The River Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire in the west of England to where it meets the North Sea in the east, has supported human activity for millennia.
Aerofilms Ltd, the world’s first commercial aerial photography company, has created a unique record of the River Thames. Photographs were taken between 1920 and 1954, documenting a period of great change imposed on the landscape and one punctuated by the consequences of the Second World War.
Lechalde lies near where the Rivers Leach and Thames meet, at the highest navigable point of the Thames for larger vessels. The town’s first bridge was built around 1228 and was only the second stone bridge built over the River Thames (the first being London Bridge).
The site also marked the point where the counties of Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire met. Being a trading rather than a manufacturing town, the river was the source of much of Lechlade’s prosperity, used to transport cheese, corn and quarried stone to London.
Folly Bridge and environs, Grandpont, Oxford
The straight road running from top to bottom of this Aerofilms photograph is St. Aldate’s and Abingdon Road. The historic street of St. Aldate’s gave access from Oxford’s south gate to the city’s centre.
Where the road crosses the River Thames is Folly Bridge, built on the site of an early river crossing used in Saxon times and bridged by the Normans in the late 11th century.
Dyke Hills, Little Wittenham Wood and Castle Hill (Sinodun Hill Camp), Oxfordshire
Situated between the Rivers Thames and Thame, the settlement of Dorchester was a Roman town, the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and a cathedral city. Evidence of earlier settlement can be seen in this Aerofilms photograph that looks south beyond the edge of modern Dorchester.
Running across the photograph is Dyke Hills, the earthwork remains of an Iron Age settlement comprising a double bank and ditch that stretches between the two rivers. On the other side of the river, on the hilltop overlooking the Thames, is Castle Hill or Sinodun Hill Camp, another Iron Age settlement bounded by a bank and ditch.
Henley Royal Regatta, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
The first Henley Regatta took place in 1839 and was given royal patronage in 1851. The races for amateur rowers became so popular that the event grew from a one-day regatta to cover five days of competition.
For many years, spectators could watch the races from the river. Small pleasure craft lined the finishing straight several boats deep, and moored houseboats were used as floating stands at the river bank.
Marlow Lock and Lock Island, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Marlow served as a port for locally grown and traded products, including wood, corn, malt and flour. Mills have been located here since Domesday. However, the use of weirs and sluices often conflicted with the ease of river traffic.
A pound lock replaced the more dangerous race lock in 1773, and in 1825, a new stone lock and lock-keeper’s house were built. The lock was again replaced in 1927 by the one shown in this photograph. Marlow became a fashionable boating and fishing resort, with the private Lock Island offering sanctuary to leisured river users.
Windsor Castle, Windsor and Maidenhead
Described as ‘the most romantic castle in the world’, Windsor Castle is the oldest inhabited royal residence and the largest castle in England. It was first built by William the Conqueror on a chalk cliff overlooking the River Thames.
Many monarchs subsequently improved and extended the site, adding walls, gatehouses, and domestic and ceremonial buildings. The First World War led to the royal family giving up its German names, replacing them with ‘Windsor’.
Hurst Park Racecourse, Hurst Park, Surrey
In the early 18th century, Hurst Park became a sports and leisure resort for Londoners. Visitors could enjoy archery, boxing, cricket, golf, cock fighting, and horse racing.
It was also a favoured spot for duels. A new race course was laid out in the 1890s, which included the erection of an unpopular fence that acted as a barrier between the course and the river. The grandstand was subject to a women’s suffrage arson attack in 1913, and the last race was held in 1962. The site was redeveloped for housing.
Hampton Court was the home of one of England’s richest and most powerful men, Thomas Wolsey. He was the chief advisor to Henry VIII and Archbishop of York.
Wolsey acquired the house in 1514 and turned it into one of the country’s greatest. Henry later took Hampton Court as a royal palace, which it continued to be until 1737. The most dramatic alterations occurred during the reign of William III and Mary II when Sir Christopher Wren and William Talman rebuilt the south and east fronts, transforming the Tudor house into a grand Baroque palace.
The Guildhall, Kingston Upon Thames, Greater London
Seven Saxon kings were crowned at Kingston, a town situated on the border of the ancient kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.
The Guildhall was begun in 1934 and completed the following year, not long after this Aerofilms photograph was taken. Designed by the architect Maurice Webb, pictorial representations of the River Thames were included in its decorative details, and the legendary Coronation Stone of the Saxon kings now stands on the grounds.
Kingston has been a centre for pleasure boating for many years, and this view gives a glimpse of the Thames with several small sailing boats and a pair of packed pleasure cruisers passing a floating bathing platform.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond Upon Thames, Greater London
The Royal Botanic Gardens, better known as Kew Gardens, is a World Heritage Site. The journalist and author Philip Howard described the Gardens as ‘the most exotic and improbable landscape along the whole course of the Thames’.
The Gardens are home to tens of thousands of plant types from all over the world, a collection of millions of dried specimens and a comprehensive reference library. At the bottom of this Aerofilms photograph is the Palm House, one of the most significant surviving iron and glass buildings of the Victorian period.
Craven Cottage Football Ground, Fulham, Greater London
Craven Cottage is the home of Fulham Football Club. With its mass of terracing and grandstand, it sits compactly between the River Thames, streets of terraced housing, a concrete works, and allotment plots in Bishops Park.
Fulham, along with neighbouring Hammersmith, was once described as ‘the great fruit and kitchen garden north of the Thames’. The transformation from ‘kitchen garden’ to urban landscape was nearly complete by the end of the 19th century.
The Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea Park, Wandsworth, Greater London
Battersea Park opened to the public in 1854. As part of the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations, an area of the park next to the Thames was requisitioned to form the Festival Pleasure Gardens.
The intention was for the Gardens to be temporary, lasting for only one year. However, the popularity of the funfair meant that it remained until 1974. While open to the public, not all of the planned attractions had been fully built when Aerofilms took this photograph in the spring of 1951.
Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth, Greater London
Battersea Power Station is one of the most recognisable landmarks of the River Thames. However, this Aerofilms photograph shows only half of the power station building that we are more familiar with today.
The first part, the ‘A Station’, was built between 1929 and 1935 and was the largest in Europe. The second part, almost a mirror image of the first, was begun in 1937 but not completed until 1956, when its fourth massive chimney was erected.
When finished, it generated almost one-fifth of London’s electricity.
The Tate Gallery, Westminster, Greater London
The Tate Gallery was the first purpose-built gallery in the country devoted to the display of British art. Known as the National Gallery of British Art, it was officially opened by the Prince of Wales on 21 January 1897.
The gallery was built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary, a vast prison that could house over one thousand prisoners and had closed in 1890. The sugar refiner Sir Henry Tate funded the new gallery’s construction. The proposed new gallery was known as the Tate Gallery even before it was built.
Surrey Commercial Docks and environs, Rotherhithe, Southwark, Greater London
The word ‘hithe’ means a haven or landing place on a river. Surrey Commercial Docks, a large group of docks built on marshland at Rotherhithe, originated when a wet dock was built in 1696. Others followed, named after the origin of their cargoes, including Greenland, Canada, Norway and Russia Docks.
An obvious target during the Second World War, a raid on 7 September 1940 set fire to over a million tonnes of timber, creating one of the most intense fires of the Blitz. Decline set in after the war, and the docks closed in 1969. The majority were filled as the area was redeveloped for housing and leisure and renamed Surrey Quays.
East India Dock, Blackwall, Tower Hamlets, Greater London
The congestion on the River Thames in London at the end of the 18th century prompted the construction of new docks. East India Dock opened in 1806 and could house some of the East India Company’s largest ships.
The effects of Second World War bombing can be seen in this photograph. Buildings at the dock have been damaged, and beyond the dock boundary, there are gaps in the terraced streets and cleared patches of land, some of which has been filled with replacement housing. During the war, East India Dock was used to build the floating Mulberry harbour that was used during the invasion of Europe in June 1944.
Ford Motor Vehicle Factory, Dagenham, Greater London
The European demand for Ford motor cars led to the creation of a large factory at Dagenham. London County Council rehousing in the village of Dagenham helped to provide a local workforce for the new factory.
A marshland site on the banks of the Thames was bought in 1924, and work began in 1929. A wharf took deliveries of raw materials, including iron ore, coal and limestone, for processing at the factory’s own foundry.
Royal Albert Dock and King George V Dock, North Woolwich, Newham, Greater London
Royal Albert Dock, seen here in the foreground, was built in 1880 to handle new, large iron and steam vessels replacing sailing ships. Parallel to the Royal Albert Dock is the King George V Dock, which opened in 1921. Together with the nearby Victoria Dock, these three Royal Docks formed the largest area of impounded dock water in the world.
The sheds lining the Royal Albert Dock were designed to handle frozen and chilled meat sent to Smithfield Market. They closed to commercial traffic in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, the area between the Royal Albert and King George V Docks was being transformed into the runway and terminal for the new London City Airport.
Flooding at the Thames Ammunition Works, Crayford Ness, Bexley, Greater London
The night of 31 January and 1 February 1953 saw a massive storm surge that caused death and destruction along the east coast of England. Sites along the River Thames were also affected.
One that Aerofilms recorded was the Thames Ammunition Works. It was established in the 1870s on marshland between the Rivers Thames and Darent. Although protected by embankments, the flood waters submerged much of the site. Operating during the First and Second World Wars, the factory eventually closed in the 1960s.
RMS Strathaird in dock, Tilbury Docks, Thurrock
As the size of ships increased, it became more difficult for them to access the docks closer to the centre of London. Tilbury Docks opened in 1896, some 26 miles (42 kilometres) from London Bridge.
In 1930, a new landing stage was added to make Tilbury the centre of London’s ocean passenger ship traffic. Liners could dock at any tide state, with passengers having a direct rail link to St Pancras station in the capital’s centre.
The Pier, Southend-on-Sea, Essex
Our journey along the River Thames concludes at Southend, a seaside resort on the north side of the Thames Estuary. Its pier is famously the longest pleasure pier in the world.
Its length of 1.34 miles (2.16 kilometres) was necessary because of the mud flats that prevented large steamboats from landing passengers closer to the shore at low tide. The pier’s significance to the town was noted by the poet, writer, broadcaster and President of the National Piers Society, Sir John Betjeman, who declared: ‘The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier’.