This photo was taken by my father in 1951, from one of the bridges over the Thames (no idea which one), and shows one of the pleasure boats that have been a feature of London’s river for many years.
It was the only photo featuring the Thames on the strip of negatives, so I suspect he was walking over the bridge, saw the boat about to pass under the bridge, and quickly took the photo.
It is one of those photos that probably seemed of not much importance at the time. A scene that was, and continues to be, very common on the river, but 71 years later it is a snapshot of a group of people travelling along the River Thames.
The boat was called the Skylark. I cannot find any details about the boat, however the year was 1951 and I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the Skylark was one of the boats that served the Festival of Britain site on the Southbank, taking people to and from the pleasure gardens at Battersea. I have checked the indexes in my books on the Festival, but cannot find a reference to the Skylark so it may be my memory playing tricks – a lesson to keep better notes.
The following extract from the photo shows the people on the rear deck. Mainly adults, a couple of children, and all rather formerly dressed for a trip on the river:
Pleasure boats have been a feature of the Thames since the 19th century, when newspapers were full of adverts for pleasure trips on the river. The majority of these seemed to be a trip to somewhere, rather than a trip along the river with no stopping point, apart from a final return to the point of departure.
For example, in 1899, a return trip in the “magnificent new steamers Boadicea or Cleopatra” from Westminster to Gravesend to see the gardens could be had for one shilling and six pence.
The number of ships on the river did cause passengers some concern. A letter writer to the London Evening Standard complained of two steamers appearing to race each other on the river, and one almost crashing into his boat in attempt to overtake. He finishes off his letter with “I for one, will never again take a pleasure trip on the Thames”.
The river is much quieter today, but with the return of tourism to London, the pleasure boats are again filling up and can be seen taking passengers on tours up and down the river.
This was my attempt to emulate my father’s photo:
This is the view from Waterloo Bridge showing one of the mooring places for pleasure boats:
As well as general tours, you can take a Horrible Histories themed tour telling the story of the Terrible Thames:
A full City Cruises boat with one of the smaller Thames Clippers on the left:
The small Thames Clipper boat seems to have a specialised role to shuttle passengers from the cruise ships that moor alongside HMS Belfast, across the river to Tower Stairs.
The Silver Barracuda, one of the Woods Silver Fleet, owned by a family who have been Thames Watermen for over 150 years:
One of the dining boats that cruise up and down the river:
With the closure of the London docks, traffic on the river significantly declined with the late 1970s and early 1980s being a period where it was so sad to see the quiet river.
The river has though, long been a way to travel across London – a liquid Central Line.
Going back centuries, it was often the fastest and safest method of travel, with watermen being the taxis of the day, rowing passengers between the numerous Thames stairs. Although they did have frequent accidents, and negotiating a fixed price was often a challenge until the gradual regulation of watermen services on the river helped to clamp down on poor practices.
Today, the ferry services once provided by a waterman rowing you along the Thames has been replaced by the Uber Boats run by Thames Clippers:
The Thames Clippers have been a 21st Century success story along the Thames. Since starting with a single boat in 1999, the company now has around 20 boats serving passengers on the Thames. The majority were made in Australia, however three, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, were built on the Isle of Wight.
Each of the boats has their own unique flash of colour on the side of the bow (front) of the boat. In the above photo, the colour is (I think), mint, which identifies the boat as the Tornado Clipper (helpfully the name is also above the flash of colour, however the colour helps with identification at a distance).
The Thames Clippers are the latest in a series of post-war attempts at running passenger services on the river. Some more successful than others.
Starting in 1905, the London County Council launched a number of steam-boat ferries along the Thames, with 30 boats at the peak of services. The following photo shows the “Opening of the L.C.C Steamboat Service by H.R.H The Prince of Wales”.
The post-war reduction in the population of east London, along with the closure of industry and docks along the river reduced the need for a ferry service, however there were a number of attempts at launching ferry services.
1968 saw a Hovercraft service along the river. The first hydrofoil, Shearwater 5 started passenger services in 1969. In 1988 Thamesline offered a service between the developing docklands and the City and a limited River Bus service was launched in 1989.
The launch of the Thames Clippers in 1999 came at a time when the redevelopment of the docklands resulted in increasing populations of residents and office workers, as well as significant increases in tourist numbers. investment by the company that owned the O2 also helped with the growth of the Thames Clipper services that we see today.
In 2019, the last year before Covid, Thames Clippers carried a total of 4.3 million passengers.
An addition to the Thames over recent years has been the ribs that offer visitors a high speed trip down the river to the east of Tower Bridge. Yellow ribs:
And red ribs, with a London Eye River cruise moored at the London Eye pier in the background:
Ribs moored up at the Festival Pier on the Southbank:
As well as tourist and passenger traffic, there are many other users of the Thames.
The Thames River Police can frequently be seen speeding along the river:
And much of London’s waste is compacted into containers at depots along the river, from where it is then transferred by barge to an incinerator in Belvedere, where it is burnt to generate electricity.
Although the central Thames alongside the City will not see the cargo shipping that was a feature of this part of the river for centuries, it is good to see that the river is busier than it was in the late 1970s.
Tourist boats, work boats, and the Thames Clippers, ensure that there is much to see along the river.
Hopefully there will be pleasure, ferry and work boats on the River Thames for many years to come.