From Wapping looking south-west towards the Shard and Tower Bridge across the Pool of London.

When people speak about the River Thames you’ll often hear the phrase “Liquid History”, a phrase coined in the 1920s by the MP John Burns . The city of London has been shaped by its connections with other places, near and far, and the Thames has played a central role in the economic, social, political and cultural life of the city. The archaeology found on the Thames foreshore preserves traces of the city’s stories and this archaeology is monitored and recorded by volunteers from the Thames Discovery Programme – the rather wonderfully named Foreshore Recording and Observations Group, or FROGs to those in the know!

FROG members have recorded: submerged Mesolithic forests at Erith, a possible Bronze Age bridge or jetty at Vauxhall, Early Mediaeval fish traps at Chelsea, Putney, Hammersmith, Bermondsey, Isleworth, Nine Elms, and Barn Elms with a possible fish trap currently being investigated at Fulham. We have surveyed a Tudor jetty at Greenwich, ship breaking yards at Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Charlton, and a First World War submarine chaser at Isleworth.

The Thames has long been a highway for trade: Where now stands Cannon Street station was once the London hub of the Hanseatic League (a North German based trading federation controlling trade through the Baltic Sea). A network based in Lubeck which included Berlin, Hamburg, Bruges, Ipswich, Stettin, Novgorod, Bremen, Rostock, Stockholm, Visby among others. The earliest record of the London trading centre (known as the Steelyard) dates from 1282. It reached its zenith in the 15th century but lost its privileges under Elizabeth I and never really recovered from the fire of 1666. The land was finally sold to the South-Eastern railway station in 1852.

As England, and subsequently Great Britain, became an imperial power more and more shipping berthed on the Thames forging links to the Americas, Africa and Asia and hunting the seas for prey and plunder. Ships brought people from around the world to London willingly and unwillingly. The names of the docks adjoining the Thames attest to their global links. West India Dock imported sugar grown and harvested mainly by enslaved people in the West Indies. Canada Water received furs from Canada. Greenland Dock was where whalers brought the carcasses of Greenland right whales they had caught in the arctic. East India Dock handled tea, spices, carpets, indigo and silk some of which was paid for with highly addictive opium.

It was from Rotherhithe that the Mayflower set off taking the first English settlers to, what was to become, the United States. The Great Eastern, launched from Millwall on the Isle of Dogs was the largest ship launched in the world during the 19th century. She was built to be able to steam to Australia and back on a single load of coal.

Another link between the Thames and the wider world has been in conflict. Warships such as HMS Thunderer, Swiftsure, Vanguard and Ajax which fought Napoleon were built on the Thames and ships captured from Holland, Denmark, France and Turkey were broken up at Rotherhithe. Later on, naval technological leaps were made on the Thames such as HMS Warrior, the first Iron hulled Royal Naval warship, launched from the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company in Blackwall in 1860.

Thames Discovery’s FROG volunteers continue to record details of the global connections of the River Thames.