River Thames (/tɛmz/ ( listen) TEMZ) is a river that
flows through southern England, most notably through London. At 215
miles (346 km), it is the longest river entirely in
the second longest in the United Kingdom, after the River Severn. It
also flows through
Oxford (where it is called Isis), Reading,
Henley-on-Thames and Windsor. The lower reaches of the river are
called the Tideway, derived from its long tidal reach up to Teddington
Lock. It rises at
Thames Head in Gloucestershire, and flows into the
North Sea via the Thames Estuary. The Thames drains the whole of
Its tidal section, reaching up to
Teddington Lock, includes most of
London stretch and has a rise and fall of 7 metres (23 ft).
Running through some of the driest parts of mainland Britain and
heavily abstracted for drinking water, the Thames' discharge is low
considering its length and breadth: the Severn has a discharge almost
twice as large on average despite having a smaller drainage basin. In
Scotland, the Tay achieves more than double the average discharge from
a drainage basin that is 60% smaller.
Along its course are 45 navigation locks with accompanying weirs. Its
catchment area covers a large part of south eastern and a small part
England and the river is fed by 38 named
tributaries. The river contains over 80 islands.
With its waters varying from freshwater to almost seawater, the Thames
supports a variety of wildlife and has a number of adjoining Sites of
Special Scientific Interest, with the largest being in the remaining
parts of the North
Kent Marshes and covering 5,449 hectares (13,460
In 2010, the Thames won the largest environmental award in the world
– the $350,000 International Riverprize.
3 Human activity
4 Physical and natural aspects
4.1 Sea level
4.2 Catchment area and discharge
4.2.1 The non-tidal section
4.2.2 The tidal section
4.4 Geological and topographic history
4.4.1 Ice age
4.4.2 Conversion of marshland
5 Human history
5.1 Roman Britain
5.2 Middle Ages
5.3 Early modern period
5.4 Victorian era
5.5 20th century
6 The active river
6.1 Transport and tourism
6.1.1 The tidal river
6.1.2 The upper river
6.1.3 Aerial lift
6.2 Police and lifeboats
6.3.1 History of the management of the river
6.4 The river as a boundary
7.1 Treated sewage
7.2 Mercury levels
7.3 Natural carbon compounds
Kayaking and canoeing
9 The Thames in the arts
9.1 Visual arts
10 Major flood events
London flood of 1928
Thames Valley flood of 1947
Canvey Island flood of 1953
11 See also
13 Further reading
14 External links
A statue of Old Father Thames by
Raffaelle Monti at St John's Lock,
The Thames, from
Middle English Temese, is derived from the Brittonic
Celtic name for the river, Tamesas (from *tamēssa), recorded in
Tamesis and yielding modern Welsh Tafwys "Thames". The name
may have meant "dark" and can be compared to other cognates such as
Russian темно (
Proto-Slavic *tĭmĭnŭ), Latvian tumsa
Sanskrit tamas and Welsh tywyll "darkness" (Proto-Celtic
Middle Irish teimen "dark grey". The same origin is
shared by countless other river names, spread across Britain, such as
River Tamar at the border of
Devon and Cornwall, several rivers
named Tame in the Midlands and North Yorkshire, the Tavy on Dartmoor,
the Team of the North East, the Teifi and Teme of Wales, the Teviot in
the Scottish Borders, as well as one of the Thames' tributaries called
Kenneth H. Jackson has proposed that the name of the Thames is not
Indo-European (and of unknown meaning), while Peter Kitson
suggested that it is Indo-European but originated before the
has a name indicating "muddiness" from a root *tā-, 'melt'.
Indirect evidence for the antiquity of the name 'Thames' is provided
by a Roman potsherd found at Oxford, bearing the inscription
Tamesubugus fecit (Tamesubugus made [this]). It is believed that
Tamesubugus' name was derived from that of the river. Tamese was
referred to as a place, not a river in the
Ravenna Cosmography (c. AD
The river's name has always been pronounced with a simple t /t/; the
Middle English spelling was typically Temese and the Brittonic form
Tamesis. A similar spelling from 1210, "Tamisiam", is found in the
The Thames through
Oxford is sometimes called the Isis. Historically,
and especially in Victorian times, gazetteers and cartographers
insisted that the entire river was correctly named the Isis from its
source down to
Dorchester on Thames
Dorchester on Thames and that only from this point,
where the river meets the Thame and becomes the "Thame-isis"
(supposedly subsequently abbreviated to Thames) should it be so
Ordnance Survey maps still label the Thames as "River Thames
or Isis" down to Dorchester. However, since the early 20th century
this distinction has been lost in common usage outside of Oxford, and
some historians suggest the name Isis is nothing more than a
truncation of Tamesis, the
Latin name for the Thames.
Richard Coates suggests that while the river was as a whole called the
Thames, part of it, where it was too wide to ford, was called
*(p)lowonida. This gave the name to a settlement on its banks, which
became known as Londinium, from the Indo-European roots *pleu- "flow"
and *-nedi "river" meaning something like the flowing river or the
wide flowing unfordable river.
For merchant seamen, the Thames has long been just the "
Londoners often refer to it simply as "the river" in expressions such
as "south of the river".
The river gives its name to three informal areas: the Thames Valley, a
England around the river between
Oxford and West London; the
Thames Gateway; and the greatly overlapping
Thames Estuary around the
tidal Thames to the east of
London and including the waterway itself.
Thames Valley Police is a formal body that takes its name from the
river, covering three counties. The administrative powers of the
Thames Conservancy have been taken on with modifications by the
Environment Agency and, in respect of the
Tideway part of the river,
such powers are split between the agency and the Port of London
Authority. In non-administrative use, stemming directly from the river
and its name are
Thames Valley University, Thames Water, Thames
Television productions, Thames & Hudson publishing, Thameslink
(north-south railways passing through central London) and South Thames
College. Historic entities include the Thames Ironworks and
The administrative powers of the
Thames Conservancy have been taken on
with modifications by the
Environment Agency and, in respect of the
Tideway part of the river, such powers are split between the agency
and the Port of
The marks of human activity, in some cases dating back to Pre-Roman
Britain, are visible at various points along the river. These include
a variety of structures connected with use of the river, such as
navigations, bridges and watermills, as well as prehistoric burial
mounds. A major maritime route is formed for much of its length for
shipping and supplies: through the Port of
London for international
trade, internally along its length and by its connection to the
British canal system. The river's position has put it at the centre of
many events in British history, leading to it being described by John
Burns as "liquid history".
Two broad canals link the river to other river basins: the Kennet and
Avon Canal (Reading to Bath) and the
Grand Union Canal
Grand Union Canal (
London to the
Midlands). The Grand Union effectively bypassed the earlier, narrow
Oxford Canal which also remains open as a popular scenic
recreational route. Three further cross-basin canals are disused but
are in various stages of reconstruction: the Thames and Severn Canal
(via Stroud), which operated until 1927 (to the west coast of
Wey and Arun Canal
Wey and Arun Canal to Littlehampton, which operated
until 1871 (to the south coast), and the Wilts and Berks Canal.
Rowing and sailing clubs are common along the Thames, which is
navigable to such vessels.
Kayaking and canoeing also take place.
Major annual events include the
Henley Royal Regatta
Henley Royal Regatta and the Boat
Race, while the Thames has been used during two Summer Olympic Games:
1908 (rowing);1948 (rowing and canoeing). Safe headwaters and reaches
are a summer venue for organised swimming, which is prohibited on
safety grounds in a stretch centred on Central London.
Physical and natural aspects
The marker stone at the official source of the
River Thames named
Thames Head near Kemble
The Seven Springs source
Thames Barrier provides protection against floods
The Thames passes by some of the sights of London, including the
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament and the
The Thames passing through the
London Borough of Richmond upon Thames
The usually quoted source of the Thames is at
Thames Head (at grid
reference ST980994). This is about 3⁄4 mile (1.2 km) north
of Kemble parish church in southern Gloucestershire, near the town of
Cirencester, in the Cotswolds.
However, Seven Springs near Cheltenham, where the Churn (which feeds
into the Thames near Cricklade) rises, is also sometimes quoted as the
Thames' source, as this location is furthest from the mouth,
and adds some 14 miles (23 km) to the length. At Seven Springs
above the source is a stone with the
Latin hexameter inscription "Hic
tuus o Tamesine pater septemgeminus fons", which means "Here, O Father
Thames, [is] your sevenfold source".
The springs at Seven Springs flow throughout the year, while those at
Thames Head are only seasonal (a winterbourne). The Thames is the
longest river entirely in England, but the River Severn, which is
partly in Wales, is the longest river in the United Kingdom. As the
River Churn, sourced at Seven Springs, is 14 miles (23 km) longer
than the Thames (from its traditional source at
Thames Head to the
confluence), the overall length of the Thames measured from Seven
Springs, 229 miles (369 km), is greater than the Severn's length
220 miles (350 km). Thus, the "Churn/Thames" river may be
regarded as the longest natural river in the United Kingdom.
The stream from Seven Springs is joined at
Coberley by a longer
tributary which could further increase the length of the Thames, with
its source in the grounds of the
National Star College
National Star College at Ullenwood.
The Thames flows through or alongside Ashton Keynes, Cricklade,
Lechlade, Oxford, Abingdon-on-Thames, Wallingford, Goring-on-Thames
Pangbourne and Whitchurch-on-Thames, Reading, Wargrave,
Henley-on-Thames, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton,
Staines-upon-Thames and Egham, Chertsey, Shepperton, Weybridge,
Molesey and Thames Ditton. The
river was subject to minor redefining and widening of the main channel
around Oxford, Abingdon and Marlow before 1850, since when further
cuts to ease navigation have reduced distances further.
Molesey faces Hampton, London, and in Greater
London the Thames passes
Hampton Court Palace, Surbiton, Kingston upon Thames, Teddington,
Twickenham, Richmond (with a famous view of the Thames from Richmond
Hill), Syon House, Kew, Brentford, Chiswick, Barnes, Hammersmith,
Fulham, Putney, Wandsworth,
Battersea and Chelsea. In central London,
the river passes
Pimlico and Vauxhall, and then forms one of the
principal axes of the city, from the Palace of
Westminster to the
Tower of London. At this point, it historically formed the southern
boundary of the medieval city, with Southwark, on the opposite bank,
then being part of Surrey.
Beyond central London, the river passes Bermondsey, Wapping, Shadwell,
Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Millwall, Deptford, Greenwich, Cubitt Town,
New Charlton and Silvertown, before flowing through the
Thames Barrier, which protects central
London from flooding by storm
surges. Below the barrier, the river passes Woolwich, Thamesmead,
Dagenham, Erith, Purfleet, Dartford, West Thurrock, Northfleet,
Gravesend before entering the
Thames Estuary near
Sediment cores up to 10 m deep collected by the British Geological
Survey from the banks of the tidal
River Thames contain geochemical
information and fossils which provide a 10,000-year record of
sea-level change. Combined, this and other studies suggest that
the Thames sea-level has risen more than 30 m during the Holocene at a
rate of around 5–6 mm per year from 10,000 to 6,000 years
ago. The rise of sea level dramatically reduced when the ice melt
nearly concluded over the past 4,000 years. Since the beginning of the
20th century rates of sea level rise range from 1.22 mm per year
to 2.14 mm per year.
Catchment area and discharge
Main article: Tributaries of the River Thames
The Thames River Basin District, including the Medway catchment,
covers an area of 6,229 square miles (16,130 km2). The river
basin includes both rural and heavily urbanised areas in the east and
northern parts while the western parts of the catchment are
predominantly rural. The area is among the driest in the United
Kingdom. Water resources consist of groundwater from aquifers and
water taken from the Thames and its tributaries, much of it stored in
large bank-side reservoirs.
The Thames itself provides two-thirds of London's drinking water while
groundwater supplies about 40 per cent of public water supplies in the
total catchment area.
Groundwater is an important water source,
especially in the drier months, so maintaining its quality and
quantity is extremely important.
Groundwater is vulnerable to surface
pollution, especially in highly urbanised areas.
The non-tidal section
Main article: Locks and weirs on the River Thames
Jubilee River at Slough Weir
St John's Lock, near Lechlade
River Thames in Oxford
Brooks, canals and rivers, within an area of 3,842 square miles
(9,951 km2), combine to form 38 main tributaries feeding the
Thames between its source and
Teddington Lock. This is the usual tidal
limit; however, high spring tides can raise the head water level in
the reach above
Teddington and can occasionally reverse the river flow
for a short time. In these circumstances, tidal effects can be
observed upstream to the next lock beside
Molesey weir, which is
visible from the towpath and bridge beside
Hampton Court Palace.
Teddington Lock was built in 1810–12, the river was tidal at
peak spring tides as far as Staines upon Thames.
In descending order, non-related tributaries of the non-tidal Thames,
with river status, are the Churn, Leach, Cole, Ray, Coln, Windrush,
Evenlode, Cherwell, Ock, Thame, Pang, Kennet, Loddon, Colne, Wey and
Mole. In addition, there are occasional backwaters and artificial cuts
that form islands, distributaries (most numerous in the case of the
Colne), and man-made distributaries such as the Longford River. Three
canals intersect this stretch: the
Oxford Canal, Kennet and Avon Canal
and Wey Navigation.
Its longest artificial secondary channel (cut), the Jubilee River, was
Maidenhead and Windsor for flood relief and completed in
The non-tidal section of the river is owned and managed by the
Environment Agency, which is responsible for managing the flow of
water to help prevent and mitigate flooding, and providing for
navigation: the volume and speed of water downstream is managed by
adjusting the sluices at each of the weirs and, at peak high water,
levels are generally dissipated over preferred flood plains adjacent
to the river. Occasionally, flooding of inhabited areas is unavoidable
and the agency issues flood warnings. Due to stiff penalties
applicable on the non-tidal river, which is a drinking water source
before treatment, sanitary sewer overflow from the many sewage
treatment plants covering the upper Thames basin is rare in the
non-tidal Thames, which ensures clearer water compared to the river's
The tidal section
Main article: Tideway
London Stone at Staines, built in 1285 marked the customs limit of the
Thames and the City of London's jurisdiction
Waterstand of Thames at low tide (left) and high tide (right) in
Blackfriars Bridge in London
Teddington Lock (about 55 miles or 89 kilometres upstream of the
Thames Estuary), the river is subject to tidal activity from the North
Sea. Before the lock was installed, the river was tidal as far as
Staines, about 16 miles (26 km) upstream. London, capital of
Roman Britain, was established on two hills, now known as Cornhill and
Ludgate Hill. These provided a firm base for a trading centre at the
lowest possible point on the Thames.
A river crossing was built at the site of
is now used as the basis for published tide tables giving the times of
high tide. High tide reaches
Putney about 30 minutes later than London
Teddington about an hour later. The tidal stretch of the
river is known as "the Tideway".
Tide tables are published by the Port
London Authority and are available online. Times of high and low
tides are also posted on Twitter.
The principal tributaries of the
River Thames on the
the rivers Brent, Wandle, Effra, Westbourne, Fleet, Ravensbourne (the
final part of which is called
Deptford Creek), Lea, Roding, Darent and
Ingrebourne. At London, the water is slightly brackish with sea salt,
being a mix of sea and fresh water.
This part of the river is managed by the Port of
London Authority. The
flood threat here comes from high tides and strong winds from the
North Sea, and the
Thames Barrier was built in the 1980s to protect
London from this risk.
Main article: Islands in the River Thames
London City Airport is on the site of a dock
River Thames contains over 80 islands ranging from the large
estuarial marshlands of the
Isle of Sheppey
Isle of Sheppey and
Canvey Island to small
tree-covered islets like
Rose Isle in
Headpile Eyot in
Berkshire. They are found all the way from the
Isle of Sheppey
Isle of Sheppey in Kent
Fiddler's Island in Oxfordshire. Some of the largest inland
islands, for example
Formosa Island near
Cookham and Andersey Island
at Abingdon, were created naturally when the course of the river
divided into separate streams.
Oxford area the river splits into several streams across the
floodplain (Seacourt Stream, Castle Mill Stream,
Bulstake Stream and
others), creating several islands (Fiddler's Island,
others). Desborough Island,
Ham Island at
Old Windsor and Penton Hook
Island were artificially created by lock cuts and navigation channels.
Eyot is a familiar landmark on the Boat Race course, while
Glover's Island forms the centrepiece of the spectacular view from
Islands of historical interest include
Magna Carta Island at
Fry's Island at Reading, and Pharaoh's Island near
Shepperton. In more recent times
Platts Eyot at Hampton was the place
Motor Torpedo Boats
Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB)s were built,
Tagg's Island near
Molesey was associated with the impresario
Fred Karno and Eel Pie
Twickenham was the birthplace of the South East's R&B
Westminster Abbey and the Palace of
Westminster (commonly known today
as the Houses of Parliament) were built on Thorney Island, which used
to be an eyot.
Geological and topographic history
See also: Ancestral Thames
European LGM refuges, 20,000 years ago. The Thames was a minor river
that joined the Rhine, in the southern
North Sea basin at this time.
Solutrean and Proto
River Thames can first be identified as a discrete drainage line
as early as 58 million years ago, in the
Thanetian stage of the
Palaeocene epoch. Until around 500,000 years ago, the Thames
flowed on its existing course through what is now Oxfordshire, before
turning to the north east through
East Anglia and
North Sea near Ipswich.
At this time the river system headwaters lay in the English West
Midlands and may, at times, have received drainage from the Berwyn
Mountains in North Wales. Brooks and rivers like the River Brent,
Colne Brook and
Bollo Brook either flowed into the then River Thames
or went out to sea on the course of the present-day River Thames.
About 450,000 years ago, in the most extreme
Ice Age of the
Pleistocene, the Anglian, the furthest southern extent of the ice
sheet was at
Hornchurch in east London. It dammed the river in
Hertfordshire, resulting in the formation of large ice lakes, which
eventually burst their banks and caused the river to be diverted onto
its present course through what is now London. Progressively, the
channel was pushed south to form the
St Albans depression by the
repeated advances of the ice sheet.
This created a new river course through
Berkshire and on into London,
after which the river rejoined its original course in southern Essex,
near the present River Blackwater estuary. Here it entered a
substantial freshwater lake in the southern
North Sea basin. The
overspill of this lake caused the formation of the Dover Strait gap
between Britain and France. Subsequent development led to the
continuation of the course that the river follows at the present
Most of the bedrock of the Vale of Aylesbury is made up of clay and
chalk that was formed at the end of the ice age and at one time was
under the Proto-Thames. Also created at this time were the vast
underground reserves of water that make the water table higher than
average in the Vale of Aylesbury.
A geological map of the
London Basin; the
Clay is marked in
The confluence of Rivers Thames and Brent. The narrowboat is heading
up the River Brent. From this point as far as
Hanwell the Brent has
been canalised and shares its course with the main line of the Grand
Union Canal. From
Hanwell the Brent can be traced to various sources
in the Barnet area.
The last advance from that Scandinavian ice flow to have reached this
far south covered much of north west
Middlesex and finally forced the
Proto-Thames to take roughly its present course. At the height of the
last ice age, around 20,000 BC, Britain was connected to mainland
Europe by a large expanse of land known as
Doggerland in the southern
North Sea basin. At this time, the Thames' course did not continue to
Doggerland but flowed southwards from the eastern
Essex coast where it
met the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt flowing from what are now
Netherlands and Belgium. These rivers formed a single river—the
Channel River (Fleuve Manche)—that passed through the Dover Strait
and drained into the Atlantic Ocean in the western English Channel.
The ice sheet, which stopped around present day Finchley, deposited
boulder clay to form
Dollis Hill and Hanger Hill. Its torrent of
meltwater gushed through the
Finchley Gap and south towards the new
course of the Thames, and proceeded to carve out the Brent Valley in
the process. Upon the valley sides there can be seen other
terraces of brickearth, laid over and sometimes interlayered with the
These deposits were brought in by the winds during the periglacial
periods, suggesting that wide, flat marshes were then part of the
landscape, which the new river Brent proceeded to cut down. The
steepness of the valley sides is an indicator of the very much lower
mean sea levels caused by the glaciation locking up so much water upon
the land masses, thus causing the river water to flow rapidly seaward
and so erode its bed quickly downwards.
The original land surface was around 350 to 400 feet (110 to 120
metres) above the current sea level. The surface had sandy deposits
from an ancient sea, laid over sedimentary clay (this is the blue
London Clay). All the erosion down from this higher land surface, and
the sorting action by these changes of water flow and direction,
formed what is known as the Thames River Gravel Terraces.
Since Roman times and perhaps earlier, the isostatic rebound from the
weight of previous ice sheets, and its interplay with the eustatic
change in sea level, have resulted in the old valley of the River
Brent, together with that of the Thames, silting up again. Thus, along
much of the Brent's present-day course, one can make out the water
meadows of rich alluvium, which is augmented by frequent floods.
Conversion of marshland
After the river took its present-day course, many of the banks of the
Thames Estuary and the
Thames Valley in
London were partly covered in
marshland, as was the adjoining Lower Lea Valley. Streams and rivers
like the River Lea,
Tyburn Brook and
Bollo Brook drained into the
river, while some islands, e.g. Thorney Island, formed over the ages.
The northern tip of the ancient parish of Lambeth, for example, was
marshland known as
Lambeth Marshe, but it was drained in the 18th
century; it is remembered in the street name Lower Marsh.
The East End of London, also known simply as the East End, was the
London east of the medieval walled City of
London and north of
the River Thames, although it is not defined by universally accepted
formal boundaries; the
River Lea can be considered another
boundary. Most of the local riverside was also marshland. The land
was drained and became farmland; it was built on after the Industrial
Revolution. Use of the term "East End" in a pejorative sense began in
the late 19th century,
Canvey Island in southern
Essex (area 18.45 km2,
7.12 sq mi; population 37,479) was once marshy, but is
now a fully reclaimed island in the Thames estuary. It is separated
from the mainland of south
Essex by a network of creeks. Lying below
sea level it is prone to flooding at exceptional tides, but has
nevertheless been inhabited since Roman times.
Swan Upping – skiffs surround the swans
Fishing at Penton Hook Island
Various species of birds feed off the river or nest on it, some being
found both at sea and inland. These include cormorant, black-headed
gull and herring gull. The mute swan is a familiar sight on the river
but the escaped black swan is more rare. The annual ceremony of Swan
Upping is an old tradition of counting stocks.
Non-native geese that can be seen include Canada geese, Egyptian geese
and bar-headed geese, and ducks include the familiar native mallard,
Mandarin duck and wood duck. Other water birds to be
found on the Thames include the great crested grebe, coot, moorhen,
heron and kingfisher. Many types of British birds also live alongside
the river, although they are not specific to the river habitat.
The Thames contains both sea water and fresh water, thus providing
support for seawater and freshwater fish. However, many populations of
fish are at risk and are being killed in tens of thousands because of
pollutants leaking into the river from human activities. Salmon,
which inhabit both environments, have been reintroduced and a
succession of fish ladders have been built into weirs to enable them
to travel upstream.
On 5 August 1993, the largest non-tidal salmon in recorded history was
caught close to
Boulters Lock in Maidenhead. The specimen weighed
14 1⁄2 pounds (6.6 kg) and measured 22 inches (56 cm)
in length. The eel is particularly associated with the Thames and
there were formerly many eel traps. Freshwater fish of the Thames and
its tributaries include brown trout, chub, dace, roach, barbel, perch,
pike, bleak and flounder. Colonies of short-snouted seahorses have
also recently been discovered in the river. The Thames is also
host to some invasive crustaceans, including the signal crayfish and
the Chinese mitten crab.
Aquatic mammals are also known to inhabit the Thames. The population
of grey and harbour seals numbers up to 700 in the Thames Estuary.
These animals have been sighted as far upriver as Richmond.
Bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises are also sighted in the
On 20 January 2006, a 16–18 ft (4.9–5.5 m) northern
bottle-nosed whale was seen in the Thames as far upstream as Chelsea.
This was extremely unusual: this whale is generally found in deep sea
waters. Crowds gathered along the riverbanks to witness the
extraordinary spectacle but there was soon concern, as the animal came
within yards of the banks, almost beaching, and crashed into an empty
boat causing slight bleeding. About 12 hours later, the whale is
believed to have been seen again near Greenwich, possibly heading back
to sea. A rescue attempt lasted several hours, but the whale died on a
River Thames whale.
The Tower of London, with Tower Bridge, built 800 years later
River Thames has played several roles in human history: as an
economic resource, a maritime route, a boundary, a fresh water source,
a source of food and more recently a leisure facility. In 1929, John
Burns, one-time MP for Battersea, responded to an American's
unfavourable comparison of the Thames with the Mississippi by coining
the expression "The Thames is liquid history".
There is evidence of human habitation living off the river along its
length dating back to
Neolithic times. The
British Museum has a
decorated bowl (3300–2700 BC), found in the river at Hedsor,
Buckinghamshire, and a considerable amount of material was discovered
during the excavations of
Dorney Lake. A number of Bronze Age
sites and artefacts have been discovered along the banks of the river
including settlements at Lechlade,
Cookham and Sunbury-on-Thames.
So extensive have the changes to this landscape been that what little
evidence there is of man's presence before the ice came has inevitably
shown signs of transportation here by water and reveals nothing
specifically local. Likewise, later evidence of occupation, even since
the arrival of the Romans, may lie next to the original banks of the
Brent but have been buried under centuries of silt.
Some of the earliest written references to the Thames (Latin: Tamesis)
occur in Julius Caesar's account of his second expedition to Britain
in 54 BC, when the Thames presented a major obstacle and he
Iron Age Belgic tribes the
Catuvellauni and the
Atrebates along the river. The confluence of the Thames and Cherwell
was the site of early settlements and the
River Cherwell marked the
boundary between the
Dobunni tribe to the west and the Catuvellauni
tribe to the east (these were pre-Roman Celtic tribes). In the late
1980s a large
Romano-British settlement was excavated on the edge of
the village of
Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire.
In AD 43, under the Emperor Claudius, the Romans occupied
England and, recognising the river's strategic and economic
importance, built fortifications along the
Thames valley including a
major camp at Dorchester. Cornhill and
Ludgate Hill provided a
defensible site near a point on the river both deep enough for the
era's ships and narrow enough to be bridged;
Londinium (London) grew
up around the Walbrook on the north bank around the year 47. Boudica's
Iceni razed the settlement in AD 60 or 61 but it was soon rebuilt
and, following the completion of its bridge, it grew to become the
provincial capital of the island.
The next Roman bridges upstream were at Staines) on the Devil's
Londinium and Calleva (Silchester). Boats could be
swept up to it on the rising tide with no need for wind or muscle
Romano-British settlement grew up north of the confluence, partly
because the site was naturally protected from attack on the east side
River Cherwell and on the west by the River Thames. This
settlement dominated the pottery trade in what is now central southern
England, and pottery was distributed by boats on the Thames and its
Competition for the use of the river created the centuries-old
conflict between those who wanted to dam the river to build millraces
and fish traps and those who wanted to travel and carry goods on it.
Economic prosperity and the foundation of wealthy monasteries by the
Anglo-Saxons attracted unwelcome visitors and by around AD 870 the
Vikings were sweeping up the Thames on the tide and creating havoc as
in their destruction of
A 1616 engraving by
Claes Van Visscher
Claes Van Visscher showing the Old
Southwark Cathedral in the foreground
Once King William had won total control of the strategically important
Thames Valley, he went on to invade the rest of England. He had many
castles built, including those at Wallingford, Rochester, Windsor and
most importantly the Tower of London. Many details of Thames activity
are recorded in the Domesday Book. The following centuries saw the
conflict between king and barons coming to a head in AD 1215 when King
John was forced to sign the
Magna Carta on an island in the Thames at
Runnymede. Among a host of other things, this granted the barons the
right of Navigation under Clause 23.
Another major consequence of John's reign was the completion of the
London Bridge, which acted as a barricade and barrage on
the river, affecting the tidal flow upstream and increasing the
likelihood of the river freezing over. In Tudor and Stuart times,
various kings and queens built magnificent riverside palaces at
Hampton Court, Kew, Richmond on Thames,
Whitehall and Greenwich.
As early as the 1300s, the Thames was used to dispose of waste matter
produced in the city of London, thus turning the river into an open
sewer. In 1357,
Edward III described the state of the river in a
proclamation: "... dung and other filth had accumulated in divers
places upon the banks of the river with ... fumes and other abominable
stenches arising therefrom."
The growth of the population of
London greatly increased the amount of
waste that entered the river, including human excrement, animal waste
from slaughter houses, and waste from manufacturing processes.
According to historian Peter Ackroyd, "a public lavatory on London
Bridge showered its contents directly onto the river below, and
latrines were built over all the tributaries that issued into the
Early modern period
The Frozen Thames, 1677
During a series of cold winters the Thames froze over above London
Bridge: in the first Frost Fair in 1607, a tent city was set up on the
river, along with a number of amusements, including ice bowling.
In good conditions, barges travelled daily from
Oxford to London
carrying timber, wool, foodstuffs and livestock. The stone from the
Cotswolds used to rebuild
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire in
1666 was brought all the way down from Radcot. The Thames provided the
major route between the City of
Westminster in the 16th and
17th centuries; the clannish guild of watermen ferried Londoners from
landing to landing and tolerated no outside interference. In 1715,
Thomas Doggett was so grateful to a local waterman for his efforts in
ferrying him home, pulling against the tide, that he set up a rowing
race for professional watermen known as "Doggett's Coat and Badge".
Michael Faraday giving his card to Father Thames, caricature
commenting on a letter of Faraday's on the state of the river in The
Times in July 1855
By the 18th century, the Thames was one of the world's busiest
London became the centre of the vast, mercantile British
Empire, and progressively over the next century the docks expanded in
Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs and beyond. Efforts were made to resolve the
navigation conflicts upstream by building locks along the Thames.
After temperatures began to rise again, starting in 1814, the river
stopped freezing over. The building of a new
London Bridge in
1825, with fewer piers (pillars) than the old, allowed the river to
flow more freely and prevented it from freezing over in cold
Throughout early modern history the population of
London and its
industries discarded their rubbish in the river. This included the
waste from slaughterhouses, fish markets, and tanneries. The buildup
in household cesspools could sometimes overflow, especially when it
rained, and was washed into London's streets and sewers which
eventually led to the Thames. In the late 18th and 19th centuries
people known as Mudlarks scavenged in the river mud for a meagre
Satirical cartoon by William Heath, showing a woman observing monsters
in a drop of
London water (at the time of the Commission on the London
Water Supply report, 1828)
In the 19th century the quality of water in Thames deteriorated
further. The dumping of raw sewage into the Thames was formerly only
common in the City of London, making its tideway a harbour for many
harmful bacteria. Gas manufactories were built alongside the river,
and their by-products leaked into the water, including spent lime,
ammonia, cyanide, and carbolic acid. The river had an unnaturally warm
temperature caused by chemical reactions in the water, which also
removed the water's oxygen. Four serious cholera outbreaks killed
tens of thousands of people between 1832 and 1865. Historians have
attributed Prince Albert's death in 1861 to typhoid that had spread in
the river's dirty waters beside Windsor Castle. Wells with water
tables that mixed with tributaries (or the non-tidal Thames) faced
such pollution with the widespread installation of the flush toilet in
the 1850s. In the 'Great Stink' of 1858, pollution in the river
reached such an extreme that sittings of the House of Commons at
Westminster had to be abandoned. Chlorine-soaked drapes were hung in
the windows of Parliament in an attempt to stave off the smell of the
river, but to no avail.
A concerted effort to contain the city's sewage by constructing
massive sewer systems on the north and south river embankments
followed, under the supervision of engineer Joseph Bazalgette.
Meanwhile, similar huge undertakings took place to ensure the water
supply, with the building of reservoirs and pumping stations on the
river to the west of London, slowly helping the quality of water to
Victorian era was one of imaginative engineering. The coming of
the railways added railway bridges to the earlier road bridges and
also reduced commercial activity on the river. However, sporting and
leisure use increased with the establishment of regattas such as
Henley and the Boat Race. On 3 September 1878, one of the worst river
England took place, when the crowded pleasure boat
Princess Alice collided with the Bywell Castle, killing over 640
The Thames as it flows through east London, with the
Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs in
The growth of road transport, and the decline of the Empire in the
years following 1914, reduced the economic prominence of the river.
During the Second World War, the protection of certain Thames-side
facilities, particularly docks and water treatment plants, was crucial
to the munitions and water supply of the country. The river's defences
included the Maunsell forts in the estuary, and the use of barrage
balloons to counter German bombers using the reflectivity and shapes
of the river to navigate during the Blitz.
In the post-war era, although the Port of
London remains one of the
UK's three main ports, most trade has moved downstream from central
London. In the late 1950s, the discharge of methane gas in the depths
of the river caused the water to bubble, and the toxins wore away at
The decline of heavy industry and tanneries, reduced use of
oil-pollutants and improved sewage treatment have led to much better
water quality as compared with the late 19th and early- to mid-20th
centuries and aquatic life has returned to its formerly 'dead'
Alongside the entire river runs the Thames Path, a National Route for
walkers and cyclists.
In the early 1980s a pioneering flood control device, the Thames
Barrier, was opened. It is closed to tides several times a year to
prevent water damage to London's low-lying areas upstream (the 1928
Thames flood demonstrated the severity of this type of event).
In the late 1990s, the 7-mile (11 km) long
Jubilee River was
built as a wide "naturalistic" flood relief channel from
Eton to help reduce the flood risk in
Maidenhead Windsor and Eton.
The active river
Houseboats on the River Thames, in the St Margaret's, Twickenham
One of the major resources provided by the Thames is the water
distributed as drinking water by Thames Water, whose area of
responsibility covers the length of the River Thames. The Thames Water
Ring Main is the main distribution mechanism for water in London, with
one major loop linking the Hampton, Walton, Ashford and Kempton Park
Water Treatment Works with central London.
In the past, commercial activities on the Thames included fishing
(particularly eel trapping), coppicing willows and osiers which
provided wood, and the operation of watermills for flour and paper
production and metal beating. These activities have disappeared. A
screw turbine hydro-electric plant at
Romney Lock to power Windsor
Castle using two Archimedes' screws was opened in 2013 by the
The Thames is popular for a wide variety of riverside housing,
including high-rise flats in central
London and chalets on the banks
and islands upstream. Some people live in houseboats, typically around
Brentford and Tagg's Island.
Transport and tourism
The tidal river
London River Services
Passenger service on the River Thames
London there are many sightseeing tours in tourist boats, past the
more famous riverside attractions such as the
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament and
the Tower of
London as well as regular riverboat services co-ordinated
London River Services.
London city Airport is situated on the
Thames, in East London. Previously it was a dock.
The upper river
In summer, passenger services operate along the entire non-tidal river
Oxford to Teddington. The two largest operators are Salters
Steamers and French Brothers. Salters operate services between Folly
Oxford and Staines. The whole journey takes 4 days and
requires several changes of boat. French Brothers operate
passenger services between
Maidenhead and Hampton Court. Along the
course of the river a number of smaller private companies also offer
river trips at Oxford, Wallingford, Reading and Hampton Court.
Many companies also provide boat hire on the river.
The leisure navigation and sporting activities on the river have given
rise to a number of businesses including boatbuilding, marinas, ships
chandlers and salvage services.
Ferries operating on the Thames
London's Air Line over the River Thames
The Air Line aerial cable system over the Thames from the Greenwich
Peninsula to the
Royal Docks has been in operation since the 2012
Police and lifeboats
The river is policed by five police forces. The Thames Division is the
River Police arm of London's Metropolitan Police, while
Thames Valley Police,
Essex Police and
Kent Police have
responsibilities on their parts of the river outside the metropolitan
area. There is also a
London Fire Brigade fire boat on the river. The
river claims a number of lives each year.
As a result of the
Marchioness disaster in 1989 when 51 people died,
the Government asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Port of
London Authority and the
Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to
work together to set up a dedicated Search and Rescue service for the
tidal River Thames. As a result, there are four lifeboat stations on
River Thames at
Teddington lifeboat station), Chiswick
Chiswick lifeboat station), Victoria Embankment/Waterloo Bridge
(Tower Lifeboat Station) and
London looking west, from the high-level walkway on Tower
Bridge. Click on the picture for a longer description
A container ship unloading at
Northfleet Hope terminal, Tilbury
A ship heading downstream past Coryton Refinery
Rubbish traps are used on the Thames to filter debris as it flows
through central London
The Thames is maintained for navigation by powered craft from the
estuary as far as
Gloucestershire and for very small craft
to Cricklade. From
Teddington Lock to the head of navigation, the
navigation authority is the Environment Agency. Between the sea and
Teddington Lock, the river forms part of the Port of
navigation is administered by the Port of
London Authority. Both the
tidal river through
London and the non-tidal river upstream are
intensively used for leisure navigation.
River Thames is divided into reaches by the 45 locks.
The locks are staffed for the greater part of the day, but can be
operated by experienced users out of hours. This part of the Thames
links to existing navigations at the
River Wey Navigation, the River
Kennet and the
Oxford Canal. All craft using it must be licensed. The
Environment Agency has patrol boats (named after tributaries of the
Thames) and can enforce the limit strictly since river traffic usually
has to pass through a lock at some stage. A speed limit of 8 km/h
(4.3 kn) applies. There are pairs of transit markers at various
points along the non-tidal river that can be used to check speed – a
boat travelling legally taking a minute or more to pass between the
The tidal river is navigable to large ocean-going ships as far
upstream as the Pool of
London Bridge. Although London's
upstream enclosed docks have closed and central
London sees only the
occasional visiting cruise ship or warship, the tidal river remains
one of Britain's main ports. Around 60 active terminals cater for
shipping of all types including ro-ro ferries, cruise liners and
vessels carrying containers, vehicles, timber, grain, paper, crude
oil, petroleum products, liquified petroleum gas etc. There is a
regular traffic of aggregate or refuse vessels, operating from wharves
in the west of London. The tidal Thames links to the canal network at
River Lea Navigation, the
Regent's Canal at
Limehouse Basin and
Grand Union Canal
Grand Union Canal at Brentford.
Wandsworth Bridge a speed limit of 8 knots (15 km/h)
is in force for powered craft to protect the riverbank environment and
to provide safe conditions for rowers and other river users. There is
no absolute speed limit on most of the
Tideway downstream of
Wandsworth Bridge, although boats are not allowed to create undue
wash. Powered boats are limited to 12 knots between
Lambeth Bridge and
downstream of Tower Bridge, with some exceptions. Boats can be
approved by the harbour master to travel at speeds of up to 30 knots
Tower Bridge to past the Thames Barrier.
History of the management of the river
Middle Ages the Crown exercised general jurisdiction over the
Thames, one of the four royal rivers, and appointed water bailiffs to
oversee the river upstream of Staines. The City of
jurisdiction over the tidal Thames. However, navigation was
increasingly impeded by weirs and mills, and in the 14th century the
river probably ceased to be navigable for heavy traffic between Henley
and Oxford. In the late 16th century the river seems to have been
reopened for navigation from Henley to Burcot.
The first commission concerned with the management of the river was
the Oxford-Burcot Commission, formed in 1605 to make the river
navigable between Burcot and Oxford.
In 1751 the
Thames Navigation Commission was formed to manage the
whole non-tidal river above Staines. The City of
London long claimed
responsibility for the tidal river. A long running dispute between the
City and the Crown over ownership of the river was not settled until
1857, when the
Thames Conservancy was formed to manage the river from
Staines downstream. In 1866 the functions of the Thames Navigation
Commission were transferred to the Thames Conservancy, which thus had
responsibility for the whole river.
In 1909 the powers of the
Thames Conservancy over the tidal river,
below Teddington, were transferred to the Port of
In 1974 the
Thames Conservancy became part of the new Thames Water
Thames Water was privatised in 1990, its river
management functions were transferred to the National Rivers
Authority, in 1996 subsumed into the Environment Agency.
In 2010, the Thames won the world's largest environmental award at the
time, the $350,000 International Riverprize, presented at the
International Riversymposium in Perth, WA in recognition of the
substantial and sustained restoration of the river by many hundreds of
organisations and individuals since the 1950s.
The river as a boundary
Until enough crossings were established, the river presented a
formidable barrier, with Belgic tribes and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms being
defined by which side of the river they were on. When English counties
were established their boundaries were partly determined by the
Thames. On the northern bank were the ancient counties of
Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire,
Middlesex and Essex. On
the southern bank were the counties of Wiltshire, Berkshire, Surrey
The 214 bridges and 17 tunnels that have been built to date have
changed the dynamics and made cross-river development and shared
responsibilities more practicable. In 1965, upon the creation of
Greater London, the
London Borough of Richmond upon Thames
incorporated the former '
Middlesex and Surrey' banks,
Middlesex to Surrey; and further changes in 1974 moved some of
the boundaries away from the river. For example, some areas were
Berkshire to Oxfordshire, and from
Berkshire. On occasion – for example in rowing – the banks are
still referred to by their traditional county names.
Main article: List of crossings of the River Thames
Newbridge, in rural Oxfordshire
The Railway bridge at Maidenhead
The Millennium Footbridge with
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral in the background
Many of the present-day road bridges are on the site of earlier fords,
ferries and wooden bridges. At Swinford Bridge, a toll bridge, there
was first a ford and then a ferry prior to the bridge being built. The
earliest known major crossings of the Thames by the Romans were at
London Bridge and Staines Bridge. At
Folly Bridge in
remains of an original Saxon structure can be seen, and medieval stone
bridges such as Newbridge and
Abingdon Bridge are still in use.
Kingston's growth is believed to stem from its having the only
London Bridge and Staines until the beginning of the
18th century. During the 18th century, many stone and brick road
bridges were built from new or to replace existing bridges both in
London and along the length of the river. These included Putney
Windsor Bridge and Sonning
London road bridges were built in the 19th century,
most conspicuously Tower Bridge, the only
Bascule bridge on the river,
designed to allow ocean-going ships to pass beneath it. The most
recent road bridges are the bypasses at
Isis Bridge and Marlow By-pass
Bridge and the motorway bridges, most notably the two on the M25 route
Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and M25
Railway development in the 19th century resulted in a spate of bridge
Blackfriars Railway Bridge
Blackfriars Railway Bridge and Charing Cross
(Hungerford) Railway Bridge in central London, and the spectacular
railway bridges by
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel at
Gatehampton Railway Bridge
Gatehampton Railway Bridge and
Moulsford Railway Bridge.
The world's first underwater tunnel was Marc Brunel's Thames Tunnel
built in 1843 and now used to carry the East
London Line. The Tower
Subway was the first railway under the Thames, which was followed by
all the deep-level tube lines. Road tunnels were built in East London
at the end of the 19th century, being the
Blackwall Tunnel and the
Rotherhithe Tunnel. The latest tunnels are the
Many foot crossings were established across the weirs that were built
on the non-tidal river, and some of these remained when the locks were
built – for example at Benson Lock. Others were replaced by a
footbridge when the weir was removed as at Hart's
Around 2000, several footbridges were added along the Thames, either
as part of the
Thames Path or in commemoration of the millennium.
These include Temple Footbridge, Bloomers Hole Footbridge, the
Hungerford Footbridges and the Millennium Bridge, all of which have
distinctive design characteristics.
Before bridges were built, the main means of crossing the river was by
ferry. A significant number of ferries were provided specifically for
navigation purposes. When the towpath changed sides, it was necessary
to take the towing horse and its driver across the river. This was no
longer necessary when barges were powered by steam. Some ferries still
operate on the river. The
Woolwich Ferry carries cars and passengers
across the river in the
Thames Gateway and links the North Circular
and South Circular roads. Upstream are smaller pedestrian ferries, for
example Hampton Ferry and
Weybridge Ferry the last being
the only non-permanent crossing that remains on the Thames Path.
Treated sewage from all the towns and villages in the Thames catchment
flow into the Thames via sewage treatment plants. This includes all
the sewage from Swindon, Oxford, Reading and Windsor.
However, untreated sewage still regularly enters the Thames during wet
weather. When London's sewerage system was built, sewers were designed
to overflow through discharge points along the river during heavy
storms. Originally, this would happen once or twice a year, however
overflows now happen once a week on average. In 2013, over 55m
tonnes of raw sewage was washed into the tidal Thames. These discharge
events kill fish, leave raw sewage on the riverbanks, and decrease the
water quality of the river.
To prevent the release of raw sewage and rainwater into the river, the
Tideway Scheme is currently under construction at a cost of
£4.2 billion. This project will collect sewage before it overflows,
before channeling it down a 25 km (15 mi) tunnel underneath
the tidal Thames, so it can be treated at Beckton
Works. The result of the project will be reduction of sewage
discharges into the river by 90%, dramatically increasing water
Mercury (Hg) is an environmentally persistent heavy metal which at
high concentrations can be toxic to marine life and humans. Sixty
sediment cores of 1 m in depth, spanning the entire tidal River
Brentford and the
Isle of Grain
Isle of Grain have been analysed for
total Hg. The sediment records show a clear rise and fall of Hg
pollution through history. Mercury concentrations in the River
Thames decrease downstream from
London to the outer
Estuary with the
total Hg levels ranging from 0.01 to 12.07 mg/kg, giving a mean
of 2.10 mg/kg which is higher than many other UK and European
river estuaries. The highest amount of sedimentary-hosted Hg
pollution in the Thames estuary occurs in the central
Vauxhall Bridge and Woolwich. The majority of sediment
cores show a clear decrease in Hg concentrations close to the surface
which is attributed to an overall reduction in polluting activities as
well as improved effectiveness of recent environmental legalisation
and river management (e.g. Oslo-Paris convention).
Natural carbon compounds
Evaluation of select of lipid compounds in the Thames estuary, known
as glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers (GDGTs) has revealed enhanced
concentrations of isoprenoid GDGT compounds (crenarchaeol) around East
London. This suggests that London's pollution affects the spatial
distribution of natural carbon in the river sediments. Other
organic geochemical measurements of carbon flow such as stable carbon
isotopes (δ13C) were found to be insensitive to this urban
There are several watersports prevalent on the Thames, with many clubs
encouraging participation and organising racing and inter-club
Main article: Rowing on the River Thames
Cambridge cross the finish line ahead of
Oxford in the 2007 Boat Race,
The Thames is the historic heartland of rowing in the United Kingdom.
There are over 200 clubs on the river, and over 8,000 members of
British Rowing (over 40% of its membership). Most towns and
districts of any size on the river have at least one club.
Internationally attended centres are Oxford,
events and clubs on the stretch of river from
Chiswick to Putney.
Two rowing events on the
River Thames are traditionally part of the
wider English sporting calendar:
The University Boat Race (between
Oxford and Cambridge) takes place in
late March or early April, on the Championship Course from
Mortlake in the west of London.
Henley Royal Regatta
Henley Royal Regatta takes place over five days at the start of July
in the upstream town of Henley-on-Thames. Besides its sporting
significance the regatta is an important date on the English social
calendar alongside events like Royal Ascot and Wimbledon.
Other significant or historic rowing events on the Thames include:
Head of the River Race
Head of the River Race and Women's Eights Head of the River Race
(8+) (i.e. coxed eights), Schools' Head, Veterans Head, Scullers Head,
Fours Head (HOR4s), and Pairs Head (shorter) on the Championship
The Wingfield Sculls
The Wingfield Sculls on the same course: (1x) (single sculling)
Doggett's Coat and Badge
Doggett's Coat and Badge for apprentice watermen of London, one of the
oldest sporting events in the world
Henley Women's Regatta
Henley Boat Races
Henley Boat Races currently for the Lightweight (men's and
women's) crews of
Oxford University bumping races known as
Eights Week and Torpids
Other regattas, head races and university bumping races are held along
the Thames which are described under Rowing on the River Thames.
Main article: Sailing on the River Thames
Thames Raters at Raven's Ait, Surbiton
Sailing is practised on both the tidal and non-tidal reaches of the
river. The highest club upstream is at Oxford. The most popular
sailing craft used on the Thames are lasers, GP14s and Wayfarers. One
sailing boat unique to the Thames is the Thames Rater, which is sailed
around Raven's Ait.
Skiffing has dwindled in favour of private motor boat ownership but is
competed on the river in the summer months. Six clubs and a similar
number of skiff regattas exist from the Skiff Club, Teddington
Unlike the "pleasure punting" common on the Cherwell in
Oxford and the
Cam in Cambridge, punting on the Thames is competitive as well as
recreational and uses narrower craft, typically based at the few skiff
Kayaking and canoeing
Kayaking and canoeing on the River Thames
Kayaking and canoeing are common, with sea kayakers using the tidal
stretch for touring. Sheltered water kayakers and canoeists use the
non-tidal section for training, racing and trips. Whitewater
playboaters and slalom paddlers are catered for at weirs like those at
Sunbury Lock and Boulter's Lock. At
before the tidal section of the river starts is Royal Canoe Club, said
to be the oldest in the world and founded in 1866. Since 1950, almost
every year at Easter, long distance canoeists have been competing in
what is now known as the Devizes to
Westminster International Canoe
Race, which follows the course of the Kennet and Avon Canal, joins
River Thames at Reading and runs right up to a grand finish at
In 2006 British swimmer and environmental campaigner
Lewis Pugh became
the first person to swim the full length of the Thames from outside
Southend-on-Sea to draw attention to the severe drought in
England which saw record temperatures indicative of a degree of global
warming. The 202 miles (325 km) swim took him 21 days to
complete. The official headwater of the river had stopped flowing due
to the drought forcing Pugh to run the first 26 miles
Since June 2012 the Port of
London Authority has made and enforces a
by-law that bans swimming between
Putney Bridge and Crossness,
Thamesmead (thus including all of central London) without obtaining
prior permission, on the grounds that swimmers in that area of the
river endanger not only themselves, due to the strong current of the
river, but also other river users.
Organised swimming events take place at various points generally
upstream of Hampton Court, including Windsor, Marlow and
Henley. In 2011 comedian
David Walliams swam the 140 miles
(230 km) from
Westminster Bridge and raised over
£1 million for charity.
In non-tidal stretches swimming was, and still is, a leisure and
fitness activity among experienced swimmers where safe, deeper outer
channels are used in times of low stream.
Thames meander is a long-distance journey over all or part of the
Thames by running, swimming or using any of the above means. It is
often carried out as an athletic challenge in a competition or for a
The Thames in the arts
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The Thames in the arts
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil)
– Claude Monet
Westminster Bridge as painted by
Canaletto in 1746.
Maidenhead Railway Bridge as Turner saw it in 1844
Monet's Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard, Houses of Parliament,
London, Sun Breaking Through the Fog, 1904
Whistler's Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old
Battersea Bridge (c.
Foggy Morning on the Thames – James Hamilton (between 1872 and 1878)
Boating on the Thames - John Lavery, circa 1890
River Thames has been a subject for artists, great and minor, over
the centuries. Four major artists with works based on the Thames are
Canaletto, J. M. W. Turner,
Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeill
Whistler. The 20th century British artist
Stanley Spencer produced
many works at Cookham.
The river is lined with various pieces of sculpture, but John
Kaufman's sculpture The Diver: Regeneration is sited in the Thames
The river and bridges are destroyed - together with much of the city -
in the movie Independence Day 2.
A seal in the river at St. Saviour's Dock, London
The Thames is mentioned in many works of literature including novels,
diaries and poetry. It is the central theme in three in particular:
Three Men in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, first published in 1889, is a
humorous account of a boating holiday on the Thames between Kingston
and Oxford. The book was intended initially to be a serious travel
guide, with accounts of local history of places along the route, but
the humorous elements eventually took over. The landscape and features
of the Thames as described by Jerome are virtually unchanged, and the
book's enduring popularity has meant that it has never been out of
print since it was first published.
Our Mutual Friend
Our Mutual Friend (written in the years 1864–65)
describes the river in a grimmer light. It begins with a scavenger and
his daughter pulling a dead man from the river near
London Bridge, to
salvage what the body might have in its pockets, and heads to its
conclusion with the deaths of the villains drowned in Plashwater Lock
upstream. The workings of the river and the influence of the tides are
described with great accuracy. Dickens opens the novel with this
sketch of the river, and the people who work on it:
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no
need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with
two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between
which is of iron, and
London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn
evening was closing in. The figures in this boat were those of a
strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a
girl of nineteen or twenty. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls
very easily; the man with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his
hands loose in his waisteband, kept an eager look-out.
Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, written in 1908, is set in
the middle to upper reaches of the river. It starts as a tale of
anthropomorphic characters "simply messing about in boats" but
develops into a more complex story combining elements of mysticism
with adventure and reflection on Edwardian society. It is generally
considered one of the most beloved works of children's literature
and the illustrations by E.H.Shepard and Arthur Rackham feature the
Thames and its surroundings.
The river almost inevitably features in many books set in London. Most
of Dickens' other novels include some aspect of the Thames. Oliver
Twist finishes in the slums and rookeries along its south bank. The
Sherlock Holmes stories by
Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle often visit riverside
parts as in The Sign of Four. In
Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad,
the serenity of the contemporary Thames is contrasted with the
savagery of the Congo River, and with the wilderness of the Thames as
it would have appeared to a Roman soldier posted to Britannia two
thousand years before. Conrad also gives a description of the approach
London from the
Thames Estuary in his essays The Mirror of the Sea
(1906). Upriver, Henry James'
Portrait of a Lady
Portrait of a Lady uses a large
riverside mansion on the Thames as one of its key settings.
Literary non-fiction works include Samuel Pepys' diary, in which he
recorded many events relating to the Thames including the Fire of
London. He was disturbed while writing it in June 1667 by the sound of
gunfire as Dutch warships broke through the
Royal Navy on the Thames.
In poetry, William Wordsworth's sonnet On
Westminster Bridge closes
with the lines:
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot makes several references to the Thames in The Fire Sermon,
Section III of The
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar,
The barges wash
Past the Isle of Dogs
The Sweet Thames line is taken from Edmund Spenser's Prothalamion
which presents a more idyllic image:
Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes;
Whose rutty banke, the which his river hemmes,
Was paynted all with variable flowers.
And all the meads adornd with daintie gemmes
Fit to deck maydens bowres
Also writing of the upper reaches is
Matthew Arnold in The Scholar
Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hythe
Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet
As the slow punt swings round
Oh born in days when wits were fresh and clear
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
Before this strange disease of modern life.
Wendy Cope's poem 'After the Lunch' is set on Waterloo Bridge,
On Waterloo Bridge, where we said our goodbyes,
The weather conditions bring tears to my eyes.
I wipe them away with a black woolly glove,
And try not to notice I’ve fallen in love.
Dylan Thomas mentions the Thames in his poem "A Refusal to Mourn the
Death, by Fire, of a Child in London". "London's Daughter", the
subject of the poem, lays "Deep with the first dead...secret by the
unmourning water of the riding Thames".
Science-fiction novels make liberal use of a futuristic Thames. The
News from Nowhere
News from Nowhere by
William Morris is mainly the account of a
journey through the
Thames valley in a socialist future. The Thames
also features prominently in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
trilogy, as a communications artery for the waterborne Gyptian people
Oxford and the Fens, and as a prominent setting for his novel La
Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis, the Thames appears
several times. In one book, rat characters swim through it to
Deptford. Winner of the Nestlé Children's Book Prize Gold Award I,
Coriander, by Sally Gardner is a fantasy novel in which the heroine
lives on the banks of the Thames.
Mark Wallington describes a journey up the Thames in a camping skiff,
in his 1989 book Boogie up the River (ISBN 978-0-09-965910-5).
The Water Music composed by
George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel premiered on 17
July 1717, when King George I requested a concert on the River Thames.
The concert was performed for King George I on his barge and he is
said to have enjoyed it so much that he ordered the 50 exhausted
musicians to play the suites three times on the trip.
The song 'Old Father Thames' was recorded by Peter Dawson at Abbey
Road Studios in 1933 and by
Gracie Fields five years later.
Jessie Matthews sings "My river" in the 1938 film Sailing Along, and
the tune is the centrepiece of a major dance number near the end of
Sex Pistols played a concert on the Queen Elizabeth Riverboat on 7
June 1977, the Queen's Silver Jubilee year, while sailing down the
The choral line "(I) (liaised) live by the river" in the song "London
Calling" by the Clash refers to the River Thames.
Two songs by the Kinks feature the Thames as the setting of the first
song's title and, for the second song, arguably in its mention of 'the
river': "Waterloo Sunset" is about a couple's meetings on Waterloo
London and starts: "Dirty old river, must you keep rolling,
flowing into the night?" and continues "Terry meets Julie, Waterloo
station" and "...but Terry and Julie cross over the river where they
feel safe and sound...". "See My Friends" continually refers to the
singer's friends "playing 'cross the river" instead of the girl who
"just left". Furthermore,
Ray Davies as a solo artist refers to the
river Thames in his "
Ewan MacColl's "Sweet Thames, Flow Softly", written in the early
1960s, is a tragic love ballad set on trip up the river (see Edmund
Spencer's love poem's refrain above)
Imogen Heap wrote a song from the point of view of
River Thames entitled "You Know Where To Find Me". The song was
released in 2012 on 18 October as the sixth single from her fourth
Major flood events
London flood of 1928
Main article: 1928 Thames flood
1928 Thames flood
1928 Thames flood was a disastrous flood of the
River Thames that
affected much of riverside
London on 7 January 1928, as well as places
further downriver. Fourteen people were drowned in
thousands were made homeless when flood waters poured over the top of
Thames Embankment and part of the
Chelsea Embankment collapsed. It
was the last major flood to affect central London, and, particularly
following the disastrous
North Sea flood of 1953, helped lead to the
implementation of new flood-control measures that culminated in the
construction of the
Thames Barrier in the 1970s.
Thames Valley flood of 1947
Main article: 1947 Thames flood
1947 Thames flood
1947 Thames flood was worst overall 20th century flood of the
River Thames, affecting much of the
Thames Valley as well as elsewhere
England during the middle of March 1947 after a very severe winter.
The floods were caused by 4.6 inches (120 mm) of rainfall
(including snow); the peak flow was 61.7 billion litres
(13.6 billion imperial gallons) of water per day and the damage
cost a total of £12 million to repair. War damage to some of
the locks made matters worse.
Other significant Thames floods since 1947 have occurred in 1968,
1993, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2014.
Canvey Island flood of 1953
Main article: Canvey Island
Canvey Island sea front, amusements and residential areas
On the night of 31 January, the
North Sea flood of 1953 devastated the
island taking the lives of 58 islanders, and led to the temporary
evacuation of the 13,000 residents. Canvey is consequently
protected by modern sea defences comprising 15 miles (24 km) of
concrete seawall. Many of the victims were in the holiday
bungalows of the eastern Newlands estate and perished as the water
reached ceiling level. The small village area of the island is
approximately two feet (0.6 m) above sea level and consequently
escaped the effects of the flood.
UK Waterways portal
Dartford Cable Tunnel
List of locations in the Port of London
List of rivers of the United Kingdom
River and Rowing Museum
Steamboat – reference Thames Steamboats
Subterranean rivers of London
Thames Discovery Programme
Thames sailing barge
Thames, the name of one of the sea areas of the British Shipping
Ordnance Survey map, courtesy of English Heritage
Thames Estuary And Marshes SSSI Natural England. Retrieved 16
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^ e.g. The Bathing Place of Athens, Eton opened by "Hiatt C Baker in
memory of [his] son, a brilliant swimmer who spent many of the
happiest hours of his boyhood here, killed in a flying accident in
August 1917 while still a member of the school., Bathing Place of
Athens memorial stone and Bathing Place of Athens notice
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Laleham ran swimming lessons for young boys from the end of Vicarage
Lane]...charging 1 shilling per season".
^ See above events, shallow bathing areas and metal steps by certain
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