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The River Thames in Bygone Days
From ISC School Magazine 1926

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The inhabitants 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.

There is 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 holding.
   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 to be.
   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.


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 channel.
   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 and fisheries.
   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 perambulation
   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 his heirs.
   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 monarch stand,
   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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