Of Time & Tide - Reflections on the River Thames

Of Time & Tide - Reflections on the River Thames

Living near the River Thames I’m often struck by the fact it is so empty these days. It was much busier when I was a child, so the decline in river traffic is a fairly recent phenomenon. I suspect the Thames hasn’t been so quiet in centuries. Photographs and old newsreels from the last century show it teeming with all sorts of vessels, from great ships, powerful tugs, and the lovely distinctive Thames sailing barges, down to small skiffs and tenders. Today the river traffic is mostly tourist party boats, the fast commuter clippers, and the even speedier rib boat rides. But the Thames is still a “working river” – tug boats still haul barges filled with the city’s waste down river, and at high tide large cruise ships occasionally make their incongruous way upstream to moor alongside HMS Belfast. Sometimes, sitting near a window in my flat, catching a glimpse of one of these out of the corner of my eye as it passes by can be quite disconcerting; as, masked by the riverfront buildings, these ships look like a tower block that has decided to up sticks and slink off through the city. These happenings are made all the more eerie because their massive engines are so silent, yet the powerful vibrations of their screws turning in the comparatively shallow channel of the riverbed manage to rattle all the cutlery in my kitchen drawers.

 A Look At Life - Down London River, 1959

It’s impossible to live by the river and not become fascinated by its history. In the narrow maze of riverside streets, many of which are still cobbled, you can find echoes of the past. Old signs; converted warehouses and disused pumping stations; old docks and inlets; waterman’s steps; and cosy old pubs, such as the Prospect of Whitby or the Town of Ramsgate, that have been in business for hundreds of years. Then there’s the ever changing weather and the regular rise and fall of the tides. It often feels like the river has its own micro-climate which is distinct from the rest of the city, as here a mile’s distance can make all the difference between rain and shine.

Black Eagle Wharf, Wapping, c.1850s

The Remains of Napier Yard, Millwall

Not far from where I live is a curious site, beside Millwall. Set back from the paved riverside walkway and preserved in a shallow grassy hollow are the archaeological remains of a massive slipway. Consisting of a huge set of heavy timbers (now sadly decaying), laid out in long rows running parallel to the river; these piles are the remains of a shipyard – called, Napier Yard (at low tide, if there’s not too much mud, you can sometimes see these great wooden timbers extending down the foreshore). It was here, 160 years ago this year on November 3rd, that one of the great feats of Victorian industrial engineering was launched – the SS Great Eastern. Or, at least, this was the date on which the launch of the ship was attempted. In actual fact, it took a further three months to float the ship off the slipway. Its great weight meant that the timbers had subsided more than had been expected, particularly at the bow end, which meant the ship was not sitting level. Thousands of people had gathered that November day to watch the launch and so must have been disappointed when the huge ship failed to budge. Charles Dickens was among them, and penned the following word sketch while observing his fellow spectators:

“They delight in insecure platforms; they crowd on small, frail, housetops; they come up in little cockle boats, almost under the bows of the great ship … Many in that dense floating mass on the river and the opposite shore would not be sorry to experience a great disaster, even at imminent risk to their own lives.” (quoted in Croad, p. 156)

The SS Great Eastern, Napier Yard, Millwall, 1857

Sadly a workman in the Napier shipyard was accidentally killed during the failed launch. When the crowds did eventually disperse I can’t help wondering if Dickens stopped by at The Grapes on nearby Narrow Street, a favourite haunt of his (and mine) on which he is said to have based his description of "The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters" inn in Our Mutual Friend (1865). The original steam powered rams were not strong enough to push the ship down the timbers, and so, with the use of hydraulic rams and a conveniently higher tide than usual the ship was eventually launched sideways into the river as planned on January 31st 1858.

At the time the Great Easternwas the largest ship afloat. Designed by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship suffered a number of setbacks in its early career which have dogged its memory with many people still thinking of it as an unlucky ship, yet the crowning achievement of its working life was celebrated last year, when – 150 years before – on July 27th 1866, the Great Eastern arrived at Newfoundland, having set off two weeks before from Ireland, the ship had successfully laid the transatlantic telegraph cable that began a revolution in global communications. Arthur C. Clarke gives a fabulous re-telling of this historic feat in his book, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village:

Brunel, at Napier Yard, 1857

“In the Atlantic Cable, the fabulous ‘Great Eastern’ met her destiny and at last achieved the triumph which she had so long been denied.
                This magnificent but unlucky ship had been launched seven years before, but had never been a commercial success. This was partly due to the stupidity of her owners, partly to the machinations of John Scott Russell, her brilliant but unscrupulous builder, and partly to sheer accidents of storm and sea. Seven hundred feet long, with a displacement of 32,000 tons, the ‘Great Eastern’ was not exceeded in size until the ‘Lusitania’ was launched in 1906, forty-eight years later. She was the brain-child of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineering genius of the Victorian era – perhaps, indeed, the only man in the last 500 years to come within hailing distance of Leonardo da Vinci. […] He was as much an artist as an engineer, and the remorseless specialisation that has taken place since his day makes it impossible that any one man will ever again match the range of his achievements.
                Of these, the ‘Great Eastern’ was his last and mightiest. Though she was five times the size of any other ship in the world, she was no mere example – as some have suggested – of engineering megalomania. Brunel was the first man to grasp the fact that the larger a ship, the more efficient she can be, because carrying capacity increases at a more rapid rate than the power needed to drive the hull through the water (the first depending on the cube of the linear dimensions, the second only on the square). Having realised this, Brunel then had the courage to follow the mathematics to its logical conclusion, and designed a ship that would be large enough to carry enough coal for the round trip to Australia.
                To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship. The drums, sheaves and dynamometers of the laying mechanism occupied a large part of the stern decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space. When the ship sailed from the Medway on 24 June 1865 she carried 7000 tons of cable, 8000 tons of coal and provisions for 500 men. Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a sea-going farm. Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, 120 sheep and a whole poultry-yard of fowl.” (pp. 71-73)

Presumably the majority of the animal 'class' of passenger didn’t make it all the way to Newfoundland.

After the successful laying of the transatlantic cable the Great Eastern went on to lay over 30,000 miles of undersea telegraph cables, including one across the Arabian Sea from Yemen to India.

The telegraph cable laying machinery on the deck of the SS Great Eastern

The ‘unlucky’ epitaph of the great ship arose for a number of reasons, including a major explosion on board soon after she was launched, plus the fact the ship bankrupted a succession of different owners, but one of the most persistent legends is that the source of her bad luck was discovered when she was eventually broken up over a period of eighteen months on the River Mersey in 1889-1890. It was rumoured that the skeleton of a dead riveter was found in the cavity between her inner and outer hulls (some versions of the rumour even claim there were several skeletons, including one of a child), but Arthur C. Clarke dismisses this – as he states in a footnote: “This story is much too good to be true, and isn’t.”

The grappling hook for lifting the telegraph cable on the SS Great Eastern

That said though, I can’t help but find myself thinking of the ghosts of times past and the ships that once populated this stretch of the river where I live when I wander along its banks. Looking out across the tidal reach here always puts me in mind of a poem by Thom Gunn:

        The Conversation of Old Men

         He feels a breeze rise from
         the Thames, as far off
         as Rotherhithe, in
         intimate contact with
         water, slimy hulls,
         dark wood greenish
         at waterline – touching
         then leaving what it
         lightly touches; he
         goes on talking, and this is
         the life of wind on water.

         By Thom Gunn
        Collected Poems (Faber, 1993)

It’s strange to think that the wooden timbers of the Napier shipyard have outlasted all of it – the shipyard, the great ship, and even the Thames shipbuilding industry itself. Looking at that field of timbers in their serried ranks, and then casting your eye out over the stretch of water alongside, it’s easy to picture the Great Eastern, that majestic old ship (the prototype of those massive cruise liners which occasionally chunter up and down this improbable channel), a visionary leviathan, long laboured into being, eventually setting out from here to change our world forever. In many respects she is the first true ghost of our modernity, and this is the very visible spot where she was born. 

The SS Great Eastern beached on the Mersey, waiting to be broken up, 1889

Sources & Further Reading:

Arthur C. Clarke, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village (Victor Gollancz, 1992)

Stephen Croad, Liquid History: The Thames Through Time (Batsford, 2003)

Also on ‘Waymarks’

All colour photographs were taken by me; click on the image for the source of the B&W archive photographs.

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