Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The river walls of Father Thames

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The recent work of Mr. Smiles on the Engineers informs us that the Thames is kept in its bed by 300 miles of river embankment between London Bridge and the Nore.

How the River Thames came to be reduced to reasonable dimensions, and confined to its present channel, how it is kept within it, and how the thousands of acres of low land lying between both banks and the higher grounds are kept protected from overflow at every tide, at full and new moon, or during seasons like that through which we passed last year, are questions of no common interest, and on which a very general ignorance prevails.

The average rise of the tide in the Thames is, at London Bridge, 18 feet; at Deptford, 20; at Purfleet, 17; at Holy Haven, 15; and at the Kove, 11. From Fulham to the Nore every high tide would lay a very large proportion of the neighbouring country under water, and at spring tides would restore the appearance of the basin of the Thames to what it must have presented to Ca-sar’s eyes if he chanced to sight it hrst at flood tide, were it not for the system of embankments which line both sides of the river as well as of its tributaries.

Conjecture has ever been busy among local and general historians as to the origin of these embankments, and the credit of their construction has been very generally given to the Romans. Indeed this mighty nation of fighting and paving men share the honour of many of the most stupendous works which are scattered over the face of Europe pretty equally with a certain personage, who, if he have rightly earned the titles of the “first Whig” and the “first gentleman,” might seem equally deserving—to judge from the works ascribed to him—of that of the “first engineer” as well.

One detects a sort of grim vindictive instinct at the root of this traditional belief, which belongs equally to ancient and modern times. Oriental legendary literature, both Jewish and Arabic, for instance, delights in dwelling on the power acquired and very copiously exercised by “Solomon, the son of David, on whom be peace,” over this remarkable personage—who, by the way, is represented as a regular attendant at that great monarch’s levees—as well as over his numerous and variously ill-favoured adherents; and the tasks set him and them by the somewhat exigeant Sovereign were of so stupendous a character, and must have tasked even diabolic resources so severely, that, as one reads the legend, it is easy to conjure up the picture of the venerable and pious rabbi who wrote it, chuckling hugely over the tortures of labour which their accomplishment must have inflicted. In mediæval days this instinct seems to have been intensified rather than weakened—indeed, it increased in dimensions by importing an element of grotesqueness, not altogether wanting, but very imperfectly developed, in the rabbinical extravagances; and thus the later legends have a double aspect, a serious and a comic one. In the one, we hear of the walls of an abbey or a monastery, or of a bridge over a furious torrent, or of a dyke of immense size and corresponding benefit, ordered to be constructed by the bitterly reluctant demons in a single night; in the other, we find the Arch-fiend compelled to carry an ecclesiastic pick-a-back on a long journey at telegraphic speed, or his effigy doing duty as waterspout to a church-roof.

What public works, however, of enormous dimensions and immense difficulty cannot be clearly traced to the Great Enemy and his gang, are generally fathered next upon the Romans—and with far more solid grounds for the conjecture. Old Rome’s public works stand to this day the noblest memorial of her greatness, and are still food for wonder to an engineering and scientific age. A very curt enumeration of the baths, sewers, aqueducts, amphitheatres, temples, and other public buildings, which are due to Roman enterprise, would fill a volume; whilst the long lines of hard, durable road, which to this day intersect the countries they conquered, are solid and striking memorials of their large perception of what are the tangible appliances of a centralised government, as well as of their skill as paviours. Roman soldiers, we know, were “navvies” as well as fighting men, and could handle the spade and basket as well as “the sword and the buckler.”

No wonder that in the days of our youth, when we were of that inquiring turn of mind which prompts children to ask disagreeable questions of their elders and betters, the sight of Romney Marsh, with its four-and-twenty thousand acres rescued from the tides, should have prompted the eager question, “Who did it?” and as little wonder that the prompt reply should have been, “The Romans, my lad!” As little wonder that travelling on the long, dreary, monotonous roads that traverse the huge fiats of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, we should have asked the same question about the banked-out rivers there, and have met with the same reply; or, again, that peering over the side of that primitive Ramsgate steamer, the old City of London, in her tedious dawdle down the Thames, the miles after miles of river embankment, which protected the low ground on each side from inundation, should have caught our observant eye, and elicited the same question with the same result; or that thereupon our young, active imagination should have fallen to work at once to conjure the well-bleached stakes which, in tier above tier, support the bank, into the thigh-bones of the old Roman soldiers of whom we had read so much at school,—not without much suppressed execration of them and their historians—and should have forthwith much commended this original mode of utilising the remains of ancient heroes. It was not, however, until years and years after those inquiring days, when we had travelled between these Thames embankments scores of times, in all sorts of craft and at all periods of the tides, had taken long walks along their summits, examined their construction, and lost ourselves in the prairie wilderness and among the network of drains that lie in their rear, that we began to be conscious that they constitute a national work which, if hardly deserving the higher title of “stupendous,” may fairly lay claim to that of “enormous,” both in regard to their extent and their utility.

We had in the interim become acquainted with many cognate works; had found travellers in Holland carefully inspecting and dutifully admiring the dunes and the dykes, which prevent the land of cheese, butter, salmon, and carp from becoming a Goodwin Sand; had met with others eagerly reading up their “Murrays” at Blois to learn all about the grand levée de la Loire and the opposite embankments, which preserve, or are intended to preserve, the adjacent flat country from those “grandes inondations” to which French geographers and periodical accounts in the public papers inform us that the Loire is subject; we had met other travellers fresh from Russia who were in ecstatic raptures with the granite embankment of the Neva at St. Petersburg; Italian tourists who related impossible things about those of the Tiber and the Po; and pertinaciously patriotic Yankees who ‛guessed’ that the hundreds of miles of embankment, which protect the rich alluvial sugar-cane grounds on both banks of the Mississippi, ‘flogged’ everything of the sort in the Old World; but among all we found a Cimmerian darkness of mind; in short, an utter vacuity of all information whatever about the extent, nature of construction, and wonderful meanderings of the artificial banks of our own river.

A careful inspection—compasses in hand—of the Ordnance Survey Map first threw any real light on the subject; and it is well worthy any one’s while, who proposes to set about understanding and appreciating it, to begin in the same way. The map will reveal that the basin of the Thames, between London and the Nore, consists of a long and very irregularly-shaped flat, lying between high grounds, which sometimes, as at Purfleet, Greenhithe, and Northfleet, come quite up to the river itself, and sometimes recede for miles up into the country, as at Pitsea, where the basin is seven miles in width, of which the river itself occupies little more than one. The map further shows that the river is prevented from periodically or occasionally covering the whole of the floor of this basin by a system of embankments which extend, with occasional interruptions by highlands or houses, from Fulham and Putney above bridge down to the sea, a distance of upwards of fifty miles; and, though the map cannot show it, it will be well to bear in mind that a great extent of the river-side streets and houses form, in effect, part of the system of embankment—most of Southwark, Lambeth, Deptford, and Greenwich on the one side, and of Shadwell and Limehouse on the other, lying below the level of high-water spring tides, and being, in fact, all afloat whenever the tide flows higher than usual. The long, straggling street at Millwall presents a good specimen of this sort of embankment; for, in walking down it, it is impossible not to be aware that it is constructed on artificially raised ground, from which one looks down on the Thames on one side and the flat of the Isle of Dogs on the other: indeed, the very name of the place, or rather its termination, is suggestive, the title of “wall” being—both in Kent and Essex—universally applied to the embankments; and the names “Millwall,” “Blackwall,” “Rotherhithe-wall,” “Narrow-wall,” “Broadwall,” all denoting either places built upon the embankment, or streets which owe their existence to its protection.

However, this long double line of river wall, which follows the course of the bank on each side, forms but part of the system. Again referring to the map, it will be seen that the marsh-lands on each side are intersected by tributary streams and creeks, and a moment’s consideration will elicit the reflection that every one of these must also be banked on each side throughout the whole of its course through the flat country, and until land of a higher elevation than the highest spring tides is attained, or of course the water would, as the tide rose, steal round the back of the principal embankment by the channels of these creeks and tributaries, and render them simply useless. Indeed nothing will tend more to a due conception of the importance of every yard of these enormous works, than the reflection that the failure of the smallest portion of any part of them tends instantly to the destruction of the object of the whole: it is like the springing of a leak in a ship, or the snapping of one imperfectly welded link in a chain-cable. The failure itself may be trifling, but its consequences are almost illimitable.

Where, as in the instance to be presently adduced, the creek, or tributary, winds considerably, or branches out into many ramifications, the subordinate or auxiliary system of embankment adds many miles of river wall
Plan of the Creek at Holy Haven.
within a comparatively insignificant area. The creek, for instance, which runs from Holy Haven is a remarkably greedy piece of water in this respect. The rough plan above shows the tract of land—three miles wide and four deep—which is intersected by this creek and its ramifications, which, among them, require no less than one-and-twenty miles of river wall in order to restrain their high tides within proper limits. The extent of these auxiliary embankments may be roughly taken at about seventy miles, that of the main embankment at rather more than ninety, making in all some hundred and sixty miles of river wall, varying in height from three feet, as at Fulham, to seventeen, as at West Thurrock Marsh, and excluding from the calcination all street embankments.

The extent of land thus rescued from a condition which made cultivation impossible, and which must have impregnated the atmosphere with an amount of humidity bearing a strong resemblance to the overhanging mists of the lacustrine era of which geologists tell us, is not easily calculated. In such levels a trifling elevation makes an immense difference, but it may suffice for present purposes to calculate it at somewhere about 6700 acres. Of this, nearly all the above-bridge portion and all below bridge, as far as Deptford and Greenwich, consists of market-garden ground, let at wonderful rents, cultivated with a care and economy almost astounding, and contributing a very large proportion of the treasures of Covent Garden and the Borough Markets. From Greenwich to the sea, the thousands of head of cattle which dot the “mashes” (as they are called in the neighbourhood), to say nothing of the constantly recurring rubbing-post, the discovery of whose utility occasioned Sidney Smith so much diversion, unmistakeably denote grazing lands, and it is hence that the metropolitan meat-markets derive a very large proportion of their supply.

Thames Walls - J W Brooks (transparent).png
The Thames Walls; General View.

To what era, and to whose energy, foresight, and ingenuity to ascribe this great work of national usefulness, seems a point of secondary importance. There are the banks, and how they came there seems an inquiry of vastly inferior moment to the question how to keep them up. We may, however, be allowed a small space even for the less material consideration. Both Dugdale, and, after him. Sir C. Wren, agree in ascribing the earliest embanking works in England to the Romans, or rather to the Britons working under their orders, and groaning heavily the while over the wearing out of their bodies and hands in the labour; but others (and among them Cruden, the historian of the Port of London), ask, with an awkward look of probability, how, if the Thames embankments are Roman, no notice of them is found until long after the Norman Conquest? and how all account of the lands rescued is omitted from the Domesday Survey? Without wading through the tangled thicket of arguments pro and con—guesses, speculations, and deductions which environ the subject—it will be quite enough to say that the most reasonable account seems to point to an origin which has an exact parallel in the history of the levée de la Loire. This embankment—the origin of which French geographers date as far back as the days of Charlemagne and of Louis le Débonnaire—is said to have consisted in the first instance only of small isolated dykes, which the neighbouring seigneurs made their peasantry erect in order to preserve and protect their estates from the inroads of the river. By degrees, these separate dykes were run into that one large work of which Frenchmen are very naturally proud.

Now, the uplands on each side of the River Thames below London, and with these the swamps which fringed them, were in large measure bestowed on ecclesiastical bodies in very early times. The Abbey of Stratford, for instance, was founded and endowed in 1135, and that of Lesnes (Abbey Wood hodie) in 1178. On the one shore were this Stratford Abbey, the famous Nunnery at Barking, the Cell at Gray’s Thurrock, St. Osyth, and others; and on the south shore Lesnes, Dartford, Ingress, &c. The monks and nuns, finding themselves not unfrequently flooded out of their dwellings, and obliged to seek refuge in the higher lands, very early set on foot a process of what was called then, and for many centuries, “inning” their marsh-lands, that is, enclosing them with embankments; and, as early as Henry the Second’s time, this process began to be deemed a matter of national importance. It is remarkable, by the way, that to the same monarch—as Count of Anjou—the French historians ascribe the consolidation of the great Loire embankment. But that from the time of Edward the Second downwards, the “inning” process continued to be considered a national affair, is evidenced by the perpetually recurring commissions to Aaew and take order for the repair of the banks, ditches, &c., and for the safeguard of the marshes from the overflowing of the tide, as well as by the continued assessments or taxes on the neighbourhood granted for defraying the expenses of the works. According to the ride of these more advanced days, however, there is also to be detected a constantly recurring difficulty in collecting the taxes. No one seems to have thought those days of remitting conscience-money to in the Lord High Treasurer, or whoever did duty as the legitimate predecessor of Mr. Gladstone. The works remained uncompleted, the low-lands were constantly overflowed, and at length private enterprise stepped in to supply public torpor—and not without making a good bargain for itself out of the transaction. Thus, in Queen Elizabeth’s days, “one Jacobus Aconcius, an Italian,” undertook to “in” about 2000 acres of drowned land in Plumstead and Erith Marshes, on condition of getting one half of his recovery in fee-simple for his pains. In 1622, one Jonas Croppenburg, a Dutchman, made a similar bargain about Canvey Island; only, more modest than Jacobus, he restricted his demand to one-third of the land recovered; and about the same time one Cornelius Vermuyden, a German, undertook the recovery of Dagenham and Havering Marshes on similar conditions. The same Vermuyden, some thirty years later, when he is described as a Colonel of Horse under Cromwell, superintended the rescue of something between four and five hundred thousand acres of similar land in the counties of Lincoln, Cambridge, and Hunts, and must have been a genius and a man well ahead of his age.

By some such processes, then, as these, it seems most probable that the Thames embankments gradually crawled into existence during the centuries which intervened between the days of the Second Henry and those of the Protector, comparatively small detached portions of embankment being pushed forward, like military outworks, from the higher lands first of all, and by degrees being extended and united, until the work resolved itself into what at first sight might appear to be one uniform settled plan, acted on at once and from the beginning—an idea consistent only with the exploded theory of Roman construction. That the vestiges of the old approaches have been gradually swept away, in order to make the most of the space, and in proportion as their utility was superseded by the more advanced works, has no doubt favoured the Roman theory. It is, however, impossible not to regret that so much of them, at any rate, as might provide for accidents was not allowed by common prudence to remain, in spite of the levelling and economising mania. A fracture of even a small portion of the system is a disaster the extent of which there is no foreseeing. This has been already alluded to in the way of illustration. A few facts will help out the theory. A breach of the embankment, in 1324, laid 100 acres of the valuable land between what is now St. Katharine’s docks and Shadwell under water for a year. In 1376, the whole of the lands about Dagenham, and those belonging to the Nunnery at Barking, were inundated. Some 1000 acres at Stepney were flooded in 1448. The whole of Plumstead Marshes were drowned in 1527, and not completely recovered until 1590. The entire country from Purfleet to Grays was laid under water in 1690. And even Cockney anglers can tell something about the great inbreak of 1707, which swept away 400 feet of the river wall at Dagenham, overflowed 1000 acres, and was only repaired after years of labour by Captain Perry, at an expense of 40,472l., leaving behind its mark in the shape of that little winding lake in which bream and eels so plenteously swarm.

How to keep these embankments in sufficient repair to be always ready for an extra high tide or a heavy gale of wind, is one of the most important questions affecting the agricultural interests on both sides of the river. The constant attrition of the ordinary current exercises the proverbial effect of “water for ever a-dropping;” but the lodgement of any solid body, as a drifting bit of timber, or a fragment of a wrecked barge with just enough iron about it to prevent its being carried off by the next tide, works in an incredibly short space of time amazing mischief. After two or three tides, the result is a hole in which the foreign body seems to insinuate itself with forty-auger power, and if prompt means are not taken to remove the active mischief, undermining is sure to follow speedily. It forms, therefore, a prominent and most seriously expensive part of the arrangements between landlord and tenant on the banks of the Thames, that constant vigilance should be exercised, a constant look-out kept, and injuries promptly remedied.

River Wall, West Thurrock - J W Brooks (transparent).png
River Wall, West Thurrock.—Low Water.

The general construction of the Thames embankments is what is technically called the “Earthen mound.” It consists of a heap of earth, the section of which forms a scalene triangle, with the side towards the river inclined at an angle of about 20°, and that towards the land at one of about 45°. The embankments of the continental rivers—at least away from the sea—are generally consolidated by turf carefully planted, as well as by the roots of rows of trees with which they are ornamented: nearer the sea, and in positions exposed to more severe trials, gravel, reeds, straw kept down by pieces of wood, faggots, wicker hurdles, and nets of straw ropes, are variously used for the same purpose. Nature has given the Dutchmen a lesson, and the dunes are carefully sown with the Elymus arenarius, the leaves and stalks of which are made into mats and ropes in Anglesea and the Orkneys, and the fibrous roots of which bind the sand, &c., into a sort of concrete basket-work. But the Thames embankments are fortified chiefly by tiers of stakes driven into the river face of the wall, and the intervals filled in with lumps of chalk or stone, rammed in to a level with the heads of the stakes, or “stalks,” as they are more generally called. Since, however, the steamer traffic has added its churning power to the influence of tide and wind, it has been found advisable, as at North Woolwich and the point where Barking Reach turns into Galleons, to lay down a granite pavement like that on Holborn Hill, as nothing else will stand the wear and tear.

In spite, however, of the completeness of the present system, and of the pains bestowed on its preservation, peculiar combinations of spring tides, upland drainage, and certain winds operating on the sea below, now and then override all precautions, drive the water over the embankments, and create consternation and havoc in the marsh-land below.

Embankments at High Spring Tide between Erith and Woolwich (transparent).png
River Wall and Marshes between Erith and Woolwich.—A High Spring Tide.

It fell to our lot to witness such an instance in—as we recollect—the year 1852. Some such a combination of untoward atmospheric phenomena as occasioned the frightful catastrophe at the Hondsbossche, in Holland, in 1287, had heaped up the waters of the North Sea to such an extent, that when the spring tides came round, and a long continuance of wet had set an inordinate gush of upland waters running down the river, we happened to journey from Rosherville to London in one of the old Gravesend steamers, and to arrive in Halfway Reach about the top of high-water. We were invited up on the paddle-box by a civil and somewhat scientific captain, and introduced to one of the strangest scenes we had ever witnessed. Right and left lay the marshes, 17 feet at least below our vessel’s water-line, and consequently some 31 feet below the level of our eye, stretching their monotonous level far away up to the stems of the trees which skirted the rising grounds. Between them the river seemed buoyed up, as in a basin, by the river walls: over these, in a dozen places between Erith and Woolwich, cataracts were pouring down the inner sides of the slopes, and slowly pushing a sheet of water further and further up into the marshes. Herdsmen, in every variety of excitement, were gathering together, and driving towards the rising lands the hundreds of head of cattle which had but a short time before been grazing in peace without a thought of danger; whilst other excited groups, with ready boats at hand, were dotted along the top of the wall in suspicious places, eagerly engaged in efforts to fend off the flood with planks, and buckets of earth, and sods, and extemporised clay fortifications, for the very short period during which the water could remain at its height. The determined stand made at the entrance of the Halfway House—a remote river-side inn, seen in our illustration—with planks and clay, was worthy of all praise, and it proved, we are glad to be able to add, successful.

J. W. B.