2 November 2017

Londoners Return to the River Thames

Four million people now use the River Thames to get to work each year. That’s up by a million in just three years, and according to Transport for London’s forecast the number will double to eight million in the next five years.

“People are increasingly asking about a home’s proximity to river buses,” Alex Greaves of Marsh & Parsons estate agents recently told the Times. “They now view this as an option for their regular commute – much more scenic, airy and enjoyable than the Tube.”

The Thames, then, is rapidly becoming one of London’s major transport connections: and it’s easy to see why. With the opening of the new pier at Battersea Power Station, River Bus services now run from 22 points along the waterway, with vessels leaving every 20 minutes at busy times. A Battersea resident can embark during the rush hour to find plenty of room aboard – these services start their eastbound run from Battersea – and be at the London Eye in just nine minutes, the Embankment in 14, or carry on to Blackfriars, Bankside and London Bridge. The 0820 boat from the Power Station reaches Blackfriars at 0842 and London Bridge at 0848, allowing a disembarking passenger to walk on to many destinations in the City’s ‘Square Mile’ by nine o’clock.

Nowadays there are more than twenty companies providing passenger services on the Thames: MBNA Thames Clippers alone, operating the River Bus, has 17 vessels in service. Not only do these boats deliver a ‘commute with a view’ – as opposed to the Underground – they offer a choice between climate-controlled cabin and open-air deck, licenced coffee bars, good mobile signal and onboard lavatories.

In modern times, all this bustle on the Thames is a new phenomenon. For the last half-century it’s been rare for ships to come further up the Thames than Tilbury in Essex, 25 miles downstream from London Bridge. Passenger services, until the resurgence of recent years, had been largely absent from the river for more than a century.

Julius Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon: but he had already crossed the Thames

Before that, though, the Thames had been the primary transport artery for London’s entire previous history. One of the earliest recorded visitors to the river was Julius Caesar, who mounted the second of his large-scale military expeditions to Britain in 54 BC. Caesar called the Thames ‘Tamesis’, based on the local name at the time. In the ancient British variety of Celtic, ancestor of today’s Welsh, this is thought to have meant ‘dark’, and many other British river names probably spring from the same root: Tamar, Tame and Thame, for instance.

Caesar’s legionaries fought their way across the Thames in the teeth of British opposition at the first shallow fording place upriver of deep water: a century later, when the Roman conquerors came to Britain to stay, they built the original London Bridge at this location. London Bridge, rebuilt in slightly different locations several times, was the only bridge in London for the next 17 centuries, which may account for some of the great popularity of ferries and water transport during most of that time. Another major factor was that travel by water was fast and cheap compared to most of the alternatives in the old days: a single boatman and his boat could move a heavy load or several people, and usually do so faster than a relatively expensive cart drawn by beasts of burden. Fast carriages or riding horses were strictly for the wealthy, and still couldn’t carry very much: nor could they keep up a high speed for any great distance without changing horses at regular intervals.

Unsurprisingly, then, much of the history of England over the last two millennia took place along the Thames. The Romans made London their provincial capital, despite a testy Queen Boadicea burning it down early in the first century. Even after the legions left, London appears to have remained a wealthy and important centre, as it was a favourite target for Viking raiders – though that may have been for the same reason that the Romans put the original city where they did: it was the furthest point up the river where seagoing ships could conveniently be loaded and unloaded.

The river’s convenience for travel also made it a political artery. The Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, built on the river banks, were the national power centre even before William the Conqueror arrived in 1066: he consolidated his grip on the important river by building the Tower of London on its banks. The barons later forced King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede, a little upriver of the modern city. Dozens of kings and queens lived and died along the banks of the Thames at the palaces of Westminster, Whitehall, Windsor, Hampton Court and Placentia – this last was the main royal palace from 1500 to 1700, and stood on the riverside site of today’s Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Placentia was King Henry VIII’s palace, and by his time the traffic on the Thames had become so busy that he thought it needed some regulation. A Parliamentary Act of 1514 set the fares that the watermen of the river – the London taxi drivers of the day – could charge, and the Act of 1555 appointed Rulers of all Watermen and Wherrymen working between Gravesend and Windsor. Thus the Company of Watermen, the guild for river boatmen carrying passengers, was born: the cargo-boat ‘Lightermen’ amalgamated with them in 1700. At first young apprentice watermen could qualify as journeymen after just a year’s training, but this was later lengthened to five. This system of training and licencing remained in force for more than 450 years, until 2007, when it was superseded by a new EU-mandated system which only requires two and a half years, though training is still overseen by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

These professional boatmen constituted a huge industry in the old London of horse-drawn times. A survey of 1598 estimated that 40,000 men then worked on the river in one capacity or another, and the whole population of the city may have been no more than 200,000 in those days – though this last figure refers only to the old City of London proper, and doesn’t allow for the fact that many people lived along the river in other places like Southwark, Greenwich and Westminster, which would now be considered part of greater London. Even those wealthy enough to maintain horses and carriages made extensive use of the watermen’s services, often from necessity as the city still had only one bridge. For the vast majority of Londoners the river was the main means of getting anywhere faster than walking, or of moving anything too heavy to be easily carried.

The oldest continuous sporting event in the world takes place on the Thames – and it’s not the Boat Race

One citizen who made extensive use of the watermen’s services was Thomas Doggett, an Irishman who moved to London and became a successful comic actor and theatre manager. He is believed to have commuted to his various workplaces in Drury Lane and the Haymarket by river from his home in Chelsea. Doggett was an ardent Whig, and as such was very pleased when King George I took the throne in 1714, ushering in a long era of Whiggish supremacy in English politics. He decided to celebrate this by instituting an annual rowing race for Thames watermen in their first year following apprenticeship, the winner to receive a handsome orange livery coat and a ‘badge of silver representing Liberty’.

Races for Doggett’s Coat and Badge have been rowed among eligible watermen qualifying in every year since 1715, which means that this is probably the oldest continuously-run sporting event in the world. (There was a hiatus during the Second World War, but races were held in 1947 among watermen who had qualified during each missed year, so that there has been a proper winner of the Coat and Badge for every single year without interruption.) For historical reasons, the race is administered not by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen but by the Fishmongers’ Company. Doggett left instructions in his will that it was to be overseen after his death by a Mr Burt of the Admiralty, but Mr Burt seems to have been unwilling, and he handed this duty over to the Fishmongers instead.

The course of the race was originally from the Swan Inn at London Bridge to the Swan Inn at Chelsea, covering 7,400 metres. Neither pub exists any longer, but the same course is still rowed, nowadays passing under 11 bridges. Until 1873 it was rowed against the tide in traditional four-seater passenger wherries, sometimes taking as long as two hours, but nowadays the competitors row with the tide in modern single-scull racing boats. The course record was set in 1973 by Bobby Prentice, later Bargemaster to the Fishmongers’ Company and Upper Warden of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, at 23 minutes 22 seconds. As the number of apprentices today is much lower than it was for most of the race’s history, the rules have been amended so that watermen can compete in any of their first three years after qualification, giving them three chances to win rather than only one.

Doggett’s Coat and Badge, despite being probably the world’s oldest continuous sporting event still taking place, is relatively obscure nowadays – though as late as 1878 it was described as ‘perhaps the most popular gala day now which gladdens the heart of the multitudes’. By contrast the much more recently established Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, which also takes place on the Thames, is the most famous rowing race in the world and one of the better-known sporting events of any kind.

The first Boat Race was in 1829, though regular annual events didn’t start until 1856, the year of the 142nd Doggett’s Coat and Badge. The University oarsmen row with the tide in eight-oared racing boats, and the course is 6,800 metres from Putney to Mortlake. Cambridge have been ahead in cumulative wins since 1930, and set the course record at 16 minutes 19 seconds in 1998. The fame and status of the Boat Race is such that it is no longer really a competition between normal university students: many of the rowers are international athletes well into their twenties who are doing postgraduate studies at Oxford or Cambridge primarily in order to compete.

The decline of the Thames as a passenger route began as the first Boat Races were happening. The river had finally begun to get more bridges: three were built in the 18th century, at Putney, Blackfriars and Westminster, and the 19th century saw 17 more appear. Steamboats ran on the river from early in the 19th century, leading to a rapid decline in business for the traditional oared watermen, but the new railways were much faster still and the much-amalgamated London Steamboat Company went bankrupt in 1884. There was an attempt to revive the dying steamboat services in 1905 by the new London County Council, but this was not a success and the LCC shut down its fleet of paddle-steamers after just two years.

The new bridges and railways gradually cut into cargo operations too. Seagoing ships had moved cargo from all over the known world to the docks east of London Bridge ever since the Romans’ time. Boats and barges had carried freight inland for nearly as long, especially once the upper reaches of the Thames and its tributaries were equipped with locks and connected to canal networks reaching all over the country. Much of this activity continued as passenger operations gradually ceased on the Thames: Tower Bridge was built with lifting bascules to allow ships to reach the Pool of London docks, and later on during the 20th century Battersea Power Station was supplied with coal by special sea-going colliers designed to fit under the city’s now numerous bridges, known as “flat-irons” or “flatties” from their distinctive low-slung design. But the railways gradually took the cargoes from all but a few of the rivers and canals, and the advent of motorised road haulage finally finished off the last of them. London’s sea docks carried on and actually reached new peaks of activity in the 1950s and 60s, but the rise of containerisation and departure of the city’s heavy industry saw almost all cargo operations move elsewhere.

From the middle of the 20th century, the once bustling river Thames became quieter and emptier than it had been for two thousand years. Meanwhile the population of Greater London declined steadily until in the 1980s and 1990s it fell below seven million – a level not seen since the end of the 19th century. Even as the city’s population fell, transport infrastructure expanded ashore: new Underground lines opened in 1968, 1979 and 1999 and many new roads appeared. It seemed that London had turned its back on the river.

Back to the river again

But things began to change as the millennium arrived. The Millennium Dome, now The O2, was built on the Greenwich peninsula and efforts began to provide transport between the massive new venue and central London. Today MBNA Thames Clippers, the fleet which operates the River Bus service under licence from Transport for London, is owned by the O2’s owners and provides special express services to it. Following the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012, which saw massive redevelopment in east London, the city’s River Action Plan was put in place to boost travel on the river and integrate waterborne services with the rest of the London transport network.

At the same time London’s population began to rise again, and it has now passed its previous 1930s peak at 8.6 million: the city’s transport is coming under serious pressure and every possible route must be used to move people about. Meanwhile traffic congestion and environmental considerations ashore have seen the river return to use for the hauling of heavy loads. The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, and the associated work on the Thames Tideway super sewer and the Northern Line Extension, has seen extensive use of barges to move excavated material, resulting in significant carbon emissions savings and removing the need for hundreds of journeys by heavy lorries through densely populated neighbourhoods.

The new, growing London will surely need all the new transport it can get through schemes like the Northern Line Extension. But more and more, especially at riverside locations like Battersea Power Station, the river will also play a significant role in getting people where they want to go: just as it did for so many centuries in the past.