River Thames – London as a Palimpsest18 minute read

Being as the capital and the most populous city of England for over 800 years, London was absolutely a city full of culture and history. It is definitely the heart of United Kingdom and serves as a representation of the shifting social paradigm in the historical and contemporary world. River Thames, the well-known river that sit across London since the very beginning, not only meanders through the long history of London as an observer, but also makes contributions to the history itself. Robert McCrum, an editor of The Guardian, used to comment on Thames like this: “London was the Thames, and the Thames was London”, which directly links River Thames and London together in terms of their common representation. So without doubt, an understanding of this river is an essential part in understanding and visualizing the complex history of the city. In addition, as the most essential natural resource that lies right in central London under an urban environment, Thames is definitely an agent for showing the relationship between nature and urban residents. It can be say that the changes happened to the river are prefect resources to study the socio-cultural changes taken place in London at each period of time. And moreover, I think by studying these changes in the past, we can also explain and interpret some present concerns and issues that is happening to London right now.

In this essay, I planned to refer to history of river Thames, with a special focus on the part in central London, look at the historical events and development, and examine the different usages of river explained by a changing relation between the river and residents and a changing of the economic and political status of London. To explain these, both primary and secondary historical documentations were taken into evaluation. The essay will be mainly based on the history of London itself, together with some records of policies on the usage of River Thames that was imposed in different era. But some novel works and interviews on people’s perceptions are also being used. In general, I will discuss the changing of status of Thames from three different perspective. Firstly form the changing of connections between human and nature, secondly from the changing public and private sectors around public spaces along Thames and finally from the changing of power relations in the society. I want to argue that despite of time period, River Thames is always influencing and being influenced by the economic and political status of the city.

From the changing of connections between human and nature

From Roman time to present-day, London has changed dramatically. Not only had the population increased for over 800 times, the size of settlement also kept expanding. River Thames changed along with it during these time. The early Thames was a lot different than what we see today in terms of its width, depth, appearance and species in river. With more and more people came to settle in London and with the expansion and economic growth of the city, people performed different usages of River Thames. Furthermore, their perception of the river also changes.

Historically, the early London was a rather small riverside settlement, which is completely different from the large and multifunctional city we can see today. During the Roman invasion of Britain, the place mainly functioned as a staging point and a supply base between the ports in Dover and the military frontier at North. The Romans chose this place mostly because its location at the lowest point along Thames, which makes it easier to cross. But at that time, rivers are not something that can be easily conquer. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio described people’s attempts to cross Thames like this: “In pursuing the remainder incautiously, they got into swamps from which it was difficult to make their way out, and so lost a number of men. (Dio 2007)” Even though people built a bridge soon after, they still suffered from floods every year. So for those Romans living in early Londinium at the time, River Thames stood as an obstacle for travelling and as a horrible creature that can easily take their life. Consequently, people’s respect and reverence to the river was strong. They see Thames as something they should revere rather than something they can use. They also invented a large number of spiritual idols, wished that they can help them to control the river and make it safe. Some statues and figures of sea gods can still be found today through archaeological researches alongside the original river front of old Londinium. From this point of view, people’s relation to nature in early Roman period was rather complicated, with not only a fear to the nature, but also an intention to take control of it.

King Richard
Figure 1: King Richard and his Council go down the Thames in a barge to confer with the rebels.
© National Maritime Museum, London

Soon it went on to medieval period. Marx addressed the influences of human activities on natural resources in his book Capital, saying that within the process of human production, it is inevitable that nature are gradually transferring to be “humanized” (Marx 1907). The development of River Thames successfully followed this process. Trading is just the type of production that happened, and the expansion of trading inevitably changed people’s usage of river and therefore change the meaning of Thames to people in medieval and imperial London. The development of shipbuilding technology and the increase of connections with other European countries form the very early reasons to build London as a trading port. Starting from 14th century, London became England’s most important port because of its excellent position on the tidal stretches of the Thames and its large population. For centuries, Thames is a route that supplied London with almost everything, from food to wine, from artworks to building materials, up to the age of electricity. This increasing benefit and importance also changed the image of Thames in people’s mind. Below is a painting showing the old City of London in 14th century. In the picture, Thames was more like a little stream rather than a 250-meters-wide river. The choice of exaggerating the proportion of the ship and people while shrinking the size of bridge and river is definitely a highlight here. And in my opinion, it shows a change of general perception of River Thames from people at that time.

With firm ships and stone bridges, people were gradually using their technologies to take more and more control of the river. Thames became a natural resource that they can make use and benefit from. In return, the ports and growing trading on Thames made London an extremely wealthy city. Below is a picture showing the scenery of London from Southwark in 1630s. The large number of ships painted on this picture shows how busy London was during that time. Compare to before, we can see that with the introduction of trading, the relationship between human and nature was altered. By the growing of economy, Thames became a place people relied for transport, a tool people used to gain benefit and no longer a thing that they should be scared of.

London From Southwark
Figure 2: London from Southwark c.1630
© Museum of London

The relationship between river and residents remained rather harmonious until the boom of population and industries in 19th century which brought that relationship into a tension. For centuries, most of London’s water supply came from Thames, but with an increase of population to over 3,000,000, it definitely required a larger consumption. The excessive drainage changed the natural flow circulation under Thames. And together with the increasing domestic and industrial waste, it made Thames into a grossly polluted river. The smoky factories and the bad smell alongside river became the most apparent features of Thames during Industrial London. Pollution not only destroyed the ecological system inside the river (Salmon, which remains quite plentiful before 19th century in Thames, disappeared completely), but also had negative consequences on people’s health. The spread of Plague between 1830s and 1860s, which caused death of thousands of people, was a direct effect of consuming polluted water from Thames. Besides that, London also suffered from chaos and bad social security during the time. Thames became a shadow in people’s mind, which linked to horror and death. And certainly, people’s perception of it wasn’t nice. In Charles Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, the descriptions about the river was always in a desperate tone: “A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharfs, and rendering darker and more indistinct the mirky buddings on the banks…Near to that part of the Thames …where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses. (Dickens 2003)” It is worth noticing the different feelings it brought people compare to before. From my perspective, this change of perception was not only a result of the increase tension between residents and river, but also a reflection of the changing population and industrial structure within London.

Nowadays, River Thames no longer functions as a major route for trading and transport. With the development of air and railway transports, people are no longer willing to travel by water. When they discovered the more time-saving and secure way for transport, with an aim of maximizing their profit and production, people decided to discard this old and outdated method. Ports used to take up most of the spaces in East London. Below is a map showing the location of docklands in 19th century. It can be seen that all the areas from today’s Southwark to Canary Wharf to Woolwich are all filled with docks and therefore applied to commercial and industrial usage.

Old Map of the Thames
Figure 3: River Thames with the Docks from Woolwich to the Tower c.1882
© Museum of London, Dockland.

But today, although the population in Docklands are more than doubled compare to before, the place no longer maintained its old look. These areas had already transformed into business centres and residential places. Most of the old dockland wharfs and warehouses were demolished, with most of them been converted into flats. Docks have been redeveloped, they are now used as water sports centres, tourist attractions and even airports. This kind of change also happened to activities on the river. The number of vessels going through the river have been largely reduced. And the remaining ones are mostly cruise liners which serves for entertainment. Today, we can see that for most people in London, River Thames are more for an ornamental usage. I brought up a small survey on people’s perception of Thames alongside the banks. And it is not surprising to found that for most of them, the river serves for a tourist attraction, a place for relaxing, a cultural heritage, and no longer a commercial base. Besides, for London as a whole, this river became a place that can provide “continuous corridors for recreation, wildlife habitat and refuge from urban life”, and increase the “competitiveness for London as a global city” (City of London 2015, Dillon Consulting Limited 2011). This changing usage also reflected a change of its meaning to residents. Instead of viewing Thames as a natural resource that can accelerate production processes, people now trying to restore and preserve the river with its natural look and put it as a cultural symbol, making usage of its symbolic meanings to the city and to the world.

Looking back from the origin, we can see that the river has gone through different periods of time and became different kind of spaces for people. This process not only shows a transition of the economic structure in London over the time, but also shows a shift of the status of the city from the riverside settlement to the medieval and imperial London to the industrial London and to the global city as we see today. Similar with the history of Mississippi River and the city of New Orland in Kelman’s book A River and its City, there is a strong inter-relation that can be found between the development of London as a city and human-nature connections through a socioeconomic lens (Kelman 2003). It can be say that nature shaped cities, and at the same time, people’s action changed the way nature progresses.

From the changing public and private sectors around public spaces along Thames

It has always been an interesting topic around the shift between public and private spaces in social and geographical research. And this shift also happened to River Thames and its waterfronts. Originally, the place around Thames was definitely for public use. Although the whole space is owned by the emperor, anyone can enter and make the place for their own usage. Based on records, people could walk to banks at any time for dumping water, washing clothes, sailing their boats and even catching fish. Later, as owning houses by river became popular among the rich, spaces beside Thames are sold to different merchants and nobilities for building their houses. Although most of the banks were preserved, some walkways no longer existed for people who didn’t own the house. However the river was still open to public. People could travel along the river by boat without any permissions or restrictions. This situation continued until the pollution in Thames became serious and the government decided to build the embankment.

The embanking is a turning point in the history of appearance and usage of River Thames in Central London. Aiming to control the chaotic usage of river and its banks, long and giant walls were built on both sides of river all the way from Lambeth to Tower Bridge in order to block people from a direct access to the river. The embankment did reduce the pollution and help cleaning up the river, but it made River Thames no longer a public space for ordinary people. As Oliver said in his article, the embankments “acted as a fixed, ordered boundary between the cultured nature of the drained, commodified land, and the regulated liveliness of the river” and has successfully turned Thames from a “cultural nature” to a “managed capital” (Oliver 2000). The river became a space only for commercial and private usage from certain groups of people. The waterfront were largely developed into shops and restaurants that can make large amount of profit. Even though it seems that the riverside walkways are public, but gates, spikes and CCTV warning notices stands everywhere over the riverside, noting that people’s access is always being controlled. At some places, the access rights are even within private hands.

Somerset View before after
Figure 4: The view from Somerset House Terrace before (1841) and after (1874) the construction of the Victoria Embankment
© London Metropolitan Archives & Museum of London

Looked through history, we can see a shift of Thames from an entire public space to a space that is very much privatized over time. And this privatization is still continuing in recent years, making the place more and more commercial. Elizabeth, a 60-year-old women I interviewed who lived around waterloo for over 30 years, spoke about her experience: “We used to go to the riverside very often, there were few people there at the time. We were there chatting, meeting some friends or just looking at the river, but it is now all crowded with tourist and commercial activities”. She also talked about the garden bridge project that she and her neighbours are currently protesting on. And she said that she think the residents are “losing their control over the constructions and redevelopments of the riverside walkway” as that protest became harder and no one takes their opinion. This transition around Thames also largely resonates with David Harvey’s idea in his article about postmodernism. He said it is an unstoppable process that along with economic growth, “genumely public space is extinguished, militarized or semi-privatized”, and “The heterogeneity of open democracy, the mixing of classes, ethnicities, religions and divergent taste cultures within a common frame of public space is lost along with the capacity to celebrate unity and community in the midst of diversity. (Harvey 1992)” Although Harvey was talking about the transition of the whole world, but looking at the changes around Thames, we can see a microcosm of that.

From the changing of power relations in the society

Harvey had wrote in his book Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference that “Societies strive to create ecological conditions and environmental niches for themselves which are not only conductive to their own survival but also manifestations and instantiations “in nature” of their particular social relations (Harvey 1996)”, pointing that there is a social power relation that was embedded in all of these human-related ecological and environmental changes. From this point of view, the changes of Thames can also be explained by the specific power relation at each time period. And actually, the history of Thames did follow this assumption.

In Roman London, there is no person that is in real power. Compare to ordinary human actions, war and natural disasters were a lot more powerful in shaping a society. So no one were able to control and take use of the river. Therefore the operation of it became meaningless. During Medieval and imperial times, as trading is the major source for development and economic growth, merchants are the ones in biggest power, so they were able to move thousands of ships along the river, to build ports, to hire workers and took control of most operations on river. Then in 19th century, the conservative party started to rule the city, so under its capitalistic ideology, the power is in those people who have capitals in hand, such as aristocrats and landlords. These people care about profits. So it is not surprising that they built more and more water drainage companies and factories alongside the river which finally caused the pollution in water.

So it can be seen that there were indeed some power-relations that were affecting the changes of River Thames. And we can possibly assume that the current political and social structures in UK is playing an important role in recent redevelopments around Thames. For example, the building of Garden Bridge can be explained by a decision which benefit the higher class, the class with more social-power in hand. And the preservation of the river can be explained by an increasing power of natural calamities.


To conclude, this essay has taken London as a palimpsest, separated different parts of the history into 4 main stages and compared the status of Thames between these time periods. It talked about the changes that happened on people’s perception of Thames as well as how they changed regarding different socioeconomic status in London and different power-relations. Everything happens with a reason. Looking through different stages, it can be seen that the history of Thames directly linked to the nature of economic and social activities that appeared in different ages. And they together formed the disparate but connected images of London as a city along different parts of history. Rather than just having human activities affecting the river or the river affecting the way people act, what really happened in London is more of a two-way relation between them. At the same time people, using their technologies, remade Thames into a space more suitable for their operations, the existence and changes of Thames also shaped the city to its current structure. It is inevitable that Thames will continue being changed by people. The space will be increasingly privatized and its value will be increasingly converted into capitals. But we should aware that nature and people are an indivisible entity. When remaking the nature, we are also remaking the future of ourselves.


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