THE THAMES AS A NATIONAL TRUST
A movement is on foot among various societies interested in the preservation of outdoor England to take measures jointly for the protection of the beauties of the Thames. The subject is one which attracts more interest yearly, and the time has now come when the nation should make up its mind on the subject of such splendid properties as it possesses in "real estate" like the Thames and the New Forest, with especial regard to their value for beauty and enjoyment. It would be unfair to expect too much from the Thames Conservancy in this direction. That body exists to maintain the navigation of the river, and to see that no impediments are put in the way of its use as a waterway. Its duties are, in the first instance, those of a Highway Board, which deals with a river instead of a road. It has to buoy wrecks, and see that they are raised. It controls the speed of steamers and launches, not, in the first place, because they are a nuisance to pleasure boats, but because the "wash" destroys the banks, and this costs money to repair. It arranges for the dredging of shallows in the fairway, for the embankment of the shores, and for the repair and maintenance of the locks. Its business is to do this as cheaply as is consistent with efficiency, and to lay no unavoidable burden on the trade of the river. The preservation of its amenities is not, strictly speaking, the object for which the Conservancy exists. Yet it has done much in this direction, by obtaining from time to time powers not originally in its jurisdiction. It may be said to be on its way to become a guardian of the amenities of the river, though these, which are fast becoming far more important than its use as a means of traffic, were at first only accidentally objects of solicitude to the Conservators, and such attention as is by them devoted to this end is mainly confined to the Upper Thames, and not to the London river. Legislation to preserve natural beauty, or prevent disfigurement, has practically only been possible in recent years, and the wish to do so, though shared by most classes, is not yet so pronounced as it ought to be. What the Conservancy has been able to do, under these circumstances, has been done, partly on grounds of health, which are recognised in Legislation, and partly to preserve the fishery. It has endeavoured to keep the river from the most disgusting forms of pollution, and lately from being made the receptacle for minor but objectionable refuse. It has certainly prevented the Upper Thames being made into a sewer, and also stopped pollution by paper mills and factories. London's need of pure drinking water has given immense assistance to the forces which were working to keep our rivers clean. All the tributaries of the Thames are now under surveillance, and no village or little country town may use them to pour sewage into. Country villagers may grumble at being forced to keep water clean for Londoners to drink. But this Act has done more to preserve the amenities of the countryside than any other of this generation. It is so far-reaching, and so frankly expresses the principle of placing public rights in the "natural commodity" of pure water in our rivers before private convenience in saving expense, that it is a hopeful sign of the times. While the existence of this extensive control is a guarantee for the increasing pureness of the Upper Thames, it is also a precedent for regulating and increasing the supervision of this national property in the most beautiful, the largest, and the most pleasant highway in our country, whose very pavement is a means of delight to the eye, of pleasure to the touch, and of refreshment to all the senses. The minor regulations for its maintenance are still more encouraging, for some of these aim directly at preserving beauty, or objects of natural interest, for their own sake. The oldest are those which protect the fishery. There is one close-time for the coarse fish, another for the trout, and a limit of size to the meshes of the nets which may be used. Such minor disfigurements as the throwing of ashes from steam-launches into the water or of kitchen debris from houseboats are forbidden. Recently the Conservators have taken powers more frankly directed to the preservation of natural beauty, though even in these cases what may be called direct "taste legislation" has not been exercised. They have not asked for leave to say definitely: "This or that object is hideous or disfiguring, and cannot be allowed by the side of our national highway." But they have said, "This or that object which grows on or lives by the side of our river-road is beautiful, and gives pleasure to the public, and therefore it shall not be destroyed." The result has been that the birds on the river and its banks may no longer be shot, and certain flowers are not permitted to be plucked. The Conservancy is also able indirectly to exercise some control over riverside building operations, and very recently compelled an alteration of design in the use of a building site on a reach of the Upper Thames.
It may be asked why, if so much has already been done, we should not rest contented with the present control of the river, trusting that a gradual increase of powers will be granted to the Conservancy, so that little by little they may be able to meet all requirements for the preservation of the Thames as our national river, just as the New Forest is preserved on the grounds that it was "of unique beauty and historic interest."