The River Thames is etched into England’s psyche, over the years it has played a central role in the life of the nation, historically used for coronations, processions, unwelcome invasions and funerals.
IN 1929 THE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT John Burns famously described the river as “The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”.
King Henry VIII loved his palaces at Greenwich and Richmond, but once he had sight of Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court he did not rest until he “persuaded” Wolsey to “give” it to him.
At every stroke of oars did tears fall
Queen Elizabeth I also loved Greenwich and Richmond, and it was at Richmond Palace in 1603 that she died. Her body was brought downstream to Westminster for her funeral on a magnificent black barge; the poet William Campden described the scene as follows:
“The Queen was brought by water to Whitehall. At every stroke of oars did tears fall”.
Less romantic was Henry VIII’s final trip from London to Windsor – he was due to be buried in St George’s Chapel there. During the overnight stop between London and Windsor, his barge moored at Syon House in Isleworth. His coffin suddenly split open, and dogs were found licking his remains.
String of pearls
The banks of the Thames became the favoured location for buildings of all kinds, from monastic abbeys to gorgeous palaces. The huge number of famous buildings along the course of the Thames gave rise to the description of the river as a “string” linking a series of “pearls”.
In the 17th and 18th centuries during the hard winter freezes, Frost Fairs were held on the River Thames, complete with ox-roasting, groups of musicians playing, stalls selling a variety of popular novelties and food, fairground amusements and performing animals.
The last fair to be held on the Thames was in February 1814. In 1831 the old London Bridge was replaced, and – with the removal of the “starlings” or piers upon which the old bridge rested – the river no longer slowed down sufficiently for it to freeze over sufficiently to support public events.
The River Thames also provided some of the greatest “shows” seen on the water. In 1422 the Lord Mayor’s Show took to the water. The participating barges of the City Livery companies became ever more ornate. Barges were covered in gold leaf and some rowed with oars of silver.
In the 17th century, the Lord Mayor’s procession included dramas and pageants. However, these came to an end in 1856 as the river had become clogged up with working vessels.
Doggett’s coat and badge
It was an actor who established one of the most enduring of the traditions of the River Thames. In 1715 Thomas Doggett was so grateful to a local waterman for his efforts to ferry him home on a bad night, pulling against the tide that he set up a rowing race for professional watermen.
The winner receives prize money and also the coveted scarlet coat and badge, made of silver – hence the name of the race “Doggett’s Coat and Badge”. The race is still held on 1st August each year when professional watermen row from London Bridge to Chelsea and are recognised as the world’s oldest rowing race.
Just yesterday, and the anniversary of Doggett’s race, I finished what is destined to become the seminal book on one aspect of the Thames, its foreshore, Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem
I loved reading this account of a little-understood pastime, with its history of London and personal recollections told through objects found on the banks of the Thames.
Part memoir; part mudlarking manual; weaving the history and personal insights of the river which has shaped the world’s greatest city, this book is destined to become essential reading for anyone who wants to improve their knowledge about London.
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th June 2012