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Interesting Facts About the River Thames

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Alternative Names

  • Old Father Thames
  • River Isis (traditionally used for the river in Oxford)

The River Thames is perhaps best known as the river that flows through London and indeed perhaps some of the most iconic images of the river are in London. It laps at the ancient walls of the Tower of London, flows past the Palace of Westminster and is spanned by Tower Bridge. Many people are aware that the river runs through Oxford and Windsor. However, there are a great many more interesting facts to learn about England's (not the UK's!) longest river.

The River Thames starts its cross-country journey at its source at Thames Head in Gloucestershire and spills out into the Thames Estuary at Southend-on-Sea.

River Thames vs. Mississippi River

John Burns made his "liquid history" remark when he defended the river after an American belittled it, finding it far inferior to the Mississippi. Burns replied that "The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history".

World War Two

A Heinkel He 111 bomber over London on 7 September 1940, the loop in the Thames visible.  The docks at the Isle of Dogs and Wapping are probably its target.

A Heinkel He 111 bomber over London on 7 September 1940, the loop in the Thames visible. The docks at the Isle of Dogs and Wapping are probably its target.


In 1929, John Burns, the London born radical politician and keen historian, brilliantly described the Thames as "liquid history" (see right). Julius Caesar was held up by the river in 54BC, the Magna Carta was signed on its banks and Vikings, pirates, the Dutch navy and the Luftwaffe have all used the Thames to navigate their way into London and threaten the country.

Here are some historical highlights on the Thames.

  • In the ninth century Danish Vikings rowed up the Thames and sacked the wealthy Chertsey Abbey.
  • The Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215 on an island in the Thames near Runnymede.
  • In 1607 London held its first Frost Fair when the Thames froze over.
  • The Dutch navy entered the Thames during the Battle of Chatham in 1667, the worst defeat suffered by the Royal Navy.
  • An unusually hot summer in 1858 caused "The Great Stink"; the Thames was choked with sewage and in the hot weather this caused an unbearable smell. The stench was so great that Parliament considered moving upstream to Hampton Court.
  • The Luftwaffe used the distinctive shape of the Thames to find their London targets in the Blitz; many of the docks are around the great "U" bend in East London.
  • In 2012 the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations included a river pageant on the Thames (see video below).

The Tower of London

Traitors' Gate was installed at the Tower of London by Edward I. Prisoners were rowed up the Thames by barge, often passing beneath London Bridge upon which they would be able to see the heads of executed traitors. The barge would pass through Traitors' Gate and the prisoner would be given over to the custody of the Constable of the Tower. Some, like Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, would never leave. Others, like Anne Boleyn's daughter, Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, were more fortunate.


The River Thames, Runnymede; site of the signing of the Magna Carta.

The River Thames, Runnymede; site of the signing of the Magna Carta.

Facts and Figures

  • The river is 215 miles long.
  • It has a rise and fall in tide of 7 metres (23 ft).
  • It has over 80 islands.
  • Five police forces police the river.
  • There are four lifeboat stations on the river.
  • There are more than 200 hundred bridges across the whole length of the river (not just in London).
  • There are six ferry crossings.
  • There are more than 20 tunnels.
  • The Thames has just one ford.
  • There is one cable car crossing (the Emirates Air Line in East London).


The Thames played a very visible role in the 2012 London Olympics. The Olympic Torch was carried by boat along a stretch of the river in Central London, whilst there were a few events taking place either on the river or nearby. However, sport has long been carried out on the Thames.

  • There are approximately 37 major rowing clubs along the river, plus more than a dozen university clubs.
  • The Boat Race, an annual event between the boat clubs of Oxford University and Cambridge University, began in 1829 (though only annual since 1856 and no races during WW1 or WW2). The course runs from Putney to Mortlake.
  • Henley Royal Regatta has been taking place at Henley-on-Thames since 1839. It is held for five days, to include the first weekend in July.
  • A Thames meander is a sporting challenge that involved swimming, running and used propelled craft to complete a long-distance journey covering all or part of the distance of the river.

Radcot Bridge

Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire is believed to be the oldest bridge crossing the River Thames.

Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire is believed to be the oldest bridge crossing the River Thames.

Bridges and Tunnels

A few of the bridges along the River Thames are instantly recognisable. Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge are perhaps two of the most iconic, whilst London Bridge is one of the most celebrated. The majority of the bridges date from the Victorian age but outside of London there are far older structures.

  • The oldest bridge is probably Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, dating from the 13th Century.
  • The Thames Tunnel is the world's first underwater tunnel. It was built in 1843 and is still in use today.
  • The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is the last bridge before the North Sea.
  • The Reading Festival Bridge is a footbridge only erected during the annual Festival.
  • Duxford Ford is the only remaining ford in the Thames.
Westminster Bridge in 1746 during Lord Mayor's Day.  There is still a Lord Mayor's Parade each year, but it takes place on land.

Westminster Bridge in 1746 during Lord Mayor's Day. There is still a Lord Mayor's Parade each year, but it takes place on land.

Jubilee Pageant


Earlier this year the Thames was centre stage in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. An armada of boats took to the water and there was music, singing and fireworks. This wasn't the first royal pageant on the Thames; royalty has used the Thames for celebrations for centuries. The river has also inspired poets, writers, painters and composers for centuries.

  • Handel's Water Music was first performed on George I's barge on 17 July 1717.
  • Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to the Prospect of Whitby pub on the banks of the Thames and featured the river in his book Our Mutual Friend.
  • Jerome K Jerome's classic book Three Men in a Boat describes a boating holiday on the Thames.
  • Grace Fields recorded Old Father Thames in 1930.
  • The Queen's Silver Jubilee was celebrated on the Thames in uproarious style by the Sex Pistols whose performance was interrupted by the Police.
  • Tudor poet Edmund Spenser mentions the river in his poem Prothalamion. Each stanza ends with the line "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song."
  • The opening sequence of the BBC's long-running soap "EastEnders" features a map of London showing the very recognisable bends of the Thames.

© 2012 Judi Brown


Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 26, 2014:

Thanks very much BristolBoy - always good to hear from a fellow Bristolian :-)

BristolBoy from Bristol on May 25, 2014:

Some very interesting facts there - some I already knew but some I didn't!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on April 05, 2014:

Thanks Elena :-)

elena on April 05, 2014:

its good

Judi Brown (author) from UK on September 23, 2013:


JOEL NDENGA on September 23, 2013:


JOEL NDENGA on September 23, 2013:


JOEL on September 23, 2013:


Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 19, 2013:

Hi brownella - I like quirky history facts too, so enjoyed researching this hub. Thanks for the comments!

brownella from New England on June 18, 2013:

Fascinating hub, I love history factoids so this was lovely. I never knew (or had forgotten) that the Magna Carta was signed on an island in the Thames. Thanks for sharing :)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on June 04, 2013:

Hi newjerusalem - thanks very much!

victor from India on June 04, 2013:

Quite interesting hub!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on January 23, 2013:

Hi Frangipanni - delighted that you enjoyed reading this hub - thanks for the very kind comments, I appreciate them very much.

Frangipanni on January 23, 2013:

Love your hub. Great research done. You know your history here! Thanks for sharing.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 24, 2012:

Hi Susan - there are so many different styles of bridge. I would have loved to see the old London bridge which was built up with shops at least a couple of storeys high. It must have been an amazing sight.

Thanks very much for commenting, always appreciated.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on October 24, 2012:

I love the architectural work in so many of these bridges such as the Radcot Bridge and so many other along the Thanes. Very interesting and educational hub.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on October 23, 2012:

Such a mixture of information. It's an extraordinarily incredible river. You didn't mention the bridge the women built (re-built) during WW2 (I think it was Waterloo Bridge). It's one of those fascinating tid bits they tell you on the boat down to Greenwich from Westminster. Sharing and voting and tweeting.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 29, 2012:

Hi AnimalWrites - it wasn't the original London Bridge - there have been a great many over the centuries - it was the one built in William IV's reign that was dismantled and rebuilt in Arizona. The guy who bought it was under the impression he was buying Tower Bridge - he must have been gutted!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

AnimalWrites from Planet Earth on July 29, 2012:

Interesting hub on the River Thames. Wasn't the original London Bridge dismantled and taken to Arizona? At least it's a lot cleaner now than it was a few years back and many of the fish have returned

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 29, 2012:

Hi theraggededge - thanks very much! It's another of those hubs that could go on for ever though - I feel that I've left a lot out. May have to add to it.

Thanks very much for your comments, always good to hear from you!

Bev G from Wales, UK on July 29, 2012:

Love this mix of quirky facts. Excellent job, as usual. Judi Bee.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 29, 2012:

Hi David - I highlight the word I want to link, click the link icon in the capsule tool bar and it generally suggests the hub I want to link to - occasionally it doesn't and I have to paste in the URL. I am on a bit of a linking mission at the moment because there's been some chat in the forums about it boosting traffic - shall have to wait to see if works.

As far as I know (and it's more than 20 years since I lived in London) HMS Belfast is still there.

Thanks for your comments, always great to hear from you.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 28, 2012:

Well-written and interesting as usual, Judi Bee. BTW, did you manually create the links in your text or did you use the hub linking tool? It doesn't work for me (and others) and HubPages can't seem to find the problem. Anyway, I've always enjoyed the Thames. Of course, it's been a while. Last time I was there, HMS Belfast was still moored near London Bridge.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 28, 2012:

Hi unknown spy - it is a very beautiful shot - I visited decades ago and just remember a field!

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

DragonBallSuper on July 28, 2012:

Oh wow the runnymede is beautiful!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 28, 2012:

Hi Mhatter99 - glad you enjoyed it, it was fun to write.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on July 27, 2012:

Thank you for this informative report. great pics too

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 27, 2012:

Now you mention it, I do remember seeing that on the feed (but shamefully not reading it - need more time!), must look it up.

The Olympics are kicking off, great excitement in our house, so a great weekend seems guaranteed! You have a good one too.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 27, 2012:

Molometer wrote an interesting hub about the flooding problem, in case you haven't read it.

Have a great weekend my friend.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on July 27, 2012:

Hi Bill - I like that photo too - very different from the usual central London Thames shots. The Thames has been cleaned up a lot during my lifetime - it used to be very polluted but now there are fish in it. There are moves to protect London from flooding (eg the Thames Barrier) but I don't know how effective they will prove to be.

Many thanks for your kind comments, always a pleasure to hear from you :-)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 27, 2012:

Oh Judi, the shot of the river at Runnymede were beautiful. What a great history that river has. I hope steps are being taken to protect the river so it will have a long, rich history to come.

Great hub; love being taught by you.