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London on Thames in Bygone Days  —  £ 3.99

Go to the eBook Shop George Henry Birch was the curator of Sir John Soane's Museum when he wrote this book, shortly before his death in 1904. He had access to a wide range of sources for the information and illustrations needed to produce this delightful work.

A chronological history of the river from Roman Times until the beginning of the 20th century, when Watermen, wherries and sailing ships had all but disappeared. He describes the astonishing range of activities that have taken place on the river and there are 32 evocative engravings and pictures.

Please see the extract below for lists of the contents & illustrations and part of the chapter on Frost Fairs.

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Chapter I
    In Roman and Saxon Times
Chapter II
    In Norman and Plantagenet Times
Chapter III
    In Tudor Times
   Houses of the Bishops and Nobles

Chapter IV
    In the Days of the Stuarts
Chapter V
    In the Eighteenth Century
Chapter VI
    Processions, Frost Fairs, and Fires


List of Illustrations


Old London Bridge.
  From a water-colour drawing by R. P. Bonington.
New and Old London Bridge.
  From a water-colour drawing by G. B. Moore.
Barge of King William IV. and Queen Adelaide at Somerset House.
  From a coloured print after F. Calvert.
The Frost Fair of 1814.
  From a water-colour drawing.


Head of a Bronze Statue of Hadrian.
  Found on the bed of the Thames.
Bankside and the Ruins of Winchester House.
  From an oil painting.
Old London Bridge.
  From the view of London by Visscher.
The Tower of London.
  From a drawing by W. Hollar.
View from the top of Arundel House.
  From the engraving by W. Hollar.
Savoy Palace.
  From a drawing by W. Hollar.
Water-gate of York House.
  From a drawing by Nash.
Whitehall, with the barge of William and Mary.
  From a print in the Crace Collection.
Lambeth Palace.
  From a drawing by G. Shepherd.
Old Somerset House and Gardens.
  From an engraving after Knyff.
Old Somerset House, with Old St. Paul’s in the distance.
  From a drawing by T. Wyck.
Old Fishmongers’ Hall.
  From a drawing in the Gardner Collection.
The Custom House, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
  From an engraving after Maurer.
Gun Dock.
  From a drawing by T. Rowlandson.
The Turk’s Head, Wapping.
  From a drawing by J. T. Wilson.
Stone Stairs, Ratcliffe.
  From a drawing by T. Emslie.
The Old Swan at Chelsea, with the Race for Coat and Badge.
  From a drawing by T. Rowlandson.
Thames Watermen.
  From a tinted etching by J. A. Atkinson.
Old Somerset Stairs.
  From a drawing by Paul Sandby.
The Red House, Battersea.
  From an oil painting.
View through an arch of Westminster Bridge.
  From an engraving after Canaletto.
Old Westminster Bridge.
  From an engraving after Samuel Scott.
Old Blackfriars Bridge.
  From an engraving after J. Farrington, R.A.
The Lord Mayor’s Show at Westminster Bridge.
  From an engraving after David Roberts, R.A.
The Half-Moon and the Ship, Shadwell.
  From a drawing by J. P. Emslie.
The Frost Fair of 1789.
  From a print.
The Frost Fair of 1684.
  From a drawing by T. Wyck.
  From a drawing in the Gardner Collection.


     Many a time has the river been fast locked in winter’s icy grip. In olden time when its bed was much wider, ice would form at the sides, and as the frost increased, would extend from bank to bank. In 1063 it is recorded that it was frozen over for fourteen weeks, and again in 1076. In 1434 it was frozen over below London Bridge, as far down as Gravesend, and the frost lasted from November 24th to February 10th. In 1515 the ice on the river was strong enough to bear carriages, and many passed over between Lambeth and Westminister, but unfortunately it is not said what sort of carriages, for coaches did not come into use until a later date. In 1564 we first hear of all sorts of diversions on the frozen river, the first real Frost Fair, but very little is recorded of it. There can be little doubt that London Bridge, with its narrow arches and huge piers, contributed not a little to the frequent freezing of the river from bank to bank. Since the new bridge has been built such an occurrence has been less frequent. The floating ice was massed against these piers and heaped up on the starlings, and so formed a barrier, and the intervals between soon got frozen over.
     On December 23rd, 1683, Evelyn describes “a greate frost.” The Thames was frozen, and on the 1st of January the weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames. On the 6th the river was quite frozen over. On the 8th, Evelyn crossed the Thames on the ice, which had become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths in which they roasted meat, but there were divers shops of wares quite across as in a town, and coaches, carts, and horses passed over. He went from Westminster Stairs to Lambeth and dined with the Archbishop, and accompanied by Sir George Wheeler, walked back on the ice from Lambeth Stairs to the Horse Ferry. The frost continuing in severity, the Thames was filled with tents and people selling all sorts of wares. He tells us that the booths were planted in formal rows like streets, and that not only were the shops full of all sorts of commodities, but various trades were carried on, particularly that of a printer, who set up a press where the people, and the ladies especially, took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and the year set down when printed on the Thames. Many of these cards are to be found in the Gardner and Grace collections. This became so popular that the enterprising printer made 5l. a day for printing a line only, at 6d. a name, besides what he got by ballads, &c. Coaches plied on the ice from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro as in the streets. Sleds, sliding with “skeetes,” a bull baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the ice. This winter was so severe that trees were split by the frost, birds and fish perished, and many parks of deer were destroyed, and fuel so dear that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. London, by the excessive cold of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, became so filled with it that one could hardly see across the streets, and it filled the lungs so that breathing was difficult. On the 5th of February it began to thaw, but froze again, and there being no water many trades, especially the brewers, had to stop. Evelyn crossed from Lambeth to the Horse Ferry at Millbank, but the thaw continuing, the booths had all to be taken down. He adds that there was a map or landskip cut in copper representing the scene, and all the sports and pastimes thereon. A sketch made by Thomas Wyck on the 4th of February is preserved in the British Museum, and is here reproduced. It is taken from near the Temple, and old London Bridge with its houses is visible in the distance. The following year in January the frost was very severe, and the Thames was frozen, but unsafe to venture upon. The winter of 1739-40 was one of the most severe ever remembered, and from the long continuance of the frost from Christmas Day, 1739, to February 17th, 1740, when it began to thaw, but very gradually, it has been known ever since as the Great Frost. It was impossible for the colliers from the north to get up the river, and the distress among the poorer classes was terrible, not only from want of fuel, food and water, but also of work. The watermen and fishermen with a peter-boat in mourning, and the carpenters, bricklayers, and labourers walked in procession through the streets soliciting the alms of the charitable, and to the honour of the city and all, great sums were collected and disbursed. Another terrible calamity happened a few days after the frost had commenced: this was a terrible gale which did incalculable damage in the river, dragging vessels from their moorings and dashing them against one another, while the large sheets of ice floating in the stream overwhelmed the wherries and lighters and barges, and sunk many, especially those laden with coal and corn. Above the bridge the Thames was frozen completely over and a Frost Fair was held on it. Various shops were opened for the sale of toys, cutlery, and other light articles. Printing presses were set up and the usual drinking booths and puppet shows abounded. All sorts of sports and diversions were carried on, and the place became a perfect carnival, as if the populace were utterly oblivious of the misery and distress which existed on shore.
     In the beginning of the winters of 1767 and 1768 there were also severe frosts. The navigation of the river was completely stopped, while below bridge the damage done by the floating ice was enormous. Ships, barges, and small craft were driven hither and thither; many were sunk and driven on shore, and a great number of human lives were sacrificed.
     Some time before this Westminster Bridge had been built, being then the only one besides London Bridge, which at last had been cleared of its houses and considerably repaired in 1757-58. The handsome old bridge of Blackfriars, the work of Robert Mylne, was opened in 1769; Southwark Bridge, by John Rennie, was opened in 1819; and Waterloo – or, as it was first called, the Strand Bridge in 1817.
     On the 26th of November, 1703, there was a great hurricane. All the ships in the river, from London Bridge to Limehouse, with the exception of four only, were broken from their moorings and thrown on shore. Upwards of four hundred wherries were entirely lost, more than sixty barges were driven foul of London Bridge, and as many more were either sunk or staved above bridge. The loss of life was also very considerable. On the 1st of January, 1730, there was such a dense fog that it caused numerous deaths and fatalities from collisions among the shipping.
     On the 25th of November, 1788, another great frost occurred which again lasted seven weeks. The river was completely frozen over above and below bridge, and the usual Frost Fair took place, which this time included a wild beast show. The thaw setting in suddenly threw everything into the greatest confusion, and the immense blocks of ice floating on the surface made it necessary to moor the ships close in, and yet many broke away from the pressure. One vessel off Rotherhithe was partly fastened to the main beams of a house, and, such was the enormous pressure of the ice, that the whole building collapsed, and unhappily five persons who were asleep in their beds perished.
     In February, 1791, there was an extraordinary high tide, and all the low-lying districts on the Surrey side were flooded; Bankside and Tooley Street were under water, and, on the City side, Queenhithe, Thames Street, and Wapping High Street were in a like condition. Palace Yard was flooded two feet deep, and boats rowed from the Thames to Westminster Hall.
     In December, 1793, a terrible fire broke out at Hawley’s Wharf, near Hermitage Wharf, Wapping, which entirely destroyed that and several neighbouring properties, three vessels, and other small craft that were lying in the dock; 1400 casks of sugar were melted by the intense heat into one mass, which flowed through the streets and into the river one bright stream of liquid fire. This conflagration resembled in many respects the larger fire in recent years at Cotton’s Wharf, Tooley Street, where the floating masses of burning tallow carried the fire to ships moored in the stream. In July, 1794, nearly the whole of Ratcliff was destroyed and several vessels in the river alongside. It was occasioned by the boiling over of a pitch kettle at a boat-builder’s yard. This disastrous fire was considered to have been the worst experienced since the Great Fire of London for the number of houses burnt.
     In 1814, during the month of January, there had been a very severe frost, but, a thaw having taken place, the spectacle on the Thames at London Bridge was extraordinary. At the ebbing of the tide, huge fragments of ice were carried down the stream with great violence, accompanied by a noise equal to the report of a small piece of artillery. On the return of the tide they were forced back again, but the obstacle opposed to their progress through the arches was so great as to threaten a total stoppage of the navigation. A few days after – on the 1st of February – the Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridges continued to “present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice in all directions and in great numbers.” The ice, however, from its roughness and inequalities, was totally unfit for amusement, although several booths were erected on it for the sale of small wares, but the publicans and spirit dealers were most in request. The whole of the river opposite Queenhithe was completely frozen, but the ice varied in thickness, and nearer Blackfriars was absolutely dangerous. This state of the river continued until the 7th, when the mass of ice broke up through high tides. People were crossing to and fro even up to the last, but at 4 p.m. it gave way and swept through the arches of Blackfriars Bridge, carrying along with it innumerable boats and about forty barges; but the erections for the new Strand Bridge, afterwards called Waterloo, impeded its progress, and it was some time before the passage became free. Many people who were foolhardy enough to remain in the booths until a late hour at night found, to their alarm, that the solid mass on which they stood began to move; they managed to scramble into two derelict barges, and one managed to pass safely through Blackfriars Bridge, but the other struck against one of the piers, and ropes had to be let down from the bridge to rescue this involuntary crew.
     A few days after this, on the 12th, Sir Christopher Wren’s Custom House was burnt down and unfortunately a number of warehouses, private houses, and inns. An explosion of gunpowder scattered terror and dismay in the very height of the conflagration, and paralysed for a time all attempts to subdue the flames. The loss to the Government was immense, and to private owners also.
     During the long course of ages, London in its constant growth had been systematically polluting the beautiful river by pouring into it its sewage and converting it into one huge sewer. This horrible custom had commenced in very early days and had gone on steadily increasing. Pope, Swift, and Gay alluded to it, and particularly to the state of the Fleet ditch

“where Fleet ditch with disemboguing streams,
Rolls its large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”

     The stench arising from the mud-banks at low water and their disgusting appearance were long a standing reproach to London. It was no wonder that the river, which had been once famous for its fish, was almost deserted by them, and the fishermen petitioned Parliament on the utter extinction of their industry and prayed for relief; but it was many years before the authorities woke up to facts which were patent to all. At last the Metropolitan Main Drainage Act was passed, and the first stone of the Victoria Embankment laid in July, 1864. The new scheme, however, only removed the nuisance from one part of the river to a point further down at Crossness, and with the enormous increase of London since this Act was passed the scheme is now inadequate, and in a few years will have to be supplemented and improved.
     The swans which in the old days were common enough on the river almost ceased to come down between the bridges: they objected to the risk of sullying their snow-white plumage in the inky waters. Of late years – indeed one might almost say quite recently – another kind of water-fowl has become quite familiar to Londoners, the sea-gulls. In the winter months flocks of these can now be seen constantly on the wing skimming over the face of the river, and so tame and fearless have they become that, like the sparrows, they will take food almost from the hand, and people may constantly be seen feeding them.
     The fish formerly caught in the river above and below bridge were sturgeon, occasionally salmon, salmon-trout, trout, tench, barbel, roach, dace, chub, bream, gudgeon, ruffe, smelts, eels and flounders, and last and least, that puzzle to the naturalist, whitebait. The Ship Tavern at Greenwich was long famous for the ministerial dinner which was held there and marked the end of the Parliamentary Session. It generally took place in August, but fell into disuse until revived for a time by Lord Beaconsfield, and has now again been dropped.
     Billingsgate for many ages has been the great mart for fish. There was a natural haven here not unlike Queenhithe, but not so large, at which boats could unload. Its derivation from Belin’s Gate is correct enough, but the building of the gate by “King Belin” is of course purely mythical. Originally it was not exclusively used for fish, but as a general wharf for small trading vessels, but the Fishmongers’ Company, which included the Stockfishmongers, had their Hall in the neighbourhood and gradually absorbed the trade. The Old Fishmarket was in Old Fish Street. It was long famous for its fish dinners, and was a favourite resort of the citizens. Moored just off Billingsgate one still sees the Dutch eel-boats.
     Strange fish are sometimes found in the river; porpoises are not unfrequent, and even a small whale has been imprudent enough to try to ascend. But on the 1st of January, 1787, the strangest take of all is recorded. Some fishermen fishing off Poplar with much difficulty drew into their boat a shark; alive, but apparently very sickly. When it was taken on shore and opened, they found in the inside a silver watch, a metal chain, and a cornelian seal, with some fragments of gold lace, supposed to have belonged to somebody who had unfortunately fallen overboard. The rest of the body had been digested, but these articles remained, and were perhaps the cause of the sickness of the fish, from which, and from the effects of the Thames water, it would doubtless have died. The watch bore the name of Henry Warson, London, and the number 1369, and the works were very much impaired. When these particulars were published Henry Warson recollected that he had sold a watch to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel as a present to his son going on his first voyage on board the ship Polly, Captain Vane, bound for abroad. About three leagues off Falmouth, through a sudden heel of the vessel during a squall, young Thompson fell overboard and was no more seen. The news of his being drowned reached his family, who little thought that they would ever hear of him again. Mr. Thompson, senior, bought the shark, not for the sake of having it buried in consecrated ground, but to preserve it as a memorial of so singular an event. It was the largest shark ever remembered to have been taken in the Thames, being from the tip of the snout to the extremity of the tail 9 feet 3 inches; from the shoulder to the extremity of the body, 6 feet 1 inch; round the body in the thickest part, 6 feet 9 inches; the width of the jaws when extended, 17 inches; it had five rows of teeth, and from that circumstance was supposed to have been five years old. This extraordinary account appears in the Annual Register of 1787, under the head of “Chronicle,” page 227.


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