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The Thames

The Changing River

In the 19th century, as London rapidly grew, the Thames became polluted with industrial waste and sewage. The swans and the salmon vanished, and the "silver streaming Thames" was transformed into an open sewer.

"The London Bathing Season", 1859
"The London Bathing Season", 1859. Father Thames is shown trying to coax a climbing boy into his water for a bath
© TopFoto.co.uk/HIP
Even though the Thames was badly polluted, its water was still used for public consumption. This led to four cholera epidemics, between 1831 and 1866, when 36,000 Londoners died.

In 1848, Punch published a satirical poem, Dirty Father Thames:

Filthy river, filthy river,
Foul from London to the Nore,
What art thou but one vast gutter,
One tremendous common shore?
All beside thy sludgy waters,
All beside thy reeking ooze,
Christian folks inhale mephitis,
Which thy bubbly bosom brews.

Click here to read more about Punch magazine

The Great Stink

During the hot summer of 1858, the smell from the Thames was so bad that Benjamin Disraeli described it as "a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror". To protect MPs during debates, the windows of the Houses of Parliament had to be covered with sheets soaked in chloride of lime. This came to be known as "the year of the Great Stink".

The problem was solved by building a network of sewers, taking London's waste downriver, to outfalls at Barking and Crossness. By 1865, 80 miles of sewer had been constructed. Yet the Thames below London remained unfit for fish, for the sewage was not treated before its release. In the 1950s, the only creatures which could survive in the water were hardy eels.

The 19th century port

"The Docks - Night Scene", London, 1872
"The Docks - Night Scene", London, 1872. Taken from "London: A Piligrimage" by Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré
© TopFoto.co.uk/Museum of London/HIP
By the early 19th century, London had become the world's largest port. The Pool of London was overcrowded with ships, and new artificial docks, with deep basins, were built in the East End. Different docks specialised in different products: rum was unloaded at the West India dock on the Isle of Dogs, while St Katherine's dock, near the city, had warehouses for tea, rubber and live turtles (to be turned into soup). By the 1880s, between 50,000 to 100,000 men worked in the docks and riverside wharves. Read more about the tea trade here

Beside the docks, there were shipyards, where vessels were built and repaired. In 1860, HMS Warrior, a pioneering iron warship, now on display in Portsmouth, was built at the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall. She was described by Charles Dickens as "a black vicious ugly customer as ever I saw, whale-like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on a French frigate". 

HMS Warrior has been nominated as an ICON of England

Thames Water

In 1973, the Thames Water Authority was set up, to manage water supply and waste-water treatment. The river receives the drainage of more than one-seventh of the area of England, a vast water source controlled by the authority, which was privatised in 1989. Every day, 1,000 million gallons are pumped through a network of 26,000 miles of water mains, supplying London and towns such as Swindon, Reading and Slough. Recently, Thames Water has faced repeated criticism for the amount of water lost through leaking pipes.

Thames Water has also overseen a major clean-up of the river, with new sewage treatment works constructed. As a result, more than 82 species of fish have come back to the river, including salmon - last seen above Tower Bridge in 1833. Shelduck in their hundreds now overwinter in Barking Creek, and we can once more see swans gliding along the river. A less-welcome newcomer is the Chinese mitten crab, a voracious predator, which arrived in London in the ballast tanks of cargo ships from the Far East.

The docks close

The late 1960s saw the development of huge container ships, and London's docks, built for sailing ships, could not cope with the new cargo handling requirements. Between 1967 and 1982, the whole docklands complex, from Woolwich to the Tower of London, closed down. For the first time in its history, London ceased being a port. The big ships now use the container ports down river, at Tilbury and the Isle of Grain. Docklands has been redeveloped as a modern commercial and residential district.

Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier
The Thames Barrier
© TopFoto.co.uk
The Thames has always been liable to flooding, threatening the low-lying areas of London, in Southwark, Lambeth and the East End. The water level rises each year, for the whole of South East England is slowly sinking, by around a foot a century, and global warming is melting the ice caps.

To protect London, from 1975-82 the government spent more than a billion pounds building a flood barrier at Woolwich. The Thames Barrier is a vast machine with moveable gates, raised to create a steel wall during exceptionally high tides. These are increasingly common. Between 2000-2005, the Thames Barrier was raised 55 times, compared with only 12 times in the previous five years.

Join ICONS on a riverboat trip of the Thames

Find out more about flood devences at the Environment Agency's Thames Barrier website