Thames & Waterways

From The Great Stink to Now (from an article by local architect Sumita Sinha-Jordan)

Although it may be strange that an architect should choose to talk about a river and not about buildings, to me, this river is one of the best features of London. When my son was little, I used to walk on Hammersmith Bridge, at times sitting down to watch the sunset.

The experience of the river- the sound of the waves, the birds, the fish, boats and yes, even the annoying aeroplanes, made this an unique experience. I love looking at the river from above, from the plane arriving into Heathrow, and feel good to see the majesty of its distinctive curvy shape. When one is on the riverboats, due to these same curves, it is difficult to orient oneself. From certain points, what is on the left bank looks like it is on the right bank and vice versa. The river has been glorified in paint by Whistler.


The particular experience of seeing the river from the London Eye gives yet an entirely different perspective- at different levels. Yet sadly, the city until now has looked away from its river rather than look at it, as we are doing now. If one looks at other cities of the world where there is water such as the canals of Venice or Amsterdam or cities with rivers, such as Perth or Melbourne, the river front is alive and the city looks into it. Even bridges across the Thames are used in a functional sense, to get from one bank to the other, not to stroll across, not to rest, not to have fun- only to walk across. Also, it is almost as if the buildings have made it difficult to get to it. Yet the river created the city. Look at the plan of London through the ages. What is it that has remained constant throughout? The river Thames.
Statistically, the Thames does not feature in even the top 50 of the worlds rivers. For example, the Nile is a spectacular 4160 miles long. But in terms of history, our river is one of the greatest in the world. The Thames is also the tongue of London which brings fresh air into the city. Fresh air from Southend travels in with the tides twice each day while the stale air is pulled out by the ebb of the water. As an ecological entity, the river was, in the past, a wilderness of marshes and reed beds, harbouring vast populations of birds. The 25 miles of tidal water within London are subject to daily fluctuations.
The waters have been subjected to two periods of gross pollution- firstly in the 1850s and then again in the 1950s. The story of how the river was brought back from pollution to sustainability is a remarkable one. Today, when fresh water is a scarce resource, being less than 0.4 percent of the earths water, this story has relevance.


The Thames and London- a short history through the ages

The river provided a route for settlers and invaders. As a settlement, London barely existed before the arrival of the Romans. They found the location of London very convenient- they could be near the sea and they could bridge the river Thames here as well as the rivers Fleet and Walbrook. They built a fort near Cripplegate. By 140, London, circled by a wall, was the capital of Roman Britain. After the decline of Roman Britain, the town was menaced by Franks, Picts, Scots and Saxons. When the Normans invaded in 1066, they built the Tower where the Roman wall met the river so that they could defend the city from the east. The City of London became a powerful centre for crafts with mediaeval Guilds and Livery companies.


The river provided a means of transport for boats, almost 3500 annually, that carried goods and people. But the water was beginning to get increasingly polluted. In 1236, water was being brought to the rich in the City of London by lead pipes from Tyburn Spring, now the site of Marble Arch. There were only twelve rubbish carts for the whole city in the 14th Century and even then they tipped their contents into the river. Other cities set about keeping city centres clean in their own ways. In Sienna, five pigs were kept to eat the waste. 16th Century London was prosperous as a result of exploration and discovery abroad, in which the Thames played a very important role.


London was the largest port in the country. In many respects, it resembled a seaside town, spreading from Westminster to the Tower with the river being the means of communication, drainage and water supply. It is reported that spoonbills nested in Putney Bridge up to the 16th Century while Montague and marsh harriers hunted in the marshes of south London. Walruses were found in the river up to 1456. The water supported a thriving fish population, including salmon, bream, dace, gudgeon, flounders and sea trout.


Henry VIII was responsible for many changes to London including the addition of palaces and hunting grounds like Green Park, Hyde Park and St James's Park. He was also responsible for the south of London becoming a cultural area. Except for Southwark, most of the land had remained unbuilt as it was marshy. So, all activities that were banned in the north were banished to the south of the river.
Cock fighting, bear baiting and all the theatres- the Rose 1587, the Swan and the Globe 1599- and public execution were the prime attractions at Southwark, providing diversions for Londoners. The river again acted as a means of dividing the city, along political and social lines. But, by 1610, the water was no longer fit for drinking and the New River Company was established to supply clean water to the general population In the Stuart period, London's only bridge was London Bridge and so it remained until 1738 when Westminster Bridge was built. Most jetties were on the north side, keeping power on the northern side. But despite its wealth, the north side was crowded, disease ridden and with open drains flowing into the river. Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren were the two most prominent architects responsible for building some of the memorable buildings of London.


As usual, great tragedies -the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great fire in 1666 provided these architects with good work loads. Also, the westward expansion of the city started as some of the earlier occupants of east London did not return after the fire, preferring to settle in the leafier, open squares in Kensington ands elsewhere. By the end of the 17th century, London had been transformed from a timber-built mediaeval port into a classical city, made of bricks and mortar. But for the poor of London, misery continued, especially with the water supply. The choice remained between a polluted Thames and a frozen Thames. Between 1564 and 1814, the river froze six times as the weather grew colder and glaciers in northern Europe advanced. Georgian London was the capital of the British Empire and a world trading centre with architecture influenced by Palladio with exotic cultures, classical architecture, both gothic and the picturesque.


There were great advances in engineering and it influenced people in thinking great schemes. The Great Eastern ship designed by Brunel was built in the Poplar docks which was also the home of Cubitt's town, built by the firm of the same name. Another water way, the canals, were established and other ideas which appeared totally mad at the time but now look visionary, were proposed.


The Embankments and other visions

One of the most outrageous proposals was the proposal from H R Newton in 1861. Newton was a painter but increasingly came to refer to himself as a architect. His proposal was not built alongside the Thames or across it but in the middle of it. He also said, "Supposing at some future period, it might be considered advisable for the metropolis that this should be a fresh water river instead of tidal water." So he suggested locks to be built on the sides of this estate which incidentally was to contain the Law Courts, government offices, and two new wings for Somerset house. He was asked how much this would cost but he declined to answer.


The Westminster Bridge, Deptford and Greenwich Railway Company proposed a direct connection to the Continent, presumably by a Channel tunnel link. The scheme was denounced as speculative and abandoned. Another project similar in style to Newton's scheme proposed a viaduct in the middle of the river. There was even a proposal to straighten out the Thames. A House of Commons Committee, bless them, sat for 25 days and looked at proposals by Willey Reveley. The reasons were to improve anchorage, quays and to reduce sailing time.


The Great Stink

But the water problem persisted despite these building visions for the Thames. In 1858, the river or the Great Stink as it was called was so bad that the sittings at the House of Commons had to be abandoned. By the middle of 19th Century, the rise in sewage carried into the Thames via the Fleet river killed off all the fish, and consequently all the birds that lived off them.


It is said that the work connected with laundries surpassed prostitution in Victorian London and all this waste and toxic water passed into the river. In mid-19th century London, out of the 70,000 houses in the city, 17,000 had their own wells, while the rest relied on standpipes- one for every 20 to 30 houses- which supplied water for one hour only, three days a week. Few houses had bathrooms and even when Queen Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace, she found no bathrooms. Indeed, as late as 1908, Downing Street had no bathrooms. Public bathhouses were popular. A series of cholera outbreaks in the 1840s and 1850s paved the way for a system of sewers built with the main outfall at Becton and Crossness, away from the central areas and leading to a dramatic drop in death rates (from 130 down to 37 per 1000). The first filtration plant for the Thames was built in 1869.


As a further precaution, the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments were built to speed the river and get rid of the putrid mud. The Victorians built further under London with the Underground railway and more sewers. By the end of the twentieth century, London was the largest city in history and physically very much what we know today. The building of the embankments and the Beckon sewers improved the quality of the water. But by the 20th century, it gradually deteriorated again and by the 1950s, it was little more than an open sewer, containing no oxygen. The production of hydrogen sulphide gave off the smell of rotten eggs. The problem was further aggravated by fluctuating tides as it can take up to 80 days for water to be flushed out to the sea in periods of low rainfall.


Three criteria for improvement were established. Firstly, that the water must sustain fish at all stages of tides. Secondly, it must support fauna on the mud bottom and thirdly, all toxic and non-biodegradable waste must be excluded from the river. In 1964, work on greatly enlarged sewage works was started and completed in 1974. The results have been spectacular with the stretches of river up to 30 miles devoid of fish from 1920 to 1964 now supporting aquatic life. It attracts more than 10,000 birds during wintering times. Salmon, trout and even seals have been found in the river.


The Thames barrier, visible from Royal Docks, is a big machine spanning 520 m. Four main shipping lane gates each lie on the river bed, each weighing 3000 tons and measuring 61m wide and rising 20 m above the river bed. Six secondary gates flank them. Between each gate are concrete piers housing electro-hydraulic equipment sheltered between elegant stainless steel clad curved forms.


The Riverbank 2001

Now, there are 33 bridges spanning the river, the most recent, the Millennium bridge spanning between the Tate Modern Gallery and St Pauls having been inaugurated and then closed due to swaying. There are 8 tunnels under the river. The 20th century saw the building of many of the landmark buildings along the Thames including the Bankside and Battersea power stations, Waterloo Bridge and County Hall.


After damage during the Second World War, the Festival of Britain complex was built in 1951. The Dome and now the London Eye as well as the Tate Modern provide new focal points on the Thames. The Docklands area, built in the 19th century, has seen dramatic new buildings.


There are many new plans to utilise the riverfront such as the South Bank proposals by Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Rick Mather. The Thames Barrier, built from 1975 to 1982 was one of the last impressive monuments from the last London government, the GLC under Ken Livingstone. So we see that politically and architecturally, we have started another cycle. Let us see what the new Government of London, again under Ken Livingstone, will build for us and how it will energise the riverfront.
Flooding has never been unusual for London, as the city has sunk more than 15 feet since the arrival of the Romans. As recently as 1928, 15 people were drowned in basements properties in Westminster. Any change in the Earth's climate would have a devastating effect on London. It has been estimated that average temperatures will rise by between 1°and 6° by 2010 and there will be more floods and subsidence in the South East, so London may be submerged by 2100 if we do not do anything. So the importance of Thames for London is immense as it is for the rest of the world.