The river Thames: Part 1 of 3

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'The river Thames: Part 1 of 3', in Old and New London: Volume 3( London, 1878), British History Online [accessed 9 July 2024].

Walter Thornbury, 'The river Thames: Part 1 of 3', in Old and New London: Volume 3( London, 1878), British History Online, accessed July 9, 2024,

Walter Thornbury. "The river Thames: Part 1 of 3". Old and New London: Volume 3. (London, 1878), , British History Online. Web. 9 July 2024.

In this section



"Large, gentle, deep, majestic King of Floods."—Thomson.

The Pool—Importance of the Thames in the Olden Time—King James and the Corporation of London—Scenery of the Thames from London Bridge to Westminster—The "Folly"—A Chinese Junk—The Ancient Church of St. Mary-the-Virgin—Lilly, the Astrologer—The Thames Police—The Royal Humane Society's Reception-room—Waterloo Bridge—The Last of the Savoy Palace—Carlisle House—The Adelphi Terrace—Rousseau and Garrick—Old Hungerford Bridge—Hungerford Stairs—Warren's Blacking Warehouse and Charles Dickens—The Thames Swimming Baths—Whitehall Stairs—Cowley's Funeral—Westminster Bridge—Wordsworth's Sonnet on the Scene from the Bridge at Sunrise.

We do not intend in this chapter to write a history of the Thames from its source to the sea; much less to become the biographer of the rivers that fall into it: that work has been already done by Dr. Charles Mackay, in his pleasant and chatty book, "The Thames and its Tributaries." It is our business and duty to show ourselves, like Theodore Hook, "familiar with the Thames from London Bridge up to Eel Pie Island"—perhaps even a little farther. Our discourse, therefore, will be only of the Thames at and near London; and for the present we shall keep "above bridge," simply contenting ourselves with the remark that, if the visitor from foreign lands would wish to form an adequate idea of the mercantile and commercial wealth of our great metropolis, he had better enter London not by the South-Eastern or the Chatham and Dover Railways, but by the silent highway of that noble river of which Englishmen are so proud. "The congregation of men, ships, and commerce of all nations in the 'Pool,' the din, the duskiness, the discord of order, activity, and industry, is finer," writes the author of "Babylon the Great," "than a bird's-eye view of London from the hills on the north or south, or than the royal gardens, the parks, and the palaces, that first present themselves to a stranger coming from the west. . . . This is indeed old Father Thames, in the overwhelming wonders of his wealth; and the ships and the warehouses that we see contain the stimulus and the reward of those men who have made England the queen and London the jewel of the world." Truly indeed did Cowper write—
"Where has commerce such a mart,
So rich, so throng'd, so drain'd, and so supplied
As London—opulent, enlarg'd, and still
Increasing London? Babylon of old
No more the glory of the earth than she,
A more accomplish'd world's chief glory now!"

The river, as the source of almost all the greatness and wealth of the metropolis, and also as one of its chief ornaments, deserves especial notice at our hands. But we are above, not below, London Bridge; so turning our backs on the warehouses which crowd the banks on either side from Wapping to the Tower, from Limehouse and Rotherhithe to Southwark Bridge, let us make our voyage westward, by the side of our new and magnificent embankment, imagining that, as we are treating at once of London "Old" and "New," we are sailing in our barge along the channel which so many great and historic personages, from kings and queens to prisoners of State, have traversed before us.

In London certainly the river has been from earliest times "the silent highway" between the Tower and Westminster. As the Court was usually either at the Old Palace of Westminster or at Whitehall, and most of the king's liege subjects lived in and around the City proper, a boat was naturally the usual conveyance of great people, whether lords of Parliament, courtiers, or ambassadors, into the presence of the sovereign, especially at a time when as yet the Strand was unpaved, and when wagons stuck in its miry wheel-ruts in the winter season.

As a proof of the importance of the Thames in old times as a thoroughfare from London to Westminster, it was ordered that the lanes and streets leading down to it were to be kept free from all impediments, so that persons going on horseback might experience no difficulty in reaching its banks.

A capital story, showing not only the value of the Thames, but the appreciation of that value by the citizens of London, is related concerning James I. and a certain Lord Mayor in his reign. "James being in want of some twenty thousand pounds, applied to the Corporation of London for the loan of that sum. The Corporation refused. The king, whose notions of the regal power were somewhat arbitrary, sent for the Lord Mayor and certain of the aldermen, and rated them severely for their disloyalty, insisting that they should raise the money forthwith 'by hook or by crook.' 'May it please your majesty,' said the Lord Mayor, 'we cannot lend you what we have not got.' 'You must get it,' replied the king, haughtily. 'We cannot, sire,' said the Lord Mayor. 'Then I'll compel you,' rejoined the king. 'But, sire, you cannot compel us,' retorted the Lord Mayor. 'No!' exclaimed James; 'then I'll ruin you and your city for ever. I'll remove my courts of law, my Court itself, and my Parliament to Winchester or to Oxford, and make a desert of Westminster; and then think what will become of you!' 'May it please your majesty,' meekly but firmly, 'you are at liberty to remove yourself and your courts wherever you please; but, sire, there will always be one consolation to the merchants of London: your majesty cannot take the Thames along with you.'"


The conservancy of the Thames was confirmed to the Lord Mayor and citizens of London by Henry IV., the same king whose dead body, by a strange fatality, is supposed to have been thrown into its waters. This jurisdiction was confirmed by-Parliament, in 1487; and in 1538 the Common Council of London passed several regulations for the improvement of the navigation of the river, many of which are in force down to the present time, though some have been allowed to lapse, as out of date, and applicable only to a bygone state of things. (fn. 1)


Much of the scenery of the Thames in London and Westminster as it was at the commencement of the present century has been rescued from oblivion by the brothers Thomas and Paul Sandby, both Royal Academicians. Their elaborate drawings, taken from the terrace and gardens of Somerset House, exhibit on the Surrey side the landing-stairs of Kuper's Gardens, and on the Middlesex shore that part of the old Palace at Whitehall, then inhabited by the Duchess of Portland, on the site of which afterwards the houses of Lord Farnborough and other noblemen were erected. There is also a scarce and valuable print showing the Thames at the Temple Gardens, executed and published, in 1671, under the auspices of Sir Heneage Finch, afterwards Earl of Nottingham, and reproduced in fac-simile, in 1770–71, at the charge of one of his descendants. It shows that the embanked front of the gardens was not straight, but broken by several recesses, in which are inserted stairs leading down to the water. A quantity of wherries moored at their foot proves how usual a mode of conveyance to all parts of London and Westminster the Thames was two centuries ago. The fac-simile of the print was not published, and therefore it is to be found in only a few private collections. Spenser, too, gives us a "Distant View of the Temple" in the following lines:—
"Those bricky towers,
The which on Thamesis broad back do ride,
Where now the student lawyers have their bowers,
Where whilom wont the Templar Knights to bide,
Till they decayed through pride."

One of Sandby's prints of the river-front of Somerset House shows, moored off the stairs of Somerset House, a floating coffee-house, called "The Folly," the existence of which is known to few except curious antiquaries. This was a lounge of the rich gay wits and gallants of the days of Addison and Steele, and an appendage to the coffee and chocolate houses ashore of which we have spoken in our walks round Covent Garden. This floating coffeehouse appears by degrees to have attracted a disreputable company, and at last died a natural death, or was suppressed as a nuisance. Being on the water, and not on terra firma, there are no titledeeds or other legal documents, or entries in the parish rate-books, to help us in our inquiry as to its fate. In its appearance it somewhat resembled the modern "house-boats" which serve as clubs for rowers at Oxford and at other places on the Thames.

"The Folly"—for such the structure alluded to was named—is said by Dr. C. Mackay to have been "as bulky as a man-of-war." "The Folly" was "divided into sundry rooms, with a platform and balustrade on the top." A view of it as it rode at anchor off Somerset House is given in Strype's edition of Stow; and the humours of it are drawn to the life in Ned Ward's "London Spy." "At first," says Sir John Hawkins, in a manuscript note in his "History of Music," "it was resorted to for refreshment by persons of fashion, and Queen Mary, with some of her courtiers, had once the curiosity to visit it; but it sank gradually into a receptacle for companies of loose and disorderly people, for the purposes of drinking and promiscuous dancing, and at length becoming scandalous, the building was suffered to go to decay, and the materials thereof became firewood."

In one of Tom D'Urfey's songs, called "A Touch of the Times," published in 1719, occurs the following allusion to "The Folly:"—
"When Drapers' smugg'd apprentices,
With Exchange girls mostly jolly,
After shop was shut up and all,
Could sail up to 'The Folly.'"

Mr. Larwood, in his "History of Sign-Boards," tells us that "The Folly" was not an unusual sign, and that it was generally applied to a very ambitious, extravagantly furnished, or highly ornamented house. "In such a sense," he remarks, "it was already used in Queen Elizabeth's reign:—
'Kirby Castle and Fisher's Folly,
Spinola's Pleasure and Megse's Glory.'

"'The Folly,' at first, was very well frequented, and the beauty and the fashion of the period used to go there on summer evenings, partake of refreshments on the platform, and enjoy the breeze on the river, then innocent of modern sewers and filth. Pepys paid it more than one visit, as he tells us in his 'Diary.' On one occasion it was honoured by a visit from Queen Mary and several members of her Court. Gradually, however, 'The Folly,' true to its name, 'took to evil courses; loose and disorderly ladies were admitted; and unrestrained drinking and dancing soon gave it an unenviable notoriety.' In this condition it was visited by 'Tom Brown,' who describes it with his usual coarse vigour, and remarks of it as follows:—'This whimsical piece of architecture was designed as a musical summer-house for the entertainment of the quality, where they might meet and ogle one another.'" He describes the company in very glowing colours, which it is not necessary to quote here, but tells us at last that he found it such a confused scene of "folly" that, though not a very bashful person, he was at last compelled to return to his boat without drinking. At last the place became so scandalous that it had to be closed: it went to decay; and in the end, as we have already seen from Sir John Hawkins, "The Folly" was chopped up for firewood! Sic transit gloria.

Not very far from where "The Folly" was moored a century and a half ago, there was seen anchored in our own day a wonderful vessel which had crossed the Indian Ocean and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, and so up the whole length of the Atlantic—a veritable "Chinese junk." It made the voyage, small as it was, without suffering wreck or disaster, and arrived in the Thames in 1848. For a time it lay off Blackwall, where it was visited by thousands—among others, by Charles Dickens. Afterwards, when the London "season" began, it was brought up just above Waterloo Bridge, and moored off the Strand. Dickens describes the impression of a visit to the junk as a total, entire change from England to the Celestial Empire. "Nothing," he writes, "is left but China. How the flowery region ever came into this latitude and longitude is the first thing one asks, and it is certainly not the least of the marvel. As Aladdin's palace was transported hither and thither by the rubbing of a lamp, so the crew of Chinamen aboard the keying devoutly believed that their good ship would turn up quite safe at the desired port if they only tied red rags enough upon the mast, rudder, and cable. Somehow they did not succeed. Perhaps they ran short of rag; at any rate they had not enough on board to keep them above water; and to the bottom they would have undoubtedly gone if it had not been for the skill and coolness of half-a-dozen English sailors, who brought them over the ocean in safety. Well, if there be any one thing in the world that this extraordinary craft is not at all like, that thing is a ship of any kind. So narrow, so long, so grotesque, so low in the middle, so high at each end, like a china pen-tray; with no rigging, with nowhere to go aloft; with mats for sails, great warped cigars for masts, dragons and sea-monsters disporting themselves from stem to stern, and on the stern a gigantic cock of impossible aspect, defying the world (as well he may) to produce his equal—it would look more at home on the top of a public building, or at the top of a mountain, or in an avenue of trees, or down in a mine, than afloat on the water. As for the Chinese lounging on the deck, the most extravagant imagination would never dare to suppose them to be mariners. Imagine a ship's crew without a profile amongst them, in gauze pinafores and plaited hair, wearing stiff clogs a quarter of a foot thick in the sole, and lying at night in little scented boxes, like backgammon or chess pieces, or mother-of-pearl counters! But, by Jove! even this is nothing to your surprise when you get down into the cabin. There you get into a torture of perplexity; as, what became of all those lanterns hanging to the roof, when the junk was out at sea; whether they dangled there, banging and beating against each other, like so many jester's baubles; whether the idol Chin Tee, of the eighteen arms, enshrined in a celestial Punch's show, in the place of honour, ever tumbled out in heavy weather; whether the incense and the joss-stick still burnt before her, with a faint perfume and a little thread of smoke, while the mighty waves were roaring all around? Whether that preposterous tissue-paper umbrella in the corner was always spread, as being a convenient maritime instrument for walking about the decks with in a storm? Whether all the cool and shiny little chairs and tables were continually sliding about and bruising each other, and if not, why not? Whether anybody on the voyage ever read those two books printed in characters like bird-cages and fly-traps? Whether the mandarin passenger, He Sing, who had never been ten miles from home in his life before, lying sick on a bamboo couch in a private china closet of his own (where he is now perpetually writing autographs for inquisitive barbarians), ever began to doubt the potency of the Goddess of the Sea, whose counterfeit presentiment, like a flowery monthly nurse, occupies the sailor's joss-house in the second gallery? Whether it is possible that the second mandarin, or the artist of the ship, Sam Sing, Esquire, R.A. of Canton, can ever go ashore without a walking-staff in cinnamon, agreeably to the usage of their likenesses in British tea-shops? Above all, whether the hoarse old ocean could ever have been seriously in earnest with this floating toy-shop; or had merely played with it in lightness of spirit roughly, but meaning no harm?—as the bull did with another kind of china-shop on St. Patrick's-day in the morning."

Close by the waterside, near where now stands Somerset House, formerly stood the ancient church of St. Mary the Virgin, the predecessor of the present church of St. Mary-le-Strand. It is stated by a writer in the Sunday at Home that no less a person than Thomas à Becket was once rector of the parish. But this statement "requires confirmation." Another well-known rector, in more recent times, was Dr. George Horneck, author of "The Crucified Jesus," and other popular religious treatises, who was so much beloved in London that it was said his parish stretched from Whitehall to Whitechapel.

At a corner house in the Strand, with the exact locality of which we are not acquainted, though Mr. P. Cunningham fixes it as "over against Strand Bridge," lived, in 1627, William Lilly the astrologer. He had just then privately married the widow of his master, one Gilbert Wright, in whose house he had been, up to that time, employed in menial work—cleaning the shoes and fetching tubs of water from the Thames; and having inherited her property seven years later, became the owner of house property in the neighbourhood, having, as he tells us in his autobiography, "purchased the moiety of thirteen houses in the Strand for £530." Lilly, who is the "Sidrophel" of Butler's "Hudibras," and who prophesied for the Parliament and for the king, according to the times, died in 1681, and was buried in Walton Church, Surrey, where there is a monument with a Latin inscription by the antiquary Elias Ashmole, who styles this consummate impostor "Astrologus peritissimus."

For several years past, down to the close of 1873, might be seen moored off the bank of the river, nearly opposite Norfolk Street, the hull—we had almost said hulk—of a vessel which in its time had, we believe, "done the State some service" in foreign climes. This was an old 16-gun frigate named the Royalist, which, having grown too old to be of any further use in the navy, had been converted into a floating police station, as the inscription in large capital letters, "Thames Police Station," painted upon its side, informed the passerby. At the above date this vessel was removed "below bridge," to do duty in a similar capacity off Blackwall, in place of the Investigator. The Thames Police have now a station on one of the floating platforms by Waterloo Bridge originally erected as a landing-stage for passengers by the steamboats, the waiting-rooms of which have been fitted up to serve this purpose.

From the Report of the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police issued in 1874, it appears that the total number of men employed in the Thames Police was upwards of 1,800, including a superintendent, 9 inspectors, 22 third-class inspectors, 1 detective sergeant, 3 detective constables, and 117 police constables. The men selected, it need hardly be stated, have a good knowledge of "river thieves" and of those who act in collusion with them, for during the year above mentioned, by their vigilance and good management, upwards of 100 persons were apprehended for various offences. In case of fire, too, either on board vessels or in water-side premises, the assistance rendered by the Thames Police is invaluable. The Report alluded to tells us that during the year 1873 the Thames Police were instrumental in rescuing 32 persons from drowning; these, with 6 suicides prevented, make 38 lives saved by them during the year. One case, showing the keen observation kept upon river craft, deserves mention. About midnight of the 25th of September, a boat's crew off Wapping discovered a sailing-barge so imbedded in the mud that the tide was flowing over the decks. They hastened on board, and found her fast filling, and five persons asleep in the cabin; to rouse them was the work of a few moments; but the tide flowed so rapidly that one of the constables was waist-deep in water before the last person was rescued. Had it not been for the vigilance and timely aid of the police these five lives would in all probability have been sacrificed. In cases of accident the Thames Police invariably render prompt assistance in conveying the sufferers to the nearest hospitals, and, when necessary, in giving information to their friends.

Some idea of the disagreeable and painful duties performed by this able and useful body of men may be gathered from the fact that in the year above mentioned the number of deaths which came under their cognisance amounted to no less than 150. Of these 25 were suicides, 79 were accidentally drowned, 4 were from accidents at the river-side, and 42 about which there appears to have been some doubt as to how they came in the river, and who are, therefore, classed under the general heading of "found drowned." Nearly all of these bodies passed through the hands of the police, were conveyed to the dead-houses, descriptions taken and circulated, inquiries made to find friends, and coroners' inquests attended.

The building on the western portion of the landing-stage whereon stands the Thames Police Station is used by the Royal Humane Society as a place for the reception of persons rescued from drowning. This has been placed at the disposal of the Society by the Thames Conservancy, free of charge; and all the necessary appliances have been provided for rescuing bodies from the river, by means of a properly-constructed boat, and for treating them when rescued. The maintenance of this receiving-house has caused a charge on the Society's funds to the extent of about £300 per annum, for the Society's men must be always in attendance, the apparatus and baths in readiness by night and by day, and a medical officer almost within call. During the century which has elapsed since the Royal Humane Society was instituted, as we learn from the hundredth Annual Report, it has been the means of saving upwards of thirty-eight thousand persons from premature death. In the words of the Report, we may add that "no comment is necessary upon such a statement as this: it carries with it ample evidence of the beneficent work of the Society."
"Death may usurp on Nature many hours,
And yet the fire of life kindle again
The overpressèd spirits. I have heard
Of an Egyptian had nine hours lien dead,
By good appliance was recovered."
Shakespeare: Pericles, Act iii., sc. 1.

Waterloo Bridge, with the contemplation of which we now resume our voyage westward—the bridges lying eastward having been dealt with in the previous volumes of this work—was considered by Canova to be "the noblest bridge in the world," the great artist backing up his enthusiasm with the assertion that it was "alone worth coming from Rome to London to see." Indeed, the lightness, grace, and symmetry of the structure are such as to give the bridge a foremost rank in buildings of the kind; although it has perhaps been eclipsed by subsequent erections.

This grand and useful work, which M. Dupin, the celebrated French engineer, in his "Memoir" on the public works of England, called "a colossal monument worthy of Sesostris and the Cæsars," was produced by a joint-stock company. It was erected by the late Sir John Rennie, and, together with the approaches, cost about £1,000,000.

The Act for incorporating the Company, which is designated "The Strand Bridge Company," was passed in June, 1809. Under this authority they raised the sum of £500,000, in transferable shares of £100 each, and had authority to raise a further sum of £300,000, by the issue of new shares or by mortgage, if they should find it necessary. In July, 1813, the Company obtained another Act of Parliament, by which they were authorised to raise an additional sum of £200,000; and in the session of 1816 they obtained a third Act, which received the royal assent in July, and invested the Company with additional powers. By this Act the name of the bridge was changed from that of the "Strand Bridge" to "Waterloo," in honour of that great and decisive battle. It was very natural, considering the great and important victory which the Duke of Wellington had just gained over Buonaparte, that our countrymen during the Regency should have been somewhat profuse in applying the names "Wellington" and "Waterloo" to all and every sort of thing—Wellington streets, Wellington inns, and Wellington boots; Waterloo hotels, Waterloo academies, Waterloo coaches, and Waterloo bonnets—and that, when at a later date that class of conveyance was introduced, they should have adopted "Waterloo" as the designation of a line of omnibuses, and at last of a railway station.

The design, as executed, consists of nine semielliptical arches, with Grecian Doric columns in front of the piers, covered by an entablature and cornice, and surmounted by a balustrade. The roadway upon the summit of the arches is level, in a line with the Strand, and is carried by a gentle declivity on a series of brick arches, some of which are used as warehouses, over the roadway on the Surrey bank of the river, to the level of the roads about the Obelisk by the Surrey Theatre. The width of the river at Waterloo Bridge was 1,326 feet at high water before its curtailment by the Victoria Embankment; and the bridge consists of nine semi-elliptical arches, of 120 feet span, and thirty-five feet high, supported on piers thirty feet thick at the foundations, diminishing to twenty feet at the springing of the arches. They are eighty-seven feet in length, with points in the form of Gothic arches as cutwaters towards the stream. The first arch on the Middlesex side spans the Embankment. The dry or land arches on the Surrey side amount to forty, thirty-nine of which are semi-circular, sixteen feet in diameter, and one semi-elliptical, over the Belvidere Road, of twenty-six feet diameter. The entire length of the bridge and causeways is 2,426 feet, made up of 1,380 feet for the entire length of the bridge and abutments, 310 feet the length of the approach from the Strand, and 766 feet the length of the causeway on the land arches of the Surrey side.

The first stone of this fine bridge was laid on the 11th of October, 1811, and the foundations of which it was a part were built in coffer-dams formed by three concentric rows of piles. In building these majestic arches such care was taken by the able engineer under whose direction the bridge was built, that on removing the centres none of the arches sank more than an inch and a half; whereas, we are told, those of the celebrated bridge of Neuilly sank in several instances so much as to entirely destroy the original curvature of the arch.

When the allied sovereigns visited this country, in 1814, this bridge was in course of erection. The Emperor Alexander I. of Russia upon several occasions visited the works, and declared it would be the finest work in masonry in the world. It was opened with great pomp upon the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, June 18th, 1817, by the Prince Regent, accompanied by the royal dukes, Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington, and attended by a brilliant staff of officers who were present at the battle of Waterloo. From the centre of the bridge there is a finer view of London on the banks of the Thames than from any other. Looking down the river, and immediately joining the bridge, close to the Embankment, rises the noble front of Somerset House—the finest object of the kind in London, not excepting the new Houses of Parliament, which appear too low. A little further on, looking like a green oasis in the midst of a dark wilderness of warehouses and wharves, lie the pleasant gardens of the Temple. Lower down is the new Blackfriars Bridge, rising behind which, in unrivalled grandeur, are the dome and towers of St. Paul's Cathedral, and below this the Monument, the spires of other City churches, shipping, &c. As a commercial speculation, we believe Waterloo Bridge has proved anything but profitable to the shareholders; but it must be some consolation to them that the works were so judiciously executed as to enable them to remain intact notwithstanding the changes in the bed of the river. A toll of one halfpenny is charged for foot-passengers over the bridge, and twopence for cabs, &c. An agitation has been long going on with the view of bringing about the abolition of the tolls, and at a meeting held in 1873 for the purpose of considering the matter it was stated that during the previous six years 5,000,000 persons annually passed over this bridge, producing an income of above £21,000 per annum, and that since the opening of the bridge the sum of £851,760 had been received by the Company.

In order to form an approach from the Strand to Waterloo Bridge it was found necessary to remove very many interesting remains of ancient architecture—not only those belonging to the Savoy Palace on the west, but also several walls belonging to the palace of the Duke of Somerset, with buttresses and pointed windows with Gothic tracery. All memory of these old buildings has long since perished.


But it is time that we started on our voyage westward, noting on our way a few buildings which we did not describe minutely as we passed along the Strand.

"Next to the Savoy westward," writes the author of "London in the Olden Time," "was the palace of the Bishop of Carlisle, with grounds which extended to the lane running down to the river, called Ivy Bridge. Of the history of this house we know nothing, nor when nor by whom it was built. Aggas in his map represents a house of some extent as standing here, and Hollar gives an elevation of it. But this shared the fate of other Church property at the Reformation, being seized by Henry VIII., and given by him to the lucky courtier from Dorsetshire, John Russell, then Controller of the Royal Household—the ancestor, it need hardly be said here, and the founder of the fortunes of the ducal house of Bedford. Carlisle House was afterwards known as Worcester House." At the bottom of Ivy Bridge Lane was for many years the landing-stage for the "halfpenny" steamboats plying between this place and London Bridge, one of which blew up here in August, 1847.

The Adelphi Terrace, which we pass soon after leaving Waterloo Bridge, at one time formed a conspicuous feature as seen from the river, but is so far removed by the broad Embankment with its garden, and thrown into the shade by the lofty railway station close by, that it may now be passed almost unnoticed. Northouck, in writing of the new Adelphi Buildings, tells us that Mr. Lacy, the joint patentee with Garrick in Drury Lane, formed a plan for improving the whole north bank of the river upon a plan similar to that of the Adelphi Terrace, and that there exists a copperplate engraving of his design, "engraved for private distribution." Of this noble terrace we have spoken in a previous chapter, but we may be pardoned for here adding a short anecdote concerning Garrick, who lived and died in the centre house: we give it on the authority of Mr. Cradock's "Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs." "When Jean Jacques Rousseau was in England, Garrick paid him the compliment of playing two characters on purpose to oblige him; and as it was known that Rousseau would be present, the theatre was of course crowded to excess. Rousseau was highly gratified, but Mrs. Garrick declared that she had never spent a more unpleasant evening in her life, the recluse philosopher being so anxious to display himself, and hanging over the front of the box so much that she was obliged to hold him by the skirt of his coat to prevent him from falling over into the pit. After the performance, however, he paid a very handsome compliment to Garrick by saying, 'I have cried all through your tragedy, and laughed all through your comedy, without being at all able to understand your language.' At the end of the play Rousseau was entertained at supper at Garrick's house in the Adelphi, where many of the first literary characters of the time were invited to meet him."


Of the railway bridge which now crosses the river at this point we have already spoken in our account of the Charing Cross Railway, and a description of its predecessor, old Hungerford Suspension Bridge, will be found on page 132.

As we pass by Hungerford Bridge we can hardly help fancying that we can still see the building called "Hungerford Stairs," well known to the jolly Thames watermen of old, and of interest to English readers as one of the first abodes—we cannot call it home—of Charles Dickens, when a boy of ten. Here, at the blacking warehouse of one "Jonathan Warren, Number 80, Hungerford Stairs"—it is well to be particular—the future "Boz" was engaged, in 1822–4, as a sort of shop-drudge, at six shillings a week. He says, in a sort of autobiographical sketch, published in his "Life," by Mr. John Forster:—

"The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, break-down old house, abutting on the river, of course, and swarming with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, its rotten floors and staircases, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars and coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The countinghouse was on the first floor, looking over the coalbarges and the river. There was in it a recess where I used to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking, first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string, and then to clip the paper close and neat all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots."

Such was the intellectual occupation to which, instead of school, his parents consigned the future novelist, whilst they were living, if not in comfort, at all events in decency, in Bayham Street, Camden Town, and afterwards in Gower Street North. "No words," says Charles Dickens, "can express the agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship, and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in my breast."

At this time, he remembered (as his biographer, Mr. Forster, tells us) to have spent his dinner-hour in playing about on the coal-barges, or strolling about the back streets of the Adelphi, and exploring the recesses of its dark arches, in company with his youthful companions, "Poll" Green and Bob Fagin. One of his favourite localities was the little publichouse, by the waterside, called "The Fox under the Hill," (fn. 2) approached by an underground passage, and outside which, as he tells us in "Copperfield," he remembered having sat "eating something on a bench, and looking at some coal-heavers dancing before the house."

The blacking warehouse at Hungerford Stairs was removed afterwards to the corner of Chandos Street and Bedford Street, Covent Garden, and young Charles Dickens removed thither along with it, as part and parcel of the establishment. He tells us that so thoroughly did he dislike his drudgery there that, after quitting Hungerford, he never went back to look at the place where his servitude had began till old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and that for many a long year he could not bear to pass along Chandos Street, or to smell the cement that was used in the offensive trade.

Here at Hungerford Bridge—or to give it its more common designation at the present time, Charing Cross Bridge—floating swimming-baths are in course of erection. These baths, which are planned on an extensive scale, containing many thousand gallons of filtered water, will be open for bathers of either sex. Experiments have been made which have established beyond all doubt that the Thames water can be easily and effectually filtered. When filtered it is found to contain a very large proportion of sea-water; in fact, we have heard it said that at high tide it is almost entirely sea-water, clear and green, as at Ramsgate or Margate. But this statement we are inclined to question. Less than half a century ago the Thames, without undergoing the process of filtering, was pure enough for the Westminster boys both to row on it and to bathe in it; so that Gray might have addressed to the river under the royal towers of Westminster the noble lines in which he apostrophises it beneath the spires of Eton and Windsor:—
"Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green
The paths of pleasure trace;
Who foremost now delight to cleave
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthral?
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle's speed,
Or urge the flying ball?"

Immediately after passing under Charing Cross Railway Bridge the Houses of Parliament and other edifices connected with Government come full into view. Close by the western side of the railway station, and extending to Scotland Yard, appeared, until their demolition towards the close of the year 1874, the gardens and grounds of Northumberland House, the historic mansion of the Percies, about which we have already spoken in a previous chapter. Now that Northumberland House is demolished, in order to form a broad and open thoroughfare from Charing Cross to the Victoria Embankment, we obtain a partial view of the National Gallery and also of the lofty Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square, with the steeple of St. Martin's Church close at hand; a cluster of buildings which leads us to exclaim, in the words of a modern poet—
"Behold, anent Art's palace, near a church
Of most surpassing beauty, and amid
Statues of kings, a pillar! no research
Need peer it out, for it will not be hid:
Up in the broad day's lustre doth it stand,
A column raised to dear and dazzling fame,
Mantling with pride the bosom of the land,
And stamping glory there with Nelson's name."

Further westward, towering above the cupola of the Horse Guards, and dwarfing everything else around it, stands the York Column—a poor imitation of Trajan's Column—of which we shall have more to say when we shall have extended our perambulation to the neighbourhood of Carlton Gardens. The noble "banqueting house" of Whitehall, too, rears itself proudly on our right above the princely mansions and dwellings of the nobility which partly surround it, and whose gardens and lawns, before the formation of the Embankment, were washed by the "silver streaming" Thames. All traces of the old Palace Stairs and the Privy Stairs of Whitehall which stood about here have long since disappeared; but its memory has been preserved in the pages of history. There the remains of many distinguished personages have been landed preparatory to interment. Those of Queen Elizabeth, of the poet Cowley, and of Lord Nelson, will occur at once to the reader of English history. When Elizabeth died at her palace at Sheen, or Richmond, in 1603, her coffin was brought in a barge with great state down the river to Whitehall, in order to be interred in the Abbey. The same was the case in 1667, with Abraham Cowley, on his death at Chertsey, where he spent the later years of his life, and where his house is still standing. To the latter occasion Pope gracefully alludes in the following lines:—
"There the last numbers flow'd from Cowley's tongue.
Oh! early lost! what tears the river shed
When the sad pomp along his banks was led!
His drooping swans on every note expire,
And on his willows hung each Muse's lyre."

Cowley's funeral is thus mentioned under date July, 1667, by John Evelyn in his Diary:—"Went to Mr. Cowley's funeral, whose corpse lay at Wallingford House, and was thence conveyed to Westminster Abbey in a hearse with six horses and all funeral decency; near a hundred coaches of noblemen and persons of quality following; amongst these all the wits in the town, divers bishops and clergymen. He was interred next Geoffrey Chaucer and near Spenser."

A good story is told, the scene of which must have been not far from Westminster Bridge, of a rising and popular divine, who was being ferried across before the bridge was built, and who was being carried, in spite of the efforts of the waterman, out of his course, either up or down the river. It is epigrammatically told in verse, in the last of which the reverend gentleman observes:—
"With the tide we must swim;"
on which the wit who recounts the story adds, with a waggish humour—
"To St. Paul's or to Lambeth was all one to him."

Still sailing up the stream, we shortly reach our landing-place by the arches of Westminster Bridge. The original structure, the second bridge built in London, was commenced in 1738 and finished in 1750. The Corporation of London had a notion that it would injure the trade of the City; and while the bill for its erection was under discussion in Parliament, they opposed it "tooth and nail." "For many years afterwards," writes Dr. C. Mackay in his "Thames and its Tributaries," with a playful and pardonable exaggeration, "London aldermen thought it a pollution to go over it, and passed it by with as much contempt as a dog would pass by a 'stinking brock.' So highly, however," he adds, "was the bridge esteemed by its proprietors that they procured the admission of a clause into the Act of Parliament by which the punishment of death without benefit of clergy was declared against any one who should wilfully deface and injure it. Dogs also were kept off it with as much rigour as that with which they are now excluded from Kensington Gardens." Of course this is mere badinage.

It cannot be too often impressed upon the reader that whenever mention is made in the writers of the Tudor or Stuart times of "bridges" existing in London, save and excepting London Bridge, they really mean only landing piers. From a very early time the citizens of London appear to have regarded the construction of a second bridge with intense jealousy, and from time to time any and every effort to construct a second one, though at a very remote distance, roused the fiercest opposition: an instance of which is to be found in the debate which occurred in Parliament in 1671 upon a proposal to erect a bridge at Putney, the rejection of the bill being effected by the influence of the Londoners.

The inconvenience which had been occasioned by the great resort of coaches, and other vehicles, passing and repassing at the Westminster side, induced Dr. Potter, Archbishop of Canterbury, and several noblemen, to procure an Act of Parliament in the year 1736, for building a bridge across the river Thames, from New Palace Yard, Westminster, to the opposite shore in the county of Surrey. This act, however, was not obtained without great opposition from the City of London, as well as from Southwark; and some fainter efforts in the same direction were used by the bargemen and watermen of the Thames. But private interest was obliged to give way to public advantage, and preparations were made for carrying on this great undertaking under the sanction of the Legislature. It should be mentioned here that the original design was for a wooden bridge, which idea was set aside after the severe frost of 1739–40, when the Thames was frozen over several weeks, and some of the piers for the wooden bridge were carried away. A stone bridge, from its greater durability, was then decided on, and the funds in aid of the expense were defrayed by public lotteries and Parliamentary grants.

The ballast-men of the Trinity House were employed to open a large hole for the foundation of the first pier, to the depth of five feet under the bed of the river; and this being finished and levelled at the bottom, it was kept clear by a proper inclosure of strong piles. In the meantime a strong caisson was prepared of the form and dimensions of the intended pier in the clear; this was made water-proof, and being brought over the place, was secured within the piles.

In this wooden case the first stone was laid on the 29th of January, 1738–9, by Henry, Earl of Pembroke. The caisson was above the high-water mark, and sinking gradually by the weight of the prodigious blocks of stone, the men could work below the level of the water as conveniently as on dry ground. Thus the middle pier was first formed, as were all the rest in the same manner; and when finished, the sides of the caisson being taken asunder, the stone-work appeared entire. The time occupied in building the bridge was eleven years and nine months; and the total expense, including the repairs of the piers, which sank during the erection, amounted to £389,500. The opening ceremony took place on the 17th of November, 1750.

Till the building of Westminster Bridge the only communication between Lambeth and Westminster was by the ferry-boat near the palace gate, which was the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and granted by patent under a rent of twenty pence. On opening Westminster Bridge, in 1750, it ceased, and £2,205 were given to the see as an equivalent. Previous to that time, there were two considerable inns for the reception of travellers, who, arriving in the evening, did not choose to cross the water at such an hour, or, in case of bad weather, might prefer waiting for better.

On the 13th of November, 1750, the commissioners of the new bridge appointed a number of watchmen to guard it, and ordered thirty-two lamps of a particular size to be fixed on it. The treasurer of the bridge, we are told, "paid the rulers of the Watermen's Company, and the stewards of the chests at Westminster, £2,500, to be laid out in some of the funds secured by Parliament to maintain the poor of the said chests, instead of the money gained by the Sunday ferry for foot-passengers."

Old Westminster Bridge was long considered a triumph of engineering skill. Labelye, the architect, introduced a system of foundations which is stated to have answered very well in numerous cases, but which failed utterly here; namely, in sinking the caissons, as above stated, with the lower courses already built upon them. During the progress of the work some trifling disturbances of the bed of the river gave rise to settlements, which were easily repaired at the time. Upon the enlargement of the tideway, however, in consequence of the removal of Old London Bridge, the scouring action of the river soon carried away the substratum of several of the piers of the bridge; and, finally, after much discussion, many years' repair, great and constant expense, and occasional interruption of the carriage traffic, its demolition became a matter of necessity.

The old bridge was built of Portland stone; it was 1,223 feet in length by 44 feet in width, and there were thirteen large and two small semi-circular arches, springing about two feet above low-water mark. The centre arch was 76 feet span, the others decreasing on each side by regular intervals of 4 feet each, excepting the small arches, which were 25 feet span each. The parapet on each side was surmounted by an open balustrade. Between each arch was a semi-octagonal recess or turret, which afforded a covered shelter for foot-passengers. Owing to the sinking of the piers, however, and the generally unsafe condition of the bridge, these turrets were removed some years before the total demolition of the bridge, and some of them have been re-erected in Victoria Park, where they serve as alcoves. With regard to these turrets, Labelye, the architect, says they were not only built for their evident accommodation of passengers, desiring or obliged to stop without interfering with the roadway, or for the relief they afforded to the eye in breaking so long a line, but for the additional security they gave to the bridge, by strengthening the parts between the arches, and thereby affording so much more weight to repel the lateral pressure. Maitland, however, mentions a more serious purpose to which these recesses might have been put; he says "they might have served for places of ambush for robbers and cut-throats," but for the establishment of a guard of twelve watchmen specially appointed for the security of the passage during the night. The writer of the account of Westminster, in the "Beauties of England and Wales," mentions a peculiarity which these recesses possessed, somewhat analogous to the whispering gallery in St. Paul's Cathedral. He says, "So just are their proportions, and so complete and uniform their symmetry, that, if a person whispers against the wall on the one side of the way, he may be plainly heard on the opposite side; and parties may converse without being prevented by the interruption of the street or the noise of carriages."

The new bridge at Westminster, which occupies the place of the old one, but which is almost double the width, is a very handsome structure built chiefly of iron. It was commenced in 1855 by Mr. Page, and completed in 1862, the latter part of the work having been carried out under the direction of the late Sir Charles Barry, the well-known architect. The present bridge was constructed in two portions, the first half being erected at the western side of the original structure, and opened for traffic, after which the demolition of the old bridge was proceeded with; the remaining half—occupying the exact site of the old bridge—was added on the eastern side of the new structure. The bridge is 1,160 feet long by 85 feet wide, and is at once graceful and massive; it consists of seven arches (the centre one having a span of 120 feet), resting on granite piers, the parapet and ornamental portions having been designed to accord with the adjacent Houses of Parliament. The roadway is 53 feet wide, and the footways 15 feet; the former is divided into going and coming roads, and has tramways, or grooves, for the wheels of heavy vehicles. The cost of construction of the present bridge was £206,000.

It is well known that in 1688 the bed of the Thames between Westminster and Lambeth was made the depository of the Great Seal of England by James II. "He obtained possession of it," says Mr. Jesse, in his "London," "on the night of his flight from Whitehall, and purposely let it fall into the water as he passed across the river." Mr. Jesse adds that not long afterwards the seal was recovered by a fisherman and restored to the Government.

The following beautiful sonnet, composed by William Wordsworth in 1803, gives us a lifelike picture of London as seen from the river at Westminster at sunrise on a summer morning:—
"Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie,
Open unto the fields and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I—never felt—a calm so deep.
The river glideth at its own sweet will.
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep,
And all that mighty heart is lying still."


  • 1. See Vol. i, p. 442.
  • 2. See above, page 101.