Previously Posted: Old Father Thames

For those new to CabbieBlog or readers who are slightly forgetful, on Saturdays I’m republishing posts, many going back over a decade. Some will still be very relevant while others have become dated over time. Just think of this post as your weekend paper supplement.

Old Father Thames (30.10.09)

As I hope CabbieBlog highlights, there’s so much of and so many things in London, but only one river. When, at the start of Three Men in a Boat, George says, “Let’s go up the river!” nobody says, “What river?” Ray Davies felt no need to identify the Thames by name when, at the start of “Waterloo Sunset”, he peevishly enquires “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling . . .”.

Until the late 19th Century, the Thames was not quite the tranquil pleasure ground it largely is today. In fact, it was more of a traffic jam. By 1700, the London quays were handling 70 per cent of the country’s imports and, in 1799, for the purpose of bringing some order to the jumble of landing places, they started to build the docks.

Now, that word “dirty”, from Ray Davies’ composition is very accurate. From the mid-19th century, toilets began to be flushed straight into the subterranean sewage pipes that had originally been built to convey rainfall into the Thames. Then, in 1859, Joseph Bazalgette began building his intercepting sewers to carry the waste to a treatment plant. But the river remained stubbornly brown because, right up until the 1960s, factories along its banks were allowed to dump waste into it.

Although Bazalgette’s improvements denied Londoner’s from having the fun of Ice Fairs on the Thames, as a consequence of the river running faster after being narrowed with the construction of Victoria Embankment, the project was a resounding success.

Other projects did not far so well:

In 1796 Willey Reveley proposed to dig a new channel nearly a mile long in order to save ships the time wasted sailing round the Isle of Dogs.

Engineer Robert Stephenson dipped his toes into the waters of the Thames, approving plans for a giant latticework of steel, to enable trains to run down the centre of the river.

Several eminent Victorians favoured a scheme to dam the river at Woolwich, thereby making the Thames a giant inner-city freshwater lake.

A more recent proposal would have involved covering the river with a concrete deck and building a 6-lane motorway over it, which if completed, would have provided many hours of entertainment when London had the spring tidal surges, that the Thames Barrier was designed to minimise.

In the spirit of daft ideas Transport for London proposed removing the Thames entirely from its Underground maps.

John Beck’s innovative London Underground map that he designed in 1931, renders the vermicelli of the various lines in the form of a diagram: a circuit board as opposed to a scale map. And therein its lower portion the Thames shepherded into neat diagonals. The map is a model of elegance and simplicity that has been imitated the world over. Then, with one click of a designer’s mouse, the Thames was no more. As with so many River Thames “projects” common sense prevailed when London’s mayor, Boris Johnston told them that the great North-South divide must remain.

Today, that North-South divide is as strong as ever. North Londoners crow about the Heath, the civilised, literary atmosphere, while South Londoners boast about . . . well, search me (but then I’m North, you see). The antithesis has always been in place and it has always been of the same order: the North is salubrious, the South much funkier.

Already in Roman times, there was a red light area to the south of the bridge, and in medieval times, Southwark was fully established as an antidote to the moneyed pieties of the City. The brothels south of the river and close to the bridge were called stewes. These stewes were indirectly licensed by the Bishops of Winchester and existed in close proximity to the houses of various leading churchmen – a sort of News of the World reporter’s dream.

Between the 13th and 18th Centuries, there were houses on London Bridge, and it’s quite captivating to think that, somewhere around the centre of the bridge, there would have been a householder who lived in North London right next door to someone who lived in South London. Of course, they wouldn’t have got on. The one to the north would have always been talking about how going to Hampstead was just like being in the countryside (and he would have had a point in, say, 1400), and the one in the south would have been banging on constantly about how he could never get a cab to take him “South of the River”.

5 thoughts on “Previously Posted: Old Father Thames”

  1. When I moved back to Rotherhithe in 1985, my first house was in the newly-built ‘Reveley Square’, opposite Surrey Docks Farm. It was named after the man in your post.
    As for South London, you must have completely forgotten Blackheath, Greenwich Park, The Royal Observatory and the museums, The Cutty Sark, the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace Park, The Horniman Museum, Dulwich Park, Wimbledon Common, Eltham Palace, Richmond, Kew Gardens, and so much more.
    And that was BEFORE they refurbished the dockside and riverside areas, built The London Eye, Tate Modern, and The Globe Theatre.
    Swap all that for a big heath north of the river? Nah!
    Cheers, Pete.

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