London’s Waterway: the Thames

Perhaps no body of water has been witness to more events that shaped modern history than the Thames River, which has been the backdrop for many of the major instances of English history that made the United Kingdom and much of the Western world what it is today.

It was the Thames that William the Conqueror crossed when he first conquered England at Hastings in 1066, and the river provided the backdrop of John signing the Magna Carta in 1215, dramatically expanding the rights of the English and forming the basis for many constitutional monarchies of western Europe.

Even the Glorious Revolution, which led to the English Constitution, was planned on the Thames.

Why Else is the Thames Important?

It’s believed that the Thames had a major role in shaping the United Kingdom because it was where the Romans chose to construct what is now modern-day London. The Romans, learning from past successful civilizations, prized their ability to send water throughout the land using aqueducts, which require a consistent source of water to work. Much like their own capital of Rome, situated on the Tiber River, the Romans saw value in this area on the Thames.

What is the Thames like?

That depends on where you are in England (the only one of the four Home Nations of the United Kingdom where the Thames exists). The Thames flows entirely through southern England, beginning roughly 40 miles east of the English border with Wales. The river then follows a path from west to east for 215 miles and gradually expands as it heads toward London. At Oxford, the Thames’ width is a mere 250 feet wide; it expands to 870 feet at London Bridge and eventually reaches 18 miles wide when it empties into the North Sea.

As for the condition of the river itself, the Thames has traditionally had dark waters, which is believed to have led to its name, as it’s thought (albeit unconfirmed) that the name comes from the Sanskrit tamasa, meaning dark water.

A History of Darkness

The darkness of the Thames hasn’t always been due to its nature. The Thames was once perhaps the dirtiest river in the world, as there was no way for the British to dispose of much of the pollution created by the Industrial Revolution. In the 1950s, the Thames was so toxic from pollution that it was declared biologically dead and described as an open sewer. So polluted were the waters that in 1878, when the Princess Alice pleasure ship sank in a collision, the majority of the the passengers who succumbed to the Thames’ waters did so not because of drowning, but because they were overcome by pollution.

Times have changed since then, and the Thames is now one of the cleaner rivers in a major city. Not only is the Thames used as a traditional trade route as it always has been, but a stronger emphasis on keeping the river clean has allowed marine life, such as seals, to return to the Thames.

While the Thames has changed greatly over the centuries, one thing that hasn’t changed is the Thames’ importance to the history of the world. As John Burns once said of London’s vital waterway, the Thames is “liquid history,” and it’s likely to remain so as London’s influence in the world remains strong.