London Puzzles 3: The Lost Banks Of The Thames


I’m out and about doing London research today, inspired by our erstwhile commenter Jan, who sent me a couple of shots of the Thames foreshore. (She knows her history but the camera could do with a bit of an upgrade). Jan points out that the beach of the South Bank runs parallel with Shad Thames heading toward St Saviours Dock where the Neckinger was joined (through the efforts of the Lay brothers of Bermondsey Abbey) to the Thames.  This was a place of execution, a Neckinger being the ‘Devils Neckerchief’, or hangman’s noose.

Look carefully and you’ll see why she’s taken the photographs. A stone causeway out into the water on the left, and shoreline defences on the right. The paths of the old river boundaries are now lower, the city having risen around and over the old Roman encampment. Remnants of the river’s history are there to be seen if you know where to look.

My question is this. Such tributaries into the Thames were passable by drawbridges, some of which were still in operation when I was a child. We know that the river was made deeper at the centre and widened at the shores. The evidence suggests that the Thames was narrower before and even faster-moving, but if so then why was the Victoria Embankment built, which must have bottle-necked it further?

39 comments on “London Puzzles 3: The Lost Banks Of The Thames”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I don’t have the answer to this, but “The Thames” by Jonathan Schneer may help.

    I found this much better than Peter Ackroyd’s “Thames-Sacred River” which I gave up on-I find his style of writing difficult to get on with.

  2. snowy says:

    Not quite, the river was quite low and slow where the Embankment was to be built, [this gets hard to explain without much hand-waving and hastily scribbled diagrams].

    If you have a slow flowing patch of water anything you dump in it hangs around, the trick is to improve the flow rate, For a nominally fixed volume of water/unit time this can be done by making the channel narrower and deeper. Consider a ‘mill race’ that turns a flat pond into a flow of water powerful enough to turn a millstone weighing several hundredweight.

    They did narrow it, but it was a bit wide and useless at that point anyway, what they got was a cleaner faster river, more scour to keep it clean, a deeper more navigable channel, an underground tunnel, the Great Intercepting Sewer and an absolute fortune in prime building land.

  3. snowy says:

    For link-lovers a slightly complex map overlay

    The Georgian river over a modern map.

    Pull to centre – zoom in – adjust the slider to fade out the old map to reveal how the shape of the river was changed.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    I think the sewer was the main reason otherwise Bazalgette would have had to demolish a big run of existing buildings in order to bury it deep enough.

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Wasn’t it also to prevent flooding and allow building?
    Housing had been built on the reclaimed marshland, which undoubtedly meant profits for someone.
    My Mum lived near where the Globe now stands, and remembered being flooded in 1928.
    The embankments were raised following the flood.

  6. admin says:

    My Auntie Nell lived in a basement slum on the Isle of Dogs, many of which were flooded, drowning all the occupants. I seem to recall reading a book about the disaster. The high tides were always flooding the southern side of the embankment.

  7. admin says:

    That’s a fantastic reference tool, Snowy. I never knew Millbank Penitentiary was that shape.

  8. Jan says:

    This is not helping me with relearning percentages but it is a bit bit complex as Snows says. They dredged and deepened part of the Thames for the Pool of London, and the river did naturally broaden out around around the Embankment gardens on N. Bank, Nat Theatre South Bank sort of area. The extra land was needed N bank for Bazalgettes sewer of course + for the creation of the District line. Remember Chris a massive chunk of Embankment gardens is LT property. That was why the books of condolence after the tube and bus bombings were placed there it’s LT land.

    The Watergate in Embankment gardens shows the original width of the Thames and that’s a lot nearer to Shades wine bar than the road. I will send you a few more pics not for to put on here. Just to show you. My cameras not so clever I know but then again the actual photographer is non too sparkling either!

    I have got really interested in Canutes Trench (maybe legend maybe fact) lots of debate about it and I have done a lot of walking round inner London S bank boroughs in order to examine it’s possible route. For folk who have not heard of this thing b4 Canute England’s first and only Viking King before he conquered the City (and well before he became king )when he set about conquering the City of London Canute was alleged/rumoured to have caused the creation of a channel S of the river into which the waters of the Thames were drained in order that the Vikings could bypass the fortifications of London bridge and gain access to the City via the Roman walls to chase the Anglo Saxons outta there. Well I won’t go into too much detail but it’s fascinating a really interesting subject once you get into into this possible canal. See the Viking boats were shallow and a crew could actually carry a long ship between them over a substantial distance. So they need not have built a full canal to sail down at all. Being as though the s bank is very marshy anyway they could have quite possibly cut a trench into the S bank drained some Thames water into it for some distance and then trudged along with their boats avoiding the fortified bridge.

    What makes it even more of a conundrum is that in an earlier separate attack London bridge was originally partially demolished by the guy who would become King Olaf of Norway later in his life and subsequently Saint Olaf. This guy after his bridge demolishing turn in fact became a mercenary for Alfred the Gr8. He damaged London bridge by getting his longship crews to secure heavy ropes round the wooden struts of the Bridge and then carry on rowing toward Westminster taking a good portion of the bridge with them! They don’t mess about them Vikings.

    A guy who was researching Canutes trench in the 18C William Maitland was approached by a man who had worked for Greenland Dock on what was known as the Great Wet Dock (as opposed to dry dock you understand.) This engineer was one John Webster he reckoned he had found actual physical evidence of Canutes Trench at the Greenland dock. In fact what he had seen but misinterpreted was a canal dug in the 11C in order to by pass London bridge and convert it from a wooden to a stone built structure. Who would have thought the civil engineering of the time was so sophisticated? This canal was named the Colechurch canal supervised by Peter of Cole -church priest and chaplain to St Mary’s Colechurch near Poultry in the City. Again the object being to lower the Thames for a short time.

    So I have probably you confused you no end here.
    Canute or Cnut as he is more properly known became Cnut the Great of Denmark and Norway and also King of England. He died without issue and the English throne reverted back to the Anglo Saxons
    Olaf became a King of Norway and subsequently a saint. Saint Olave and “Tooley” street is a corruption of Saint Olaves Street. See what building a good few churches gets you? I

    The History of the South Bank is just gob smacking so complex multi layered.

    By the way Bermondsey was originally Beormunds Island some Anglo Saxon or Freesian guy deciding to settle on a relatively dry bit if marshy S.E.London and shift along a few Celtic Brits.

    I will leave the Romans for another day.
    Will send you a few more (crappy) photos Chris

  9. Jan says:

    Snows tell you what is a bit of a startler that loon’s plan to the straighten the Thames that would be a plan and a half to put a link in to. 17C I think it is very funny. But he was serious
    Am staying off of here now. Wasted tons of time. Bye

  10. eggsy says:

    Wiley Reveley in 1796, Jan. The Ianvisits blog (as recommended previously by admin) has a feature, with added maps. Similar in concept to the Bristol Float (the River Avon being given a bypass).
    Canute did, of course, have offspring. He was succeeded by Halfacanute and then by Hardlicanute. (Sellar and Yeatman).

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, eggsy, thank you. When the AngloSaxons retook the throne they of course died by a series of egg deaths (poor Eggfroth, Eggfilth and so on).

  12. Jan says:

    No sorry Eggsy you are quite right he had two missuses as well didn’t he? ( two wives) and two different families?
    Did something not happen to the lads, the sons, with one wife did they predecease him? and his daughter was it with the other I can’t recall what happened with her?

    I’m awful at the people stuff and Royal lineages. The places I like but get loads of that wrong the other stuff I am not that fussed about. Get it proper wrong.

    It’s funny at think of Canute as this silly old sausage telling the waves to turn back. Instead he was shrewd, lucky, clever he even did the sitting on the beach thing to show he knew his power to be as nothing really. I should have really remembered he had family as a female descendant of his is buried at an ancient church in a small seaside village near Chichester..

  13. Ian Luck says:

    The thing that always fascinated me was the lethal rapids caused by parts of Old London Bridge – the real old one, that has the superb model (1/76 scale) in St Magnus The Martyr. Oh, see if you can find the modern London Policeman placed on it for a laugh, if you ever chance to see it – he’s there, amongst the throng of hundreds of little figures. Sorry, wandered a bit there. Travelling by boat through the bridge could be lethal, so passengers were put ashore one side of the bridge, whilst the experienced rivermen ‘shot the rapids’, and, all being well, picked them up the other side.

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    I love this blog.

  15. snowy says:

    Millbank Prison.

    [Be thankful my notes are still packed into boxes out of reach and I can only use what I hold in my memory.]

    It was that shape because it was built on the ‘Pan-opticon’ principle, prisoners controlled by by the fear of constant surveillance.

    They struggled to build it, it was on a swamp and kept sinking. A problem only solved by three changes of Chief Architect and tons of concrete.

    Despite being part of prison reform it was more horrible than the hulks it was intended to replace, it was cold, damp, disease-ridden and stank. It had the highest mortality rate of all London’s prisons. For a long period it was used only as a holding/transit point for those sentenced to transportation. It was so cold and damp, the fog from the river would creep inside the building.

  16. snowy says:

    I’m glad Ian mentioned ‘The Old London Bridge’, its removal was a key part of the scheme. The piers were part of the problem that had to be solved, the rather elegant solution is still with us, [at is even at the top of this page as an emblem of London].

  17. Helen Martin says:

    I couldn’t manage the instructions for the map overlay but I did see a very strange structure very close to the river. It looked like a daisy with a circle around it and I wondered if that was Millbank Prison. It seems it was. The idea of keeping an eye on inmates from a central location came into hospitals, too. There are lots of hospital with pods and central nurses’ stations. I don’t know whether that makes a difference to the patients – that the overlookers actually care about the condition of the people being watched.

  18. snowy says:

    It’s not you or your device, maps in general can be very, very slow, [re-scaling image tiles on the fly takes a lot of processing].

  19. Jan says:

    Ian I think St Magnus also has a small section of the wooden London Bridge outside (or maybe within) the church.

    I think quite a few prisons and psychiatric hospitals adapted this central surveillance pod that was initiated at Millbank . The U.S. I believe had whole raft of institutions built to confirm to this plan.

    Close to Millbank is “Dolphin Square” a very large mansion flat development which went from being extremely posh to a bit seedy then back to being very desirable again.
    I went to a lovely wedding reception there once. The social /health club has a swimming pool lovely setting and very swish.

    Before becoming this mega mansion block there was a very large army presence here one of the functions of this base was a depot dedicated to the production and distribution of the khaki uniforms adopted by the UK forces.

  20. Jan says:

    Conform spellchecker its part in my downfall

  21. Ian Luck says:

    I do remember my mum (who, in the mid 1950’s, was a Special Constable with the Met), telling me that hot water from Battersea powerstation was pumped, in two huge pipes, to a block of flats in Dolphin Square, to heat them. If you watch Doctor Who, you’ll know these now disused pipes as a convenient place to store dozens of torpid Cybermen. Pity my mum never lived to see that – it would have amused her greatly.

  22. SteveB says:

    Wow fascinating stuff today!!

  23. Jan says:

    Ian sorry to argue with.your mam… specially with her being a special ……never argue with hobby bobbies being one of my mottos……..but it wasn’t actually the residents of Dolphin Square who were the lucky recipients of Battersea power stations hot water. Sorry to contradict your mum but it was the large council housing estate which lies right next door.

    My mate who’s wedding reception was @ Dolphin Square remembered clearly as a youngster bubbles being seen coming up from halfway across the Thames was either the Victoria line going in gasses maybe being released from the tunnelling or possibly one of the secret post WW2 tunnels going in. “Beneath the City Streets” mentions a clinic in Pimlico which had a possible secondary function. Just South of the Thames there’s an international shipping building, Tintagel House, the Lambeth laboratories (both Met police buildings) and of course the new MI5 or 6 ( I can never remember which) HQ all on or near the S bank of the Thames. And of course this is now very interestingly developing as London’ s New embassy quarter. Other nations propose to follow the Yanks down there.
    Of course the free central heating and hot water provided by Battersea went years and years ago. I practically spent a whole summer down inside the shell of the power station back in the 1980s. Amazing structure really. Lot of bricks! We used to count them if not playing volleyball or football or trying to watch the itv racing on a portable tv!

    Can’t hang about want to watch this penumbral lunar eclipse. Very clear down my way but bloody freezing.
    Hope u r well.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – That’s perfectly all right – although if you wanted to argue, you’d need the services of a medium. My mum worked for a firm of Solicitors, and the partners encouraged her to join up as a Special.

  25. Jan says:

    Got nowt against specials Ian. Very community orientated conscientious folk really.

    Interestingly @ the time your mum was volunteering in the job women police were a specialist unit . They dealt almost exclusively with child protection and juvenile crime issues plus thesearching of female prisoners.

    Did your mum actually tell you what her volunteering consisted of? Was she actually used as a patrolling officer? I’ve wondered a bit about this before female specials were probably as rare as hens teeth cos apart from doing a bit of traffic directing I c a n’t imagine what they found for them to actually do.

    Clouded over for that eclipse and when I finally got back in the warm fell fast asleep.

  26. Jan says:

    Ian ‘re reading your words about the currents around London bridge( one of the earlier versions) where the small spacing between the struts the arches of the bridge was making the situation even worse.

    The Thames currents are still pretty lethal its a funny old river the Thames the cross currents the fact its tidal – which you don’t notice so much in the centre of town but is obvious both to the east and the westerly stretches Hammersmith up past Chiswick you can really see it all adds into the dangers. All the tributaries the”lost rivers of London” add to the dangerous currents even though at present practically every trib is encased in a pontoon at its confluence point with the Thames. Cos they are building this new super sewer.

    There were v. strict instructions, rules given to officers NOT in any circumstances to jump into the Thames in order to try and save a jumper. Do your very best to talk them through it talk them down off that parapet if it is at all possible but once they’ve decided the leaps for them then they do it alone. The poor souls ain’t likely to survive it. Their decision.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Interfering with a suicide can be very tricky even if the water below isn’t badly contaminated and full of currents. My son pulled a man down off a railing one night and was grateful that a bus driver contacted police to secure the situation and take the man into protective custody.

  28. Ian Luck says:

    My mum did do patrolling – she was based at the Caledonian Road Police Station. She did patrols round areas like Soho, where she said that after a while she was well acquainted with the ‘working girls’ in the area, and, she told me that she liked a great many of them – she was always a people person. She told me that she did traffic duty, and when doing that, found out that a Police Box was definitely smaller on the inside, but was the best place to eat an icecream in summer. A lot of her time was spent standing around on crime scenes whilst evidence was collected. She loved doing it, but met dad, and after they married, and lived in Hackney for a while, moved out of London, as dad got a new job in Suffolk, with an oil company.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    We did have her Truncheon – Lignum Vitae with a steel core – I would NOT want to be hit anywhere with that, by the way. My brother and I gave it to her younger brother after she died.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, what a rare set of memories, there can’t have been many in that position.

  31. Helen Martin says:

    My husband says (for what it’s worth) that a special constable’s job on any given day would be whatever the officer in charge said it was, but his first thought was traffic control. She must have been someone they could rely on to have been handed those other responsibilities.

  32. Jan says:

    Yes that is really interesting Ian they obviously did link the work of the lady S.Cs. into the areas associated with women and children to some extent. Cally road not having that much to do with Soho in the normal run of things. A male S.C. posted to Caledonion road would have been unlikely to have been sent into Soho to patrol. Made a lot of sense to use female specials to patrol there. Hadn’t occurred to me that’s the arrangement that would have been made. Sensible though.

    Also I think it would have been be pretty unusual for female s.c.s to be issued with a stick mind you both around Cally Road in Soho in the 1950s things were fairly lively and it makes a lot of sense. Probably issued with the sort of truncheon that were issued to C.I.D. officers. Female officers uniform didn’t even have integral truncheon pockets sewn in right up to the late 1970s. early 1980s. Even if not officially issued some reasonable Guvnor at local level might have taken the practical decision to issue a stick after looking at the times and locations the officer was patrolling. Different place the past isn’t it?

  33. Ian Luck says:

    Walking round central London with mum was an education. You would be walking along, and she’d stop outside a completely innocuous doorway, and she’d tell you that on the pavement by the door, someone had been found with their throat cut/kicked to death/defenestrated/shot/bludgeoned, etc. It was an eye-opener. Some she’d seen, others were ‘landmarks’ told to her by other coppers. When she was on the Force, in the 1950’s, it was, of course, the ‘golden age’ of internecine gang warfare, and bodies in a poor state of repair were often found in the less salubrious parts of the Capital.

  34. Jan says:

    Not that much different then!

    The personnel and the characteristics of the gangs has changed, there’s no doubt, and the joining age has come down drastically but essentially the rests recognisable.

    I’ve a sort of feeling that since Hogarths time – and probably long before then very littles really changed. I only mention Hogarth because of his art works particularly “Gin Lane”.

    In many ways gin was the crack cocaine of its age a cheap refinement of what was formerly a product for the amusement of the rich turned into an addiction for the poor. The situations fluctuated occasionally – soldiers souvenirs providing the weapons used in the 1950s central London armed robberies for example.

    Esentially though things have stayed recognisably the same.

  35. Wayne Mook says:

    Just to confuse the Cnut thing, one of his sons was a Harold, Harthacnut was also known a Cnut III (Just when you thought it was safe to go to a wedding….Cnut 3: The Wedding Drinker. ‘He’s thought to have dropped dead at a wedding due to excessive drinking just after downing a drink.’ Those Scandinavians.) and is the half brother of Edward the Confessor – their mother was Emma Peel sorry, Emma of Normandy. So you can see William was related to the Saxons and so Harold and just to make it worse Harald (King of Norway) was the relative beaten at Stamford Bridge along with Harold’s brother Tostig, who wasn’t Sandy. A little QI joke for you there.

    On a traffic sign in Manchester that pronounced ‘Tidal Flow Suspended’ I was going to write Cnut Lives! but was too drunk to climb up the post.

    I did look up Edward, always meant to find out why he was called The Confessor, turns out it means a some who avows a religious faith in the face of opposition but isn’t martyred. A bit dull really. I always had visions of him with a mobile confessional booth, much like the pope mobile but pulled asses.

    Jan what was the percentage change to the Thames in the 2 periods of Snowy’s map? Just trying to get back to the mathematics. (Excellent find snowy.)


  36. Jan says:

    Wayne I will Have Another go at Snowys map I couldn’t make it go at all. Not pedalling fast enough I don’t think. Have seen the plan of Millbank a few times Helen’s right it sort of looks like a Tudor Rose with the central portion being the surveillance Pod.

    Just as weird as all the stuff you point out is that the Anglo Saxons end up losing England essentially to the descendents of their old foe the Vikings. Is William the Conqueror not just three generations removed from Rollo the big fella, the Viking who led the blokes who settled in N.E. France. Normandy is basically translated as the Land of the Norse men. Mind it is slightly more complex than that …..there’s a great map showing which part of Norway, Sweden and Denmark provided the Vikings who invaded different parts of Europe. The guys who sacked Lindisfarne and Portland were pretty far removed from the lads who landed in what would become Normandy and headed towards Paris.

    So there are plenty of connections between the Anglo Saxons and Norse and consequently the Normans It’s all well knotted up when you examine it closely.

    It’s funny we tend not to think of these Viking guys as corrupt slavers – their biggest trade being in people. We sort of admire them, half respect them . That Crystal glass thing that they have – the sort of compass that’s one of the ways they navigate the long ships over great distances. Jonjo my nephew when he went to Istanbul sent me a picture of the Halfdan runes (I think that’s their proper name) the graffiti done by the Viking bodyguard in the upper tier of the Hagia Sofia. This lad got a bit bored when working as a mercenary there. Left his mark.

    I think one of the Viking guys who fought at Stamford Bridge had also served as a mercenary in the Ottoman Empire. Possibly even Harald. Not sure though about it being him.

    I have been researching a group of relatively wealthy well connected folk from N.W. France, Brittany basically. These people legged it across the channel to escape their own Viking raiders. One of their number ends up becoming Saint Wite a woman who seems to have been raped to death by Viking raiders who plundered the Dorset coast. She ends up with a Holy Well dedicated to her and her church on the Marshwood Vale is the only English church other than Westminster Abbey to contain the remains of a saint. In this case it’s own particular named saint.

    The biggest conundrum of all though…wot if Harold had lost at Stamford bridge …what would have happened then? William was already making his way across the channel. What would have happened next? Apparently the Anglo Saxon army was padded out by Viking mercenaries who had used this unexpected opening in the transfer window to swop sides. I wonder what the outcome of a loss for Harold up North would have been?

  37. Helen Martin says:

    Those runes were shown on a tv program about the Hagia Sophia. Graffiti have always been with us. There was something truly fascinating about those ones. You’d have to know about runes because otherwise they just look like gouges in the stone.
    “That Crystal glass thing.” Icelandic spar used to find the location of the sun and possibly as a direction finder. The things there are out there. (A piece was found off Alderney – where the King talked about butter.)

  38. Jan says:

    that’s the fella Helen Thankyou Icelandic Spar. Difficult to use when it was cloudy perhaps? I wonder how it would work with cover?

    I have been to Alderney in the Channels Islands Alderney didn’t know that some had been discovered nearby. Interesting.

  39. Helen Martin says:

    The wikipedia thing said that Icelandic spar (all spars, feldspar, etc?) focuses the light, reflects the light and refracts the light so that makes it possible to place the sun “within a few degrees” well, 1deg of latitude is about 50 miles so you wouldn’t want to be very far out in that calculation. The locator will give you the sun even when it is below the horizon. Right, except that when a couple of sets of scientists tried to do it it didn’t work. You hold it up, mark a dot on the top, rotate until the light refracting gives you two dots, then… I think I’d have to hold the stuff up and follow the instructions step by step because I’m really confused.

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