The River Thames flows through southern England. With a total length of 346 km, the Thames is the longest river entirely in England and the second-longest in the United Kingdom, behind the River Severn. While it is best known because its lower reaches flow through central London, the river flows alongside several other towns and cities, including Oxford, Reading, Windsor, Kingston and Richmond.
The usually quoted source of the Thames is at Thames Head. This is about 1200 m north of the Kemble parish church in southern Gloucestershire, near the town of Cirencester, in the Cotswolds. Seven Springs near Cheltenham, where the river Churn rises, is also sometimes quoted as the Thames’ source, as this location is furthest from the mouth, and adds some 23 km to the length. The springs at Seven Springs also flow throughout the year, while those at Thames Head are only seasonal, a winterbourne.
The Thames is the longest river entirely in England, but the River Severn, which is partly in Wales, is the longest river in the United Kingdom. However, as the Churn, sourced at Seven Springs is 23 km longer than the Thames (from its traditional source at Thames Head), its length 369 km is greater than the Severn’s length 350 km. Thus, the Churn/Thames river may be regarded as the longest natural river flow in the United Kingdom.
In Greater London the Thames passes Hampton Court, Surbiton, Kingston, Teddington, Twickenham, Richmond (with a famous view of the Thames from Richmond Hill), Syon House, Kew, Brentford, Chiswick, Barnes, Hammersmith, Fulham, Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea and Chelsea. In Central London, the river sweeps past Pimlico, the SIS building, Vauxhall and keeps one of the principal axes of the city, from the Palace of Westminster to the Tower of London and was the southern boundary of the mediaeval city.
Past central London, the river passes between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, before flowing through the Thames Barrier, which protects central London from flooding by storm surges. Below the barrier, the river passes Dagenham, Dartford, Tilbury and Gravesend before entering the Thames Estuary near Southend-on-Sea.
The Thames, from Middle English Temese, is derived from the Celtic name for the river, Tamesas, recorded in Latin as Tamesis and yielding modern Welsh Tafwys “Thames”. The name probably meant “dark” and can be compared to other cognates such as Sanskrit tamas, Irish teimheal and Welsh tywyll “darkness” and Middle Irish teimen “dark grey”.
The river gives its name to several geographical and political entities, including the Thames Valley, a region of England around the river between Oxford and west London, the Thames Gateway, the area centred on the tidal Thames, and the Thames Estuary to the east of London.
It rises at Thames Head in Gloucestershire, and flows into the North Sea at the Thames Estuary via London, the country’s capital where it is particularly deep and navigable; the Thames drains the whole of Greater London.
Its tidal section includes most of its London stretch with a rise and fall of 7 metres; tides reaching up to Teddington Lock. Along its course are 45 navigation locks with accompanying weirs. Its catchment area covers a large part of South Eastern and small part of Western England and the river is fed by 38 named tributaries. The river contains over 80 islands. Having both seawater and freshwater stretches, the River Thames supports a variety of wildlife.
Alongside the river runs the Thames Path, a National Route for walkers and cyclists, with places on every reach for anglers.
The river’s strategic position has marked many events in British history. Human activity along points from its source to its mouth is evidenced for thousands of years. The Thames has been a physical and political boundary over the centuries and generated a range of river crossings. Now it is a major leisure area supporting tourism and provides dwelling places, water power, food and drink.
The River Thames can first be identified as a discrete drainage line as early as 58 million years ago, in the Thanetian stage of the late Palaeocene epoch. Until around 500,000 years ago, the Thames flowed on its existing course through what is now Oxfordshire, before turning to the north east through Hertfordshire and East Anglia and reaching the North Sea near Ipswich.
The River Thames has served several roles in human history, being an economic resource, a water highway, a boundary, a fresh water source, also a source of food and more recently a leisure facility.
There is evidence of human habitation living off the river along its length dating back to Neolithic times. The British Museum has a decorated bowl (3300–2700 BC), found in the River at Hedsor, Buckinghamshire and a considerable amount of material was discovered during the excavations of Dorney Lake.
Some of the earliest written accounts of the Thames occur in Julius Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54BC when the Thames presented a major obstacle and he encountered the Iron Age Belgic tribes the Catuvellauni and the Atrebates along the river.
Under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 the Romans occupied England and, recognising the River’s strategic and economic importance, built fortifications along the Thames valley including a major camp at Dorchester. Two hills, now known as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, provided a firm base for a trading centre at the lowest possible point on the Thames called Londinium where a bridge was built.
Economic prosperity and the foundation of wealthy monasteries by the Anglo-Saxons attracted unwelcome visitors and by around AD 870 the Vikings were sweeping up the Thames on the tide and creating havoc as in their destruction of Chertsey Abbey.
Once King William had won total control of the strategic Thames Valley, he went on to invade the rest of England. He had many castles built, including those at Wallingford, Rochester, Windsor and most importantly the Tower of London. Many details of Thames activity are recorded in the Domesday Book. The following centuries saw the conflict between King and barons coming to a head in AD 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta on an island in the Thames at Runnymede. This granted them among a host of other things under Clause 23 the right of Navigation. Another major consequence of John’s reign was the completion of the multi-piered London Bridge which acted as a barricade and barrage on the river, affecting the tidal flow upstream and increasing the likelihood of freezing over. In Tudor and Stuart times the Kings and Queens loved the river and built magnificent riverside palaces at Hampton Court, Kew, Richmond on Thames, Whitehall and Greenwich.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw the City of London grow with the expansion of world trade. The wharves of the Pool of London were thick with seagoing vessels while naval dockyards were built at Deptford. During a series of cold winters the Thames froze over above London Bridge: the first Frost Fair in 1607 saw a tent city set up on the river, and a number of amusements, including ice bowling.
In good conditions barges travelled daily from Oxford to London carrying timber and wool, foodstuffs and livestock, battling with the millers on the way. The stone from the Cotswolds used to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire in 1666 was brought all the way down from Radcot. The Thames provided the major highway between London and Westminster in the 16th and 17th centuries; the clannish guild of watermen ferried Londoners from landing to landing and tolerated no outside interference.
By the 18th century, the Thames was one of the world’s busiest waterways, as London became the centre of the vast, mercantile British Empire and progressively over the next century the docks expanded in the Isle of Dogs and beyond. Efforts were made to resolve the navigation conflicts upstream by building locks along the Thames. After temperatures began to rise again, starting in 1814, the river stopped freezing over completely. The building of a new London Bridge in 1825, with fewer pillars than the old, allowed the river to flow more freely and reduced the likelihood of freezing over in cold winters.
The Victorian era was an era of imaginative engineering. In the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, pollution in the river reached such an extreme that sittings of the House of Commons at Westminster had to be abandoned. A concerted effort to contain the city’s sewage by constructing massive sewers on the north and south river embankments followed, under the supervision of engineer Joseph Bazalgette. Meanwhile, similar huge undertakings took place to ensure the water supply, with the building of reservoirs and pumping stations on the river to the west of London. The embankments in London house the water supply to homes, plus the sewers, and protect London from flood. The coming of railways added both spectacular and ugly railway bridges to the earlier road bridges but reduced commercial activity on the river. However, sporting and leisure use increased with the establishment of regattas such as Henley and The Boat Race. On 3 September 1878, one of the worst river disasters in England took place, when the crowded pleasure boat Princess Alice collided with the Bywell Castle, killing over 640 people.
During the 18th century, many stone and brick road bridges were built from new or to replace existing bridges both in London and along the length of the river. These included Putney Bridge, Westminster Bridge, Datchet Bridge, Windsor Bridge and Sonning Bridge. Several central London road bridges were built in the 19th century, most conspicuously Tower Bridge, the only bascule bridge on the river, designed to allow ocean going ships to pass beneath it.
Railway development in the 19th century resulted in a spate of bridge building including Blackfriars Railway Bridge and Charing Cross (Hungerford) Railway Bridge in central London.
The growth of road transport and the decline of the Empire, in the years following 1914, reduced the economic prominence of the river. During World War II the protection of the Thames was crucial to the defence of the country. Defences included the Maunsell forts in the estuary and barrage balloons to counter German bombers using the distinctive shape of the river to navigate during The Blitz. Although the Port of London remains one of the UK’s three main ports, most trade has moved downstream from central London. The decline of heavy industry, tanneries and oil-pollutants, and much improved sewage treatment have led to improved water quality since the filthy days of the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, and aquatic life has returned to its formerly ‘dead’ waters.
Until enough crossings were established, the river presented a formidable barrier, with Belgic tribes and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms being defined by which side of the river they were on. When English counties were established their boundaries were partly determined by the Thames.
However, the 214 bridges and 17 tunnels that have been built to date have changed the dynamics and made cross-river development and shared responsibilities more practicable. In 1965, upon the creation of Greater London, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames incorporated areas that had been parts of both Middlesex and Surrey; and further changes in 1974 moved some of the boundaries away from the river.
In the early 1980s a massive flood control device, the Thames Barrier, was opened — closed to tides several times a year to prevent water damage to London’s low-lying areas upstream. In the late 1990s, the 11-kilometre-long Jubilee River was built as a flood channel for the Thames around Maidenhead and Windsor.
In 1929 John Burns, one time MP for Battersea, responded to an American’s unfavourable comparison of the Thames with the Mississippi by coining the expression “The Thames is liquid history”.
The 1928 Thames flood was a disastrous flood that affected much of riverside London on 7 January 1928, as well as places further downriver. Fourteen people were drowned in London and thousands were made homeless when flood waters poured over the top of the Thames Embankment and part of the Chelsea Embankment collapsed. It was the last major flood to affect central London.
The Marchioness disaster occurred on the River Thames in London in the early hours of 20 August 1989. The pleasure boat Marchioness sank after being run down by the dredger Bowbelle, near Cannon Street Railway Bridge. There were 131 people on the Marchioness. Some were members of the crew, some were catering staff and others were guests at a private birthday party. Fifty-one of them drowned.
As a result of the Marchioness disaster, the Government asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Port of London Authority and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to work together to set up a dedicated Search and Rescue service for the tidal River Thames. As a result, there are four lifeboat stations on the Thames at Teddington (Teddington lifeboat station), Chiswick (Chiswick lifeboat station), Victoria Embankment/Waterloo Bridge (Tower Lifeboat Station) and Gravesend (Gravesend lifeboat station).
Various species of birds feed off the river or nest on it. Many types of British birds also live alongside the river, although they are not specific to the river habitat. The Thames contains both sea water and fresh water, thus providing support for seawater and freshwater fish. It also hosts some invasive crustaceans, including the signal crayfish and the Chinese Mitten Crab.
The birds species include cormorant, black-headed gull, and herring gull. The mute swan is a familiar sight on the river but the escaped black swan is rarer. The annual ceremony of swan upping is an old tradition of counting stocks. Non-native geese that can be seen include Canada geese, Egyptian geese, and bar-headed geese, and ducks include the familiar native mallard, plus introduced mandarin duck and wood duck. Other water birds to be found on the Thames include the great crested grebe, coot, moorhen, heron, and kingfisher.
Salmon, which inhabit both environments, have been reintroduced and a succession of fish ladders have been built into weirs to enable them to travel upstream. On 5 August 1993 the largest non-tidal salmon in recorded history was caught close to Boulters Lock in Maidenhead. The specimen weighed 6.5 kg, or 14.5 pounds and measured 88 cm, or 22 inches in length. The eel is particularly associated with the Thames and there were formerly many eel traps. Freshwater fish of the Thames and its tributaries include brown trout, chub, dace, roach, barbel, perch, pike, bleak, and flounder. Colonies of short-snouted seahorses have also recently been discovered in the river.
On 20 January 2006 a 5-metre northern bottle-nosed whale was seen in the Thames as far upstream as Chelsea. This was extremely unusual: this whale is generally found in deep sea waters. Crowds gathered along the riverbanks to witness the extraordinary spectacle but there was soon concern, as the animal came within yards of the banks, almost beaching, and crashed into an empty boat which caused slight bleeding. About 12 hours later, the whale is believed to have been seen again near Greenwich, possibly heading back to sea. A rescue attempt lasted several hours, but the whale died on a barge.
In London there are many sightseeing boat tours past the famous attractions as well as regular riverboat services coordinated by London River Services. Many companies also provide boat hire. The leisure navigation and sporting activities have given rise to a number of businesses including boatbuilding, marinas, ships chandlers and salvage services.