Ships and boats

A wonder of the world

Building the first medieval London Bridge had a big effect on the port, as it acted as a barrier and protected London from unwelcome Viking ships and invaders.

The first stone bridge was paid for by taxing wool which was England’s most important export at the time. It took 33 years to finish!

Whoever sailed up to London from the Thames estuary would have been amazed by their first glimpse of the bridge which one French visitor in the 17th century called ‘one of the wonders of the world’.

Hay! You!

Did you know that all ships have to be warned whenever a bridge is under repair on the Thames?

This is done by dangling a bale of hay on a rope below the centre of the bridge, something that’s been happening since Roman times. Have you spotted any?

What floats your boat?

We know that a lot of boat-building and repairing took place in the area around London Bridge.

During their digs archaeologists have uncovered tiny pieces of boats as well as the tools used to make them. From looking at all the things they’ve found, and where they found them, archaeologists learned that boat making and repair moved east, away from the city, during the medieval period.

It was a time of great change. As London got bigger there was less space along the shore for boats to unload their goods and that’s how ports were developed further down the Thames.

Traffic jams on the river

As the river got busier and busier London needed proper docks to make it easier to load and unload ships. In the 1790s ships could wait three months to unload! Sometimes they became a target for people who stole what the ships were carrying.

At this time hundreds of ships were moored in the river or alongside the water. It was so busy that it was famously said that it was possible to walk across the Thames without getting your feet wet, simply by stepping from ship to ship. This is why the docks were built. Work started in 1799 and the first West India docks were completed in 1806.

Bonded warehouse – store, sell or be sorry!

Bonded warehouses stored items on which tax had to be paid to the government. This included things like wine, wool, spices, tea, ivory, tobacco, sugar and imported metal which were kept in bonded warehouses before they were sold, shipped out again or destroyed.

Some warehouses had kilns (big ovens) where anything that hadn’t had its tax paid was burnt. On one occasion this included 45,000 pairs of French gloves. Apparently wine and spirits were emptied into the docks, or possibly drunk by men working there… who knows!