If you’re following the route of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant today, here’s a handful of boaty Thames facts to impress your friends with:
Battersea park is built from mud and ballast
Brainchild of ship’s carpenter turned master builder Thomas Cubitt, Battersea park opened in 1854. The marshy land was reclaimed by filling it with 750,000 tons of silt and mud excavated from the Surrey Docks. The park’s walls include ship ballast stones salvaged from the river at Greenwich. Sailing ships in the early nineteenth century dropped these stones in the Thames before travelling upriver to unload their cargoes in the Port of London.
Wordsworth saw ships everywhere
Wordsworth’s 1802 sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge describes the view from the Thames at the time: ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky’.
A Roman ship was found under the Sea Life Aquarium
The remains of a rounded-bottom Roman vessel, thought to be a 60-ton merchant ship from 300AD, were excavated during the development of the County Hall building in 1910. Made of oak, the fragment was 12m long; the full vessel would have been around 20m. A stone found embedded within the ship’s planks is thought to have been propelled at it by catapult.
The County Hall Roman Ship.
Nelson was buried in an enemy ship’s mast
After his death on HMS Victory at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Nelson’s body was placed in a cask filled with brandy – later replaced by spirits of wine. On arrival in England a surgeon removed the musket ball from the body and, after a spell in a brandy-filled lead coffin, Nelson was finally placed in his final coffin, which was made from the mast of a French ship sunk at the Battle of the Nile. This, in turn, was placed within two other coffins – one made of lead, another of wood.
Nelson lay in state in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital for three days and was visited by almost 100,000 people. On 8 January 1806 the coffin was taken upriver by the King’s Barge, followed by two miles of boats. He was buried in the centre of St Paul’s Crypt.
Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames (National Maritime Museum)
Shakespeare’s Globe is built like a ship
The theatre’s distinctive curved oak timbers are sourced from the same Surrey forest that supplied the Navy’s medieval dockyards with oak frame supports for ship hulls.
Shakespeare’s Globe under construction
The Tooley Street fire led to the establishment of the London Fire Brigade
In June 1861 a warehouse full of jute caught fire on the south bank of the Thames. The worst peace-time fire in the city, the Tooley Street fire spread to other warehouses, wharves and ships and caused more than £2m damage. It was two weeks before the fire was completely extinguished.
Before the fire, the London Fire Engine Establishment was run by insurance companies. Afterwards, they put their premiums up and forced the government to take control. The 1865 Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act created a publicly-funded London fire brigade.
The Tooley Street fire (National Maritime Museum)
Tower Bridge operators used semaphore
Formally opened in June 1894, Tower Bridge was designed so tall ships could pass through to London’s busy upper pool port. It took eight years to build and cost approximately £1m. Each time the bridge’s arms are raised a total weight of 2400 tons must be moved – in just 1-2 minutes. The bridge operators communicated with ships and traffic via semaphore or signal lights, gongs and steam whistles.
Tower Bridge with Jubilee lighting
The Design Museum reeks of bananas
The current site of the Design Museum was once a banana warehouse. As a boy, Museum founder Sir Terence Conran visited the docks on the site with his father (a dealer in gum copal resin) to watch freighters from Africa unload their cargoes.
Bananas unloading at Butler’s Wharf (English Heritage)