London Bridge and shooting the rapids…


It’s Friday afternoon and I have now successfully procrastinated–for most of the day…

But obviously it is Friday afternoon and I haven’t deposited a blog in anyone’s general direction for over a week. 

And so I ask myself, what would you like to read about today?  And I shrug hopelessly, “I don’t know.”   And then I think, “Well, what do I know about…”  At which I roll my eyes.  There’s lots of stuff. 

However, for reasons I can’t explain, but probably Freud would enjoy analysing (good thing he’s not about then, isn’t it?) I’ve been thinking a lot about the River Thames as it was in early 19th century London and the fact that it only had three bridges across it:  London Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge. 

Now the Thames 200 years ago was a highway and it was choc-a-bloc with commercial and private traffic.  That’s all the time.  There were some 3000 boats, wherries and scows plied ‘for hire’ on the river during the Regency.  And many of those would have been employed just for cross-river travel. 

Another thing that’s curious is that although at the time there were ideas and resistance to the idea of having an established police force–such a thing was seen as a sign of governmental repression (like in France).  But, despite that, there was a well-established river police.   

But three bridges?  From our multi-access point of view, three bridges isn’t that many and would have limited the number of people able to get into and out of the city.  And you’d be right to wonder about that. 

Yet on one day in July 1811, 90,000 pedestrians, 5,500 vehicles and 764 horsemen crossed London Bridge.  (Yes, they were counting…)  And that’s a bridge that’s just 21 feet wide.  Amazing, it’s it?

Blackfriars Bridge carried about two-thirds the traffic. 

And there’s this wondrous description of London bridge traffic by a chappie called George Borrow: 

Thousands of human beings were pouring over [London ] bridge.  But what chiefly struck my attention was a double row of carts and wagons, the generality drawn by horses as large as elephants, each row striving in a different direction, and not infrequently brought to a standstill.  Oh the cracking of whips, the shouts and oaths of the carters, the grating of wheels upon the enormous stones that formed the pavement! 

Not only that, but the London Bridge of 1800 was the same London Bridge that had been finished by Peter de Colechurch in 1209.  It stood on massive piers–eighteen of them after one was removed in 1758-60. 

But its these piers which caused a phenomenon that was known to every Londoner of the time.  For you see, the piers were so massive that they held back the tidal flow.  (The Thames is a tidal estuary.)  And this caused the water levels between one side of the bridge and the other to differ by about five feet.  Or even more. 

So, shooting the rapids at London Bridge was a well-known pastime, even for those who’d worked on the river all their lives, and certainly for their passengers. 

It was so risky that nearly every year people drowned trying to do it. 

But for those who shot the rapids successfully–they’d go through hallooing and waving their hats or the women would wave their shawls…

Imagine that.  It’s hardly the steady flow of the Thames–placid, cold and dark–that we think of today, now is it?


16 comments on “London Bridge and shooting the rapids…

  1. ‘Shoot the rapids’ means something rather different here, as the Rapids are the Denver professional soccer team. 😀

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Remind me–200 years ago there was what in Denver? And footie hadn’t even been invented yet…so I’m guessing this comment need not apply.

  2. The Romans invented footie, as I recall. 😀

  3. Debra Brown says:

    One piece of London I have seen with my own eyes without leaving the US. It is the 1831 London Bridge, which was moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in 1967. At the time, it looked like the picture entitled The rebuilt London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona on this page: It was not yet much of a tourist attraction when I went there. Havasu was not yet much, itself. We camped along the lakeside.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’d forgot they sold it to the US. You’re absolutely right. And the river Thames flows smoothly today–no chance of shooting the rapids. Ha ha.

  4. Rappleyea says:

    “Shooting the rapids” – definitely Boy Tirrell would do!

  5. Sophia Rose says:

    That was an interesting phenomenon. I read about it in one of Jo Beverley’s Georgian books. I can’t believe that was all part of regular river traffic for hundreds of years.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. J.A. Beard says:

    This is very fascinating. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about the Thames in this period before, so this was very educational. I’ve just started doing some research on policing during the period, so it’s interesting to see that there were river police.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, the River Police–headquarters at Wapping. And it was they who were put on alert–not the Bow Street Runners–when Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated.

  7. How interesting and so different from the Thames covered with all the boats for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant yesterday.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The Thames has always been a highway of trade and covered with boats. Well, at least up unil the 20th century…And Royal processions down the Thames have been going on since at least Henry VIII’s day.

  8. The effect of the reduced flow was felt as far upstream as Chiswick, and meant that the river was more likely to ice over. The river police were formed mainly to protect the docks from pilferage I believe.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The river police were busy boys. They were also called in to monitor all comings and goings in times of war or national emergency, such as the assassination of PM Perceval (when amongst the emergency measures announced on the evening of 11 May, they were required to search all vessels on the Thames for possible co-conspirators).

      There’s a new series of novels been started by a former river policeman, one Patrick Easter, called, The Watermen. It’s a bit heavy on the political correctness in what was a not-politically-correct age, but other than that…

      There’s also, I’m given to understand, a River Police musieum or archive, somewhere…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s