Tag Archives: River Thames

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.

Mudlarking

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

Type in Thames

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 (I now use that font for reading on my Kindle).

Upon completion and subsequent inspection by the tutor it was expected that you would diss (distribute the type back into the typecase) it back for the next student.

[S]ome 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. Or you can go to the type forum MyFont.com where dedicated individuals attempt to identify that illusive 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

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, funerals and as we saw this weekend pageants.

In 1929 the MP John Burns famously described the river as “ The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history ”.

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

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.

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 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.

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 is recognised as the world’s oldest rowing race.

Old Father Thames

[A]s 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 declares “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.

new tube mapIn 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 there in 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’.