It’s no coincidence that many great cities can be found on rivers. From the earliest times, human settlements formed in these places where fish could be found, crops could be irrigated, and goods could be sent or received. In the most prosperous of these places, the world’s greatest cities formed. The Seine and Paris. The Nile and Cairo. The Thames and London.
The River Thames runs for 205 miles and London is the largest city on its banks. The name of the river originates from the Celtic “Tamesas”, which meant “dark”, and was recorded in Latin as “Tamesis”. Thirty million years ago, the Thames was actually a tributary of the Rhine, well before the landmass was transformed into an island following the Ice Age. During this time, the river was approximately ten times the size it is now, due to melting ice sheets. It wasn’t until about 3,000 years ago that the river took the form we would recognize.
The Romans weren’t the first to settle the area of the Thames that became London. Archaeologists suggest the area could have been inhabited 400,000 years ago. Staines and Runnymeade sites showed evidence of permanent settlements, and by the Bronze Age, people living along the Thames were using it to trade with continental Europe. Eventually, the Romans landed in the area around 50 A.D. and named the settlement Londonium.
Under the Romans, the settlement was a major trading port and this success eventually made it the capital of Roman Britain at the end of the 1st Century. The Romans built the first man-made bridge across the river during this time. They also discovered that the tides would carry their boats about 50 miles inland without the need for wind or muscle power.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and by the 5th Century, the Empire was in decline and Roman London with it. As they left, invaders from all over Europe filled their place, building settlements and forts along the river or taking advantage of the preexisting London settlement. By the 9th Century, the Vikings were sailing up the river raiding the Angle and Saxon settlements until they were defeated by Cnut the Great in 1016.
Only 50 years later, William the Conqueror defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. He eventually conquered London, and in a show of power, had the Tower of London built. The Tower was completed in 1078 and it controlled entry into London by road or on the river. London Bridge followed less than 200 years later and grew until it had many shops and homes. The continued building created a fire hazard, put extreme stress on the bridge’s arches, and was responsible for such congestion that eventually, Sir Gerard Conyers, the Lord Mayor of London, ordered carts entering the city to do so on the left side of the bridge, possibly leading to the habit of driving on the left. From 1758 to 1762, all the buildings on the bridge were ordered demolished by an act of Parliament.
By the Victorian era, the Industrial Age meant heavy amounts of sewage and pollutants were being dumped into the river regularly. This resulted in several outbreaks of illness and may have contributed to the typhoid epidemic that claimed Prince Albert amongst its victims. The foulness led Michael Faraday to write a letter to the London Times and a foul-smelling event known as “The Great Stink” in 1858. Eventually, engineer Joesph Bazalgette developed the London sewer system in the next year which greatly improved the city’s sanitation and helped to clean up the Thames.
From the 20th Century, the importance of the Thames to transportation has decreased with the increase in road traffic thanks to automobiles. Several docks and water treatment plants received a great deal of protection during World War 2 thanks to their importance to the city and the war effort. The Thames Barrier was introduced in 1982 to help control flooding in the eastern boroughs of the city. Today, the river not only provides a method of shipping goods, but is itself a major tourist attraction with landmarks such as the Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge, and HMS Belfast providing places to visit, as well as many ferries and river cruises available for tourists.
For thousands of years, the River Thames has shaped the Great London area, giving birth to a major metropolis and shaping not just the destiny of a city, but the world itself. There is no doubt that as time goes on, this great river will continue to affect one of the greatest cities on Earth.