PortCities London

The early port

Roman London
 

The Romans arrive

The Roman wall near the Tower of London.
View full size imageThe remains of the old Roman wall near the Tower of London.
The Romans landed in Kent in AD 43 and made their way north-west, defeating the Britons as they advanced.

By AD 47 the conquest of southern England was almost complete. The Romans built a walled settlement on the north bank of the River Thames to strengthen their rule.

Sections of the old Roman wall can still be seen today.

First London bridge

They constructed a bridge from where a sandbar on the south side (now Southwark) faced a gravel patch on the north (now Fish Street Hill).

The water was narrow enough to bridge, but still deep enough to handle sea-going vessels.

Archeologists have uncovered wooden remains of the Roman bridge on the north bank. These suggest that the bridge was slightly to the east of the present-day London Bridge.

Sketch of a Roman warship, part of a Roman merchant ship and a vessel with sail set. Part of Everett Collection.
View full size imageSketch of a Roman warship and merchant vessel.

Rise of Londinium

A port known as Londinium developed on the north bank. It became the capital of the Roman colony.

Two factors were vital to the success of Londinium.

  • The tides - which brought a useful depth of water at high tide and let ships come and go, even though the port was a long way from the mouth of the river.
  • Its position on the river - the Romans controlled land, river and sea communication in southern Britain because Londinium was built at the river's lowest bridging point.

Stone Roman Anchor.
View full size imageAnchors such as this would have been used by Roman vessels moored in the Thames.

Second century growth

By the 2nd century, the city was a thriving commercial centre with quays and warehouses where goods were imported and exported.

There were probably timber or stone quays in the harbour formed by the junction of the Thames, the Fleet and the Walbrook rivers.

The first Thames lighters

Ships were, however, usually moored by stone anchors in the river and their cargoes transferred to and from the shore in small boats.

This movement of goods from ship to shore, known as lighterage, became a major influence on the development of the port.

The Roman historian Tacitus said that by AD 61 Londinium 'was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels'.

Leptis Magna
View full size imageThe port of Leptis Magna.

Trading links

This model of Leptis Magna in North Africa gives an indication of the appearance of a Roman port. 

Goods from ports like Leptis Magna would have been shipped to London from Mediterranean lands.

Roman amphora with olives.
View full size imageA Roman amphora that was dredged from the River Thames.

Early imports

Amphorae were storage jars. This photograph is of a Roman amphora found in the Thames Estuary in 1983. It was filled with 6000 olives.

It was made in Cadiz, in Spain, and shows that from the earliest period of Roman settlement London had extensive trading links.

The fleet of Allectus the usurper
View full size imageClassical coin showing the fleet of Allectus the Usurper, c. AD 275.

Financial centre

Londinium had its own mint for producing coins. This shows it was an important financial and administrative centre.

The coin in the picture was made in London around AD 275. It shows Allectus the Usurper on one side and a galley from his fleet on the other.

The Capture of London, AD 276.
View full size imageClassical coin showing the capture of London by Constantius Chlorus in AD 296.

Rebellion

Allectus led a rebellion against imperial rule in AD 293. For the next three years he ruled the country until Constantius Chlorus re-imposed imperial control.

Constantius captured London in AD 296, killing Allectus in the process. This coin shows Constantius arriving in triumph in London.

Useful links

 





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