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Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Award Winning Thames - What Was it Like in 1870?

In 1878 more than 600 passengers from the steamship Princess Alice died when the pleasure boat sank after a collision on the Thames. As they swam towards the safety of the shore, the passengers were overcome by the noxious cocktail of pollution in the water.
Then in 1957, the pollution levels became so bad that the River Thames was declared biologically dead. The amount of oxygen in the water fell so low that no life could survive and the mud reeked of rotten eggs.

Fifty years later, the Thames has become a very different place. It teems with life: 125 species of fish swim beneath its surface while more than 400 species of invertebrates live in the mud, water and river banks. Waterfowl, waders and sea birds feed off the rich pickings in the water while seals, dolphins and even otters are regularly spotted between the river banks where it meanders through London.

The Thames has won the world's biggest prize for environmental conservation after a dramatic turnaround which has seen it restored from a "biologically dead" waterway to a healthy river.
The Environment Agency collected the International Theiss River Prize for river management and conservation, worth around £220,000, after the Thames beat competition from China's Yellow River and waterways in Australia and Japan.
Environmental officials now say the Thames is the cleanest it has been in more than 150 years and nearly 400 habitats have now been created to allow wildlife back into the river.

A walk along the Thames is amongst the most pleasant things one can experience in central London, with some really wonderful things to see - particularly from Albert embankment on the south bank, to Tower Bridge, and then back on the north bank past the tower and monument to Victoria embankment. But if we were to go back to the 1870’s and walk from Battersea Bridge heading east, what would we see?
Before the building of Bazalgette’s embankments, the banks of the river were a jumble of warehouses, cranes, docks and jetties and slime covered stone or wooden steps.
On the river, ships from all over the world made for London Bridge and the pool of London to lay anchor, their decks buzzing and alive with activity as sailors went about their work with the Dockers unloading the cargo from the ship.
Small crafts, such as skiffs, lighters and cutters bobbed in the wake of larger vessels. Among the sailing ships with their masts would have been paddle steamers, their massive side-wheels thrashing in the water. With the river being the hub of industry, a constant cloud of dark smoke hung over the river around London Bridge.
Let us go back to the 1870’s and take a tour…

North Bank – Cremorne Gardens:
A pleasure garden that opened in the 1840s in Chelsea, Cremorne incorporated a theatre, dance hall and banqueting hall as well as entertainments such as the bandstand, circus, freak show and American bowling.
During the day the gardens were for the whole family, but when darkness fell it became on outdoor night-club of ill repute with the locals who claimed lewd women operated there amongst the loud music and dancing.
The gardens closed in 1877

South Bank – Battersea Park:
Before 1846 Battersea park was a swamp inhabited by the cities homeless and ne’er-do-wells. The park hosted weekly gypsy horse-fairs. In 1853, it was redeveloped and opened as a public park with, in 1860, a beautiful lake being added, and in 1864 a tropical garden.

North Bank – Millbank Prison:
Built in 1821, Millbank was London’s biggest prison. It was a panopticon design with six radiating wings. The prison was designed by Jeremy bentham and built on seven acres of marshy and damp wasteland right on the river. The prison took in convicts serving longer sentences and was a gloomy and depressing place with an overbearing appearance.

South Bank – Westminster Bridge:
Prior to the building of the embankments in 1864, the banks of the river on either side of Westminster Bridge were occupied by coal barges, mud-banks and a few good houses and ugly wharves.

North Bank – St Paul’s Cathedral:
Now we pass Wren’s Great cathedral, its dome rising into the sky next to the densely packed buildings of the city where the sky is penetrated by church spires, to…

North Bank – St Paul’s Wharf Pier:
…Where an even better view can be appreciated of the church spires built by Wren. Bow church is the largest and most attractive.

London Bridge:

North Bank – Industry:
At both The Billingsgate fish market and the coal exchange, boats are moored. Just off the fish market, boats sell oysters, and eels are sold live from the Dutch eel boats moored mid-stream.
The warehouses at the docks employ between 500 and 700 men, dependant on size, and are fitted with steam lifts, hoists, hydrants and other machinery, and are in direct communication with each of the company’s docks via telegraph.

North Bank Docks:
St Katherine’s Dock is enclosed by warehouses, over which the masts of the larger shipping vessels are to be seen.
The London Docks contain the famous wine vaults in which up to 65,000 pipes of wine can be stowed. The tobacco docks can also be found here in Wapping.
West India Docks run right across the Isle of Dogs and the crowd of masts seen across the pasturage look like a grove of leafless trees.

South Bank Docks:
The Grand Surrey Docks are devoted to the timber trade and the corn trade, as are the Dommercial Docks.

These days, the view on our walk is vastly, vastly different. We can still see some evidence of the days when the Thames was the lifeblood of the city, the ghosts of some docks and wharves still remain, but most have been converted into flats or just pulled down altogether.
Who knows how much longer these relics will remain before all links to the days of the river being a vital and huge cog in English commerce? See them while you can.

The busiest part of the river, at London Bridge can be seen the stairs of the penny steam-boats, landing and taking in the West End or Greenwich passengers, the black smoke billowing from its funnel and its bell ringing. The traffic, which is dense on the river here, consists of coal barges, Thames hoys (bright coloured and picturesque barges laden with straw etc) Above the river, London Bridge itself is crammed with slow-moving cabs, omnibusses and goods wagons.

Back on the river, passing under the bridge we see the silent highway is crowded with ships as far as the eye can see.


  1. Princess Alice. Always glad to see it getting more exposure. My first ever blogpost!

  2. Read your post, I've been weighing up writing a full post either on the Princess Alice disaster or the Tay Bridge disaster, and since you have the Princess Alice well-covered, I'll go for the latter.

    I enjoy your blog, and thanks for reading mine.