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River Thames stories
of Britain in prehistoric times were few and lived chiefly in
the neighbourhood of rivers, which supplied them with water and
food, enhanced the fertility of the soil, and formed a means
of protection and communication.
The Thames was of course by far the most important
river of the country, and there is every ground for believing
that in remote ages it was a very much larger body of water than
at present. Prehistoric implements, weapons and ornaments have
been found at many parts of the river-bed, and boats hollowed
out from tree-trunks and dating from the Bronze Age have been
dug up at Great Marlow and Bourne End, the example found at the
latter place being more than 25ft. long.
no reason to believe that the general level of the river, say
at the time of Doomsday, was very different from that of to-day,
but the influence of the tides was appreciable at Staines at
least as late as the fourteenth century.
Thames floods are an old story. One of the
first recorded was in 1208, during the time of the Interdict.
King John spent his Christmas at Windsor Castle, and his stay
was made memorable by a " most vehement and disastrous inundation
of the waters " The inundation was followed by an eclipse
of the moon, which became " first of a blood-red and then
of a very black colour."
The construction of the causeway between Staines
and Egham appears to have been the first great step taken in
the district to diminish damage by flood. It is said to have
been made in the thirteenth century, but is probably much older.
Disputes were constantly arising as to the responsibility for
its up-keep. Local opinion held that the Abbots of Chertsey,
who were undoubtedly the most interested parties, had made it
and were bound to repair it.
In 1368, at an inquisition held at Windsor,
the jury decided that the abbots had from time immemorial repaired
the causeway, whenever occasion arose. The Abbot was therefore
summoned before the King, and stated, through his attorney, that
it had been made in the reign of Henry III. by a merchant, named
Thomas de Oxenford, not as a protection against floods but to
carry his wool and merchandise over what was in the winter an
impassable moor. He admitted that previous abbots had helped
to repair it, but said that they had done so of their free will
in conjunction with others of the county. It is not easy to believe
the Abbot's story, except the part about the impassable moor,
though a new jury at Westminster found in his- favour.
Seventeen years later the causeway was "
so destroyed and broken that the loss of all the adjacent county
was feared." Thomas Tyle, of Old Windsor, Robert Hertley,
of Shaw, and the Sheriff of Surrey, were ordered to make public
proclamation that every person, ecclesiastic as well as secular,
who possessed lands and tenements in the neighbourhood, should,
under threat of divers pains and penalties, make all haste to
cause it to be repaired, in accordance with the extent of his
In the fifteenth century and for long afterwards,
it was kept up by means of tolls levied at Staines Bridge.
The Eton floods were notorious and the guide-books
at the end of the eighteenth century contained a curious paragraph
implying that they were not really as bad as they were made out
Old Windsor used to be " terribly inundated
in the wintertime." In January, 1823, the newly-made Lock
Cut, which was at first a very unsatisfactory channel, was frozen
almost solid. A sudden thaw followed. The authorities took fright,
and, instead of raising the bank, cut through it in two places.
The inundation which resulted carried away the Ham Bridge.
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River Thames stories
It is almost impossible for us to imagine
the Thames without locks, but it is important to realise that
there were no locks of any kind affecting the navigable channel
below Boulter's until the very end of the eighteenth century.
The first pond-locks of the modern type on
the river were those at Iffley, Sandford, and Swift Ditch, which
were completed about 1635. No more were sanctioned for almost
a century and a half, when the Sonning-Boulter's series was ordered.
Romney Lock was built in 1797, Bell Weir in 1817, Old Windsor
in 1821-2, and Boveney in 1836. The Old Windsor Cut, half a mile
in length, was of course made at the same time as the Lock and
until 1822 the " Old River " was the one and only navigable
Of weirs, however, there were no doubt many
at the time of Doomsday. The river used to be regarded practically
as the private property of the various proprietors through whose
land it flowed. They made and regulated the ancient weirs purely
to suit their own convenience, damming up narrow portions of
the stream in order to maintain in the summer a depth of water
sufficient for their purposes, without any regard for the interests
of navigators or of the ordinary inhabitants on the banks. The
weirs were made of stakes, stones, timber and wattles. They were
useful for irrigation, but were mainly associated with mills
Water mills are very old Thames institutions.
Many are mentioned in Doomsday, and the majority of them still
have modern representatives of some kind. The two Eton mills
were valued at 20s. a year in the great survey of 1086, and the
two at Wraysbury, where the Colne offered special facilities
for them, at twice that amount. It is probable that there was
at one time a mill on the Fleet-gauge in the Ham at Old Windsor.
At any rate that stream is called "The Millditch" in
the 1605 survey.
There used to be a large and important fishery
on the site of the present Old Windsor Weir at the upper end
of the Lock Cut. It was anciently called Horned-ore, belonged
to the Crown, and was valued at 6s. 8d. per annum in Doomsday.
It lay between two islands and did not affect the navigable channel,
which was close to the Buckinghamshire bank.
Although described as in Old Windsor, Horned-ore
was on the boundary-line between three parishes, and in 1488
its occupant was fined twelve pence for refusing to stand the
customary drinks when the bounds were beaten at the Rogation-tide
The Sovereign used to make grants of the fishery
from time to time, usually to one of his servants, but in 1495
it became, for the second time, the property of Eton College,
in whose hands it remained for more than two centuries. It was
latterly known as " New Lock," and in 1836 was replaced
by a weir going right across the stream.
Eton had at the time of Doomsday fisheries
worth a thousand eels a year, Datchet two worth two thousand
eels, and Wraysbury (the name probably means " The Town
of Weirs") no less than four in the Thames proper, to say
nothing of the Colne.
An island which had accrued by silting up of
the river-bed in a Wraysbury fishery belonging to Thomas de Windesor,
one of the King's clerks, was the subject of an inquisition held
by Nicholas de Yattindene, Constable of the Castle, in 1271.
Ebulo de Montibus, a former Constable, had claimed the island
as part of the King's demesne of Old Windsor, and had ejected
Thomas after he had been it} peaceful possession for several
years. As a result of the inquiry it was restored to Thomas and
Nets, sometimes stretching from one side of
the stream to the other, were commonly used in former days. Stakes,
to which wattles could be attached, used to be driven into the
river-bed, and many similar contrivances were adopted to cut
off portions of the water, confine the fish, and prevent netting.
It is often difficult to differentiate between the various terms
used in this connection, such as kidels, hatches, stops and weirs,
bucks, engines and wheels, stanks, pools and deeps. Complaints
about the taking of fry add small fish, which were sold by the
bushel as food for swine, bait for cod and eels, and for other
purposes, and of the use of nets with a mesh smaller than that
allowed by the assize were common.
The salmon was the principal Thames fish and
was found at Maidenhead as late as 1812. In 1749 such quantities
were taken in the river} that the Billingsgate price was reduced
from a shilling to sixpence a pound. On March 17th, 1530, Henry
VIII. paid 20s. to " the men of Stanes " as a reward
for bringing a fresh salmon. In the first year of his reign he
appointed John Phippe, of Stepenhithe (Stepney) to be King's
fisher in the river and gave him licence to fish through all
the water of Thames with nets, hooks, and other lawful means
during the whole year.
Queen Elizabeth, in 1580, ordered no fewer
than " XV. hatches and VI. stoppes" ' to be erected
between the bridges of London and Staines for the provision of
her Majesty's household with " lampreys and roches."
Charles II. was himself a fisherman and indulged in the sport
at the summer-house which Verrio, the Italian painter, built
at Datchet. Pope writes:-
Methinks I see our mighty
The pliant rod now trembling in his hand.
And see, he now doth up from Datchet come,
Laden with spoil of slaughtered gudgeons, home.
The " Complete Angler"
and his friend, Sir Henry Wotton, used to try their luck at Eton.
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