THE LONDON THAMES AS A WATERWAY
Mary Boyle, in "Her Book," speaking of the time when her father had an appointment at the Navy Board and a residence in Somerset House, says, "It was our great delight to go by water on Sunday afternoon to Westminster Abbey, and there is no doubt we occasionally cut a grand figure on the river; for when my father went out he had a splendid barge, rowed by boatmen clad entirely in scarlet, with black jockey caps, such as in those picturesque old days formed part of that beautiful river procession in honour of the Lord Mayor, on the 9th of November, over the disappearance of which pageant I have often mourned."
It was not until the early days of the present reign that neglect and dirt spoiled our river as an almost Royal waterway; and we believe that as late as the days of Archbishop Tait the Primate's State barge used to convey him from Lambeth Palace to the House of Lords opposite. State barges and river processions were the standing examples of State pageantry, thoroughly popular and remembered by the intensely conservative people of London; and it is a tribute to the feeling that the use of the river was a necessary part of London life, that the Lord Mayor and his suite on the 9th of November used to take boat at Blackfriars Bridge, and went thence by water to Westminster Hall, returning in their State barges to the bridge, where their coaches were waiting for them. We may credit the founders of the earliest illustrated paper with a knowledge of the popular sentiment of the day. When the Illustrated London News was established the title-page of that paper showed the Thames, with the procession of State barges in the foreground, and the then new and popular river steamers passing by them.
In addition to cleanliness something in the form of a restoration of old conditions of water-level and other improvements by modern engineering will also be required if the river is to become a popular waterway. Among the main drawbacks to its present use is the great difference in level between high and low water. The old London Bridge, with its multiplied arches and pillars, acted as a lock. It admitted the flood tide more easily than it released the ebb. The consequence was that when the tide began to fall the waters above were pent in by the bridge, and the river was kept at a level of three feet higher than it was below the obstruction. Even now at flood tide it is a splendid and imposing river. But the very improvements which add to its dignity when the tide is flowing, have caused it to remain almost waterless for a longer period during each day. The dredging and deepening of the channel forces the waterway to contract its flow, while the embanking of its sides enables the tide to slip down at great speed. For four hours in each tide the Thames is not so much a river as a half-empty conduit. It is not in the least probable that this will be allowed to continue. The success of the half-tide lock at Richmond has been beyond all expectation. It has secured a perpetual river, whether on the ebb or flow, with a mean level suited for boating and traffic at all hours. A scheme for another lock of the same kind at Wandsworth is now accepted in principle and nearly completed in detail. When this is built the long stretch of river from Wandsworth, past Putney, Ranelagh, Hammersmith, Barnes, and Kew, will retain a permanent and constant supply, augmented at the flood tide, but never falling below a certain level at the ebb. Then must follow the final and complete measure for making the London river the greatest natural amenity in the Metropolis, a half-tide lock at London Bridge, to hold up the water opposite the historic and magnificent frontage of St. Paul's, the Temple, Westminster and Lambeth, and upwards to above the embankments at Chelsea. The result would be an immense fresh-water lake, with an ebb and flow to keep it sweet and pure, but remaining for the greater part of the twenty-four hours at a fixed level, and during this period of rest only moved by a very gentle downward stream, or else practically still when the water sank level with the sills of the lock. This would make it not only easy for boats propelled by steam, sail, or oars to move on it at all hours, without hindrance from the present strong up or down currents, but also absolutely safe. Any craft, from the outrigger and Canada canoe, to the improved river steamers which would at once be launched upon its waters, could float with ease and safety on the London Thames.