The Thames from Oxford to Windsor - shaping history through the centuries
8 November 2022
The impact of the river Thames on the people living in the area was the subject of an illustrated
presentation by the society's chairman, Peter Halman.
Peter began at Day's Lock, site of one of the earliest locks to be built on the river. This is a historic area,
for a short walk away is Dorchester, where the river Thame joins the river Thames, and there are ancient
earthworks nearby. At one time, Dorchester was a stronghold for Christianity, as in Saxon times there had
been a cathedral there, and later the Abbey was built. The Abbey church survived the dissolution, and has
a plain beauty of its own, which survived the plans of the Victorians who wanted to improve it -
fortunately they ran out of money! The Benedictine monk, Birinus, was at the Great Council between the
Saxon King Cynegils and the Northumbrian King Oswald, following which Cynegils made Birinus
Bishop of Dorchester. He was later made St Birinus, and a shrine survives in the Abbey. Peter added that
the adjacent Abbey Guest House offers delicious cream teas!
There were, however, settlements in the area long before the 7th century, aerial photographs showing that
there had been Bronze Age and Iron Age round houses. The task of a Celtic chieftain was to look after the
needs of the people he led, so a settlement needed to be a defensible site, safe from flooding, and able to
provide food, water, pasture and raw materials such as timber, clay and materials for smelting the metals.
Between the Abbey and Day's Lock are the Dyke Hills - an Iron Age double row earthwork that could be
breached if needed to create a defendable island. In the 19th century, when the local landowner wanted to
flatten them, the public uproar ensured their survival.
At 215 miles from source to the sea, the Thames is small compared to rivers such as the Amazon, the Nile, or the great American rivers, but as the MP John Burns said "the St Lawrence is crystal water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history". It was the Romans who named it the
Thames, and it has influenced people's lives for generations. It has formed a political and social boundary since the 9th century, when Alfred the Great was King. The Vikings had invaded East Anglia, and moved
westwards to Reading, where Alfred defeated them. Subsequent negotiations established the area of Dane
Law, controlled by Vikings, and the areas of Mercia and of Wessex - and the boundary between these was
the Thames. It was a good boundary, but difficult to cross - fords (as recalled at Oxford, Wallingford or
Twyford) could be hazardous. The Romans built a lot of bridges, but the early medieval timber bridges
could be rickety and swept away by the water. Many of the sites, however, were later used for stone
bridges, such as that at Shillingford. The river could also form a social barrier - Shiplake seems a long
way from Wargrave, apart from Regatta time, whilst in London, even with its many bridges and tunnels,
there is a psychological difference between being north or south of the Thames.
Peter then looked at the town of Abingdon, where an island in the river made bridging the river an easier
task, the first being built in 1416. In the town centre the County Hall, dating from about 1670, still stands,
where the assizes were regularly held in the upper room for many years, whilst the market still takes place
below. Abingdon Abbey was one of the richest in England until the dissolution in 1538. It then belonged
to the king, until he lost it to Parliamentarians during the Civil War. In the 18th century, transport to the
south west was made easier by the construction of the Wilts and Berks Canal, which joined the Thames at
Further downstream, at Wallingford a 900ft long 19 arch stone bridge takes the road over the Thames.
This has long been a favourite crossing point, Julius Caesar being known to have crossed here, whilst
1,000 years later when William I found it difficult to cross the Thames at London he moved west to do so
here, whilst this location meant that Wallingford became an important fortified Saxon town.Much further
down is Marlow, where there had been a bridge since 1300. The current bridge dates from 1830, and was
a prototype for the larger similar one that links Buda with Pest in Hungary - Marlow being 'bridged with
Budapest' according to a bronze plaque on the bridge, rather than the more common 'twinned'.
Oxford is another location where an island helped, where Folly Bridge crosses the river. There was an
important transfer station here, as the larger barges could not get any further upstream, and so it was
known as 'head of the river' - the public house of that name alongside being popular with members of the
rowing community. At Sonning, an earlier timber bridge was replaced by a brick one in 1775, and a
channel across the bend in the river powers the mill there. A few years later, the first bridge was built
from Whitchurch to Pangbourne. The present wrought iron bridge constructed by the Cleveland Bridge
Co is the third on the site, and one of only two toll bridges on the non-tidal Thames. The toll board
records that the charge used to be 2d per wheel - a boy working there concluded that the charge for a
motor car should be 10p - motorists having to also pay for the spare wheel (a decision upheld by the
court)! Further east, Windsor was of course another important river crossing.
Another important aspect of the river was food supply. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record a variety of crops being grown and livestock kept, close to the river. For several centuries, salmon could be found in
the river until over fishing and downstream pollution caused their demise. Eels were an important food source as well, caught in their millions in wicker baskets known as eel traps set into the flow of the river
in autumn each year as the eels set off to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Swans were also a
delicacy at banquets, the marking of cygnets to indicate their ownership being the 5-week swan-upping
each year (done whilst the swans are moulting, so easier to deal with)
The river provided places for people to live - including in houseboats, some of which were large and ornate. There were also opportunities for employment - from rush cutters to watermen, or in maintaining the structures along the river. The spectacle of workmen in diving suits circa 1900 ready to examine the foundations of Henley Bridge had attracted many gongoozlers!
There would also be travelling entertainers - strolling players who visited the riverside villages. Pollarding willows enabled the production of osiers for basket making, and of course there was also boatbuilding and
there were many mills. A mill had been recorded at Mapledurham in the Domesday survey of 1086, and the present mill, dating from about 1400, is still working (although one of its water wheels has been replaced by a hydro-electric generator. With the old flash locks, boats wishing to pass the weir at a mill would have to pay a toll, and wait until the miller was ready. Going upstream it would be hauled past the weir by a capstan - one survives at Hurley - and downstream would rush through the gap between the weir paddles - a hazardous process. It was not unusual for boats to have to wait 2 or 3 days for the miller to allow them through, which gave rise to difficulties between the bargemen and the millers - and argy-bargy. The development of the pound locks, as now used, alleviated this problem.
One of the major uses of the Thames was for transport. It was the most efficient method in the 18th
century, a survey showing that a single pack horse could move ⅛ ton of goods; pulling a stage wagon they could move ¾ ton, on a smooth road 2 tons, on an iron rail 8 tons, but on a river 30 tons and on a
canal, (without the 'flow') 50 tons. It was therefore natural that a great investment in
canals ensued - with long flights of locks to get the canal over a hill. At that time, 90% of Reading's trade was carried by water and this would include materials such as coal being brought up-river, and produce taken down to London - as well as barges full of hay to meet the needs of the horses
then plying the streets there. Not only were goods carried, but Salter's steamers
provided a passenger service down as far as Kingston.
River transport fell into a deep decline with the coming of the railway. At Maidenhead, Brunel's Great
Western Railway crossed the river by means of two 128ft wide brick arches - still the largest and flattest
brick arches in the world. The parallel road crossed on what was still a toll bridge until 1903 - by then the
stage coach traffic having also succumbed to the railway competition.
The railway also created opportunities for people to reach the Thames for leisure and social activities.
This was the era of houseboats moored along the river bank, where parties might be held, whilst regattas,
such as the pre-eminent event at Henley with its straight mile course, would bring many spectators as well
as competitors to the river. In the winter, if the river froze over, ice yachting and similar activities were
The Thames also has its place in literature - from Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) who having had a
picnic by the riverbank with Alice wrote of her adventures, or Jerome K Jerome writing of Three Men in a
Boat (intended to be a serious account, but his editor altered it to have more light-hearted content), or The
Wind in the Willows - for as Ratty said to Mole, "there is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth
doing as simply messing about in boats".