PortCities London

Printing the Thames in the 19th century

Picturing life by the Thames

Alternative views of the river

Houndsditch (1872).
View full size imageHoundsditch (1872). © NMM
Pictures of the Thames could reveal the river working on two levels, identifying the connection between wealth and dirt. 19th-century imagery showed either a gleaming, continuous highway – standing for progress, strength, continuation and commerce - or a black stream of filth, connecting the city with dirt, disease, immorality, vice and crime.

Artists visited the slums associated with the docks to record the process of urbanization and its effects on society. These were the wretched neighbourhoods associated with vice, dirt, disease, poverty, overcrowding, alienation, shops, gas works, factories, chimneys, smoke, public buildings and works, toil and commerce.

Metaphor for depravity

Such deprivation and misery resulted in death and disorder, when even the air was black with soot. The Thames' polluted state was a metaphor for the urban depravity caused by London's weakening morals.

Victorian representations of female suicide and of ‘fallen women’ also converged at the Thames, since the river and the bridges signified either the point of no return or offered redemption or sanctuary under the arches. Jerrold's London: A Pilgrimage, illustrated by Doré, identified the Thames as the only home of the city's outcasts and profligate.

Public sanitation a key issue

Old London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses.
View full size imageOld London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses. © NMM
The lack of planning and sanitation became key issues. By 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works had been set up with a responsibility for all aspects of London’s government, including water supply and sewage. 

The process of urbanization and the growth of cities constituted a profound social transformation. But by the end of the 19th century the reliance on the watery highway decreased with the development of road and railways.

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