River Thames – The History of London’s Central Waterbody

Extending over 215 miles, The River Thames is the second longest in the United Kingdom and has played a major role in the development of London. It has been used as an economic resource, a transportation route, a source of food and fresh water and, in recent times, an entertainment venue. The evidence of humans living alongside the river date back to the Neolithic period (15200 BC – 2000 BC), and items excavated from the river’s banks can be found in The British Museum and The Museum of London.

Julius Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54 BC includes a written description of the Thames. He notes the Iron Age Belgic tribes living along its banks, and the sustenance that the river provided. By AD 43, when the Romans began to occupy Britain, they recognised its strategic and economic importance and built major fortifications along its length. This caused the birth of Londinium (London), by AD 47, along its banks. As Romano-British settlements increased, the river became an essential part of the pottery trade, and the settlers livelihood. The items were distributed by boat, along the length of the river. These Roman founders of London also completed the first London Bridge which, because of its design, affected the upstream tidal flow of the river and increased the chances of the water freezing over.

Tudor and Stuart kings and queens, recognising the importance of the Thames, built several riverside palaces including those at Kew, Hampton Court and Richmond-on-Thames. As the city grew, the river became a dumping ground for London’s waste. By the 1300s, waste from slaughter houses, human and animal excretion and manufacturing debris were all being channelled into the river.

By the 18th century London had become the centre of the successful British Empire, and the River Thames became one of the busiest waterways in the world. A new bridge was built in 1825, with fewer pillars to allow for better water flow, and decrease the chances of it freezing during winter. The waste from the city’s streets, and sewers, continued to be thrown in the river. These unhygienic conditions resulted in the multiplication of harmful bacteria, which became the cause of several cholera outbreaks between 1832 and 1865, to which thousands of deaths can be attributed.

By 1858, the river’s odour had become intolerable and the sittings at the House of Commons had to be abandoned. Sewage systems and dams were constructed, along the river, to minimise the waste and the area began to thrive once more. By the mid 20th century, many of the species that had abandoned the river returned and its animal population flourished. The building of railways during the Victorian Era, helped to reduce commercial activity on the river, even though sporting and leisure events continued. After WWII, most of the river’s trade moved downstream from central London, and The Thames became an entertainment centre for the city. Today guided daily tours along the river continue, and it remains an integral part of the city’s tourist industry.

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