Online exhibition celebrates history of the River Thames

Video report by ITV Meridian's Mel Bloor

(Interviewees: Mark Stevens, Berkshire Record Office & Dr Victoria Reeve, Thames Water Archaeologist)

A 1920s tragedy, the orders for the River Purification Service and the story of the Thames's very own Dad's Army are just some of the highlights of a new online exhibition marking 250 years of caring for the River Thames.

Where Smooth Waters Glide is drawn from the archives of the Thames Conservancy and its predecessor, the Thames Navigation Commission.  

It was these bodies that built the river, outside London, that we know today. 

The River Thames was protected by the Upper Thames Patrol during World War Two

The first meeting of the Thames Navigation Commission took place in the Town Hall, Henley-on-Thames, on 9 May 1771. 

Its job was to turn the Thames into the Georgian HS2 – a free-flowing trade route for transport between London and Oxford.

Minutes of the first meeting of the Thames Navigation Commission

The river's trading heyday was short-lived, as the railways soon came to offer quicker delivery.

The Commission however survived. Renamed as the Thames Conservancy, it was tasked not only with maintaining the locks but with keeping the river safe and clean.

Mark Stevens, Berkshire Record Office, said: “The Thames is much-loved and very special.  It also has a fascinating history, and it’s quite humbling to see how much effort has gone and still goes into caring for the river.

Conservancy staff were also tasked with stopping pollution.  This first became an issue during the Victorian period, as flushing toilets and basic sewerage systems drained untreated waste into the Thames. 

This was made illegal after 1866 and the Conservancy prosecuted water companies, businesses and farmers who dumped anything poisonous into the water. 

Notice against throwing animals into the river, 1905

By the 1930s the River Purification Service inspectors were on duty 24/7 with powers to enter premises or board any vessel.  One of their jobs was removing dead animals that had been thrown into the river.

Today, the Thames Conservancy functions have passed to the Environment Agency and Thames Water.

The Thames Conservancy archive – totalling tens of thousands of pages, plans and other documents - is living proof of the effort which has gone, and still goes into caring for the River Thames.

Where Smooth Waters Glide can be found online here.