Stepney is a district of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End. The area built up rapidly in the 19th century, mainly to accommodate immigrant workers and displaced London poor, and developed a reputation for poverty, overcrowding, violence and political dissent.
As with most of the East End of London, Stepney was sparsely populated marshland until the 19th century, when the development of London’s docks and railways, combined with slum clearance, pushed the displaced poor and various immigrants looking for work into cheap housing being built in the area.
The Manor of Stepney was held by the Bishop of London in compensation for his duties in maintaining and garrisoning the Tower of London.
Billy Waters (c.1778–1823) was a black man who busked in London in the nineteenth century by singing, playing the violin and entertaining theatre goers with his “peculiar antics”.
It is said that he was once a slave in America who traded his servitude to be a British sailor. His striking image was established by his African ancestry, a naval uniform, his peg leg, his violin and the addition of a feathered hat. Waters had lost his leg as a sailor in the navy when he fell from the rigging.
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These past couple weeks, we’ve been inundated with beauty shots of London’s skyline and newly revived East End, but it wasn’t always so… Let’s take a look at the riverfront in days past.
Brochure by the General Steam Navigation Company – one of the biggest of the Thames cruise lines – and a reminder of the importance of the Thames pleasure trips to generations of Londoners. Until the 1960s many a day out was taken on steamer trips down to the Kent and Essex coastal resorts such as Margate or Ramsgate and Southend or Clacton. (3067 x 2027)
Salters steamers: Thames Steamers & Passenger boats (more)
Mitchell’s Cigarettes “River & Coastal Steamers” (set of 70 issued in 1925) No21 Thames Steamer “Hampton Court” used on summer services between Oxford and Kingston
(start here and scroll forward thru the photostream to see the entire set)
Cricket Wreck: Explosion Thames Steamer 1847
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Henley Royal Regatta is a rowing event held every year on the River Thames by the town of Henley-on-Thames, England. The regatta lasts for 5 days (Wednesday to Sunday) over the first weekend in July. Races are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards.
The regatta is regarded as part of the English social season, and as such, has strict dress codes.
London, Westminster, Houses of Parliament from the River Thames
The Thames is now one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world, but throughout history was treated more as the rubbish bin of London.
‘Monster Soup’, commonly called ‘Thames Water’
Coloured Engraving, most likely referring to London’s Great Stink of 1858
The Great Stink, or the Big Stink, was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste was very strong in central London. Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water supplies on water from shallow wells, the River Thames, its tributaries, or one of around a dozen natural springs.
In 1582 Dutchman Peter Morice leased the northernmost arch of London Bridge and, inside the arch, constructed a waterwheel that pumped water from the Thames to various places in London. Further waterwheels were added in 1584 and 1701, and remained in use until 1822.
By 1815, house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers, so for years human waste was dumped into the Thames and then potentially pumped back to the same households for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Cholera became widespread during the 1840s. The causes were not known; the most widely accepted notion was that the disease was due to air-borne “miasma”.
Prior to the Great Stink there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. Emptying one cesspit cost a shilling – a cost the average London citizen then could ill afford. As a result, most cesspits added to the airborne stench.
Consolidating several separate local bodies concerned with sewers, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established in 1848; it surveyed London’s antiquated sewerage system and began ridding the capital of its cesspits
Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains designed originally to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.
The summer of 1858 was unusually hot…
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image upper right: Michael Faraday (active in what would now be called environmental science, or engineering) wrote a letter to The Times on the subject of the foul condition of the River Thames, which resulted in an oft-reprinted cartoon in Punch. Faraday was involved in the early study of chlorine.
“River Thames with the Docks from Woolwich to the Tower”
from A Dictionary Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation by J.R. M’Culloch. Longmans, Green and Co. London, 1882
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Industries associated with the sea developed throughout the East End, including rope making and shipbuilding. The former location of roperies can still be identified from their long straight, narrow profile in the modern streets, for instance Ropery Street near Mile End. Shipbuilding was important from the time when Henry VIII ordered ships to be built at Rotherhithe as a part of his expansion of the Royal Navy.
The West India Docks were established in 1803, providing berths for larger ships and a model for future London dock building. Imported produce from the West Indies was unloaded directly into quayside warehouses.
The old Brunswick Dock, a shipyard at Blackwall became the basis for the East India Company’s East India Docks established there in 1806.
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An 1802 painting of the West India Docks by W Daniell, 1802. The City Canal is to the left of the painting. This view is looking west towards the City of London. The final layout of the docks was somewhat different, with three broad docks rather than two docks and a canal.
These docks imported tobacco, wine, wool and other goods into guarded warehouses within high walls (some of which still remain). They were able to berth over 300 sailing vessels simultaneously.
Entrance to West India Dock, c 1900
(scroll through the photostream for more historical images)
1882 Reynolds Map of the East End; showing London Docks
Full resolution (2,400 × 1,868 pixels
London Docks on wiki
London Docks, 1938 (more)
The Docklands is the semi-official name for an area in east and southeast London, England. The docks were formerly part of the Port of London, at one time the world’s largest.
To the north, Regent’s Canal cuts across an area of central London. It provides a link from the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal, just north-west of Paddington Basin in the west, to the Limehouse Basin and the River Thames in east London. The canal is 13.8 kilometres (8.6 miles) long.
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Barges – Regent’s Canal, London
photo by Jeanne Tifft
Bird’s-Eye View of London from below the Bridge
Thames history on Port of London – The north bank of the Thames was the first known London settlement, established by the Ancient Britons, it later became the Port of London. The Saxon and medieval bridges at London Bridge remained based on original Roman piers until they were replaced by 19th Century engineer, John Rennie. (above image full size)
London Bridge refers to several bridges that have spanned the River Thames over the centuries. The current crossing, which opened to traffic in 1973, is a box girder bridge constructed from concrete and steel. It replaced a 19th-century stone-arched bridge, which in turn superseded a 600-year-old medieval structure. This was preceded by a succession of timber bridges; the first og which was built by the Roman founders of London. Until Putney Bridge opened in 1729, London Bridge was the only road-crossing of the Thames downstream of Kingston-upon-Thames.
London Ice Follies: feasting, racing and drinking during
The Frost Fair of the Winter of 1683-84 on the Thames
(detail, click above to see full size)
“Even more spectacular is what used to happen on the Thames during Stuart winters. Back when the river was wider and its tidal flow was slower (because of the breakwater arches of Old London Bridge), the Thames used to freeze over during the coldest winters, especially between the 17th and 18th centuries when Europe experienced a little ice age. People then descended upon the frozen Thames to set up Frost Fairs on the ice, including food stalls, sleighs and mass entertainments…”
more: Royal Thames History at the National Maritime Museum
(includes links to many more London museums)
Lambeth Bridge 1860 (more)
video: Blackfriars Bridge, 1896
Blackfriars Bridge is a road and foot traffic bridge over the River Thames in London, between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge.
The first fixed crossing at Blackfriars was a 995 feet (303 m) long toll bridge. It took nine years to build, and opened to the public in 1769.
It was the third bridge across the Thames in the then built-up area of London, supplementing the ancient London Bridge, which dated from several centuries earlier, and Westminster Bridge.
Although it was built of Portland stone the workmanship was very faulty. Between 1833 and 1840 extensive repairs were necessary, and a good deal of patching-up was done, until at last it was decided to build a new bridge on the same site and this coincided with the creation of the Thames Embankment’s junction with the new Queen Victoria Street required a major reconfiguration. This is the present bridge which in 1869 was opened by Queen Victoria.
The illuminated exterior of Oceanic House at night, the premises of White Star, decorated for the coronation of King George V. The photograph was taken two days after the coronation of King George V; 24 June 1911.
The Olympic was the only ship of this class that was profitable for White Star.
In 1927 the White Star Line was purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC), making RMSPC the largest shipping group in the world.
On 31 January 1858, the largest ship of the time, the SS Great Eastern, was launched from the yard of Messrs Scott Russell & Co, of Millwall, on the western side of the Isle of Dogs. The 692-foot (211 m) vessel was too long to fit across the river, and so the ship had to be launched sideways. Due to the technical difficulties of the launch, this was the last big ship to be built on the River, and the industry fell into a long decline.
see also: Great Eastern Launch Site, London on InfoBritain
Designed by Brunel, one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century, he was responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. The Great Eastern was the largest ship of its day at a length of 207metres and weighing nearly 19,000 tons. It had mixed fortunes and bankrupted its builder, John Scott Russell, and then its owners, The Eastern Steamship Company. It went on to lay the first transatlantic cable in 1865.
left: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises…” Opening Ceremonies; 2012 Olympics; Sir Kenneth Branagh, dressed as industrial pioneer Brunel (right), delivers a speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. more: Caliban and Brunel: Kenneth Branagh’s Speech at the Olympics Opening Ceremony
Olympics viewers wonder why Kenneth Branagh was dressed as Abe Lincoln
…Ah, well that didn’t quite translate if the audience was American, lacked any international history lessons and definitely think the world revolved around the United States. In a hysterical moment on Twitter that makes Americans look rather self-centered, online media began to overload with Americans wanting to know why Abe Lincoln was being represented at the Olympic opening ceremony in London…
more about Isambard Kingdom Brunel Design Engineer (1806-1859)
on The Design Museum
Wood, metal and fittings from old ships were recycled. Henry Castle & Son, just north of Vauxhall Bridge, have decorated the perimeter wall with ships’ figureheads: from left to right, HMS Princess Royal (1853), HMS Cressy (1853) and HMS Colossus (1854). c. 1900
Tono-Bungay is a realist semi-autobiographical novel written by H. G. Wells and published in 1909. It has been called “arguably his most artistic book.”
The narrator is piloting a naval corvette down-river, at the climax of the novel:
To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England…
And then for a stretch the newer developments slop
over, one misses Bladesover and there come first squalid stretches of
mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the
south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses,
artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches
from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums…
The northward skyline grows more intricate and pleasing, and more and more does one thank God for Wren…
This tells of the aftermath of the moon hitting the earth, apparently. Sounds interesting. Pan edition from 1958. Signed with the name Glenn Steward.
The Thames Barrier, located at Woolwich, was built to stop the River Thames flooding. It is a unique and incredible feat of engineering that stretches a third of a mile across the Thames River.
London is vulnerable to flooding. A storm surge generated by low pressure in the Atlantic Ocean sometimes tracks eastwards past the north of Scotland and may then be driven into the shallow waters of the North Sea. The surge tide is funnelled down the North Sea which narrows towards the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. If the storm surge coincides with a spring tide , dangerously high water levels can occur in the Thames Estuary. This situation combined with downstream flows in the Thames provides the triggers for flood defence operations.
The 1928 Thames flood was a disastrous flood of the River Thames that affected much of riverside London on 7 January 1928, as well as places further downriver. Fourteen people were drowned in London and thousands were made homeless when flood waters poured over the top of the Thames Embankment and part of the Chelsea Embankment collapsed. It was the last major flood to affect central London, and, particularly following the disastrous North Sea flood of 1953, helped lead to the implementation of new flood-control measures that culminated in the construction of the Thames Barrier in the 1970s.
The most serious incident occurred at Millbank, where a 75-foot (25 m) section of the Chelsea Embankment (source: image right) collapsed, sending a wall of water through a generally poor and run-down area.
Fourteen people were drowned, unable to escape from the basements in which they were living. Another 4,000 people were made homeless as water filled the streets to a depth of four feet.
The flood was short-lived, and the waters subsided by the end of the day. However, it took considerably longer to drain the many roads, tunnels, basements and cellars that had been flooded.
more on London Flood Pictures
left: London overwhelmed by a huge tidal surge in The Flood
right: The Thames’ flood plain, home to over a million people
“We don’t anticipate any major engineering projects in the Thames Estuary before 2030. If we use the barrier in combination with other options – such as flood storage, we know that the barrier will be effective up until 2100.”
- more on the BBC -
- 11 segment panoramic view (8,743 × 2,040 pixels) -
An incident that was potentially catastrophic for London occurred on 27 October 1997. The dredger MV Sand Kite operating in thick fog, collided with one of the Thames Barrier’s piers. As the ship started to sink she dumped her 3,300 tonne load of aggregate, finally sinking by the bow on top of one of the barrier’s gates where she lay for several days. Initially the gate could not be closed as it was covered in a thick layer of gravel.
- image source: The Liquid Highway -
Based on a 1938 novel by Georges Simenon, the film tells the story of Maloin, an unassuming railroad switchman in a sleepy seaside town, who witnesses a crime and subsequently retrieves a suitcase full of stolen money from the water…
Christmas card illustration by Rowland Hilder, 1936/7
For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on shore) have professed to feel for it, for all the celebrations it had been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
more: On the River Thames
Royal River: Pageantry, Power and the Thames runs at the National National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until 9 September 2012.
Learn about admission times and prices here.
Monkey Fist is a smack-talking, potty mouthed, Yankee hating, Red Sox fan in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to compiling Maritime Monday, she blogs about nautical art, history, and marine science on Adventures of the Blackgang. (twitter)
Submit story ideas, news links, photographs, or items of interest to her at MM@gcaptain.com. She can also out-belch any man.