Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

“Old Father Thames”—England’s Unique Heritage

“Old Father Thames”—England’s Unique Heritage

 “Old Father Thames”​—England’s Unique Heritage


The river Thames​—affectionately known as Old Father Thames—​rises from four headstreams in the picturesque Cotswold Hills of south-central England. As it meanders 215 miles [350 km] eastward, it is joined by other rivers until it finally pours through an estuary some 18 miles [29 km] wide into the North Sea. How this short river shaped English history is a fascinating story.

JULIUS CAESAR led the first Roman invasion of England in about 55 B.C.E. When he returned the following year, his advance was impeded by the river he named Tamesis, the Thames. It was left to Roman Emperor Claudius to subdue the country 90 years later.

At that time marshlands extended along both sides of the Thames, but where the tide turns some 30 miles [50 km] from its estuary, the Roman army later constructed a wooden bridge. There, on the river’s north bank, they created a port they called Londinium. *

For the next four centuries, the Romans expanded trade with other parts of Europe and imported luxury items from the Mediterranean​—even timber from Lebanon. They also used the Thames to carry goods to London from inland areas, so that the city, with its radiating system of main roads, soon became an important trading center.

Influence of William the Conqueror

After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Roman legions left Britain in 410 C.E., London was abandoned, and trade along the Thames naturally declined. Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned at Kingston​—a settlement 12 miles [19 km] upriver from London, where the Thames could easily be forded—​until the 11th century when William the Conqueror invaded from Normandy. After his coronation at Westminster in 1066, he built the Tower of London within the Roman city walls in order to dominate  and expand the mercantile community as well as to control access to the port. Trade prospered again, and London’s population grew to some 30,000.

William the Conqueror also built a fortress atop a chalky outcrop some 22 miles [35 km] west of London, in what is today known as Windsor. It replaced a royal Saxon residence and commands a magnificent view across the Thames. Windsor Castle is the result of many additions and alterations, and it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain.

The year 1209 saw the completion of a 30-year project​—a stone bridge across the Thames in London—​one of the first of its kind in Europe. This extraordinary structure, on which were built shops, houses, and even a chapel, had two drawbridges and a tower at Southwark, on its southern side, for defense.

King John of England (1167-1216) sealed his famous Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymede, on the Thames near Windsor. By this act he was forced to guarantee not only English civil liberties but also specifically the liberties of the city of London and freedom of commerce for its port and merchants.

The Thames Brings Prosperity

Over the centuries that followed, commerce thrived on the Thames. In time, increasing trade stretched the facilities along the river. Two hundred years ago, the Thames could cater to only 600 vessels at its mooring piers, yet sometimes as many as 1,775 sailing ships were waiting in the port to discharge their cargo. As a result of this congestion, pilfering became a serious problem. Thieves cut vessels adrift from their moorings at night to plunder them, and small boats with contraband made a living plying the Thames. To address this problem, London established the world’s first river police force. It still operates.

More was needed, however, to relieve the pressure on the port’s facilities. Therefore,  during the 19th century, the English Parliament agreed to the construction of the largest system of enclosed docks in the world, to be cut into low-lying land on both sides of the river. The Surrey Commercial Docks, the London Dock, and the West and East India docks were the first to be completed, in the early 1800’s, followed by the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 and its companion, the Royal Albert Dock, in 1880.

Two engineers​—father and son—​Marc I. and Isambard K. Brunel, linked both banks of the Thames in 1840 by building the world’s first underwater tunnel. It is 1,506 feet [459 m] long and is still used as part of the network of underground railways serving Greater London. In 1894 the modern tourist attraction Tower Bridge was completed. Its double-leaf bascule provides an opening of 250 feet [76 m] to allow the passage of large ships between its twin towers. And if you climb nearly 300 steps, you will emerge onto a connecting catwalk and see magnificent views along the river.

By the 20th century, London’s dock complex was well equipped to accommodate the growing number of larger steamships needed to handle the trade generated by the city. By the time the last dock, named after King George V, was constructed in 1921, London had become “the largest and richest port system in the world.”

The River Hosts Palaces, Royalty, and Pageantry

During the course of London’s development, its roads remained poor and unpaved, often impassable in winter. The quickest and most logical means of transport, therefore, was the Thames, which over the years became a very busy water thoroughfare. The familiar cry “Oars!” arose from Thames watermen as they crowded the riverside steps and stairs, clamoring to carry passengers across, up, or down the waterway or along such meandering tributaries as the rivers Fleet and Walbrook, now long buried beneath the London streets that bear their names.

In time, London came to look much like Venice, with the terraces of its many stately palaces leading down to the river. Living on the banks of the Thames became the height of royal fashion, as the palaces at Greenwich, Whitehall, and Westminster testify. Likewise, Hampton Court has been home to kings and queens of England, and Windsor Castle, upriver, continues as a royal residence.

In 1717, George Frideric Handel composed his “Water Music” to please King George I on the occasion of a royal water picnic. The king’s barge was accompanied by “so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d,” reported one newspaper of the day. The barge next to the royal one carried 50 musicians, who played Handel’s composition three times as they all traveled five miles [8 km] upriver from Westminster to Chelsea.

A River That Offers Pleasure and Relaxation

Until Westminster Bridge was constructed in the 1740’s, the sole means of crossing the Thames on foot was London Bridge,  which was later remodeled and finally replaced in the 1820’s. The piers supporting the 19 arches of the original stone structure greatly impeded the flow of the river. As a result, during the 600 years or so of the bridge’s existence, the Thames was frozen over at least eight times. When this happened, great “frost fairs” were set up on the ice, where many sporting events took place. Oxen were roasted, and royalty could be seen eating there. Books and toys labeled “bought on the Thames” were soon snapped up. Newssheets and even copies of the Lord’s Prayer were printed on presses erected on the frozen river!

In more modern times, the University Boat Race, a competition between Oxford and Cambridge universities, has become an annual springtime event. Crowds line the banks of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake to cheer on the competing crews of eight rowers as they cover a distance of just over four miles [under 7 km] in less than 20 minutes. The first race was held in 1829 farther upstream at Henley. After the course was moved downriver, Henley sponsored its own royal regatta, the oldest and most distinguished rowing event of its kind in Europe. It attracts the world’s finest oarsmen and oarswomen for events rowed over the course of one mile. This summer regatta has now become a fashionable social event.

A guide to Britain says that the Thames “offers many varied pleasures as it passes through typically English countryside of low hills, woods, meadows, country houses, pretty villages and small towns. . . . For long sections no road follows its course but there is usually a towpath. The result is that while the motorist may admire the river in towns along its route, the Thames’ quiet beauty can only be fully appreciated from a boat or on foot.”

Are you planning a visit to England? Then give yourself time to explore the Thames and savor some of its history. From the rural beauty of its source right through to its busy estuary, there is so much to see, to do, and to learn! “Old Father Thames” will not disappoint you.


^ par. 5 Although the name London is from the Latin Londinium, both may be derived from the Celtic words llyn and din, which together mean “town [or, stronghold] on the lake.”

[Box on page 27]


Jerome K. Jerome captured the relaxing atmosphere of the Thames in his book Three Men in a Boat. It records the vacation trip of three friends rowing up the river from Hampton Court to Oxford with their dog. Written in 1889 and widely translated, it remains a popular “classic of whimsical humour.”

The Wind in the Willows is another well-known story, enjoyed by adults and children alike. Completed in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame, who lived at Pangbourne, a town on the Thames, it is a fantasy about animals that live in or near the banks of the river.

[Box/Picture on page 27]


King James I, who reigned in the early part of the 17th century, once demanded £20,000 from the Corporation of London. When the Lord Mayor refused to comply, the king threatened: “I’ll ruin you and your city for ever. I’ll remove my courts of law, my Court itself, and my Parliament to Winchester or to Oxford, and make a desert of Westminster; and then think what will become of you!” To this the mayor replied: “There will always be one consolation to the merchants of London: your majesty cannot take the Thames along with you.”

[Credit Line]

From the book Ridpath’s History of the World (Vol. VI)

[Maps on page 24]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)



River Thames

[Credit Line]

Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Picture on page 24, 25]

Big Ben and the houses of Parliament, Westminster, London

[Picture on page 25]

London Bridge, made of stone, 1756

[Credit Line]

From the book Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places (Vol. II)

[Picture on page 26]

This 1803 engraving shows the river Thames and hundreds of ships moored in the port

[Credit Line]

Corporation of London, London Metropolitan Archive

[Picture on page 26, 27]

An engraving of the 1683 frost fair

[Credit Line]

From the book Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places (Vol. III)