The Thames and Personalities17 minute read

Despite the geography of London being defined by the iconic river running through the heart of the city, I believe, the Thames is often overlooked in cultural and historical significance. It once acted as London’s artery or oesophagus: sustenance entered it; sewage left through it; trade was centred on it; and transport passed along it. Perhaps it is this that allows the Thames to represent the body of London and its associating characteristics, which evinces the past and the ways it can shape the present and the future of the city. A hegemonic class defines the narrative of class and power relations in London. This will be shown through how London’s personalities can be described as the prosperous, despair and enjoyment body. It is through these personalities that the underlying class and power distinctions have always been present in London as body.

London as body is introduced by Peter Ackroyd (2010) and personifies the city. It allows the city to become the protagonist of the story and opens the biography to become less about chronological urban development and more about the personalities and traits that drive the city. By treating London as a human body, London becomes distinct from other city bodies. It permits us to imagine London as the ‘Cockney body’ embedded and developed throughout the narrative of its own history. It is this narrative that is imagined differently according to class and power relations at a specific moment in time. These differences are felt because they are shaped by the dominant class narrating the story of London. Therefore, it is in this way that London as body relates power distinctions to the personalities of the city.

From growing up outside of London and then arriving in the city, the Thames seems central to the assorted lives of Londoners. Perhaps, we may suggest that, in Ackroyd’s vain, the Thames is the backbone of the city, supporting the diverse range of activities that have been conducted throughout history. The Thames is the making of the city, causing London to become one of the commercial centres of the world and, for a time, the heart of the Empire. We may simplify this to the Thames being the realisation and the sustainment of the status and power that London has in the global system of cities. Consequently, this space is seen to be important to the narrative of the body and personalities of London. The Thames realises and reinforces the existing personalities and traits of London, whilst multiplying the implied impacts of these personalities through history.

London as Prosperous Body

Throughout the story of London, the Thames has and always will be a source of prosperity for the city: it is plausible to argue that it was a main contributor to the rise of London as the commercial centre of the Northern World. This relationship of prosperity to the river is due to the importance of trade for the city, beginning after the fall of certain rival cities, including Antwerp, under the reign of Elizabeth I (Besant, 1894). During this time, London became the ‘“the largest and the most populous among all the cities of the old world” (Dupin, 1824:3 cited by Port Cities London). It is from this time that this particular characteristic, prosperity, allows us to envision how past distinctions of class and power continues to shape the present narrative of London. This is because power relations cause prosperity to be directed towards a certain type of class, which has been reinforced over time.

Maurer’s (above) and Dodd’s (below) interpretation of the importance of the Thames for London’s prosperity

By the 18th century, the Thames was portrayed to be central to the new economy of trade and hence the prosperity of the city. Maurer’s The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge (1746) and Dodd’s Shipping in the Pool of London (Unknown), illustrate the reality of the growing prestige of the Thames as the driver behind the British economy. Simultaneously, old maps depict barges laden with goods heading down river to the people and/or the Port of London. These images allow the Thames to embody the metaphor of London’s personality as prosperous: the physical unpacking and loading of ships envisages the power (and perhaps imperiality) of Victorian London.

Despite this the “twenty thousand miserable individuals… who rise every morning without knowing how… they are to be supported during the passing day, or where… they are to lodge on the succeeding night” (George, 1925:94), rarely prospered from the growth of the Thames. This is despite the fact that it was these people that worked for the prosperity of the city in the docks. As it was difficult to predict when ships would arrive, dock work was known to be precarious. In a period of four successive weeks in 1861 the number of ships arriving at the West India Dock was 42, 131, 209 and 85. This caused a link to be narrated whereby “the general uncertainty of life and trade characteristics of the period” (Ackroyd, 2010:p599) were associated with the ‘semi-criminal class’ in the Docklands. This class rarely benefitted from the increasing prosperity of their work, and instead the hegemonic class did. Thus, it can be said that a dominant class managed to narrate and direct the characteristic London as prosperous body to themselves, to increase their influence, whilst sustaining the status and power of London.

This narrated distinction in class affects the industry of London and can still be presented by the river today. That is to say that given the shift in trade from traditional, manufactured goods to the financial service sector, the Thames can still embody London as the prosperous body through the merit of narrated power relations. This is best described by the skyline of the city against the river. It is this which allows us to envision trade against a neoliberal world paradigm, where the power and wealth are, to an ever increasing degree, concentrated in a small group of elites (Thorsen, 2009). It is this global elite where the continuous drive of work and profit is realised. Workers are the prosperity of the city, but allow this prosperity to sustain the status of the global elite.

This draws on the similarities of the past to the present. Workers in London have always been used to sustain the prosperity of the city, but rarely benefit from it. This is because London as prosperous body feeds off the hopes of workers with which they bring with them when reaching the city. This fact is captured by the number of suicides relating the realisation of prosperity to class distinction. It is in this way that the Thames is the very embodiment of prosperity of the city, managing and reinforcing class distinctions in London.

Reflection of the city
The reflection of the city in the Thames, representing trade

London as Despair Body

The act of suicides in London has always been closely linked to the Thames, which is why it can be narrated and shown to represent London as despair body. This final act of despair often embodies the associating disparities between class and gender. This is because even though London is akin to suicides, the act of committing suicide in the most public of spaces (the Thames) reflects the ways in which power relations are inherent in the body of London.

For most Victorians, suicide was far more feared and deadly than murder itself: both acts undermined the Ten Commandments, but suicide represented a challenge to the will of God. This is because whilst murder could be left to Victorian justice, suicide never left an option of ‘an eye for an eye’, meaning human justice could never intervene. The liberal Victorian State reinforced this view by declaring that suicide was illegal and immoral, often leaving families the dilemma of choosing between hereditary insanity or poverty.

suicide thames newspaper
Image from an illustrated newspaper

By Victorian London, society had realised the extent to which the Thames was a significant place for those committing suicide. After all, society had been inundated with images of those ending their lives leaping from bridges in illustrated newspapers or displays at the Royal Academy of Art. Despite Martineau (1861) observing that male suicide rate is triple the female rate, these images were often of women. Subsequently, this disparity between the perceived and the reality has made the metaphor, London as the body of despair, highly gendered (see Kushner, 2009, in Weaver and Wright).

Throughout history, there has been a tendency for men to intrinsically link women to irrationality and hysteria. This idea is thought to come from the teachings of Hippocrates, who theorized that many psychological manifestations came from a disease of the womb (see Woods). This notion persisted into the Victorian era, with Freud’s theories regarding hysteria being directly influenced by this. As the white male class was the privileged sector, it allowed and reinforced the idea that the production of knowledge, and hence sanity, came from the rational minds of men and not the irrational female body.

Bearing this in mind, Nicoletti (2004) suggests that the Thames was the best location to “emphasize a woman’s’ fatal wandering from her allotted sphere”. This is because the Thames represented masculinity, the bridges overlooked a strictly male space: its Victorian currents and banks represented physical labour and the prosperity arising from this. It was not considered a place where women of class and distinction should ever stray to. It is these bridges that allowed a Victorian women to dream of escaping her gendered world, relating the physicality of passing from one side to another side to the emotions of despair.

However, as has already been noted, the Thames was only used to represent despairing women in society, rarely than acknowledging men despairing. This emphasizes the way in which Victorian society forced the female body to mediate between the individual mental and social realm differently to how society perceived men to (Lefebvre, 1991). The female body, and other classes, were told and forced to behave in a way which the narrating, privileged class deemed acceptable. The act of committing suicide in the most public of spaces (the Thames) reflects the way despair can be used to characterise the power relations within London as body.

It is only a small extension to see that, perhaps the hegemonic view has not inherently changed this way of viewing classes in relation to despair. Society still disciplines us to withstand the acceptable behaviour deemed appropriate by a dominant class. It is still acts of despair that undermine the rules of society, whilst defying the ways in which powerful classes define us. It is this narrative that highlights the power relations of perceived and true reality.

London as Body of Enjoyment

Whilst the city embodies the emotion of despair to certain sections of society, the city is commonly viewed as a source of enjoyment – even for those who may describe the body of London as despair. The fact that enjoyment is connected and sought after for London, instantly implies a hierarchy between emotion and the various personalities of London as body. Enjoyment is a select emotion which has been ‘elevated’ and cultivated (Ahmed, 2004) by those in power. It represents the story of the evolution of the city, narrated by the story of a certain class’ ability to control emotions of society: the ‘appropriate’ emotions at certain times. Enjoyment as an emotion of the city is worked on and towards in order to defy the uncultivated or unruly emotions that may be narrated by other classes of society. It is in this very way that emotions are bounded to securing social hierarchy; emotions are transformed into ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ bodily traits (Ahmed, 2004).

Given the (social) hierarchy of emotions, enjoyment is and has been an important aspect for London’s body throughout history. The emotion and trait of enjoyment allows and enables society to escape the everyday reality of the city, whether the body of London is felt and best represented as prosperous or despair. It is the Thames that best represents a space joining these emotions, in the (vain) hope that London as body of enjoyment overrides other characteristics of London’s body.

Historically this meant that the river became a place of festivities where inhabitants could, for a while at least, forget about other aspects of London as body. Royal pageants allowed presentational barges to be displayed for all Londoners to see, but almost reflected a kind of dual geographical identity of the city (Sanders, 2014). The water allowed the festivities to be framed in a way that was almost self-conscious: it allowed guests of/and the monarch to make their journey homewards, whilst “the Barges followed one another (every Company in their degree) in a stately and Maieticall order” (Fairholt, 1843:p53).

These pageants came to represent a kind of political performance of London’s bodily trait of enjoyment for its citizens. The “Thronges of People” (Knowles, 1993:p158) attending such events, including the Heywood’s 1631 pageant, London Ius Honorarium, allowed London to present itself as a city of enjoyment. John Knowles acknowledges how the streets packed with Londoners (of all status), represented the Mayor’s “Children”. The buildings are described as “Tyled with faces”, highlighting that these activities were to present the best of London for all to admire. It is this in mind that McLuskie (1993) sees the pageants as a “kind of street theatre (…) not fully dramatic in form” (p75). This use of London as a theatre, forced the emotion of enjoyment to be connected to the city’s body by the class who dictated the narration of London.

This narration (arguably still by the voices of a certain class), of enjoyment within London is still evident. Today, the Thames performs (and in doing so reinforces) the stale state of London, of what Berlant (2011) describes as cruel optimism. The Thames’ theatre performance dictates an attitude of desiring something which is an obstacle to itself flourishing. Londoners have become attached to the objects which this prevailing (and narrating) class have achieved: Berlant mentions upward mobility, job security, political and social equity and durable intimacy to name but a few. They prevent themselves from being able to move forward in a direction that is not dictated by this hegemonic power. London remains stuck in a cycle of wanting these unachievable fantasies of the good life of London’s society, so often exemplified and reinforced by the Thames as the life source of London. It is the class that has these fantasies which force this emotion of enjoyment to be sought into the narration of London.

London’s Future Body

However, given that the past has shaped the present of London’s body and associating characteristics, there is no reason to believe that the past narration will not continue to reinforce class and power relations within society. Once again, the Thames and its projects can represent the confluence of these emotions in time. This is best exemplified through the highly debated Garden Bridge project, where its proposed location and ‘mission’ all demonstrate the multiple personalities felt by various classes in London.

Its proposed location, from the top of Temple underground station to the South Bank, demonstrates the connections to London as prosperous body. It typifies the relationship between class and power, insisting that the bridge will spread the distribution of wealth and prosperity throughout London. However, the past allows us to determine that this will not be the case, as the existing narrative will overrule what the bridge tries to undermine. This way of failing to undermine the existing class relations reinforces London as despair body. The bridge fails to change the reality of classes being forced to behave in a certain way that is deemed acceptable by the dominating class. We are told how the bridge will offer us enjoyment, if we use it for the desired “morning commute through a peaceful garden” (The Project, 2015). Its ‘mission’ forces us to acknowledge these power relations that have existed throughout the history of London. The narrative of the hegemonic class, continues to shape the predominant view of London’s personalities for other classes and sections of society. It is this story which continues to discern the distinction of class and power relations within London as body.

Whilst it is not a natural process for us to view cities as bodies, the metaphor London as body becomes a useful concept to understand power relations within society itself. This is because the metaphor allows us to escape the idea that the city is just a built environment, with humans interacting to create the power relations felt in society. Instead it allows us to think about how the geography of a city interacts within society to create a system, whereby the hegemonic narrative of a particular story is prioritised and then reinforced over time. This idea is presented by the Thames, which culturally and historically embodies the various attitudes, characteristics and personalities of London.

Arguably, the Thames evinces London as prosperous body, London as despair body and London as body of enjoyment at the same time. As this space allows for the confluence of different personalities, the power relations are seen through the ways the hegemonic power narrates this space within the prevailing story of London. This replication of a hegemonic class presenting a story, reinforces how different classes use the Thames to highlight their own view of the prevailing trait of London.

Therefore, for me the role of the Thames cannot be understated: the Thames is the life of London. Without the river, the past cannot begin to help us determine the ways that the body of London is imagined in various ways by a variety of classes. Neither can we begin to envision how power relations are reinforced and determined by the past. Instead, the river can arguably be thought to intrinsically link the multiple personalities of London to the distinction created by people of class and power. Perhaps, it is this idea that affects the imaginations of the present and in turn produces the nature of the city that everything is to be determined and encompassed by historical class and power relations.


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