London is a city built on a river. Two millennia ago, the Romans chose a conveniently defensible spot for the capital of ‘Britannia’ – travelling upriver until they found the first spot at which they could build a bridge. The future Tower Hill rose above a wide stretch of water, perfect for a port. 1800 years later, it had grown to be the biggest port on the planet, and London one of the world’s great cities. Britain had an empire that spanned the globe, its wealth founded on the ships that plied their trade in and out of the Pool of London.
The Romans began a remodelling of the river that has gone on to this day, cutting deep quays in the shallow, sloping banks of the Thames. By the second century AD, London had wharves and warehouses, and goods coming from the Mediterranean and North Africa. By the 8th century the Anglo-Saxons had made the city a centre for shipbuilding and King Alfred’s reign saw the extension of the port down to Queenhithe (a dock still in use into the 20th century). By the 11th century, the city was home to the Navy, and with the Norman Conquest came not just the Tower of London but also an influx of merchants from Normandy and Flanders.
Much of the growth was built on conflict and misery. The Hundred Years War saw London boom in size during the 14th and 15th centuries on the back of shipbuilding and supply. And London was a centre for the slave trade until the 19th century. Whaling was another staple, and in the case of the Empire, ‘trade’ was frequently a euphemism for theft, with the East India Company and others growing fat on plundering the riches of Africa and Asia. But by the early 1900s, the docks and the river were in steady decline, and by the latter half of the 20th century, London seemed to have turned its back on the river. Londoners travelled by tube, bus or car, but rarely by water.
Gradually though we’ve turned back towards the Thames. The desolate docks have been transformed into Docklands and river traffic has increased. But it’s easy to forget that the river is more than simply scenery. People have continued to live and work on the Thames. Now, a long overdue project will chronicle that existence – and hopefully continue to encourage the river back into life. ‘A Sense of Place’ is led by Hermitage River Projects in what was once the navigational centre of London.
Working with Hermitage Community Moorings and funded by a £49,100 Lottery grant, the charity has built a harbour to ensure the preservation of traditional sea and river boats. It will be the best kind of museum, a living and working one. Thames sailing barges, fishing boats, coasters and tugs – some of them more than a century old and all lovingly restored – will make this a London history obsessive’s dream. The Heritage Lottery Fund cash will allow Hermitage to gather documents, films, photos, archaeological relics to provide background and context to the new fleet: the archive will be housed in the Pier House, which floats alongside – everything about this project lives on the water.
The interesting thing is that life and work on the Thames may have died down during recent decades but it was never extinguished. The Thames River Police have been patrolling the waters for more than two centuries; there are four other police services, the Fire Service has a boat and there are the customs officers. And of course there are the boatyards, dry docks, chandlers, diesel stations, marine engineers and shipwrights so essential to the boats of the Thames. In a nice twist, the Hermitage project, with its collection of vessels, will be putting more work their way. And, right by the Hermitage moorings, the last eel fisherman in the Upper Pool maintains his eel pots. Once there were dozens, but the changing tastes of East Enders (and the pressure on eel stocks) means that Bruce Pope now works alone.
During those two millennia an enormous range of trades and skills grew up around the river. As London ships pushed further around the globe, accurate instruments of navigation were needed. London’s makers of compasses, chronometers, sextants and back staffs acquired a reputation for high quality design, skilled manufacture and innovation. Other trades are gone forever. By the time Samuel Pepys was writing his diaries in the late 1600s, there were 10,000 licensed watermen on the Thames, ferrying passengers to and fro on their wherries, skiffs and clinker boats. Today they still have their livery company in the City, but activities are limited to ceremonial dashes such as Doggett’s Coat and Badge and the Great River Race. Some old practices are making a comeback. Todays toshers and mudlarks are doing it for fun and are armed with metal detectors but a century or two back people made a business out of sifting the mud and filth for the riches that Londoners had lost.
Everything found its way, somehow or other, down to the river bank. New trades have grown up too – the crews of the dozens of pleasure craft that work the Thames are the true descendants of those lightermen and watermen who for centuries fought (sometimes physically) for the choicest passengers. Most excitingly perhaps, a new generation of riverside dwellers is getting involved once more. Children from nearby Hermitage Primary School are getting involved as part of their curriculum work. And the project is looking for community vounteers to get involved – interviewing and recording the reminiscences of those last watermen and lightermen, and the crews of the boats that still work the river.