It is the Celts who probably named the Thames. It is thought by some to come from the Old English word ‘Temese’, meaning ‘to flow turbidly’. A simple name for a river full of detritus you might think, but it was probably the only waterway in the region that actually flowed, even if a little muddily. The river’s sinuous looping remains central to the idea of London and is frequently used on graphic devices representing the capital even the BBC’s Eastenders uses it on the titles.
[T]oday we Londoners refer to this lower stretch of England’s longest river as, well, ‘The River’ in the definite article as if it was the only river that existed, or at least the only one that mattered – which of course it is.
Ham comes from a bend in the shore, similar to ‘ham’ from the bend of the knee, a cut of meat from the thigh of the hind leg of certain animals, especially pig. Hampton gets its name from a pig’s anatomy.
At times it has erroneously been given a male gender and nicknamed Old Father Thames a kind of post-modern quasi-tutelary deity when in reality at times it has flooded and rather than protected Londoners has taken lives.
Over time most goods that entered London came via The River, so landing places were crucial. In Old English the word for a landing place was hythe, some locations on The River’s foreshore still bear this out: Rotherhithe or cattle harbour from which cattle may have been shipped across The River for the market at Smithfield. Greenhithe and Bablock Hythe in Oxfordshire are also locations of mediaeval docks.
Lambs were landed just west of Westminster – you could say today politicians act like a flock of sheep – but from that we get the corruption Lambeth.
Further upriver Chelsea was where chalk was landed and Putney (once Puttenhuthe, possibly where hawks were landed, but more probably named after a man who had hawk-like features).
Greenwich was first recorded in 964, its name derives from the Old English for a green trading place or harbour. At Shadwell its name is derived from a shallow spring or stream, not a shady well as some might think of the area.
Further downriver Woolwich unsurprisingly is named after a trading place for wool, while its neighbour Thamesmead sounds as if should be a bucolic place to enjoy a glass of mead. Thamesmead’s name in fact was the winning entry in a newspaper competition. The area’s topography of lakes and canals relieving the starkness of the built environment was once dubbed ‘the town of the 21st century. I doubt if many of its residents today would agree with that sentiment.