Category Archives: River Thames

London Bridge Waterworks (1582)

An engineering drawing of the water wheel

On this day, December 24th,  in 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz’s London Bridge Waterworks began supplying fresh water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London.  His rather rickety-looking apparatus actually worked well, and indeed, in the original demonstration to City officials, forced a jet over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!   It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by his grandson, and  it continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.

An eighteenth-century paiting of Old London Bridge showing the water wheel

London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

The Frozen Thames in 1677

On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.

Further records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Steps (1684).jpg

In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney.

Frost Fair in 1814.jpg

And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had  nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

St Magnus the Martyr


On this day in either 1117 or 1118 (sources differ), Magnus Erlendssen, the piously Christian Earl of Orkney, was murdered on the island of Egilsay.

1 - General view of exterior of church.JPG

2 - General view of interior of church.JPG

The City of London church dedicated to him was probably originally built in the twelfth century, sometime after his sanctification in  1135.  It was subsequently rebuilt by Christopher Wren between 1671-87, after having been burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and despite eighteenth- to twentieth- century modifications and restorations  retains much of the  “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” alluded to by T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land”.

Miles Coverdale (1487-1569), who, with William Tyndale, published the first authorised version of the Bible in English in 1539, and who was church rector here between 1564-66, is buried here.  Henry Yevele (c. 1320-1400), who was the master mason to three successive kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, between c. 1360-1400, during which time he either built or rebuilt much of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster,  is also buried here.

3 - Statue depicting St Magnus.JPG

4 - Stained-glass window depicting St Magnus.JPG

Among the many treasures inside the church are: a modern statue and stained-glass window depicting St Magnus in a horned Viking helmet …

7 - St Thomas.JPG

… further modern stained-glass windows depicting the churches of St Margaret New Fish Street and St Michael Crooked Lane, burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and the chapel of St Thomas a Becket on Old London Bridge, demolished in 1831 …

8 - Scale-model of Old London Bridge.JPG

… and a modern scale-model of the bridge as it would have looked in its Medieval heyday.

9 - Approach to Old London Bridge.JPG

On the outside wall is a Corporation Blue Plaque marking the approach to the Old London Bridge, built between 1179-1206.

10 - Timber from Roman wharf.JPG

Nearby are some stones from the bridge, and a timber from the Roman wharf purporting to date to 78, but in fact recently shown on tree-ring evidence to date to 62, i.e., the year after the destruction of Roman Londinium during the Boudiccan Revolt.


Stones of Old London Bridge

On a recent visit to the picturesque village of Beaumont-cum-Moze on the Essex coast, Lost City came across some building stones used in the construction of a quay  and adjoining building that, according to a book on local history (“Secret Creek” by Graham Ross), came from old London Bridge …

Old London Bridge was originally built by  Peter, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, in circa 1176-1209 (*), and demolished,  to make way for a new bridge built by John Rennie, in 1831 (**).  A quantity of material from the bridge was salvaged after its demolition, some of which was supplied to Guy’s Hospital, located a short distance away.  An alcove from the bridge still stands in the grounds of the hospital (and another in  Victoria Park in the East End).

Beaumont Quay was built on an Essex estate then owned by Guy’s Hospital in 1832, purportedly using stones from old London Bridge that it had acquired the previous year.  It was built at the landward end of a canal known as the Beaumont Cut, which once connected Beaumont Village to Hamford Water and the North Sea, but which has been disused since the 1930s.

(*) There are fine scale-models of old London Bridge as it would have looked in its Medieval  to Post-Medieval heyday both in the church of St Magnus the Martyr and in the Museum of London Docklands. There were scores of buildings on it then, including a great many shops; a chapel, dedicated to St Thomas Becket (it was on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury, where Archbishop Becket was the victim of the infamous “Murder in the Cathedral” in 1170); and, from the late sixteenth-century until the mid-eighteenth, a palatial residence known as Nonsuch House.  The bridge had a total of nineteen arches or “starlings”, through which many of the more devil-may-care watermen  would attempt to “shoot”, some unfortunately losing their lives in the process (it was said that “London Bridge was made for wise men to go over, and fools to go under”).  And, at the southern end, there were   the heads of executed criminals, impaled on spikes.  Only the northern end of the bridge was affected by the Great Fire of 1666, the southward progress of which across the river was halted at a gap in the buildings that formed a natural firebreak  – ironically,  the result of another fire in 1633.

(**) Rennie’s bridge was in turn taken down – and rebuilt in Lake Havasu City in Arizona – between 1967-71, and replaced by the present bridge in 1972.

The “Tudor Pull”

Today (Sunday 11th May) we travelled to the Pool of London intending to view the  finale of the “Tudor Pull” –  but unfortunately only caught the aftermath of the event after having been held up in traffic!

The “Tudor Pull” is an annual ceremonial event, this year involving the Queen’s Royal  barge “Gloriana”, the Royal shallop “Jubilant”, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen’s  shallop “Lady Mayoress” and accompanying cutters, and assorted other craft, all decked out in full regalia, rowing twenty-five miles down the Thames from Hampton Court to the Tower of London.  The main aim is to deliver to the Governor of the Tower a symbolic “stela” (a piece of Medieval water-pipe made of hollowed-out elm) – and thus to promote the use of the Thames for transport.  The event also commemorates the sinking of Eleanor of Provence’s barge, and the drowning of one of her courtiers, the Lady of the Bedchamber, under Old London Bridge, in 1256.  This year’s, marked the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Company of Watermen and  Lightermen, under Henry VIII,  in 1514.

The Gloriana, moored in front of Tower Bridge

The Gloriana, moored beside Tower Bridge

The Gresham Ship



Today (6th May 2014) I attended an excellent – and free – “Gresham Lecture” at the Museum of London.

The lecture, appropriately enough, was on “The Gresham Ship”, and was by Gustav Milne of the Museum of London and University College London, a leading authority on the subject (and indeed on the Roman to Medieval Port of London).

The – Tudor – ship was discovered in 1846, wrecked, in the Thames Estuary, at a point midway between Southend and Margate, by pioneer divers Charles and John Deane, working out of Whitstable. It is thought to have been outbound from the Port of London, fully laden with a cargo of ingots and bars of various metals, when it sank, possibly after striking a sandbank and losing its rudder. Much of its metal cargo was salvaged in 1846, to be melted down and re-used, under the orders of the then Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports – the Duke of Wellington. Some archaeological artefacts were also recovered at this time, including a silk doublet of Tudor design.

Reconstruction of The Gresham Ship

Reconstruction of The Gresham Ship

A recovered part of the hull of the ship

A recovered part of the hull of the ship

The ship was then re-discovered in 2003, during dredging operations preparatory to the construction of the London Gateway Port. Large sections were recovered during subsequent archaeological work, again by divers. Painstaking reassembly on dry land revealed that a substantial part of the forward half of the hull of the vessel had been preserved, although essentially none of the aft. The intact vessel would probably have measured a little over 80’ from bow to stern, and a little under 25’ from side to side, and weighed some 160 tons, making it similar in size to Drake’s Golden Hinde (a reconstruction of which is to be seen in Mary Overie Dock alongside Southwark Cathedral). It was carvel-built, of robust construction, and fitted with gun ports, making it a type known as an “armed merchantman”.

Four cannon were recovered during the recent archaeological work (and it is likely that up to eight others were recovered in the nineteenth century). One was an antiquated wrought iron breech-loader, and another a cast iron muzzle-loader, and all were of different sizes and calibres, and took different sizes and calibres of shot. Other metal finds included some surviving ingots of lead and tin, whose isotopic signature indicates a British origin; and some bars of iron, folded over up to four times to save space, of Rhenish origin. Small finds included an ornate salt-cellar, possibly from the Captain’s table; and a pair of leather boots, possibly kicked off by a drowning seaman.

Gresham's Grasshopper insignia on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham’s Grasshopper insignia on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham's initials on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham’s initials on one of the recovered cannon

Significantly, one of the cannon recovered from the ship during the recent archaeological work bore the initials T.G., together with the grasshopper insignia of the City merchant Thomas Gresham, which is how came to be known as “The Gresham Ship”.



Thomas Gresham lived from 1519-79, founding what was to become known as the Royal Exchange in 1571, and, by bequest, Gresham College in 1597.

Further evidence for the – precise – age of “The Gresham Ship” has been provided by recent dendrochronological (tree ring) analysis of the ship’s timbers, which has yielded a felling date of 1574. Given what was happening in the Old World – and the New – in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, the ship is likely to have been involved in some combination of trade, exploration and war. This was the time of the granting of charters to the Muscovy, Eastland, Levant, Barbary, East India and Virginia Companies of Merchant-Adventurers, and the rebuilding of the Custom House; of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, and Ralegh and Frobisher’s voyages of discovery; and of the Spanish Armada, and the “privateers”. Thirty-four London ships joined the fight against the Spanish Armada. And seventy became “privateers”, capturing seventy-one foreign ships and their prize cargoes, valued at £100, 000 (at least £15, 000, 000 in today’s terms, according to the National Archives currency convertor). London’s “sea dogs”, sponsored by City merchants, claimed more booty than those of Cornwall, Devon, Bridgwater and Bristol combined!

Evidence has recently come to light that suggests that “The Gresham Ship” might actually be the Cherabin, which surviving historical records indicate was owned by the Levant Company between 1590-1600; served under Thomas Howard as a privateer in the Azores in 1591, capturing prize cargoes of sugar, ginger, and suchlike, valued at £2, 000 (at least £300, 000 in today’s terms); and, significantly, sank, in the Kentish Flats, in 1603.

The reconstructed hull of the ship in its new location

The reconstructed hull of the ship in its new location

The reassembled hull of “The Gresham Ship” – or Cherabin – has recently been relocated to what is essentially an underwater museum at the National Diving Centre at Stoney Cove in Leicestershire, visited by up to 30, 000 divers of all ages and abilities each year. It is being used there to inspire and train the next generation of maritime archaeologists.

Finds from the ship will constitute one of the most important exhibits in a new – overground – museum in Southend, currently still under construction, and scheduled for completion in 2018. (The “Prittlewell Prince” will also be on exhibit there).

Maritime Rotherhithe and the Mayflower

Rotherhithe was first recorded as Rederheia in around 1105, and as Rotherhith alias Redderiffe in 1621.  It takes its name from the Old English “redhra”, meaning mariner, and “hyth”, meaning haven.

King Edward III Manor House plaque

King Edward III Manor House plaque

Rotherhithe appears to have been a small settlement surrounding the church of St Mary in the Medieval period, when Edward III had a retreat on the river here, built in 1349; and then to have undergone a major phase of development in the Post-Medieval, when a timber wall and number of yards were built along the river-front.

Remains of King Edward III Manor House

Remains of King Edward III Manor House

St Mary's Church (rebuilt in the eighteenth century)

St Mary’s Church (rebuilt in the eighteenth century)

Mayflower plaque, St Mary's

Mayflower plaque, St Mary’s

The Mayflower set sail from here in 1620 for Plymouth and eventually the Americas.  Among those on board was one Dorothea or Dorothy Bradford, nee May, a distant relative of mine, on a different branch of the family tree, similarly descended from Robert Belknap (1330-1401).

Memorial to the Mayflower passengers who died at sea, Provincetown

Memorial to the Mayflower passengers who died at sea, Provincetown

Dorothea drowned when she slipped or, according to one account, jumped overboard from the Mayflower off Cape Cod on December 17th, 1620 (an incident recalled in Adrian Tinniswood’s excellent recent book “The Rainborowes”).  Her widower William Bradford went on to become the Governor of the Plymouth Colony (and also, incidentally, to write its first history).

Mayflower plaque, Mayflower public house

Mayflower public house – in Rotherhithe

Maritime Ratcliff – and Martin Frobisher

Ratcliff, also known as Ratcliffe, was first recorded, as la Rede clive, in 1294.  It takes its name from the Old English “read”, meaning red, and “clif”, meaning cliff, in reference to the colour of the soil on the bank of the Thames here.  The river-front became built up and industrialised as long ago as the fourteenth century, when  ships were built or fitted out here.   Ratcliff  was then connected to the City by the “Highway”, much travelled by Pepys, and probably originally a Roman road.  The highway was the scene of a series of shocking murders in 1811, and went on in Victorian times to acquire a reputation as “the head-quarters of unbridled vice and drunken violence – of all that is dirty, disorderly and debased”!

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

The sometime privateer and merchant-adventurer Martin Frobisher (1535?-94) set sail on board the Gabriel from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of his three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage to China, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s  gold”.   The site is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park.

Frobisher went on to become a naval commander, and was knighted for his service in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

He died of wounds sustained in another naval action against the Spanish in 1594.  His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body  in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher portrait

Frobisher portrait. Note the Baggy Trousers – called Venetians. Image © The National Portrait Gallery

A portrait of him, commissioned by the Cathay Company, and painted by the Dutch artist Cornelis Ketel, which normally hangs in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was included in the “Elizabeth I & Her  People” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (10th October 2013 – 5th January 2014).  The superbly illustrated exhibition catalogue of the same title by Tarnya Cooper can be purchased both from the National Portrait Gallery and other good bookshops, including Waterstones.

Maritime Blackwall, the Virginia Settlers and the East India Company

Blackwall was first recorded in 1377.   It takes its name from the Old English “blaec”, meaning black, and “wall”, in reference to an artificial embankment put up here to hold back the waters of the Thames.

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

The Virginia Settlers

The Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith  (1580-1631) set sail aboard the Susan Constant from Blackwall in 1606 to establish the first English colony in the Americas, at Jamestown in Virginia,  “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples”.

There is a memorial  to the  Virginia Settlers on Virginia Quay in Blackwall, and a plaque to Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery,  on Limehouse Causeway in nearby Limehouse, where he was born in 1560/1.

 Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

John Smith is commemorated by a statue in the churchyard of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London, and by a stained glass window in the church of St Sepulchre on Newgate Street, where he was buried in 1633.  Incidentally, the Algonquin Princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in the Americas, later visited London, staying at the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill, and died at Gravesend on her way home.

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith window, St Sepulchre

Smith window, St Sepulchre

The East India Company

The East India Company established a shipyard and  docks in Blackwall in 1614.  The  docks came to be owned by the East India Dock Company, which considerably extended them in the nineteenth century; and in turn by the Port of London Authority, in the twentieth.  They  have been disused for nearly fifty years now, although some interesting structures still survive.

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The entrance to the - nineteenth-century - pepper warehouse in East India Dock.  Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)

The entrance to the – nineteenth-century – pepper warehouse in East India Dock. Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)