THAMES HIGHWAY, History after 1914 - from "Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide"

Fred Thacker wrote the great Thames Highway, volume 1 published in 1914, and volume 2 published in 1920. He also wrote The Stripling Thames in 1909
This is a humble attempt to continue the history in his wake - and bring the record of the Thames Highway more up to date.
Like Fred's work it includes momentous history and interesting trivia. After the opening discussion it is organised by date. I have started from 1914 though Fred Thacker made contributions up to 1920.


In 1865 it was failing - financially, navigationally and biologically. It was a wreck.
Fred Thacker said of it -

[In 1855] began the thirty years' outcry against the foul state of the River. "Almost numberless" sewers debouched into the stream; "and the filthy refuse from gas works was invariably though secretly" disposed of in the same way.

In December, 1864, it was decided that as soon as practicable all the Thames Commission's liabilities for towpath and other rents, and for salaries, wages, materials and other kindred matters, should be discharged; and that no further expenditure should be undertaken until these were fully met.
Also that no orders for new works or maintenance should issue unless funds were in hand to meet them.
This practical, and inevitable, abandonment of the navigation to its fate naturally led to two resolutions in April 1865
(1) that there appeared urgent necessity for the immediate outlay of a considerable sum upon repairs to the locks and weirs;
(2) that a loan should be obtained upon the security of the tolls.
So hopeless, however, was the situation that it was further resolved that if any millowner or other person or corporation cared to undertake the upkeep of the works, or any of them, authority should be deputed to them for the purpose.
Some twelve years later a Mr. Darvill of Windsor claimed that he had been the prime mover in this abandonment:
"The various locks were out of repair, and we had no money. We were about to enter into contracts to restore and reconstruct various works; and I objected to it, inasmuch as we were not a corporate body and acting under a common seal. I, as a lawyer, believed that we should be personally liable, and I would not therefore incur personal liability without we took counsel's opinion; counsel's opinion was taken, and counsel said that we should be personally liable. We then agreed to stop the works.

There is interesting evidence of the contemporary state of the navigation, and some intimate retrospective glimpses, in an enquiry held in the summer of 1865 preparatory for the above Bill. All the works and tackle along the whole River above Staines were fallen into a deplorable condition bordering in many cases upon actual ruin. "The gates and weirs are all so leaky that they do not sufficiently store the water, and the gates of many of them are in such a bad condition that they can hardly be opened,” and were unsafe for the passage of boats, "The part between Lechlade and Cricklade is now almost grown up; and a part above Oxford, which 20 or 30 years ago was navigable, is now so grown up that two persons in a flat-hottomed pleasure boat could not go up it in the summer time.” This "part” is not more definitely named; probably the Duxlord neighbourhood is meant. The commissioners' staff had been reduced, for want of funds, to the general surveyor, the secretary, and the lockkeepers. The complete breakdown of any lock was a matter of hourly expectation. Bargeowners were said, perhaps somewhat euphemistically, to be relinquishing their businesses; owing partly to the danger to, and frequent actual loss of, life and Property, and partly to the intolerable delays and inconveniences of the navigation. "The consequence of giving up the navigation," and of leaving the works utterly to collapse, "would be that the River would then become a broad ditch. There would be no reservoirs for the supply of water or irrigation of lands; the mills and their interests would entirely cease; and in many cases where the country is flat the land would become swampy and a marsh.”

And today:

(as the inheritors of a thousand years of complaining about the river we do of course reserve our right to grumble ...)
BUT, on the whole,

It has its problems - the principal being its control of floods - but that is much improved over the past - however in the past nobody much built in its floodplains - or created impermeable surfaces so that water ran straight off rather than soaking in.
Large amounts of money are being invested to tackle this - but, as is the way of the world, probably not enough.
It has to supply a great deal of water to London's Water supply - a quantity above its natural flow at many times of the year.
Often the flow at Teddington is less than a healthy flow through London requires.
Often the largest flow in the river will be found at Maidenhead and the flow often declines very significantly to Teddington as reservoirs abstract from the river.
That it is a major water supply has helped towards cleaning it up - some work still needs to be done - and in the way of things there will always be more to do.
Thames Water has at times had a somewhat cavalier attitude to this.
And I wonder how many Londoners were aware when their water supply contained effluent with significant radio activity?
This was from Harwell entering the Thames at Sutton Courtenay - and said to have been removed in 2013.
Aldermaston also illegally disposed into the Thames of 70% of its waste Tritium (byproduct of the production of nuclear weapons).
This 'should' now have ceased - though of course silt may still contain unwanted substances.
The River continues to employ people to manage it - but their employment security and pay is not entirely satisfactory.
It is grossly underused - it should be a glorious national park through the heart of England.
But its paths and boating were never designed with that in mind.
The transition of pleasure boating from manual to engine power has not been a great aesthetic triumph.
The vast majority of launches are more or less permanently moored in marinas with little sign that they are much used as anything more than houseboats.
The punt and the skiff in almost any number were not detrimental to the experience of the river for others - indeed they often enhanced it.
But the white plastic boats with square sterns and noisy outboards (and in some cases double glazing) do not improve the scenery - and, it might be said, tend to insulate their occupants from the scenery they have come to see.
However, the improvement over the 1865 situation, detailed above, is vast and striking.
So how did this improvement come about?


(and eventually in 1908)
The Thames Conservancy had first been proposed in 1847, started in a restricted form in 1857 and finally launched in 1867.
It replaced the series of Thames Commissions which had done worthy work - but were handicapped by the regulations under which they worked.
It is hard to say from Thacker's exhaustive work what the Conservancy really did differently.
But one has the impression that it did it conscientiously and efficiently and persistently.
It started with a realistic understanding of what the railway competition had done to the navigation in more or less eliminating commercial barge traffic; and it came to terms with the handicaps under which the tideway was working.
The City lost control to the Crown and the Crown delegated to the Conservancy.
It slowly and steadily took on the improvement of the river.
But still in the 1880s navigation above Oxford was all but impossible.
The transition was underway from a commercial waterway with the occasional non-commercial use - to a non-commercial waterway whose primary purposes were to bring water to London, to control floods, and whose secondary purpose was the facilitation of pleasure boating.
This transition was also accompanied by the decline in importance of the waterpowered mills - the operation of which was frequently detrimental to the navigation. Steam power removed the need for a mill to be situated where water power could be found.
The age old wooden structures of the river, its weirs and initially its wooden pound locks, were being replaced by concrete and iron.
(Fred Thacker did not approve - but he was a man of his time - and iron and concrete was so much more efficient and lasted so much longer.)
The Conservancy's major tangible improvements were the pound locks:
1892: Radcot Lock
1894: Richmond Lock
1896: Grafton Lock
1896: Northmoor Lock
1898: Shifford Lock
1912: Boulter's Lock rebuilt
1913: Chertsey Lock lengthened
1914: Marsh Lock rebuilt
[ And the sequence continued -
1921: Goring Lock rebuilt
1924: Godstow lock rebuilt
1927: Iffley Lock rebuilt
1928: Eynsham Lock
1928: King's Lock
1930- The Desborough Cut ]

1908: The Port of London Authority replaced the Thames Conservancy below Teddington

The Port of London Authority (PLA) is a self-funding public trust established by the Port of London Act 1908 to govern the Port of London.
Its responsibility extends over the Tideway of the River Thames and its continuation (the Kent/Essex estuary).
It maintains and supervises navigation, and protects the river's environment.
The PLA originally operated all enclosed dock systems on the river (except the Regent's Canal Dock), but these have long been closed to commercial traffic, with the exception of Port of Tilbury, which was privatised in 1992.
The PLA is now the elder of the governing authorities of the Thames - (the Thames Conservancy having been replaced several times)

The Creation of the Port of London Authority The new body, which commenced its duty on 31 March 1909, consisted of 28 members, 10 of whom were appointed and 18 elected, with the first chairman, Viscount Devonport, nominated by the Government. The Government, not wanting to give a monopoly to the newly formed Port of London Authority (PLA), transferred undertakings and powers of the Thames Conservancy below Teddington, as well as certain duties of the Waterman’s Company. The Corporation of the City of London retained sanitary supervision of the Port as far as shipping, passengers and cargo were concerned. The Corporation of Trinity House kept powers of lighting, buoying and pilotage in the tideway, whilst the Metropolitan Police kept their river responsibilities. The new authority was given powers to acquire quays, wharfs and warehouses on the banks of the river. Revenue was to come from charges for services to, and accommodation for, ships and cargo. Port rates on goods and tonnage dues on ships provided for a contribution to the carrying out of the Authority’s statutory obligations, whilst barges paid a registration fee. It was anticipated that any excess of revenue over expenditure would be allocated to port improvements or reduction of dues and charges. The PLA commenced its work by immediately drawing up a £12m programme of new works, with priority given to acquiring equipment so that a channel could be dredged to bear ships from sea into the port. A range of developments also began on a variety of other projects, including the extension of Tilbury Docks, and a new cargo jetty developed at King George V Dock. Lord Devonport proved to be a strong leader, with his forceful drive colliding with the rising strength of the labour force. Dock workers pay and conditions had not been improved since 1889, leading to a call for a revision in 1911. It was important to proceed with planned port development and, hence, Devonport granted increases totalling £200,000. However, this proved too little, too late, and the following year a dock strike developed, bringing a halt to the new projects. After 10 weeks of chaos the strike was smashed and development work resumed. Most of these plans were well in hand when the First World War bought them to a halt once again. Top The 1920’s and First World War The outbreak of war brought complete confusion to the dock and shipping industries. The Government requisitioned materials, ships and road and rail transport as well as diverting labour. Overall trade continued as usual although essentials, and not luxuries, were predominant. In fact, with Antwerp and Rotterdam out of use, the port initially benefited. The War was conducted mostly without air attack by either side, the only impact being that of the German U-boat campaign in 1917. This successfully discouraged shipping from using London for fear of attack and briefly interrupted trade movement. Hence, the port experienced minimal damage during these years and by the end of the war it was relatively easy to return to its continuing development, remaining the world’s greatest port during the 1920s and 1930s. By the time Lord Devonport retired in 1925 the port had been successful with its plans for expansion and development: - In 1920 the King George V dock in North Woolwich had been completed, adding 10% to London’s area of dock water - In 1923/24 the Port handled a record total of 41¼ m net register tons. - The planned channel had been dredged attracting more, and bigger, ships - Tilbury Cargo Jetty was completed in the lower tideway designed for ships arriving with port cargoes - By 1925 the overall area of the dock had increased by more than 6 miles. The PLA had had an inspiring period of reconstruction but events such as the General Strike and the Wall Street Crash were beginning to affect Britain and other nations. In 1926 national industry was paralysed by the General Strike. Britain failed to recover its place as the foremost manufacturer in the world and the strike had created a threat to world trade. This in turn impacted on sea carriage, docks and trade. At first the general trade of the Port did continue to flourish with development continuing. The Quebec Dock, 15 acres in extent, was constructed. West India import and export docks, south west India dock and Millwall docks - all separate basins - were joined by cuttings and a new lock giving access to the whole group replaced the former and outdated entrance to south west India dock. Top

1911: London Dock Strike

After 1890 there was no serious industrial unrest in the port until 1911.
In that year there was a strike led by the recently formed National Transport Workers Federation (NTWF).
Sixteen unions involved in dock work, road haulage and passenger transport had formed the Federation.
Harry Gosling of the Amalgamated Society of Waterman & Lighterman was elected president.
The new union immediately approached the Port of London Authority (PLA) for: a wage increase to from 6d (six pence) to 8d (eight pence) an hour; improved conditions; formal recognition of all unions.
Elsewhere in Britain, other branches of the NTWF went on strike in what soon became a national dispute. Lord Devonport, the Chairman of the PLA, consulted the dock employers, wharfingers and shipowners. He offered: 7d (seven pence) an hour; a one-hour reduction in the working day.
The cost to the employers would have been £200,000 a year.
But the union, who had won no meaningful improvements since 1889, rejected it.
Devonport refused to negotiate and publicly declared that he would starve the men back to work.
Ben Tillett led a mass meeting of dockers on Tower Hill in a prayer: ‘Oh God, strike Lord Devonport dead’.
After a two-week strike the dockers were forced to return to work on Devonport’s terms.

1912: Last Thames Royal Navy Ship built

The Thunderer, launched in 1912, was the Thames’s last contribution of a big ship to the Royal Navy, the yards established in the North in proximity to sources of coal and iron rendering the industry competitively impracticable under modern conditions.

1912-1925: Fred Karno - the Karsino at Tagg's Island

Tagg's Island lies in the mid-Thames near Hampton, up river from Molesey Lock.
The Tagg family, who had run a successful boat-building business for some years, established an hotel on the island in 1870.
The hotel was very popular and by the late 19th century Tagg's Island was the leisure venue for practically everyone in society.
Thomas Tagg died in 1897 and by the early 1900s the entire Tagg family empire had fallen on hard times.
Fred Karno was the stage name of Frederick John Westcott, who had made a fortune as a music hall impresario.
He employed a group of talented comedians, amongst whom was the young Charlie Chaplin.
He spent his summers on Tagg's Island, living on his houseboat, The Astoria.
He had aimed to have the best and most luxurious houseboat ever seen and The Astoria cost him around £20,000, an enormous sum at the turn of the century.
It had richly panelled cabins and marble bathrooms.
In 1912, eight years after Karno had first visited Tagg's Island, he embarked on a huge gamble.
He bought the island and the hotel.
He engaged the well known architect Frank Matcham and started to build, in place of the original, what would turn out to be the most luxurious hotel of the day, The Karsino.
The builders were Allen & Co of Westminster and the West End decoration and furnishing specialists Messrs. Ropley were commissioned to do the interior.
Features offered included a Dining Room, in a "quite unique" colour scheme of grey and purple, a Billiard Room with old oak panelling and a Ballroom with a resident orchestra which seated 350.
Ferries were laid on to get the guests to the hotel and 100 small boats were provided for their amusement.
The gardens were extensively landscaped and the catering was placed in the hands of Luigi, one of the world's greatest maitre d'hotel.
The hotel opened its doors for the first time in May 1913 and was an instant success.
In 1914, Karno decided to expand the facilities and added a Palm Court Concert Pavilion with a capacity of 600.
The floor was designed for dancing, the walls decorated with an ornamental painted trellage and on each side, large French windows opened onto the lawns.
The whole structure had a domed roof painted with views of Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and other landmarks.
The stage was reversible so that the audience could sit in the pavilion if the weather was poor or on the lawns if fine.
Amongst the artists booked were military bands, The Palladium Orchestra, Florence Smithson, Jimmy Glover's Band, Elsie Southgate and Jack Hylton and his Orchestra.
Boating and fishing were the major attractions along with horse-racing at the nearby courses, Hurst Park, Kempton Park and Sandown Park.
Picnicking in the open was also popular and the notable artist Sir Alfred Munnings' painting "Tagg's Island" depicts a picnic on the island in the 1920s.
When war broke out in 1914, The Karsino continued to operate providing a popular base for returning officers and their families.
However, Karno was losing money steadily and post-war, few had the money to spare for such lavish entertainment.
Three summers of bad weather proved the final straw for a venue so dependent on the river and the grounds for its appeal, and in 1925 Fred Karno was forced into bankruptcy. He died in 1941.
After Karno's bankruptcy, The Karsino changed hands several times.
No-one managed to make the hotel and island a profitable enterprise and indeed, several more of the owners went bankrupt. In 1972 the hotel was finally demolished and a series of fires destroyed the other buildings on the site.

1912: Boulter's Lock rebuilt

In 1912 the Conservancy undertook major works at Boulter's Lock, which involved the purchase of Ray Mill Island.

1913: Chertsey Lock was lengthened

1914: Marsh Lock rebuilt

1914: Kingston Bridge widened from 25 to 55 feet

1915: Flooding

During a House of Commons sitting in February 1915, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, replying to a question about the damage caused by flooding, said:
"The attention of the Government has been called from time to time to the serious injury caused by floods in the Upper Thames Valley and to the desirability of a careful inquiry into the matter.
In 1914 a scheme was submitted to the Thames Conservancy Board by their engineer, but the cost of carrying it out was estimated at about £3,000,000
The present time hardly appears to be suitable for such an inquiry."

1915 - 18: Gravesend to Tilbury Pontoon Bridge

Gravesend - Tilbury Pontoon 1915 - 1918

The Tilbury to Gravesend pontoon stretched from the gardens of ‘Clarendon Royal Hotel’ - just east of Town Pier & the ‘Three Daws’, in Gravesend, to a point between the ‘Worlds End’ and Tilbury fort entrance on the north bank.
This would indicate a distance of around 750 – 800 metres (820-875 yards).
The timber pontoon bridge was floated on 67 lighters (a lighter being a large, usually flat-bottomed boat used to transport goods from shore to ship) and was two carriageways wide – perhaps 20 feet.
This would suggest a distance for the spans, between each lighter centre, of approximately 12 yards (36 feet).
However the difference between high and low tides at this point on the Thames can be 24 feet (8 yards) so it is probably that at both ends there would be a longer spans to cope with the access onto the shore.
Perhaps the bridge could have only been used twice a day, at the optimum tide levels?
Also the pontoon bridge must have been quite sturdy to cope with strong tides and windy conditions.
The bridge had a 800 feet section which could be opened to allow shipping through, this procedure taking two hours.
Typically the bridge would have this section opened during the day and closed at night.
It is not clear why the moveable section was so large or how the movement could be achieved in bad weather, presumably tugs could tow it into position?
The pontoon bridge was manned and maintained by the Port of London Authority.

1916: U Boat captured in Estuary

The German minelaying submarine UC-5, captured in the Thames Estuary 27 April 1916, was shown on display alongside Temple Pier, Thames Embankment, London July 1918.

1919: Thames Peace Pageant

The Thames Peace Pageant celebrated the efforts of English mariners and merchant seamen in World War 1.
The five-mile procession from London Bridge to Chelsea, combining royal and civic pageantry, attracted enormous crowds to the river banks, bridges and the Thames itself.
The Royal Barge, called the Queen’'s Shallop, made her final voyage as part of this pageant.
She was the last of the old state barges.
The Queen’'s Shallop took centre stage, closely followed by the Lords of the Admiralty in a ten-oared cutter, each accompanied by a steamboat.
A green steam barge carried the Lord Mayor, following which were a dozen twelve-oared Navy cutters, four Navy picket boats with guns, an armed motor launch and a barge displaying guns used in the Great War.
The main body of the procession featured flagged and decorated craft from maritime institutions and the British Merchant Service.
Décor consisted of bunting and 50’ streamers, decking the bridges, ships, wharves, cranes and scaffolding.
Choirs sang sea songs on the Embankment and bands played along the bank and at the piers where King George V entered and disembarked the royal> At Cadogan Pier the King disembarked to survey the pageant and receive the salute.
Above the saluting point the procession turned and returned eastward.

1921: Goring Lock rebuilt

Goring Lock gained a third central set of gates.

1924: Godstow Lock rebuilt

1926: Head of the River Race

Founded in 1926 by rowing-coach Steve Fairbairn, the annual race follows the Championship Course –a 4¼ mile stretch between Mortlake and Putney – downstream on the ebb tide.
Up to 420 crews from British and international boat clubs participate in the Head of the River Race every March.

1927: Additional new lock at Sunbury

1927: Marlow Lock and Iffley Lock were redeveloped

1928: Eynsham Lock and King's Lock built

The improvement to navigation above Oxford was finally completed with the building of Eynsham Lock and King's Lock.

1930 - 1935: The Desborough Cut

A significant undertaking was the digging of the Desborough Cut between 1930 and 1935.
The ¾ mile (1 km) cut took the river on a straight course between Weybridge and Walton on Thames, and avoiding a meandering stretch past Shepperton and Lower Halliford.
The cut alleviated flooding in Shepperton and halved the distance of travel on that part of the river.

1930s: the PLA

The PLA were aware of the impact the General Strike would have on the well-being of the port but the Authority had planned a programme and pledged to promote works likely to lessen the numbers of unemployed.
It began the 1930s, with an encouraging boost, by completing a new landing stage at Tilbury which allowed passengers to embark and disembark from the largest liners at any state of the tide.
Prior to its completion passengers had either used dockside cargo facilities adapted for the occasion or had joined or left their ship by a tender.
Cruises were offered at vastly reduced prices and, as the craze caught on, the holiday cruise industry flourished.
It was not unusual to see two or three liners in Gravesend Reach.
In contrast, there was a general decline in world trade, reflected in the reduction of the Port’s annual tonnage figures which now dropped for the first time since the First World War.
This had a knock on effect on the rest of the UK.
As an act of good faith port charges were reduced in 1930 which was estimated to save merchants and ship owners £120,000 per annum.
Another problem tackled in the 1930’s was that of inadequate road access to the docks.
Cargo transportation was moving away from rail and narrow approach roads to the docks were congested.
The building of Silvertown Way was designed to ease this congestion.
In 1936 the Authority began one of its most ambitious inter-war tasks - that of reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock in order to make it a deep-water quay, with similar deepening work to the Royal Albert Dock.
Further improvements were also carried out to the West India Docks.

1932: A Thames Conservancy Act

The Act dealt with construction of jetties and landing stages on the river, sewage and other matters.

1937: Coronation of King George VI

Cruise ships lined the Thames from Gravesend to London Bridge carrying overseas visitors to the coronation, and the new King, who had served in the war, was honoured with a naval fleet sailing upriver.

1939: PLA planning for War

With the outbreak of the second world war imminent, the Government needed to ensure the continuation of essential port services.
At their request a scheme for the wartime administration of the Port was drawn up with other defensive measures being implemented during 1938-39.
A civil defence scheme, which included the creation of a River Emergency Service, was planned and the necessary training of key men took place, with equipment purchased and stored in readiness.

1939-45: The PLA in the Second World War

With the outbreak of the war on 2nd September 1939 the Royal Navy established guard ships, batteries were manned on both banks of the lower river and in the middle of the reaches in the dock and, in industrial areas, barrage balloons were inflated. Everyone was aware that at some point the Thames would become a target. Passive defences in the Port were ready with stringent security measures in place enforced by the Authority’s own police at the docks and by the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police in the river. The wartime administration scheme ensured that immediately after the outbreak of the war all UK principal ports passed into the control of Port Emergency Committees responsible to the Ministry of Transport. The London Committee consisted of existing members of the PLA but with broader responsibilities and powers. It was during November 1939 that the first German bomb targeted the Thames Estuary and throughout the war this area was heavily targeted. The first significant attack on London came, however, on 7 September 1940 when 375 enemy planes struck at the Thames and its docks. For 57 consecutive nights the tideway was under almost continuous attack with transport, communications, sheds and warehouses destroyed or damaged. It was during this period that the river came into its own, being used as the main City highway as it was never disrupted by bomb debris, craters or fire. A service of tugs and launches was provided by the Port Emergency Committee on behalf of the London Passenger Transport Board. The salvage of ships sunk or damaged within the Port limits was a normal commitment of the PLA and an efficient wreck raising service was maintained. With the onset of the aerial attack on London, the Admiralty had asked the Authority to extend their jurisdiction to include the whole of the estuary, placing men and machinery at their disposal. The PLA set up a new wartime Salvage Department and its services were immediately on demand. By the end of 1941 London’s shipping traffic had been reduced to about one quarter of its usual volume, with much of the normal shipping traffic diverted to emergency anchorages in the Clyde. Advantage was taken of the end of sustained raids on the docks and of this reduced activity to clear up the battered quays and warehouses which had been destroyed or made unusable. By 1944 war supplies were pouring into the port in large quantities and the port emergency committee reviewed all Port facilities, in light of demands being placed on them. Both before and after D-Day traffic flowed almost without stopping into and out of dock premises. Marshalling for D-Day began in London on 27th May and in Tilbury on 28th May. Never before had the Thames seen such a fleet of armed merchantmen and ships of war. One of the most technically significant moments in Port history took place as a steady flow of deep sea ships, coasters, tugs, barges, oilers and landing craft joined in the estuary. By 6 June the fleet was ready and the D-day armada set sail with 307 ships from London carrying some 50,000 servicemen, nearly 80,000 tons of military supplies and about 9,000 vehicles. Bombing of the port still continued. The enemy had introduced the pilotless plane and the rocket bomb which targeted the Docklands area, causing high casualties and damage. Thankfully, on 8 May the enemy surrendered and the Port celebrated with the traditional massed blowing of sirens and whistles by ships and craft.

1945: PLA Post 2nd World War

Following the war the Port was now in a worst state than it had been since the beginning of the century. Nearly 900 missiles, as well as thousands of incendiary bombs, had fallen on PLA property as well as numerous attacks on private riverside property. The most damaging aspect at that time was the loss of some 50% of the total storage accommodation. Much of the equipment had been taken by the Government and what was left needed maintenance. Work to once again promote the port was slowed down by the Government’s reluctance to commit the necessary expenditure and unwillingness to prioritise projects for labour and materials. The Authority anticipated a shortage of dock labour and ordered a variety of equipment in readiness for mechanisation, establishing a committee in 1947 to study the extent of possible mechanisation. Its recommendations had a profound effect upon the post-war reconstruction, as it was soon recognised that only a clean break with some of the traditions would permit the full use of the machines. In line with this, came the new status of dock labour when the National Dock Labour Board took over the work of the wartime National Dock Labour Corporation. The National Dock Labour Corporation, launched in 1942, had taken control of all labour registered under the generic title of Port Transport Worker at most British ports and had the power to transfer men to other ports. In return the docker received a weekly minimum wage. The new Board became responsible for the supply of all dock labour. It meant that the dockers had achieved practically everything for which they had fought in years, now receiving attendance money, a guaranteed minimum weekly wage, whether work was available or not, and paid holidays. Pay arrangements were centralised and no longer did men have to attend various offices for their money. Rates of pay varied with the amount and nature of the work performed but the average earnings of a docker rose until they became amongst the highest in the country.

1950s: PLA

Wartime reconstruction of the Thames was completed by 1950. The Authority had managed to obtain a limited amount of new dock equipment and carry out some repair work and re-building. Supply of labour and material was gradually eased and the lifting of various Government controls now enabled them to profit from their intensive study of the post-war situation. The PLA now realised that long term planning was essential for development of the port and to keep ahead of the demands made upon it services, but the nature of the business was such that these demands could change at any time with revolutionary developments forcing dock operators to modify or completely alter their plans. While unable to predict the future trends of individual trades it was recognised that the cargo handling machine was now as important in the warehouse as on the quay. Such problems were now approached by the Port Authority with a new spirit of optimism and throughout the 1950’s the docks had a new and invigorating activity after the post-war struggle. In 1953 reconstruction of the Royal Victoria Dock took place at a cost £1½ m and in March 1958 a record tonnage of 75m n.r.t. was reached. A new passenger terminal was constructed in Tilbury in 1957 and plans were put in place to extend the dock to cater for increases in container movements. 1959 was also an important year when the PLA established a Thames Navigation Service, the nerve centre controlling all shipping movements. From now on control of navigation on the river and estuary was based on one control point instead of being spread over a number of places.

1953: Royal River Pageant for Queen Elizabeth II

On 22 July 1953, six weeks after her coronation, a Royal River Pageant was held for The Queen on the Thames.
It was held under the auspices of The Lord Mayor of London and was managed by an Executive Committee chaired by Sir Douglas Ritchie.
The organisational team also included Pageant Master Jack Swinburne, a Musical Adviser and Master of Craft.
The pageant comprised 149 vessels and floats, divided into seven thematic sections:
The Lord Mayor's Procession, Her Majesty's Services, Historical Tableaux, Marine Services, Industry and Commerce, River Services and Private motor yachts.
The six-mile route began in Greenwich and ended with the Queen's salute at Westminster.

1954: Queen Elizabeth II returns from Commonwealth Tour

Continuing the tradition of Royal Receptions on the Thames, Queen Elizabeth II was met by the Queen Mother with the Princess Royal and Winston Churchill on her return from a tour of the Commonwealth in 1954.
The Royal Yacht Britannia was escorted to the Thames by warships and sailed into the Pool of London to be greeted by an official launch.

1960s: The PLA

The Port of London was approaching its best year in 1964 when trade exceeded 61m tonnes and the number of enclosed docks reached its peak. Other extensive work and improvements continued and new projects began, such as the western entrance to the Royal Docks to allow barge traffic. Despite the positive start closure and redundancies were approaching. This was mainly due to the introduction of containerisation, bringing with it dramatic changes. Containers do not need warehouses and are distributed by road and rail. No one foresaw how quickly things would close as containerisation took off. However, at this stage, London did not loose its place as Britain’s first port for cargo handling. 1964 was significant as the Harbours Act extended the PLA’s jurisdiction in the estuary by 22 miles meaning that more dredging would have to be carried out. The Docks and Harbours Act, passed in 1966, also impacted the PLA. The development of the decasualisation of dockers and the introduction of the licensing for the employment of registered dock workers took place, with the PLA designated as licensing out for the Thames. Once decasualisation was implemented, the PLA clarified its duty to register small craft and also confirmed its position as the ‘employer of last resort’ by reason of responsibility of licensing employment of registered dock workers. In the long run this meant that the PLA had to accept onto their pay roll dock workers who had been made redundant in the event of a licensed riverside wharf going out of business. Work was continuing on the enclosed docks but by 1967 there were warning signs. Use of the upper docks was declining and the decision was taken to close St Katherine and London Docks within 12 months. Signs began to appear of a decline and changes in trade movement. For example, Surrey Commercial Docks had had improvements made in the early 1960’s (deepened and able to accept bigger ships) which now proved to be irrelevant, due to the changing patterns of the timber trade. Bigger ships and the increasing growth of packaging and palletisation of timber and timber products brought more trade of this kind to Tilbury and riverside docks at the expense of Surrey Docks. This led to sections of the docks being sold off with them all disposed of by 1977. The above factors led to the curious situation of new berths being closed whilst others were upgraded for new products, an event which kept occurring up to the 1980’s. Whilst the upper docks were being shut down the PLA was developing Tilbury at a quick rate with the provision of container berths and of handling equipment. This enabled Tilbury to cope well with containerisation and ro-ro traffic as well as conventional cargoes.

1961: Hydraulic systems at locks

The first hydraulic system was introduced at Shiplake Lock in 1961.

1965: Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill

On 30 January 1965, after a service at Westminster, Sir Winston Churchill's body was transported upriver from Tower Pier to Festival Hall Pier aboard the Havengore.
His coffin was then carried to Waterloo Station for its final journey to Bladon in Oxfordshire.

1970s: The PLA

By 1972 Tilbury had become the leading container handling port in the UK, taking the second place in Europe. The inevitable fall off in trade and the closure of the docks meant independent employers began to feel the pinch and could ultimately no longer survive. In 1973 the PLA took over the business of two companies, Thames Stevedoring and Metropolitan Terminals, followed in 1974 by Gee Stevedroing and Scruttons. From then on the PLA was the sole stevedoring employer in the docks. With the closure of companies and the implementation of the Docks and Harbours Act, the PLA had to take all registered dock workers made redundant into its own employ, creating a huge supply of labour. This therefore led to the situation in 1976 that there were far more workers than were needed (an average daily surplus of approximately 1,250 men) all being sent home on pay. Tilbury was better able to take advantage of the growth in Britain’s trade with mainland Europe and continued to grow. This was because of their easier access and shorter sea routes and enough space for the vast stacking areas which containers require. By 1977 it was handling 294,500 containers per year, more than sufficient to place London at the top of the UK container port league. Its wharves and warehouses were subsequently modernised to include facilities for containers, bulk cargoes (eg steel and grain) and roll-on, roll-off ferry traffic.

1970s: The PLA and Pollution

It was during the 1970’s the ecology and pollution levels of the Thames also improved. It had been the responsibility of the PLA to maintain a clean river. Pollution had built up following a severe drought in 1949 when the oxygen content of the water fell to zero. During 1948 the PLA realised that the Thames was rejecting further attempts to deepen and in some areas to maintain the existing depths of the dredged channel. This was due to its overburden of sewage effluent, mostly only partially treated, the amount of fresh water taken from the non-tidal river for the supply of ever-growing London, and the raising of river temperatures by the discharge from the increasing number of riverside electricity stations. This situation illustrated the complexities of long term planning. The dredged channel was a major reason for London’s increasing industrial development and the rise in the population, but these in turn demanded more power, water supplies and sewage works – all contributing to siltation at a time when further development of the Thames was becoming necessary to meet the demands of industrial expansion. A full investigation of the problems of pollution and siltation began when a committee was established, consisting of the PLA working in co-operation with the Government Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1957 the Committee reported recommending changes in the dumping of silt, increased co-operation from municipal authorities and the re-building of certain Thames-side sewage plant. Improvements were made to sewage treatment plants at Beckton and Crossness and in 1964 the PLA acquired, and began to use its powers, to control discharges into the Thames and for first time since 1921 oxygen content was maintained at 5% in the hottest weather. By 1973 73 species of fish were counted in the river. In 1974 the PLA handed over most of the pollution control powers to the newly constituted Thames Water Authority.

1971: Central Advisory Water Committee suggestes uniting water management functions

1972: Sandford Lock was rebuilt.

1973: Queen Elizabeth II opens the new London Bridge

1973: Water Act - Thames Water Authority - End of Thames Conservancy

This Act was far more comprehensive than previous enactments dealing with water and river management.
It abolished River Authorities, including the Thames Conservancy, statutory water boards and joint sewerage boards and transferred their functions to 10 new Regional Water Authorities.

1974: Thames Water Authority (TWA)

Consequently, on 1st April 1974 management of the River Thames above Teddington passed to Thames Water Authority (TWA) which remained responsible until 1990.
The Thames Water Authority was one of ten regional water authorities created in the UK in 1975 to bring together all the water management functions of the region in one public body. On 1 April 1974, the Thames Conservancy was subsumed into the new Thames Water Authority, although much of the organisation remained intact as the authority's Thames Conservancy Division. However when Thames Water was privatised in 1990 the river management functions passed to the new National Rivers Authority and in 1996 to the Environment Agency. Locks built by the Thames Conservancy Radcot Lock (1892) Richmond Lock (1894) Grafton Lock (1896) Northmoor Lock (1896) Shifford Lock (1898) Iffley Lock (1927) Eynsham Lock (1928) King's Lock (1928) Chairmen of Thames Conservancy Sir Frederick Dixon-Hartland (1895–1904) Lord Desborough (1905–1936) J. D. Gilbert (1937–1938) Sir Jocelyn Bray (1938–1960) Lord Nugent (1961-c.1970)[33 The bodies subsumed included the Metropolitan Water Board, the Thames Conservancy, the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board and parts of the Essex River Authority and the Kent River Authority which had formerly regulated the north bank and the south bank of the River Thames estuary.

1977: Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee River Progress and Pageant

To celebrate The Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, a River Progress and Pageant on the Thames was organised by the Port of London Authority under the aegis of HM Lord Lieutenant of Greater London, Lord Elworthy.
Thursday 9th June began with Her Majesty's River Progress from Greenwich to Lambeth.
The Queen travelled aboard the PLA's launch Nore, which was dressed as the royal barge, and landed several times to meet the mayors of the riparian London Boroughs and various community groups.
At the Tower of London a 62-gun salute was fired and as the Progress entered the City of London the Lord Mayor, aboard an RNLI lifeboat, welcomed her Majesty and joined the escort.
The Queen gave a luncheon party aboard HMS Britannia, moored by the Tower of London, opened the Jubilee Walkway on the South Bank and took tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury before returning to Buckingham Palace by car.
The boats for the River Pageant marshalled in six groups between Greenwich and Blackwall Reach, ready to set off at 6.20pm.
With over 140 vessels taking part, and maintaining an average speed of 6 knots, the pageant took 30 minutes to pass any given point.
The lead vessel passed Tower Bridge at 7pm and turned at Vauxhall Bridge at 7.30pm, at which point all vessels switched on their lights for an illuminated return.
The Queen reviewed the Pageant from County Hall at 8.40pm and vessels began to disperse between Cherry Garden Pier and Greenwich, completing more than 16 miles in total.
The Pageant was ordered along lines of service, each section containing a mix of different vessels, the greatest number of which was barges pulled by motor tugs but also included lifeboats, passenger vessels, steam launches and training ships.
The sections included: Lord Mayor's and Armed Services, Thames-side Industry, River Services, Great British Enterprises, Youth Afloat and Dunkirk Little Ships.
Many floats, exhibiting tableaux and accompanied by music, were also featured in the pageant.

1980s: The PLA

As Tilbury developed, the enclosed docks were steadily shut and eventually turned over to developers along with the riverside warehouses with most of them all gone by 1981. The East India, London, Surrey and St Katherine docks closed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Between 1980 and 1983 the West India, Millwall and The Royal Docks were also shut. With all its docks closed or sold off, the PLA now concentrates on managing safety on the tidal Thames. It is responsible for maintaining river channels for navigation, moorings, lights and buoys. The PLA also provides a wide range of services for shipping, including, since 1988, pilotage services. The port of London and the trade it handles have changed a great deal since the heyday of the 1950’s and 1960‘s. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate how the worlds sea-bourne trade has changed during that time. Nowadays, with the bulk of London’s port facilities 20 miles or more down stream from the centre, Londoners would be forgiven for thinking they no longer had a port. Tower Bridge only raises for cruise and occasional war ships. However, despite the closure of the old docks and the wharves, London is still one of Britain’s leading ports. It handles considerable amounts of traffic, but few goods now arrive in London directly by sea. Instead, most are unloaded at terminals much farther down the Thames. Almost all of the working wharfs have been replaced by businesses or residential properties, public walkways and restaurants. Regeneration is underway – London Bridge city includes Hay’s Wharf where the tea clippers once moored and United Baltic Ships would unload. On the site of old Rum Wharf in West India Docks is Canary Wharf and Docklands Former Royal Docks is now London City Airport Royal Victoria Dock now sits next to Excel the exhibition centre The area administered by PLA today covers 95 miles from the Thames estuary to Teddington, the largest UK port in geographical terms and has more than 70 operational wharfs. The only enclosed dock is independently operated port of Tilbury.


In 1984, The Queen presided over the inauguration of the Thames Barrier, in an event organised and paid for by the GLC [Greater London Council].
The royal barge… sailed beneath bridges decorated with bunting.
An armada of smaller craft… jammed with cheering pensioners, schoolchildren and the families of Barrier workers, accompanying Vessels along the shore sounded their klaxons and sent up water jets as the convoy passed.

1988: Re-enactment of Lord Mayor's Procession of 1613

In 1988, the City of London Corporation organised a re-enactment of the 1613 Lord Mayor's procession entitled The Triumphs of Truth, to raise money for an ITV Telethon.
The re-enactment included five ordinary barges transformed by set designer Alasdair Flint to represent a dragon, a whale, Truth's Chariot, Time's Chariot and the City Skyline.
Each barge was fitted with a platform for singers, musicians and actors.
The pageant, which consisted of a circular route between Tower Pier and Festival Pier, was accompanied by several PLA launches and the Lord Mayor in the state barge.

1989: National Rivers Authority - Thames Water Authority partly privatised

In 1989 the Thames Water Authority was partly privatised, with the water and sewage responsibilities transferred to the newly established publicly quoted company of Thames Water, and the regulatory responsibilities transferred to the newly created National Rivers Authority

1990: Nation Rivers Authority took over from Thames Water

1991: Queen Elizabeth II opens Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford

1992: Port of Tilbury privatised

2002: Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee

A new royal barge, based on an 18th century oared shallop, was built by the Thames Traditional Rowing Association in honour of the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Its inaugural voyage, from Isleworth to Greenwich, was made on 14th September as part of a pageant entitled ‘The Celebration of Time in which actors playing King George III and his queen delivered an atomic clock to the Royal Observatory.
The Jubilant was accompanied by a dozen Dunkirk Little Ships and was joined, in the Pool of London, by the Lady Daphne sailing barge and the Portwey steam tug among others.
A riverside commentary was given as part of the Thames Festival, with which it coincided. 2005: Re-enactment of Admiral Lord Nelson's Funeral

2005: a year of events to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar

A re-enactment of Admiral Lord Nelson's funeral took place as part of Sea Britain.
The year's events were organised by Peter Warwick and Roger Mutton.
Over 40 traditional oared craft, including the Royal Thames and Lady Mayoress (barges from the city livery companies), accompanied the Jubilant from Greenwich to Westminster.
They were followed by spectator and media boats and thousands lined the four-mile route.
The flotilla received a 15-gun salute from HMS Belfast.

2009: Tudor Pageant The Thames Traditional Rowing Association organised a Tudor Pageant as part of the GLA's Story of London Festival, building on their 2008 Tudor Pull event.
Actors playing Henry VIII and Anne of Cleaves boarded the Jubilant at the Tower of London and were rowed upriver accompanied by shallops and cutters, whose crews wore Tudor costume.
Further craft joined the flotilla at Richmond and, at Teddington Lock, were greeted by over 30 skiffs, gondola and rowing boats.
The pageant ended with festivities at Hampton Court.

2011: Thames Pageant for Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II

Building of the Gloriana

[ The Gloriana also has an engine. She needs to be moved from place to place without having to get 18 oarsmen together, for a start, and even with a full crew there are moments when you want a bit of extra oomph - when you are trying to get onto a jetty in a high wind and lots of current on live TV, for example.
And the hidden propulsion is actually rather innovative and interesting.
Two electric motors drive feathering, adjustable-pitch propellers on saildrive legs, providing lots of torque and silent running.
The motors are Lynch pancakes, designed and built in Britain by Lees Motors, and the props are Bruntons Autoprops, again designed and made in Britain.

1996: Environment Agency took over from the National Rivers Authority

A further government reorganisation in 1996 resulted in the setting up of a national Environment Agency (EA) which took over the responsibilities of the NRA.
It is the Thames Region of the EA that manages all navigational and recreational matters on the non-tidal Thames today. The EA is also responsible for all environmental matters relating the the whole of the River Thames.

2001: Environment Agency or British Waterways?

In 2001 the Government instigated a debate as to who should manage navigation on the Thames and sought views as to whether the Environment Agency (EA) should continue with its role or whether British Waterways (BW) should have its jurisdiction extended to include the River Thames as part of its inland waterways brief.
The EA, in its response, said that they were shortly to appoint a Waterways Manager for the whole of the Thames who would work closely with its newly appointed business development manager.
They proposed to 'ringfence' money for the Thames and enter into an agreement with the Waterways Trust to raise extra money.
They also said that its navigation role was an intrinsic part of its responsibility for managing and improving the water environment.
BW said that they would give the River Thames its own office and appoint a regional director to be resposible for the river.
They would instigate a full repair programme and introduce a flexible licencing system.
They believed that the EA should relinquish its navigation role and concentrate on its important regulatory function.
In its report on Inland Waterways dated 14 March 2001, the Environment Select Committee recommended that the EA should retain its Navigation responsibilities and on 21 November 2001, the Government concurred by announcing that navigation responsibilities for the River Thames would remain unchanged.
Over the last few years the River Thames has suffered from a lack of investment but during the winter of 2004/5, the Environment Agency spent £3.9 million on an extensive capital works programme. This was possible as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the EA's sponsoring body, injected an additional £2 million of funds. In May 2005, the EA announced that DEFRA had agreed a further £2 milion of cash for the year 2005/6 resulting in a £5 million capital works spend over the winter months involving 12 engineering projects.

2006: Thames Water Abingdon Reservoir

The Thames Water Abingdon Reservoir was a proposal, made in 2006 by Thames Water, to build a large cleanwater reservoir to the south west of Abingdon, Oxfordshire.
Thames Water plans to build a £1bn reservoir to meet increased water demand.
Thames said the site near Abingdon, Oxfordshire, would be the biggest built in the UK in 25 years, holding 150 billion litres of water.
Population supplied: 8m
Daily supply: 2,822m litres
Mains pipe: 31,416km
Leakage: 895m litres/day (253 litres/property/day)
Supply source: 83% surface, 17% ground.
The reservoir, planned for farmland near Abingdon, would supply an extra 350 million litres of water a day, the majority of which is needed in London.
Despite its size - it would hold about half the volume of water of Lake Windermere - the amount falls far short of the estimated 900 million litres a day being lost through leaky pipes under the streets of the capital.

2007: Need for new Reservoir 'not proven'

The Environment Agency has said it is not convinced there is a need to build a £1bn reservoir in Oxfordshire.
A series of public exhibitions showing detailed plans for the reservoir - the biggest to be built in the UK in 25 years - starts in Abingdon.
The exhibitions will focus on what the reservoir may look like, how it would work, the impact of construction on the local communities and local wildlife and recreation.
A consultation began in September 2006 but the Environment Agency said Thames Water has failed to respond fully to some central issues and had not proved a need for the reservoir.
The company said it would continue its discussions with the Environment Agency and the county and district councils, to address issues raised.
The reservoir would be half the size of Windermere in Cumbria and hold 150 billion litres of water pumped from the River Thames.
If the plan is approved, the reservoir could be built within 15 years.