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?
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?