London’s River

Thomas_Luny_Blackfriars 1806
Thomas_Luny_Blackfriars 1806

The River Thames has a starring role in my story, The Rake’s Mistake. The heroine, Daphne, Lady Wetherell, lives in a house on the river, and my hero, Lord Ramsdale, is a recreational sailor in an era when that pastime was still developing. Lots of action takes place on the river, from peaceful romantic sailing to a frantic race with much at stake. Researching the river was one of my great pleasures in writing that story, which I will be reissuing one of these days after some revisions I want to make.

The idea for that story was inspired by a single sketch of the Thames that showed a small sailing race on the Thamesflotilla of sailboats, what we’d call “day-sailers” around here, engaged in a recreational race in London. I think it was dated 1795, and my first thought was that it looked just like any recreational sailboat race held today –like this one.  I had one of those moments when it feels as if the divisions between the centuries fall away, leaving a universal moment in time that transcends history.

For centuries the river was the main artery for goods and transport (not to mention jobs), the lifeblood of London. Sailing on the river required a lot of knowledge, not only of the currents and tides, but also of navigating all the various bridges. “shootinbridgeShooting the bridge” –traveling through the bridge openings with their swift current and varying water levels –could be very dangerous, yet was necessary for anyone who needed to get up or downstream for any distance.

As we travel through Regency London in our stories, I think we tend to forget how much construction was going on everywhere. Gas lines were being laid in the streets, and new bridges were being erected over the Thames, adding to those already in place. Unbearable traffic on the existing bridges made the need for new ones pressing.

Watercolour1799 Old London bridge
Old London Bridge 1799

London Bridge, of course, had existed in one form or another since the days of the Romans.  For centuries it was the only bridge across the Thames in London, until Fulham Bridge (first proposed in 1671) was completed in 1729. There’s a lovely story that Sir Robert Walpole pushed for the Fulham Bridge construction after being delayed by the ferryman, who was drinking in the nearest tavern and oblivious to customers waiting to cross the river.

The rights of owners, ferrymen and watermen –not to mention competing bridges, and financing –were all matters of contention each time a new bridge was proposed. A proposal for Westminster Bridge was already being debated in the 1720’s, but the bridge wasn’t completed until 1750.

1954/1.371
Battersea Bridge, sketch by Whistler

Blackfriars (1768) and the rough wooden Battersea bridge (1776) followed.

Prince & Duke at Waterloo Bridge 1817
Opening Waterloo Bridge

The Vauxhall Bridge, the first cast iron bridge across the river, opened in 1816.

The opening of the Waterloo Bridge in 1817 was a festive and crowded occasion complete with military displays and bands playing (my characters mentioned above observe this from Archer’s boat on the river).

southwark-bridge
Southwark Bridge

Parliament authorized the construction of Southwark Bridge in 1811. The work began by 1813, and the cornerstone ceremony was held two years later. The bridge opening took place in March, 1819, at midnight –“the bridge, illuminated with lamps, being declared open as St. Paul’s clock tolled” the hour.

The power of the river is extraordinary, and every one of these bridges has since been replaced.

There’s a nice brief summary of the Thames history at http://www.southwarkbridge.co.uk/history/the-river-thames.htm

A description of Old London Bridge by Louis Simond (1815) reads:  “Nothing can well be uglier than London bridge ; every arch is of a size different from its next neighbour; there are more solid than open parts; it is in fact like a thick wall, pierced with small unequal holes here and there, through which the current, dammed up by this clumsy fabric, rushes with great velocity, and in fact takes a leap, the difference between high and low water being upwards of 15 feet.”  Simond, in fact, ventured to stay in his hired boat to experience shooting the bridge, reasoning that boats had to do it every day, and he “being quite sure of reaching the shore by swimming, … remained with the boatman.” London Br 1794c J.M.W. Turner

I know other authors who have featured the river and/or the bridges in their stories –Jo Beverly comes to mind, and Regina Scott. But still it surprises me that something so integral to life in London (at any time period) so often has no place in our fantasized Regency version of Town.

Have you ever traveled on the Thames? Can you recall any Regency romances you’ve read (or written) that use the river as part of the story?

 

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About Gail Eastwood

Gail Eastwood is the author of seven Regencies that were originally published by Signet/Penguin. After taking ten years off for family matters, she has wobbled between contemporary romantic suspense and more Regency stories, wondering what century she’s really in and trying to work the rust off her writing skills. Her backlist is gradually coming out in ebook format, and some are now available in new print editions as well. She is working on the start of a Regency-set series and other new projects. Stay tuned!

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5 Responses to London’s River

  1. Susan/DC says:

    I’ve taken the boat from London to Greenwich. It’s a lovely trip and a different view of the city. Not to be done on a rainy, foggy day, but if the weather is good I highly recommend it — you can see history as you glide on the river (and Greenwich is definitely worth a visit).

    • Susan, that does sound like a lovely trip! I’ll add it to my wish list. The article I referenced says politician John Elliot Burns (1858-1943) once described the Thames as “Liquid History,” and I think it’s a very apt phrase. So much happened on it and also along its banks. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Cheryl Bolen says:

    This was very interesting, Gail. Thank you.

  3. Sonya Heaney says:

    It is crazy that I lived in London for years, have visited many times, and have never been on a boat on the Thames. We were just discussing what to do on our next trip in a few months, and we thought we’d better finally do that.
    The only problem is we’re going in winter!

    “But still it surprises me that something so integral to life in London (at any time period) so often has no place in our fantasized Regency version of Town.”

    This is true. When I read a book where someone *crosses* the river, I take note because it’s so rare.
    The Tea Rose isn’t strictly a romance, but the river features in that book quite a bit.

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