by Katie Calvert
The River Thames travels 215 miles through southeast England. When compared with other rivers, such as the mighty Mississippi or the mysterious Nile, the River Thames may appear small. However, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in history.
From its source in the Cotswolds to its estuarial expansion before it empties into the North Sea, the River Thames has shaped the trade, transportation, and life of the cities (among them Oxford, Windsor, Eton, Greenwich and London) along its banks. The river supplied water for drinking and agriculture; fish for food, and power for mills.
As legions of different invaders—Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans—would discover, control of the river was important. It is not surprising that the Tower of London and Tilbury Fort were built along the Thames.
Archaeologists have found evidence of permanent settlements alongside the river dating back to the Neolithic period.
Seven years after invading Britain in 43 AD, the Romans started building their city of Londinium near the shores of the waterway they had named Tamesis.
By building wharves and constructing the first London Bridge (not far from where the current London Bridge stands), the Romans made London an international port.
There was no looking back. Trade—within Britain, with the Continent, and with colonies around the world—would, by the 18th Century, make London the busiest port in the world.
Looking at the mostly sightseeing and pleasure crafts that sail on the river today, it may be hard to picture how busy and crowded the river was. With the vast number of (often competing) ships, barges, and ferries that plied the waterway, the River Thames may have resembled a nautical NASCAR speedway.
The ever-growing city of London had an insatiable appetite for goods and services and the river was the fastest way to meet these demands.
It is also hard to imagine what a cesspool the river had become by the 1800s with so much of London's untreated sewage being dumped into the River Thames. That century saw London suffering from periodic cholera epidemics (the scientific connection to water-borne diseases was not yet understood).
So great was the filth and pollution that in the summer of 1858 (the year was dubbed "the Great Stink") members of Parliament fled from the stench of their river-side chambers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would need only 16 days to get a law passed that authorized a sewer system.
London owes much to the man who was awarded the job.
Joseph Bazalgette, a railway engineer experienced in land drainage, had designed a sewer plan for London that had been delayed by bureaucratic red tape.
It would take 16 years to complete the job. The treatment works, pumping stations, and over 11,000 miles of sewer lines that Bazalgette's plan included were as important to the health and economic vitality of London as any public works project to date.
Tourists and Londoners alike may not realize as they walk along the Victoria Embankment (which, quite fittingly, holds a memorial to this amazing engineer) that they are walking above one of London's main sewer lines.
Bazalgette was knighted in 1875 for his service to the Crown. An important side benefit to Bazalgette's work is that the River Thames became a living waterway again, as fish and other marine life began to repopulate the river.
Another engineering feat is the Thames Barrier, a series of movable gates that are situated across the Thames at Woolwich Reach in southeast London. This silvery, somewhat space-age-looking barrier prevents the river from flooding. (Do the pieces look helmet-like, shell-like, or cylindrical? You decide.)
The Thames Barrier is built on nine concrete piers (vessels can navigate six of the ten channels); hidden gates that operate by means of hydraulic lifts can be raised when tidal and/or weather conditions might cause the river to overflow its banks. Work began on the barrier in 1974; it was officially opened in May 1984.
Those who want to understand the design and mechanics can visit the Thames Barrier Information and Learning Centre, which has a working model of the structure; the Centre also shows a video of its construction. A small admission fee is charged. Thames Barrier Park on North Woolwich Road also offers splendid views of the Barrier.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
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