The Thames from Above

Historic England

Take a trip along the River Thames with Aerofilms Ltd. Explore the buildings and places on this great river, from rural Gloucestershire to the North Sea. Taken from the 1920s to the 1950s these photographs reveal the impact of England's longest river on leisure, pleasure, work and industry from a unique aerial perspective. 

The Thames from Above: photographs of the River Thames by Aerofilms Ltd
This exhibit brings together two distinct elements: the River Thames and aerial photography. The river, from its source in Gloucestershire in the west of England, to where it meets the North Sea in the east, has supported human activity for millennia. The places along its banks and the activities of the people who live and work there have been recorded over the centuries by writers, painters and photographers. A unique record of the River Thames has been created by Aerofilms Ltd, the world's first commercial aerial photography company. The firm undertook scores of sorties to photograph from above the places, buildings and activities associated with the Thames. The photographs in this exhibit were taken between 1920 and 1954 - a period of great change imposed on the landscape and one punctuated by the consequences of the Second World War. It begins in the west and follows the flow of the river as it passes villages, towns, England's capital city and beyond, concluding at the estuary resort of Southend-on-Sea.  
Lechlade-on-Thames, Gloucestershire
Lechalde lies close to where the Rivers Leach and Thames meet, at the highest navigable point of the Thames for larger vessels. It is some fifteen miles (24 km) east of Thames Head, the source of the river. Lechlade's town's first bridge was built in around 1228 and was only the second stone bridge built over the River Thames, the first being London Bridge. The site also marked the point where the counties of Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire met. Being a trading rather than a manufacturing town, the river was the source of much of Lechlade's prosperity, used to transport cheese, corn and quarried stone to London. The opening of railway lines in the region took trade away from the town but Lechlade continued to attract visitors for fishing and boating, and still does today.
Oxford Corporation Water Works, Swinford, Oxfordshire
This photograph shows the newly-built Oxford Corporation Waterworks, with its row of five workers' cottages. It was built to increase the supply of water for the city of Oxford by drawing water from the Thames, filtering it and then pumping the water to a reservoir near the city. At the bottom of the photograph is Swinford Bridge, built in 1767 for the Earl of Abingdon, the local landowner. Above the bridge is Eynsham Weir, which was also owned by the Earl, and Eynsham Lock, which cuts across the bend in the river and allows boats to safely by-pass the weir.
Folly Bridge and environs, Grandpont, Oxford
The straight road running from top to bottom of this Aerofilms photograph is St Aldate's and Abingdon Road. The historic street of St Aldate's gave access from Oxford's south gate to the centre of the city. Where the road crosses the River Thames is Folly Bridge, built of the site of an early river crossing used in Saxon times and bridged by the Normans in the late 11th century. 
Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
At the time this photograph was taken, Abingdon was the county town of Berkshire. Its status allowed the town to host Assize courts that heard serious trials for criminal and civil offences. For two hundred years the Assizes were held in the County Hall, the tall building on the edge of the Market Place, seen in the centre-left of the photograph. It was built between 1678 and 1683 and was designed by Christopher Kempster who was Christopher Wren's master mason during the building of St Paul's Cathedral. Spanning the river is the 15th-century Abingdon Bridge, seen here before it was widened and partly rebuilt. At the end of the bridge is Abingdon Gaol, a Y-shaped prison built between 1805 and 1811.
Dyke Hills, LittleWittenham Wood and Castle Hill (Sinodun Hill Camp), Dorchester and Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire
Situated between the Rivers Thames and Thame, the settlement of Dorchester was a Roman town, the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and a cathedral city. Evidence of earlier settlement can be seen in this Aerofilms photograph that looks south beyond the edge of modern Dorchester. Running across the photograph is Dyke Hills, the earthwork remains of an Iron Age settlement, comprising a double bank and ditch that stretches between the two rivers. On the other side of the river, on the hill top overlooking the Thames, is Castle Hill or Sinodun Hill Camp, another Iron Age settlement bounded by a bank and ditch.
Henley Royal Regatta, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
The first Henley Regatta took place in 1839 and was given royal patronage in 1851. The races for amateur rowers became so popular that the event grew from a one-day regatta to cover five days of competition. For many years spectators could watch the races from the river. Small pleasure craft lined the finishing straight several boats deep, and moored house boats were used as floating stands at the river bank. 
Greenlands, Hambleden, Buckinghamshire
Greenlands is a riverside mansion that was built in around 1810. In 1868 it was bought by William Henry Smith of the WH Smith newsagent family. This was the same year he became Member of Parliament for Westminster. In Jerome K Jerome's comic novel 'Three Men in a Boat' (1889), the narrator rather unsympathetically describes Greenlands as 'the rather uninteresting looking river residence of my newsagent'. After the Second World War the house became a business college and is now part of Reading University.
Danesfield House (RAF Medmenham), Medmenham, Buckinghamshire
Danesfield House was first built in the mid-18th century on the site of an Iron Age hillfort overlooking the Thames. The house was rebuilt by the end of the century and was again transformed at the end of the 19th century and again in the 1920s. After a short period as a school it was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force, becoming RAF Medmenham and specializing in photographic intelligence. In 1948 it became a divisional headquarters with the house being used for officers' accommodation. This photograph clearly shows the mass of military buildings erected in the grounds.
Marlow Lock and Lock Island, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Marlow served as a port for locally grown and traded products, including wood, corn, malt and flour. Mills were located here since Domesday, however the use of weirs and sluices often conflicted with the ease of river traffic. A pound lock replaced the more dangerous race lock in 1773 and in 1825 a new stone lock and lock-keeper's house were built. The lock was again replaced in 1927 by the one shown in this photograph. Marlow became a fashionable boating and fishing resort, with the private Lock Island offering sanctuary to leisured river users. 
Bray, Windsor and Maidenhead
Dominating the foreground of this Aerofilms photograph is the Jesus Hospital, a complex of almshouses. It was founded by William Goddard in the early 17th century and was built in the 1620s. The hospital originally comprised around forty dwellings, a chapel and a chaplain's house. The number of dwellings has since been reduced to sixteen. Until recently it was under the care of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. Bray is currently famed for being the location of two of the four three-star Michelin Restaurants in England; the other two are in London.
Windsor Castle, Windsor and Maidenhead
Described as 'the most romantic castle in the world', Windsor Castle is the oldest inhabited royal residence and the largest castle in England. It was first built by William the Conqueror on a chalk cliff overlooking the River Thames. Many monarchs subsequently improved and extended the site, adding walls, gatehouses, and domestic and ceremonial buildings. The First World War led to the royal family giving up its German names, replacing them with 'Windsor'.
Hurst Park Racecourse, Hurst Park, Surrey
In the early 18th century Hurst Park became a sport and leisure resort for Londoners. Visitors could enjoy archery, boxing, cricket, golf, cock fighting and horse racing. It was also a favoured spot for duels. A new race course was laid out in the 1890s, which included the erection of an unpopular fence that acted as a barrier between the course and the river. The grandstand was subject to a women's suffrage arson attack in 1913, and the last race held in 1962. The site was redeveloped for housing. 
Hampton Court Palace, Richmond Upon Thames, Greater London
Hampton Court was the home of one of England's richest and powerful men, Thomas Wolsey. He was the chief advisor to Henry VIII, and Archbishop of York. Wolsey acquired the house in 1514 and turned into one of the country's greatest. Henry later took Hampton Court as a royal palace, which it continued to be until 1737. The most dramatic of alterations occurred during the reign of William III and Mary II when the south and east fronts were rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and William Talman, transforming the Tudor house into a grand Baroque palace. 
The Guildhall, Kingston Upon Thames, Greater London
Seven Saxon kings were crowned at Kingston, a town that lay on the border of the ancient kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Centuries later it was from here that Jerome K Jerome and his companions set off on their adventure in 'Three Men in a Boat' (1889). The Guildhall was begun in 1934 and completed the following year, not long after this Aerofilms photograph was taken. Designed by the architect Maurice Webb, pictorial representations of the River Thames were included in its decorative details, and the legendary Coronation Stone of the Saxon kings now stands in the grounds. Kingston has for many years been a centre for pleasure boating, and this view gives a glimpse of the Thames with a number of small sailing boats and a pair of packed pleasure cruisers passing a floating bathing platform.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond Upon Thames, Greater London
The Royal Botanic Gardens, better known as Kew Gardens, is a World Heritage Site. The journalist and author Philip Howard described the Gardens as 'the most exotic and improbable landscape along the whole course of the Thames'. Created from two royal estates that were given to the nation, the Gardens are home to tens of thousands of plant types from all over the world, a collection of millions of dried specimens and a comprehensive reference library. At the bottom of this Aerofilms photograph is the Palm House, one of the most significant surviving iron and glass buildings of the Victorian period.
Craven Cottage Football Ground, Fulham, Greater London
Craven Cottage is the home of Fulham Football Club. With its mass of terracing and grandstand, it sits compactly between the River Thames, streets of terraced housing, a concrete works and allotment plots in Bishops Park. Designed by the now-famous football ground architect and engineer Archibald Leitch from 1905, the ground was little redeveloped until the 1960s. Fulham, along with neighbouring Hammersmith, was once described as 'the great fruit and kitchen garden north of the Thames'. The land upon which the rows of houses in the photograph were built were formerly agricultural fields and nurseries. The transformation from 'kitchen garden' to urban landscape was nearly complete by the end of the 19th century.
The Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea Park, Wandsworth, Greater London
Battersea Park opened to the public in 1854. To create the park fields were drained and raised in height using soil that had been excavated from the site of the Victoria Docks. As part of the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations an area of the park next to the Thames was requisitioned to form the Festival Pleasure Gardens. The intention was for the Gardens to be temporary, lasting for only one year. However, the popularity of the funfair meant that it remained until 1974. While open to the public, not all of the planned attractions had been fully built when Aerofilms took this photograph in spring 1951.
Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth, Greater London
Battersea Power Station is one of the most recognisable landmarks of the River Thames. However, this Aerofilms photograph shows only half of the power station building that we are more familiar with today. The first part, the 'A Station' was built between 1929 and 1935, and was the largest in Europe. The second part, almost a mirror-image of the first, was begun in 1937 but not completed until 1956 when its fourth massive chimney was erected. When finished, it generated almost one fifth of London's electricity. Following public criticism, the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was employed after building work had begun to redesign the look of the power station. Scott's brick design set a standard that other power stations were to follow.
The Tate Gallery, Westminster, Greater London
The Tate Gallery was the first purpose-built gallery in the country devoted to the display of British art. Known as the National Gallery of British Art, it was officially opened by the Prince of Wales on 21 January 1897. The gallery was built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary, a vast prison that could house over one thousand prisoners, and which had closed in 1890. The construction of the new gallery was funded by the sugar refiner Sir Henry Tate. Even before it was built, the proposed new gallery was known as the Tate Gallery. As well as a successful businessman, Tate was an art collector and supporter of young painters. He donated sixty-five pictures and three sculptures to the gallery.
The Festival of Britain South Bank site under construction, Lambeth, Greater London
The Festival of Britain of 1951 was a celebration for the nation. It marked the centenary of the Great Exhibition and acknowledged British contributions to civilisation in industry, technology, the arts and sciences. The site chosen for London's South Bank Exhibition had been an industrial area of wharves, mills and timber yards, much of which had been devastated during the Second World War. Land was cleared either side of the approach to Hungerford Bridge for the Festival buildings. This Aerofilms photograph shows the site under construction, including the building of the circular Dome of Discovery, and on the other side of the railway line the Royal Festival Hall.
Bankside Power Station under construction, The Borough, Southwark, Greater London
Bankside was for a long time a hotbed for London's more disreputable pastimes. It was home to brothels, theatres and arenas for bear and bull baiting. Construction of a new power station at Bankside began in 1947. As with Battersea Power Station, the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was employed to design the exterior appearance. Around the time this photograph was taken, there were seventeen power stations along the River Thames, generating electricity for millions of people. Their location was ideal for deliveries of coal and oil, and for the supply of water. For every ton of coal used, around 600 tons of water was required to condense the steam that powered the turbines. Bankside Power Station had a short working life. It was completed in 1963 and closed in 1981. In 2000 the building reopened as the Tate Modern art gallery.
Surrey Commercial Docks and environs, Rotherhithe, Southwark, Greater London
The word 'hithe' means a haven or landing-place on a river. Surrey Commercial Docks, a large group of docks built on marshland at Rotherhithe, originated when a wet dock was built in 1696. Others followed, named after the origin of their cargoes, including Greenland, Canada, Norway and Russia Docks. An obvious target during the Second World War, a raid on 7 September 1940 set fire to over a million tonnes of timber, creating one of the most intense fires of the Blitz. Decline set in after the war and the docks closed in 1969. The majority were filled as the area was redeveloped for housing and leisure, and renamed Surrey Quays.
East India Dock, Blackwall, Tower Hamlets, Greater London
The congestion on the River Thames in London at the end of the 18th century prompted the construction of new docks. East India Dock opened in 1806 and was capable of housing some of the East India Company's largest ships. The effects of Second World bombing can be seen in this photograph. Buildings at the dock have been damaged, and beyond the dock boundary there are gaps in the terraced streets and cleared patches of land, some of which has been filled with replacement housing. During the war East India Dock was used to build the floating Mulberry harbour that was used during the invasion of Europe in June 1944.
Royal Albert Dock and King George V Dock, North Woolwich, Newham, Greater London
Royal Albert Dock, seen here in the foreground, was built in 1880 to handle new, large iron and steam vessels that were replacing sailing ships. Parallel to the Royal Albert Dock is King George V Dock, which opened in 1921. Together with the nearby Victoria Dock, these three Royal Docks formed the largest area of impounded dock water in the world. The sheds lining the Royal Albert Dock were designed to handle frozen and chilled meat that was sent to Smithfield Market. Other cargoes handled at the Royal Docks included butter, cheese, grain and tobacco. They closed to commercial traffic in the 1980s and by the end of the decade the area between the Royal Albert and King George V Docks was being transformed into the runway and terminal for the new London City Airport.
Ford Motor Vehicle Factory, Dagenham, Greater London
The European demand for Ford motor cars led to the creation of a large factory at Dagenham. London County Council rehousing in the village of Dagenham helped to provide a local workforce for the new factory. A marshland site on the banks of the Thames was bought in 1924 and work began in 1929. 22,000 concrete piles were driven into the ground to support the factory buildings. A wharf took deliveries of raw materials, including iron-ore, coal and limestone, for processing at the factory's own foundry. The first lorry rolled off the production line in 1931 and the first car, a £100 saloon, in 1935. In 1937, the year this photograph was taken, the factory produced 87,000 vehicles.
Flooding at the Thames Ammunition Works, Crayford Ness, Bexley, Greater London
The night of 31 January and 1 February 1953 witnessed a massive storm surge that caused death and destruction along the east coast of England. Sites along the River Thames were also affected. One that was recorded by Aerofilms was the Thames Ammunition Works. It was established in the 1870s on marshland between the Rivers Thames and Darent. Although protected by embankments, the flood waters submerged much of the site. Operating during the First and Second World Wars the factory eventually closed in the 1960s.
RMS Strathaird in dock, Tilbury Docks, Thurrock
As the size of ships increased, the more difficult it became for them to access the docks closer to the centre of London. Tilbury Docks opened in 1896, some twenty-six miles (42 km) from London Bridge. In 1930 a new landing stage was added to make Tilbury the centre of London's ocean passenger ship traffic. Liners could dock at any state of the tide, with passengers having a direct rail link to St Pancras station in the centre of the capital.
Shell Haven and Coryton Oil Refineries, Coryton, thurrock
Separated by the Shellhaven Creek, this photograph shows the oil refineries at Shell Haven (right-foreground) and Coryton. Shell Haven was the first oil refinery on the Thames Estuary, operating from 1916 until 1999. The Coryton site was earlier occupied by Kynochs explosives factory, with a workers' estate called Kynochtown. It was taken over by the Cory Brothers coal merchants to develop an oil storage depot, and who renamed it Coryton. The site imported crude oil transported by ocean-going tankers, and produced motor spirit, lubricating oils, diesel and fuel oils until production finally stopped in 2012.
Thorney Bay Camp, Canvey Island, Essex
In 1977 the journalist Norman Shrapnel wrote 'Canvey is something of a mixture of seaside resort, frontier town and unexploded bomb, with the additional chance - being dangerously below high tide level - of being drowned.' Indeed, fifty-eight islanders drowned in the floods that engulfed the area only months after Aerofilms took this photograph. Shrapnel's words remind us of Canvey's setting for the oil industry and as a holiday resort. It was also a place where building land for houses became available to masses of Londoners who built modest bungalows and stylish modernist houses close to the shore. This summertime view of Thorney Bay Camp shows to great effect the mixture of semi-permanent caravans, visiting caravanners and campers with their vehicles and tents of many styles and sizes.
The Pier, Southend-on-Sea, Essex
Our journey along the River Thames concludes at Southend, a seaside resort on the north side of the Thames Estuary. Its pier is famously the longest pleasure pier in the world. Its length of 1.34 miles (2.16 km) was necessary because of the mud flats that prevented large steamboats landing passengers closer to the shore at low tide. The pier's significance to the town was noted by the poet, writer and broadcaster, and president of the National Piers Society, Sir John Betjeman, who declared: 'The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier'. 
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