The course of the River Thames as we know it today was created about 10,000 years ago, by melt water from the ice-sheets that covered much of the United Kingdom during the last ice-age. In fact, The Thames marks the point at where the ice sheets stopped and the temperate climate began. Prior to the ice-age, the Thames was actually a tributary of the River now known as The Rhine in Germany as The United Kingdom was not an Island separated from Europe at that time.
The Thames valley was first settled around 400,000 years ago, but it was not until the Roman Empire invaded Britain in the year 43, that the area then called Londinium, was first transformed into a permanent settlement. The Romans discovered that by using the natural tidal pattern of the River, they could get their ships 80 kilometres inland without using any effort.
Although Londinium was not an ideal place for a settlement, due to the soft marshland surrounding the River Thames, it quickly became the hub of Roman life in Britain. The Romans were quick to capitalise on the River Thames and recognised it's use as a major shipping route into the heart of England and eventually London developed into a major inland port.
After a fire swept through Londinium, all but destroying the entire settlement, the Romans abandoned the area and soon after the Empire fell.
The area was soon to be settled again and was quickly established as England's capital city with the River proving to be both strategic in defence and providing a natural way for goods to be imported into and out of London.
London soon flourished and by the Victorian era (circa 1880), the Thames had become the busiest inland port in the world, importing spices from the Far East and tobacco from the America's. In fact, the Thames was so busy that the Victorians created vast docks inside the city itself, many of which remain today, although they are now used mainly for leisure purposes.
Following the success of the Victorians in using the River Thames for trade and industry, the river soon became severely polluted and became devoid of all life. In fact, the river had always been used as dumping ground. The Romans had used it as a landfill site throwing all manner of rubbish into the River. Up until Victorian engineers created the first sewers in the world, the river was also used as a means of disposing of human waste!
During the Second World War, The River Thames again proved to be both problematic for Londoners and also a saviour. The German Luftwaffe could easily navigate their bombers into the heart of London just by literally flying along the East Coast of Britain and turning left as soon as they were over the Thames estuary. Once they had followed the course of the river, it was easy for them to identify the centre of London due to unique buildings that had been erected following the success of the Victorians 60 years earlier! However, the Thames provided much needed water to put out the flames of the Blitz on London that came from the skies day after day after day.
Today, the river is largely unnatural due to artificial banks running along many kilometres of its path. The marshlands that the Romans first settled on will eventually be London's nemesis, due to the fact that London is in fact sinking, albeit very slowly, while the tides that affect the Thames' flow gradually get stronger due to sea level rises. To combat this, a movable barrier to protect London from flooding was built in the 1980's. In the first years of use, the Thames Barrier was used very occasionally, but it is being used much more often and most experts agree that in several years it will not be able to protect London from Flooding.
Photographs by Bruce L. Chant.