through a dozen sweeping bends, crammed with other ships all moving in either direction and with fluky winds. Most were square riggers which could only keep within six points of the wind – a tough sail. A foul wind could hold up arrivals for weeks, and the Bank of England fitted a special wind dial indicator in the main dealing room so bankers could tell at a glance whether a sighted vessel would make it to London in time to land cargo to meet the terms of a Bill of Exchange. It’s still there to this day.

London and the Thames were, right up until the middle of the twentieth century, totally mutually dependent. It was the port in Britain to action the economic basis for the coming Industrial Revolution. But in the Georgian era it was more – we’re used to taxis, buses, trains and so on. In the eighteenth century you thought long and hard about even the smallest journey, and in London that meant sedan chair or slow stage coach or carriage through muddy streets and appalling traffic jams. The only practical method was by river, and this was the main highway of the time.

There were many other maritime features—the great marine observatories at Greenwich, the gun foundry at Woolwich Arsenal which is still occupied by the Ministry of Defence, and Henry VIII’s Trinity House which looked after buoys and lighthouses and still does to this day, and there were shipbuilders up and down the river. At Blackwall many famous frigates were built for the French wars. Rotherhithe, Deptford, was known for king’s ships since Shakespeare’s day. The radically designed HMS Warrior, now on show in Portsmouth, was a Thames vessel.

Support for these ships had to be on an industrial scale. If you think of the kind of stores a single ship had to load for a voyage of over a year to far places, you get an idea of what was needed - multiplied by 1000s of ships. Breweries to make the small beer that was taken instead of water, ship’s biscuits, the hard tack – the list goes on and on. There were skilled men everywhere – such as coopers making great casks who were there on dockside right up to the 1960s. The men who manned the lighters or barges, the lightermen, were also very skilled, steering with 20 foot long oars they could bring a lighter from the ship to the wharf by tide power alone.

River Scene

But the real professionals, and it took a full seven year apprenticeship, were the river taxi drivers, the watermen. In the eighteenth century they would gather their red or green wherries (a sharp bowed skiff) around one of the many ‘stairs’ or boarding points, like Horseferry stairs, Puddle dock, King’s stairs. A passenger would approach and they’d shout ‘oars, oars’. The passenger would point at one, and the others would turn on the lucky one and abuse him loudly. They were very independent, often garrulous, uncouth and arrogant, happily screeching insults at passing rivals, but they were very good at what they did, especially at ‘shooting the bridge’ which was what they called passing through London Bridge. This was like a weir, so fast were the tides. Passengers could get their money back if they were tipped into the river, or they could prudently take precautions, landing before the bridge and boarding again after. The oldest sporting event in the world is the Doggetts coat and badge race for first year watermen and runs to this day. In fact there are still watermen, and one of their privileges is delivering the Royal Crown from the Tower of London to Westminster at the state opening of parliament. If the Thames froze, a Frost Fair would be held on the ice. Gentlemen and their ladies would stroll arm in arm, there’d be plenty of entertainment, with bear baiting, an ox roast, cricket match and so on, all on the ice. The watermen couldn’t ply for hire, so they had races in which their boats were hauled over the ice by horses.

The Thames was smelly then but actually not as much as later – people were still catching salmon in the City in 1800. In the eighteenth century the practice was for night soil men to take away the liquid waste for industrial uses, and the other for manure, it was just too valuable to throw away. It wasn’t until the huge explosion of population in Victorian times coinciding with the invention of the flush toilet that the stinks and health hazards really came. In 1800 for drinking water they still relied on a big waterwheel next to London Bridge to pump up water direct from the Thames.

The river would smell rank, but this would be overlaid by other fragrances. Writers of the time use the word ‘spicy’ a lot, the scent of cargoes – cinnabar, ginger, tea, sandalwood, hemp – and of course the unmistakable rich whiff of sea worn ropes and tar. Downstream there were other smells. The ink and dye works at Deptford had very pungent copper salts, and Berger paints were nearby. The worst were the leather tanneries around Bermondsey – 30 of them! They started a vinegar factory in the middle with the idea of countering one smell with another, and miraculously, it was still going in 1991. Around the bend in the river are the Greenland docks. This was well into the country, for there the whalers used to return and the oil was processed. This caused a stink so bad that people choked. But back in the city the main smell was that of horses and their dung – uncountable thousands of horses. And the sea coal – you could see where London was from the Downs because of the big brown cloud hanging over it from the sea coal fires.

When a sailor returned after a voyage he’d be on the ran tan ashore just as fast as he could. The main area was Wapping, roughly from where the Tower of London is until the river bends. It was a maze of tiny streets and alleys, with names like Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, the Rookery, Dark Entry and so on. A wider road called Ratcliffe Highway ran through it, lined with shops, taverns, ship’s chandlers, doss houses and so on. It still exists, now called simply ‘The Highway.’

Every shop had a sailor’s lodgings above it and every kind of sharp practice was used to part the sailor from his hard earned silver. Across the river in Southwark and Rotherhithe it was the same, and we know from Chaucer that it has a pretty long history. There are still some of the old pubs – the Prospect Of Whitby in Wapping, a fine old place, the Town Of Ramsgate in Rotherhithethese - were named after ships that regularly tied up outside. The Grapes in Limehouse gets a mention in Dickens and the Mayflower pub stands on the spot where the Pilgrim fathers sailed for America.

Thames sailing barges with their distinctive sails
by Canthusus, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It’s thought that in the eighteenth century between a quarter and a third of all cargoes arriving were stolen. It varied a lot in seriousness. At one end of the scale their would be scams such as a fake agent meeting a ship and bargaining with the captain to ease the task of landing his cargo, organising lighters, customs clearance, porters and so on. The captain would agree and the cargo would be landed alright – but that would be the last he saw of it. At the other end of the scale were the mudlarks or scuffle hunters. These were young scamps who would skip aboard a vessel working cargo and suddenly throw something overboard before escaping. This article they could then retrieve from the mud later when the tide went out. River pirates were a real menace, so when they were caught they paid the penalty – and then their bodies were hung in chains in Execution dock until their skeletons had disarticulated. You can still see the sea wall near St Katherine’s dock.

The docks changed the face of the Thames. We think today of the Pool of London and the endless docks, but before the Napoleonic wars there was not even one! Then in 1802, and only to combat the thieving of cargo, out in the country the West India dock was built, with high walls and controlled security. Ships would come to a stop outside, lower their sails, and then be pulled inside by powerful land capstans. It was an instant success, and other docks were quickly dug. This brought more support services and soon London had doubled in size, and only just in time, for the number of ship movements would double as well in just 22 years.

Canaletto's painting of the Lord Mayor's Procession
This is an Editor's Choice, originally published November 23, 2014.

Julian Stockwin was sent at the age of fourteen to Indefatigable, a tough sea-training school. He joined the Royal Navy at fifteen before transferring to the Royal Australian Navy, where he served in the Far East, Antarctic waters and the South Seas. In Vietnam he saw active service in a carrier task force. After leaving the Navy Julian attended university; he became a teacher and later practised as an educational psychologist. Julian lived for some time in Hong Kong, where he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve. He was awarded the MBE and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He now lives in Devon with his wife and literary partner Kathy. More information can be found on his website. Julian also posts his own blog, BigJules and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

He has written twenty-two books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series. (Book 23 will be released in Fall 2020). Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany. And in a departure from the ongoing adventures of Kydd and Renzi, Julian also brought out a standalone historical novel set in the time of Justinian, The Silk Tree.

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