Thames Head or Seven Springs?

The Thames has two sources for which claims are made:

Stone at Thames Head
The Stone at Thames Head
Old Father Thames was here for 14 years.

Stone at Seven Springs
The Stone at Seven Springs.
"Here, O Father Thames, is your sevenfold Spring".

Thames Head is the currently dry spring at the head of the river, marked on maps as The Thames or Isis, a mile or so north west of Kemble.  It is at about 300 feet above sea level.  Two fields further down is Lyd Well, an active spring, from which the river flows.  The river wanders rather tentatively through flat meadows. And eventually into the Cotswold Water Park with its 150 acres of water.

Seven Springs is a much more impressive place.  It is at about 700 feet above sea level.  It is at the head of a real valley with steep hills.  The River Churn really does flow from the Springs and immediately forms a small lake.  It leaps down the valley and then joins the Hilcot Brook.  The lovely Rendcomb valley begins to flatten until it approaches Cirencester.  It eventually also comes to the Cotswold Water Park and joins the other stream a few yards downstream of Cricklade Bridge.  Seven Springs feels much more like the source that Father Thames would be proud to own.

However, I punted to Cirencester, and came up to the bridge - and there was the Thames Head stream straight on, whilst on the right bank there was a right turn into the River Churn which felt like a tributary joining a main stream.

Leland: States its Thames Head

Isis riseth at 3 myles from Cirencestre, not far from a village called Kemble, within half a mile of the Fosse-way, wher the very hed of Isis ys.
In a great somer drought there appereth very little or no water, yet is the stream servid with many of springes resorting to one botom."

1692: Baskervile is on the side of Seven Springs -

Criclad Bridge -
... The Bridges and Casway to go into Glocester shire from Cricklade are 580 paces or yards long, to the farther side of ye bridge over that stream which comes from Cyrencester [ i.e. the River Churn].
The other stream runs by Ashton Canes comes in by Cricklad Town.
The 2nd Bridges viz That Bridge over Ashton Canes stream,
and that bridge over Tems or Cyrencester stream and ye casway between,
have 12 arches for water to pass.

[ So Baskervile calls the “Cyrencester Stream” “Tems”,
and the other source “the Ashton Canes Stream”.

1801: Smollett says "The dispute is not of consequence"
The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature By Tobias George Smollett, -

Like the source of the Nile, the position of the original fountain of the Thames has been variously assigned, and its birth place has been almost as much contested as that of Homer, by divers contributing springs on the borders of Glocestershire and Wiltshire, through which its several early branches hasten to form their union previous to their reaching Oxfordshire.
Cricklade in Wiltshire is the central town of this district ;
and some attribute, the honour of forming the head of the Thames to a clear fountain in its vicinage, which has long borne that title, and been considered almost as a consecrated spot by the veneration of the surrounding villages ;
while others prefer a stream issuing from the vicinage of Kemble, marked by its neat spire;
others again take the rivulets which advance from Swindon and Highworth in Wiltshire (one of which is called the Rey) ;
and many argue for the Churn of Glocestershire, which rises in the hilly tract of the Cotteswold, encircling the vale of Cheltenham, and flows to the south-east, by Cirencester, and through the extensive woods of lord Bathurst, to Cricklade.
The dispute is not of consequence, as none of these fountains, in their origin, differ materially from a common rivulet, and each county may innocently enjoy the fancied distinction, while the subjects of their contention unite near Letchlade, and creep in obscurity through the plain of Oxfordshire, attended for some distance by the parallel canal, which has been lately made, with immense expense, to join the Severn with the Thames, and so to form what should seem to be the most important inland navigation of Great Britain, by transporting the influx of foreign as well as internal wealth to and from the capital.
This canal ... perforates the long subterraneous tunnel of Saltperton in Glocestershire; but even when it advances to the river, does not form its junction immediately, but pursues a similar course to Letchlade, on the west of which place the Coin descends from the pleasant villages of Bibury and Barnsley; and on the east, the Lech, from North Lech, adds its tributary forces ; after which the combined streams bear together the classic name of the Isis. Here the navigation of this river probably commences ; but it is understood to be long very imperfect, from its winding course and its prevailing shallows ...

1845: "the Churn is now considered by geographers as the true head of the Thames"
The Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Most rivers are at their head separated into a number of small streamlets, of which some one has generally the pre-eminence conceded to it, from its superior size, or its being the remotest from the mouth of the river. As this is the principal stream, its spring is called the source.
Two streams contend for the honour of the parentage of the Thames. Both rise from the southern slopes of the Cotswold Hills, but some sixteen miles apart. The source of one is known as Thames-head, of the other as Seven Springs.
The one which flows from Thames-head would seem at first sight to have the fairest claim. Its source has ever been called Thames-head by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood; and the stream itself has always been called the Thames, long before it meets the other branch, which, on the other hand, has always been known by another name. But then it must yield to its rival both as regards the distance of its source from the main trunk and its size — and whatever may have been the received opinion, the Churn is now considered by geographers as the true head of the Thames.
We will look briefly at each, and trace them from their springs till they meet and form one river.

See the Thames Head and Seven Springs pages

1869: "The source of the Thames comes from nowhere; it turns round in a circle."
The Saturday Review, part of a Report of a Lecture by Professor Huxley -

... The source is said to be at Thames Head, but the sources are countless, and are all round the basin of the Thames, in the springs that rise at the edge of the hills that enclose it.
The springs led him to consider the rain, snow, and hail – clear enough for a child to understand, and interesting enough for a man to listen to. At last, he passed into almost eloquence as he showed how the sea supplies the air with the vapour of water, how the vapour of water passes into rain, how the rain supplies the springs, and the springs the river, and how the river in its turn supplies the sea.
"The source of the Thames comes from nowhere; it turns round in a circle."

The Saturday Review editor was unable to resist moralising on this:

He might have remembered, however, that a thousand years before the Thames was heard of, this truth had been known, and that the Preacher had said:
"All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
onto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."

1885: "I shall presently invite the reader to follow the course suggested in regard to the name, and make an arbitrary law unto himself."
"The reader, however, is hereby invited to regard, not Thames Head, but Seven Sprlngs near Cheltenham, as the natural and common-sense source of the river Thames."
The Royal River, also 'The Thames from Source to Sea' 1891 -

Equally fruitful of controversy [as the river's name - Isis or Thames] has been the source of the Thames.
It has long been a question whether this grassy retreat, in which we are supposed to be lingering, to wit, Thames Head, in the parish of Cotes, near Cirencester, in the county of Gloucestershire, or Seven Springs, near Cheltenham, should be regarded as the actual starting-point of the river.
Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and different portions of each, have occasionally contended for the honour.
Many pages might be filled with rehearsals of learned argument, and quotations from ancient authorities, to support conflicting contentions; but I shall presently invite the reader to follow the course suggested in regard to the name, and make an arbitrary law unto himself.
It is not to be denied that the balance of acceptation by topographers of olden times pointed to Thames Head as the generally received source.
[ as quoted above ] Leland, sometimes called the Father of English Antiquaries, settles it thus: -
"Isis riseth at 3 myles from Cirencestre, not far from a village called Kemble, within half a mile of the Fosse-way, wher the very hed of Isis ys.
In a great somer drought there appereth very little or no water, yet is the stream servid with many of springes resorting to one botom."
Ill, therefore, will fare the visitor to Thames Head, who seeks it, as I have done, full of poetical fancies and pretty conceits about the source of rivers in general, and the birthplace of the famous English stream in particular.
However charming he may find the place to be, and charming it certainly is, he will be doomed to disappointment if he thinks he has reached the source of our royal stream.
I was bound for the identical spot, as I congratulated myself, where

From his oozy bed Old Father Thames advanced his rev'rend head, His tresses dropped with dews, and o'er the stream His sluicing horns diffused a golden gleam.

As we have seen, the explorer will, at first, experience failure in his endeavour to find, with any satisfactory clearness, either old Father Thames or his oozy bed.
Arrived at the ancient Akeman Street, or Fosse-way, "3 myles" from Cirencester, a choice of no fewer than four springs is presented.
The village of Cotes, the Roman mound known as Trewsbury Castle, Trewsbury Mead, and the unromantic chimney of the Thames and Severn Canal Engine-house are plain enough, here and there - landmarks, all of them, for the industrious searcher, but there is no sign of flowing water, or, indeed, of water in repose.
You will look in vain for semblance of a bed which might be that of a river.
It was only after considerable trouble that I obtained any information, and was guided to this well, named by tradition as the original and primary source of the Thames, and reached by proceeding for a quarter of a mile from the high road (where it crosses the railway) along the walk bordering the Canal.


The reader, however, is hereby invited to regard, not Thames Head, but Seven Sprlngs near Cheltenham, as the natural and common-sense source of the river Thames.
Some three miles south of the town, in the parish of Cubberley, or Coberley, to quote the words of professor Ramsay,
"the Thames rises not far from the crest of the oolitic escarpment of the Cotswold Hllls that overlook the Severn".
After pausing on the shoulder of Charlton Hlll, and admiring - as who can fail to do? - the magnificent panorama of hill and valley receding into the mist of distance north and north-east, you proceed from Cheltenham along the Cirencester road to the crossways
A short divergence to the right, and a dip ln the road brings you to a piece of wayside turf, with, beyond, a corner shaped like an irregular triangle.
One side of this might be, perhaps, seven yards in lengths, another four yards, and the third something between the two.
The triangular depression is reached by one of those little green hillocks so often to be found on Engllsh waysides.
The bottom is covered with water, which, in spite of the place being no-man's-land, is clear as crystal, and in its deepest part there was not, at the time of my vlslt, more than six inches of water.
The bed of this open shallow reservoir is not paved with marble, or even concrete, but is liberally provided with such unconsidered trifles as the weather or playful childen would cast there.
When the wind sets that way a good deal of scum will gather ln the farther corner, formed by two walls.
The turf near the water's edge is worn away, and the green hillock has been trodden into a mere clay bank by the feet of cattle and men, for it is, as I have said, a patch of common land abutting upon the road.
Overhead, stretched from the telegraphy posts, you may count nine unmistakable wires parallel with the wall which forms the base of our triangle>
On the side farthest from the road the bank is high.
A venerable hawthorn has become wedded apparently to an equally venerable ash, whose topmost boughes coquette at close quarters with the telegraphy wires.
Another ash-tree, at the outer point of the triangle, leans over the water.
Between the trees a little sloe bush keeps study foothold.
You may mark, moreover, a few straggling briars, bits of silver-weed, a root or two of the meadow cranesbill, a clump of poverty-stricken meadow-sweet, some fool's parsley, wild strawberry plants, and a good deal of bold and always flourishing dandelion.
This is the environment of the true source of the great River Thames.
We are at Seven Springs.
Hence multitudinous initials are rudely carved upon the old trees and on the stone walls, hence strangers, during summer drive hither and pay homage.
Clear away the scum from the water at the foot of the wall and a small iron grating explains how the waters, always bubbling clear and cool from the Seven Springs, pass away.
On the other side of the wall the inflow forms a pond in private grounds.
Thence it descends by a homely fall into a smaller pond, and by yet another insignificant fall into what for some distance is sometimes little better than a stagnant ditch.
A lower fall, however, of more determined character than the others, sets in motion a clear rill, which, though tiny in volume and unpretentious in present aims, sets off upon its gravelly course as if it knew that by-and-by it would form an estuary upon which the navies of the world might ride in safety.
Just now a child might leap across. It is a mere thread of water, yet the streamlet begins at once to proceed in a business-like way under the solid hedgerows separating the fields, and soon becomes a decided brook.
This is a tangible beginning, at all events.
The Seven Springs are on evidence in a convenient enclosure; they may be recognised as, silently sparkling, they gush from the bank which gives foothold to the hawthorn and ash; and the infant river is always in sight from the moment it assumes the form of a tiny streamlet.

It is difficult to conceive how it has come about that Thames Head on the one part and Seven Springs on the other have been considered rival claimants for 1 the honour of being the cradle of the Thames.
Tt is true that both streams (for Thames Head eventually, by sundry means, becomes a stream) rise from the eastern slopes of the Cotswolds; but they are many miles apart, and Thames heads is nearly fifteen miles nearer the sea than Seven Springs.
The rivulet issuing from Seven Springs, and which presently becomes the River Churn is, in the present day at least, the distinct stream which continues its unbroken course to the Nore, and it is the source which is farthest from the mouth of the Thames.
Leland, nevertheless, writing at the time of Henry VIII., fixes, as we have seen, upon Thames Head as the source.
Stow, with less detail, adopts the same locality; Camden does likewise; Atkins declares that the river riseth in the parish of Cotes; Rudder that it has been reputed "to rise in the parish of Cotes, out of a well".
Modern tourists regularly visit both places, and in great numbers, during the summer season, and in the case of Thames Head are probably taken now to the uppermost glade, which I have described, and now to the spring nearer the engine-house of the Thames and Severn Canal, represented by the illustration.
The neglect of the alleged sources by the local authorities of both Cirencester and Cheltenham is to be explained, probably, on the old principle, that what is everybody's is nobody's business.
Since, however, people go in full faith to both Seven Springs and Thames Head some record, however simple, might surely be upraised at both for the enlightenment of the wayfaring man.
Dealing with this question at more length perhaps than the subject requires, I may be allowed to repeat that in these days there ought to be no manner of doubt that the natural and legitimate source of the Thames is that shallow, neglected, triangular pool formed by the Seven Springs.
The Cotswold Hills are, in any case, above dispute as the cradle-ground of the river, and may be happy with either claimant.

But Cotswold, be this spoke to th'onely praise of thee,
That thou, of all the rest, the chosen soyle should bee,
Faire Isis to bring forth, the mother of great Tames,
With whose delicious brooks, by whose immortal streames
Her greatnesse is begun.

1910: "the original error, of placing Thames Head at Trewsbury Mead,
and naming the stream which issues from Seven Springs the 'Churn'
arose in - very remote times ..."
Thames Valley Villages by Charles G Harper

1937: The House of Commons maintained the establishment line; Thames Head
Mr Perkins was the Member for the Stroud constituency which included Seven Springs.
Mr W S Morrison was the Minister for Agriculture and Member for Cirencester, the Constituency which included Thames Head -

Mr Perkins asked the Minister of Agriculture whether he is aware that, on the most recent edition of the Ordnance Survey Maps, the source of the River Thames is shown as Thames Head, in the parish of Coates: and in view of the fact that the source known as Seven Springs, in the parish of Coberley, is farther from the estuary, he will undertake that in the next edition of the Ordnance Survey Maps the correct source will be marked.
The Minister for Agriculture, Mr W S Morrison: I understand that it is not an invariable rule in geographical practice to regard as the source of a large river the source of the tributary most distant from its estuary. I am advised that the source of the Thames or Isis is the spring known as 'Thames Head' and that the leading authorities agree that the name of the stream which rises at Seven Springs is the Churn. In these circumstances it does not appear that the alternative suggested would be justified.
Mr Perkins: Is the right honorable Gentleman aware that the source known as ‘Thames Head’ periodically dries up -
An Honorable Member: Why don't you? Laughter.
- as in 1935, and is he also aware that the source known as Seven Springs is twice as high above sea-level as the source known as Thames head, as well as being farther from the estuary?
Mr Morrison: I am aware of these considerations, but they do not alter my view, as confirmed, that the River Thames rises in my constituency and not in that of my honorable friend ...
I think there is no doubt that the Thames rises in the parish of Coates

[ In 1937 the House of Commons had more worrying matters to deal with and this somewhat ponderous exchange is all we have from our legislators on the subject. ]

1949: Paul Gedge, Thames Journey (at Seven Springs) -

The wall bears a Latin hexameter, cut in a slab;
In other words, "Here's the source".
And who can reasonably disagree?  Account Thames Head the sentimental source if you like, but to trace the True Source of the Thames to a spot where there is seldom any Thames at all, or to hail a stream issuing from a pump as London's river, while this clear, natural spring pours out its waters all the year round, at a considerably greater distance from the sea, is, to me, something of a reductio ad absurdum.

Seven Springs 5, Thames Head 2, with 2 draws