Monthly Meeting – March 2017

   Life On The Thames   

Guest Speaker

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Our guest speaker for this month was Steve Capel-Davies. The theme for Steve's talk was how life on the river Thames has developed down the centuries.

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The River is a regular place for walkers to go and find scenery and solace. This video shows some lovely parts of the river.

(Note: we've linked this video from youtube, so be aware you may have an advert pop up at some point. Just click on the little x in the corner of the ad to make it go away!)


This meeting was the most attended we've ever had. The photographs were taken of our members prior to the meeting getting started.

Further down the page we've added photographs in a Gallery. Most of the pictures were used by Steve in his talk. If you click on one of them you can enlarge and see them more clearly.

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Life on the Thames – Notes by Steve Capel-Davies March 2017

The talk to Chalfont U3A was titled Life on the Thames and featured over 70 illustrations. The following is a summary of the key areas covered.

Harvesting the River

The Thames was used as a natural resource by locals with the harvesting of rush (for flooring and seating), reeds (thatching) and osiers or willow shoots (for basket making) all being carried out.

Fish was an important part of the diet, particularly in the medieval period. This was partly because of the difficulties in feeding animals throughout the winter, leading to a shortage of fresh meat by spring, and partly due to the large number of religious festivals when eating meat was not permitted.
Fishing rights were jealously guarded, in particular the right to catch eels which were very valuable. Large wicker baskets were fixed to gates in a weir to form eel bucks, often being operated by millers on the Thames. These were used in the autumn to catch adult eels swimming back to the sea, while eel grigs, small baskets pegged to the bed, were used to trap young eels on their way upstream in the Spring. Other fish were caught by net or line.


The river has changed considerably over the last 1000 or more years, particularly due to the construction of watermills. Watermills need to have a ‘head’ of water, typically of between 0.9 and 2 metres, to drive the water-wheel and grind the corn. This was most effectively created by damming the river. Mill sites exist on the Thames mainly between Oxford and Maidenhead.
Watermills were the first form of mechanised power and, whilst mainly use for grinding wheat in to flour the power was also used to make paper, animal feed, cloth and metal work such as was once carried out at Temple Mills. The last working corn mill is at Mapledurham (pictured). In recent years the power of the water has been used to generate electricity using Archimedes Screw turbines. Most of the mills have been replaced by housing.
Until the middle of the 19th century the millers normally owned the locks and weirs and charged a hefty toll to pass. Millers were often regarded as 'the enemy' by barge operators. However, with the old flash locks, the miller lost the head of water to drive the mill so the accusation was not entirely justified. Mills were sometimes run through the night and in
1790 navigation of even a shallow craft was not possible just above Goring as the mill operated for all but two hours of the day.

A Trading Highway

The Thames was an important highway with barges operating between London and upstream to Henley, Oxford and beyond. Vessels in medieval times may have only needed about 0.5 metres depth of water to travel along the river and this was helped by the mill dams that held up the water even in times of low flow. However, the difficulties in passing the mill dams were such that there were royal orders that the river should not be obstructed “with mills, fisheries and the like”, but to little effect. By the 17th century Western Barges had increased in size requiring around 1 metre depth of water. These barges were towed by gangs of 50 or more men or, later in the 18th and19th centuries, 12 horses. The dams were a problem for the navigators as river worked its way to the sea via a series of steps, one at each mill site.

The mill dams were passed by using ‘flash locks’. These were just sections of the dams that could be removed as in a weir. They were dangerous as the barges effectively had to shoot the rapids downstream and be towed upstream against a strong flow. The miller also lost much of his water so was not happy although he did charge a hefty toll and often there were delays to barges of a week or more in dry summers.

The problems with flash locks were overcome when replaced by pound locks (as we see on the river today, Bray is pictured) which have two sets of gates and are relatively quick and safe to use. The first were constructed on the Thames at Iffley, Sandford and near Culham to improve the navigation between Burcot and Oxford They were operating by 1635.

However, the general replacement of flash locks with pound locks had to wait a further 140 years with further ones constructed due to pressure from the promoters of the Oxford and the Thames and Severn Canals which connected to the Thames in 1789/90. The last flash lock was at Eaton Hastings and lasted until the 1930s. The new locks were built by the Thames Navigation Commissioners (formed 1751) who also formalised the towing paths including the establishment of ferries where the path changed banks.
The 90 years or so before the arrival of the railways was a busy time for river trade. Traffic to London was mainly agricultural produce and timber. Manufactured goods and coal initially came from London until cheaper sources from the midlands came down the Oxford canal.

Floods and River Control

The Thames experienced significant flooding in 2003 and again in 2014. However, these levels were exceeded in 1809, 1894, 1947. Indeed, the 1809 flood was in the Wallingford area around 0.9 metres (3 feet) higher than the recent events with the result that the several arches of the bridge were destroyed.
Water levels on the Thames are controlled by weirs during normal flows. This was done by paddle and rymer weirs set into the mill dams (picture is of Streatley weir). Their operation was very much like that used with flash locks and some are still found in use today such as at Northmoor. Most have been replaced with movable gates of a modern design. Whilst the river is better maintained today major flooding can still occur.

Managing the river has provided work over the centuries with the construction of locks, weirs, bridges etc as well as dredging of the river to remove shoals and also provide a source of gravel. The numbers employed on any job dropped as the work became more mechanised.


The drop in trade triggered by the arrival of the railways in the 1830/40s led to the river becoming very run down by the middle of the 19th century. The Thames Conservancy took over the whole navigable river in 1866 and effectively restored the navigation although the trading barges became exchanged for pleasure craft. The recreational use of the Thames received a great boost following publication of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ in 1889.
Leisure boating created a demand for small craft and it is good to know that the skills carry on to this day with several yards still able to produce beautifully finished traditional wooden boats.

London’s River

The Thames is a very different river as it flows through London and of course was the main reason for the success of the capital. It was the centre of trade and towards the end of the 18th century the river became so congested with ships moored in the river that pressure
mounted to increase the ability to load and unload cargoes. Indeed, it was said that some ships had to wait 6 weeks before gaining a berth on one of the wharves.

The cargoes were often very valuable, especially the spices from the Far East and security was a major problem with pilfering and thefts from ships moored in the river being common. The solution to these problems lay in the construction of the docks from the beginning of the 19th century. These could handle many ships and were fitted with lock gates to provide a steady water level (thus avoiding the vessels leaning over when the tide went out) and also had high walls and their own police force. The East India Company constructed their dock with other examples including St Katherine’s Dock, Surrey Commercial Docks and latterly the Royal Docks.
These provided great employment not only in loading and unloading cargoes but also in storing and selling the cargoes from large warehouses. All manner of items were dealt with including wine, cinnamon and other spices, sugar, tea, ivory, snake skins and even live elephants! Exports of manufactured goods were handled including large railway locomotives, buses etc.
Ship building was important with large vessels such as Brunel’s Great Eastern and iron warships such as the Sans Pareil (constructed by the Thames Iron Works in the 1880s). However, as vessel sizes increased so the Thames became less suitable and large shipbuilding had largely disappeared by the early 20th century.

The busy picture changed very rapidly in the 1960s as containerisation took hold and quickly made most of London’s docks redundant as they could not readily handle the large vessels. Also the need for warehousing disappeared as containers were transported inland without ever unloading their contents.
This led to the cargo handling moving down the Thames to Tilbury and most recently, in 2013, to Thurrock with the opening of London Gateway which can handle the largest container ships.

The London docks also handled passenger traffic but again competition for the valuable trans Atlantic trade came from docks in Southampton and Liverpool. As a final gesture, on the 6 August 1939, the Mauritania entered the Royal Docks in readiness for its first voyage from London to the United States. But this was to be its last from London as all was very different after the war.


Clicking on the photos will enlarge them. You can navigate using the arrows either side of the pictures, in any direction.