Tag Archives: River Thames

Did you know there are two River Thames?

At 215 miles the River Thames is the longest river entirely in England, and mightily lovely it looks in parts. But there’s another…

Yes, London’s famous river has an American cousin, but with one difference, just like Americans inexplicably call a pavement a ‘sidewalk’ this is the Thames River, not the River Thames, but it turns out not everything in America is bigger.

A mere 15 miles in length from its mouth to the shores of Norwich, the Thames River is an estuary, a span of brackish water that ebbs and flows with the tides, and has on its bank New London. Until 1658 when they named New London the river has had many titles, originally known as the Pequot River after the Pequot Indians who dominated the area, other early names include Frisius, Great, Great River of Pequot, Little Fresh, Mohegan, New London, and Pequod, then the river was rebranded Thames River after the River Thames.

Apart from nomenclature, it has some remarkable similarities with its larger namesake. They once had an ice fair on the Thames River, around the winter of 1903-4, something not seen in London since the Victorians narrowed the river.

London had Deptford Dockyard and along its banks saw the building and launching a slew of behemoth ships, including, of course, Brunel’s SS Great Eastern.

New London’s answer to Deptford is the world’s first submarine base, which, in 1954, was the launch site of the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.

But my favourite connection is the university boat races. We have the annual between Oxford and Cambridge universities, while Americans gather on the banks of the Thames River each summer, to cheer on competitors in the annual Harvard-Yale Regatta. A lovely little coincidence.

Unfortunately, the way you pronounce the two rivers’ names is different, yes we’re back to the potato/tomato discussion. Our transatlantic cousins for reasons best only known to themselves pronounce the Thames to rhyme it with ‘James’, and I suppose any footpath alongside is a sidewalk.

The Thames eyots

One of the conundrums when working as a London cabbie is, just where do you stop for lunch? The public’s perception that we all meet at a convenient diner is true for some, but where do you take your break if you’re on the other side of London?

One of my favourite watering holes, in more ways than one, was Chiswick Mall with its Georgian and Regency houses strung out along the River Thames.

Opposite these houses in the river is the Chiswick Eyot, the first major island you come to in the Thames if you’re travelling up from central London.

This island is an eyot, one of 120 islands in the Thames, each with its unique character and atmosphere, some have many people living on or around them in bungalows or houseboats, but like the Chiswick Eyot, some are completely uninhabited and are all the more mysterious for it.

The Chiswick Eyot is a protected nature reserve, and can completely flood on the fast-moving high tides – there are warning signs planted there telling you so. With permission at low tide, you could wade out to the eyot, but even then it would be at your own risk of the tide advancing.

At low tide, the island rears up before you, with a long raised bank around this four-acre lump of land covered at one end with clipped willow trees that once grew on many of the Thames islands. The willows were used to make baskets for the London markets and crayfish pots. This is the last place where basket makers still come across and cut them anywhere on the Thames, keeping alive an ancient craft.

The island is incredibly unstable, such is the force of the Thames’s tides that it is subject to continual erosion, and if it wasn’t for the work of volunteers who have helped to shore up its banks, it would have been washed away by now. This means that historically the island was much larger. Even today it’s constantly in danger of falling apart completely.

Unfortunately, the island is also being invaded by Chinese Mitten Crabs, a species of crab thought to have been introduced to the Thames estuary about 1935, arriving here as a by-product of intercontinental shipping by clinging onto the hulls of ships. The crabs burrow into muddy banks and create complex interconnected burrows. The consequences for Chiswick Eyot are potentially disastrous, as the crabs’ burrowing loosens the mud around the eyot, and when the tide flows in and out, the earth is washed away, steadily eroding the island over time.

Featured image: The Chiswick Eyot. The River Thames rises at Thames Head in Gloucestershire on the slopes of the Cotswolds and flows generally eastward to its mouth near Southend in Essex. At 215 miles long it is one of the longest rivers in Britain and the longest entirely in England. It is one of the most important rivers in Britain by N Chadwick (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Thames’ silent H

The writers and printers of the 1500s didn’t have access to etymology dictionaries, so they sometimes mixed up Latin and Greek words. That’s what happened with the Latin name Thames.

Of course, it’s spelled ‘T-h-a-m-e-s,’ even though it’s pronounced with a simple ‘t’ sound. The word has Celtic roots, and it has been around since Old English. It had always been pronounced with a simple ‘t’ sound at the front, but in late Middle English, it started to pick up the modern TH spelling, presumably because it resembled some of the Greeks words that were coming into English at the time like the Greek word teme which became theme after the spelling was changed. So the Thames got a TH as well, but the pronunciation didn’t change to reflect the new spelling. The name was probably too common and too familiar to English speakers for the pronunciation to be altered by a spelling change.

Taken from The History of English Podcast by Kevin W. Stroud.

Bridge of Sighs

The Hammersmith Bridge closure continues with only waterborne emergency services allowed anywhere near the structure. This bridge has a long history of curious human activity, or like today, non-activity.

When I was a student at what’s now rather grandly named The London College of Communication we would have to compose type by hand in a typeface called Baskerville. Upon completion and subsequent inspection of the text by the tutor, it was expected that you would diss (distribute the type back into the typecase) it back for the next student.

Some less than diligent students would, instead smuggle their work out of college and ’distribute’ their work into the Thames from whichever bridge they happened to cross on their way home.

I was reminded of this when reading The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery about the destruction of an iconic typeface from the parapet of Hammersmith Bridge which took over 100 clandestine nightly trips dropping the metal into the river’s murky depths.

One of the leading figures of the Arts & Crafts Movement was Cobden Sanderson, founder of the legendary Doves Press. Both brilliant and creative when it came to commercialisation he was blinkered. Having designed one of the world’s most beautiful typefaces he was afraid that his partner Emery Walker, upon his death, would mechanise the type which he believed should always be set by hand – in the same way, I learnt as a student half-a-century later.

Lovers of typefaces (or fonts in modern-day parlance) tend to be an obsessive lot. You can, after all, get the name of a typeface by downloading the app WhatTheFont which allows you to take a photograph of a letter or word, the app then tries vainly to identify it. You can go to the type forum MyFont.com where dedicated individuals attempt to identify that elusive font, and have an opinion, often laced with copious bile upon the font’s merits.

Nearly a century later Robert Green a designer who has spent years researching this lost typeface, now available on Typespec managed to get permission from The Port of London Authority to allow divers to look for the missing punches under Hammersmith Bridge. If ever looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack applied, this was it. The bridge had been the target of two IRA bombings one if which had blown water 60ft into the air.

Green had narrowed the search to a small dip in the meandering river, and within 20 minutes despite 100 years of tidal flow, the first punches were found.

Doves Press was founded to preserve a craft that had been in the forefront of literature for hundreds of years, but at that time found itself on the cusp of an industrial revolution much like today with digital typesetting. As with this, the latest way to communicate was bound to accede to technology.

Today this typeface can be bought and used by graphic designers and typesetters using equipment beyond the imagination of its designer. So maybe this crazed perfectionist was correct and the use of his typeface would end up being commercialised.

Liquid history and mudlarking

The River Thames is etched into England’s psyche, over the years it has played a central role in the life of the nation, historically used for coronations, processions, unwelcome invasions and funerals.

[I]N 1929 THE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT John Burns famously described the river as “The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”.

King Henry VIII loved his palaces at Greenwich and Richmond, but once he had sight of Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court he did not rest until he “persuaded” Wolsey to “give” it to him.

At every stroke of oars did tears fall

Queen Elizabeth I also loved Greenwich and Richmond, and it was at Richmond Palace in 1603 that she died. Her body was brought downstream to Westminster for her funeral on a magnificent black barge; the poet William Campden described the scene as follows:
“The Queen was brought by water to Whitehall. At every stroke of oars did tears fall”.

Less romantic was Henry VIII’s final trip from London to Windsor – he was due to be buried in St George’s Chapel there. During the overnight stop between London and Windsor, his barge moored at Syon House in Isleworth. His coffin suddenly split open, and dogs were found licking his remains.

String of pearls

The banks of the Thames became the favoured location for buildings of all kinds, from monastic abbeys to gorgeous palaces. The huge number of famous buildings along the course of the Thames gave rise to the description of the river as a “string” linking a series of “pearls”.

In the 17th and 18th centuries during the hard winter freezes, Frost Fairs were held on the River Thames, complete with ox-roasting, groups of musicians playing, stalls selling a variety of popular novelties and food, fairground amusements and performing animals.

The last fair to be held on the Thames was in February 1814. In 1831 the old London Bridge was replaced, and – with the removal of the “starlings” or piers upon which the old bridge rested – the river no longer slowed down sufficiently for it to freeze over sufficiently to support public events.

The River Thames also provided some of the greatest “shows” seen on the water. In 1422 the Lord Mayor’s Show took to the water. The participating barges of the City Livery companies became ever more ornate. Barges were covered in gold leaf and some rowed with oars of silver.

In the 17th century, the Lord Mayor’s procession included dramas and pageants. However, these came to an end in 1856 as the river had become clogged up with working vessels.

Doggett’s coat and badge

It was an actor who established one of the most enduring of the traditions of the River Thames. In 1715 Thomas Doggett was so grateful to a local waterman for his efforts to ferry him home on a bad night, pulling against the tide that he set up a rowing race for professional watermen.

The winner receives prize money and also the coveted scarlet coat and badge, made of silver – hence the name of the race “Doggett’s Coat and Badge”. The race is still held on 1st August each year when professional watermen row from London Bridge to Chelsea and are recognised as the world’s oldest rowing race.


Just yesterday, and the anniversary of Doggett’s race, I finished what is destined to become the seminal book on one aspect of the Thames, its foreshore, Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem

I loved reading this account of a little-understood pastime, with its history of London and personal recollections told through objects found on the banks of the Thames.

Here Lara Maiklem describes releasing bottles, pins, knives and even a deceased’s ashes, from their liquid incarceration; each piece treated with dignity and many with a story to tell.

Part memoir; part mudlarking manual; weaving the history and personal insights of the river which has shaped the world’s greatest city, this book is destined to become essential reading for anyone who wants to improve their knowledge about London.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th June 2012