Flight Path

Meeting birds along the central London tidal Thames

There is no doubt that there has been a marked renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Natural History Museum declared the Thames to be “biologically dead”. The London Natural History Society says that now “the Tidal Thames supports 120 species of fish and that over 60 species of bird nest in central London.” Some of these nest in riverside parks and feed there, or on the foreshore, and I have managed to catch a number of them on camera. Since my wider wanderings have been curtailed by lockdown and health considerations, what follows is of necessity a personal view but I will guide you to further sources at the end.

The water is clean enough to allow the survival of fish and so provide food for birds. Here a cormorant wrestles with an eel…
…and the water is clean enough for this pair of Canada geese to preen and bathe in

The Thames has had its problems over water quality ever since the arrival of humans when it became a convenient place to dispose of people’s waste and rubbish. The most notorious, but by no means the only notable example of pollution in recent times, was The ‘Great Stink’ in the hot summer of July and August 1858. The smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that affected the whole of central London, and particularly the Houses of Parliament, was thoroughly nauseating and made it virtually impossible to carry on normal business. Literally under and into the noses of our elected representatives, this miasma emanating from the river, was the catalyst that brought about the construction of London’s Victorian sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette and constructed in the 1860s and 70s.

Largely forgotten but even worse was the untreated toxic human waste regularly released into the river further downstream that played a significant part in the tragedy surrounding the sinking of pleasure boat the S.S. Princess Alice at Gallions Reach in 1878. After a fatal collision with the collier Bywell Castle, and horrific drownings at the time, many of the victims died later from infections contracted from the sewage floating freely in the river. This disaster, with a loss of about 700 lives, remains the deadliest inland shipping accident known in Britain.

In the mid 20th century, London’s by then already overloaded Victorian sewers were damaged during the Blitz in the Second World War and, writes Sophie Hardach in an article for the BBC, “post-war Britain did not have the resources – or it seems, the energy to fix the problem quickly.” She goes on to explain that with gradual improvements during the late 1960s “the river began to breathe again.” And the improvements continued. Hopefully the remaining problems of sewage overflow from the existing Victorian system during storms, will be sorted out with the inception of Tideway, London’s new ‘super sewer’, which is nearing completion.

Three pigeons seeking food on the foreshore below Victoria Tower Gardens

There is always some bird action on the foreshore at low tide as the improvement of water quality has allowed the return of all kinds of microscopic creatures, which in turn have provided nourishment for those further up the food chain.

Greylag goose stepping out purposefully
Sharp-eyed black backed gull surveying the foreshore

Above the foreshores, good for foraging when the tide allows it, the river embankments make good lookout posts for many of the birds in the area. Crows, ducks, geese and all kinds of gull can often be seen perching on the walls of the central London Thames. And herons have been spotted in the area too.

A young crow casts an eye around
A young magpie on the embankment wall resting on one leg. You can see its other leg tucked up among its breast feathers
A pair of watchful-eyed Mallard ducks on the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment wall by Lambeth Bridge
An Egyptian goose, framed by plane tree branches. Such a poseur
“Feed me!” An immature gull squawking for food
Two gulls in a “me first” quarrel
Black-headed gulls waiting in line

Higher up, there are even better lookout posts along the river. The Palace of Westminster has been home to a pair of peregrine falcons for a number of years and though I haven’t seen them myself, I have come across discarded feathers from some of their feasts littering the ground in Victoria Tower Gardens below.

However, there are other birds within reach, that sit in trees, on buildings, or wires above the paths and walkways. Look about you as you go and you will be sure to see some of them.

A magpie perched on the Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
Three starlings among the lights on the South Bank near the London Eye
A robin on a riverside tree branch singing in Battersea Park
Rocky, one of the ravens at the Tower of London, whose collective presence at the Tower ensures the survival of the realm

The Thames is a highway, a “liquid highway”, for boat traffic but also the track for a flight path. In WW I German zeppelins used the reflections of moonlight in the river to guide them to their bomb targets. In WW2 many Luftwaffe pilots heading for London followed the course of the river to inflict the fury of their blitz on the city.

But more peaceably, for a far, far greater stretch of time, the river has served as a flight path for birds. In 1902 naturalist C.J. Cornish, who lived on Chiswick Mall, was one of many to observe that the river “is a regular migration route for several species”.

Swans flying south towards Lambeth Bridge

Where this bevy of swans was off to, I don’t know but they were clearly flying upstream along the course of the river.

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Though the improvement in the Thames environment has been spectacular there is one scourge harming river life that needs to be addressed: plastic. Plastic bottles, bags, containers, cotton buds, and other non-biodegradable detritus including covid masks, that litter the shores in great quantities. The environmental organisation Thames 21 is working hard with others to combat this, including the Port of London, who have set up a new litter survey, and they have organised a number of events for London Rivers Week, from October 24 – November 1, 2020, now in its fourth year. And there are people organising regular litter collection outings along the paths, banks, and foreshores of the river. Hopefully, with concerns and awareness about plastic pollution being raised by so many worldwide, it can be brought under control soon, to save our wildlife and to improve the look of our rivers and countryside.

Further Information on the following sites:
The Naturalist on the Thames: C.J. Cornish. An interesting book published in 1902, now online, with information on wildlife conservation and a discussion on purity of the water.
Louise Cripps: ‘The Thames is one of the cleanest rivers…’.
Sophie Hardach ‘How the River Thames was brought back from the dead’, BBC, 2015.
Dante Shepherd & Josh Jones: ‘Watching gulls in East London’.
Ian Young: ‘Anxious Birding’, a blog on birding and mental health.

Thanks also to Ian Young for help with identification of some of the birds. You can catch up with his bird posts on Twitter @ianyoung33

Westminster Bridge…

…an elegant stretch across the Thames.

The planned grand opening of Westminster Bridge by Queen Victoria had to be abandoned as she was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, who had died five months earlier on December 14, 1861. Instead it was officially opened, though quietly, at four o’clock in the morning on May 24, 1862, the day and hour of Queen Victoria’s birth.

But this was not the first bridge to be built across the river here. There was an earlier bridge designed by Swiss architect Charles Labelye, opened on November 18, 1750, and this was the bridge painted by Canaletto in 1746 before its completion, and from where Wordsworth looked out over the views of London before him and wrote ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ on September 3, 1802.

Westminster Bridge from Old and New London by Walter Thornberry, London, 1873

An article in British History Online quotes The Gentleman’s Magazine which described the new bridge as: “a very great ornament to our metropolis [that} will be looked on with pleasure or envy by all foreigners.” There is mention of the echo beneath the arches attracting musicians “with French horns to entertain themselves under it in the summer.” On the level of the roadway, there were attractive alcoves above each pier “designed for shelter in bad weather”. However, they were seen by some as the perfect place for “undesirables”, robbers, pickpockets, and illegal traders, so watchmen were employed to patrol them at night. And until recently along the present Westminster Bridge, something of this unwelcome element remained as hustlers were frequently conning tourists with the three cup trick. Their activities were curtailed by the police and for the moment have been brought to a stop by the Covid pandemic.

One of the alcoves on Westminster Bridge from Old and New London by Walter Thornberry, London, 1873

Perhaps, so as not to give too fierce or an alarming impression of London to potential visitors in the past, the picture above shows a quietly subdued, idealised impoverished family seeking refuge for the night.

A further article in British History Online describes how the removal in 1831 of the old London Bridge further downstream, increased the force and flow of the river which was damaging the Westminster Bridge. After deliberations in parliamentary committees between 1844 – 1850, it was finally agreed that a new bridge should be built. A Commission was set up in 1851 to sort out the details. Work began in 1854 and was completed eight years later.

The bridge with its seven arches, was designed by architect and engineer Thomas Page in collaboration with Sir Charles Barry, who together with Augustus Pugin had won the commission to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after the destructive fire of October 1834. Gothic in character, it was designed to complement the Perpendicular Gothic style of the parliamentary buildings which were still in the process of being rebuilt. The House of Lords first sat in 1847 and the House of Commons in 1852. An article in Engineering Timelines details “Barry’s contribution to the design of Westminster Bridge included the Gothic quatrefoils in the spandrels of the arches and the ornamental shields…”, and the cast iron lamps, also designed by Barry add a finishing touch of elegance. The south-facing Gothic pierced trefoils on the balustrades have been the cause of much amusement. For at certain times of the day if the sun is shining through them, casting light and shadows on the pavement below, the walkway is adorned with unmistakable male anatomical forms. An unintended curlicue…

The balustrades were completely replaced during restoration work in 1997 but it was back in 1970 that the bridge, formerly grey, was painted in its present green, as an echo of the colours in the Chamber of the House of Commons. It was a decision said to have been taken by the Historic Buildings Committee of the former Greater London Council, then in charge of several of London’s bridges, including Westminster Bridge.

Joining London, Canon Street Railway, Millennium and Southwark Bridges, Westminster Bridge is one of the next of four bridges across the Thames to be illuminated as part of the Illuminated River art project designed by Leo Villareal. “It will be lit underneath in soft green tones, complementing the bridge’s characteristic colour and activating the latticework beneath.”

The Gothic Revival lanterns on the bridge designed by Charles Barry, pay tribute to Victoria and Albert with a V and an A in the centre of their structure. In the background, the London Eye
The Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with the date 1862
The Coat of Arms of Prince Albert on the left and Queen Victoria on the right
The Coat of Arms of the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Prime Minister when the bridge was opened in 1862

Westminster Bridge and its traffic, both vehicle and pedestrian, is watched over by two statues, strong symbols of England: on the west side, the Celtic Queen Boudicca, who led the Iceni tribe against the Romans in c. 60 AD and on the east side the South Bank Lion, saved for the nation by King George VI. And an article in the online blog Heritage Calling adds an interesting note on traffic : “The current bridge became the site of the world’s first traffic light in December 1868. Consisting of three semaphore arms on a pillar, with red and green lamps for night-time use, the traffic light was operated by a specially trained police constable.”

Boudicca leading her troops onward at the west end of Westminster Bridge
The noble South Bank Lion standing guard at the east end of Westminster Bridge

If you have the time to linger, Westminster Bridge is a good place from which to look out over the Thames, its river traffic, and London. At least it has been so until this time of Covid. However, I hope that when we’ve got through the pandemic, you will be able to see the pleasure and party boats as I saw them last year. In normal times there’s always a fair amount movement on the river.

View from Westminster Bridge: A City Cruise returns to Westminster Pier
M.V.s SAPELE, MERCURIA and LONDON ROSE in a triskelion dance

Though the outings of sightseeing boats have mostly been severely compromised, essential services have been maintained throughout the pandemic. The Cory waste transporting tugs continued to tow their barges downstream and the needs of London’s super sewer’s constructors Tideway were supplied by tugs bringing essential parts and supplies for their work. Added to that, safety and security along the river and the surrounding area has been assured throughout by Port of London, the Thames RNLI, Fire Rescue, and Police patrol vessels.

Cory tug REDOUBT, with her waste barges in tow, heading towards Westminster Bridge
Livett’s tug FELIX pushing a barge of tunnel segments upstream to a Tideway site

There are many hazards along the Thames that navigators have to be aware of. And one in particular is how to deal with the several characteristics of tidal flow and currents through and around the cluster of bridges over the river in central London. Westminster Bridge has another potential hazard in that its central arch has a lower clearance height during an average high water spring tide than both Lambeth Bridge, the next bridge upstream, and Charing Cross Rail Bridge, the following bridge downstream. This can lead to a nervous half hour or so when captains, with the help of their crew, work out if they have enough clearance to go through safely.

A close shave

Yet Westminster Bridge has a darker side too. Over the years, it has been one of the places where, for many unable to face the problems in their lives, they have ended them by climbing over the parapets and jumping down into the icy waters below.

Still fresh in people’s minds are the tragic deaths and woundings of innocent Londoners and tourists in a brutal terrorist attack on March 22, 2017, as the perpetrator mounted the pavement in his car and drove at speed hitting pedestrians indiscriminately. Six people were killed and around fifty wounded, including several among a party of schoolchildren from Concarneau in Brittany. Among the dead was the unarmed PC Keith Palmer, stabbed after the killer left his vehicle and ran through the gates of Parliament determined to inflict more harm. He was shot dead.

William Wordsworth, whose association with Westminster Bridge is one of London’s best known literary landmarks, as you will see further below, also wrote London, 1802. A powerful poem addressed to Milton, it is a lament for England’s lost happiness, culture, manners and virtue, a lament that resonates strongly with many today. England is: “a fen of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen […] We are selfish men…”

Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster one early evening before restoration work began on the parliamentary buildings

Yet Wordsworth also wrote his paean to London Upon Westminster Bridge in that same year. His different mood and the very different London of over two hundred years ago may be an unrecognisable, romanticised London, but is a moving vision all the same:
“…This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky, –
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will…”

As night falls you can fade out extraneous traffic noise and look over the river to see its ever-changing patterns and reflections…

Westminster Bridge and the London Eye in the fading winter light

…as office and apartment lights are switched on, turning the Thames into multiple glitter paths of liquid gold. And yes, though today’s landscape would be mostly alien to Wordsworth, it is still possible, despite everything, to feel as he did, a deep sense of calm while watching the river.

An early night-time view of Lambeth Bridge from Westminster Bridge

Further information
Printed
Bradley, Simon and Pevsner, Nikolaus: The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster, Yale University Press, 2003.
Cookson, Brian: ‘Westminster Bridge’, London Historians, 2010.
Stone Peter: ‘The Original Westminster Bridge’

Online
See British History Online for more detail.
Engineering Timelines: Westminster Bridge 1862.
Heritage Calling Interesting details on the lighting of London’s Bridges.
The Liquid Highway the leading river Thames resource, with news and a fine collection of photos.
The Londonist: 11 Secrets of Westminster Bridge.
The Port of London Authority, table of bridge heights.

RIB around the River…

Out on the Thames for pleasure, thrills, and… security

If a flash of red cuts across your sightline brightening up the river as you walk along the Thames Path National Trail in central London, you are most likely catching sight of a Thames Rocket, one of the three tourist Rib companies that ply for custom on the waters of the central London tidal Thames. Also vying for your attention are the yellow Thames RIB Experience and blue ThamesJet craft as they surge forward leaving behind an impressive trail of foaming white water.

As social distancing and other rules in this time of Coronavirus are constantly subject to change, it would be wise to check up-to-date arrangements with each individual company by clicking on the links above here or at the end of the piece. But so far, since the easing of the initial lockdown, things seem to have been ticking over albeit at a reduced capacity.

Thames Rockets have two starting points: one from the London Eye, which is basically a sightseeing tour and the other from London Bridge City Pier, a high speed trip to the Thames Barrier and back. Since Charlie Matheson created the company in 2006, it has become “one of the most popular ways of seeing London”. Not only do visitors see the famous sights from a different and interesting water-level perspective, they also enjoy a lively commentary and the excitement of speeding along certain sections of the river.

“Red Rocket” owning the Thames
“Captain Rocket” passing the Palace of Westminster at a stately pace
Eyes fixed attentively on their guide, passengers are skilfully steered through the Blackfriars Bridges

The Thames Rib Experience company’s striking waspy-coloured craft have been skimming the waters of the Thames at high speed for over ten years to the delight of their passengers. Boarding from Embankment Pier, Tower Pier and North Greenwich Pier, they enjoy an exciting ride while discovering central London’s notable sights and buildings.

Thames Rib Experience speeding past the Tower of London and Traitor’s Gate
Thames Rib Experience “Exterminator” emerging at speed from Blackfriars Bridge
Thames Rib Experience “Eliminator” approaching Tower Bridge

ThamesJet, the newest of the three Rib companies, is owned and operated by the long-established City Cruises, who as you may have seen, run a large fleet of sightseeing boats that show off London and the Thames at a more leisurely pace. However, though the Ribs are available for private hire, their normal sightseeing service has been put on hold until April 2021 so it would be best to check out their website below.

ThamesJet “Blue Thunder”
ThamesJet “Blue Lightening”
A ThamesJet approaching Tower Bridge past the distinctive blue boats of the Thames Marine Services

But there’s a more serious side to Ribs on the Thames. From time to time a fast moving Police Rib will disturb the water. Highly manoeuvrable and versatile, these lightening speed Ribs are used for security training and escort duty, but their main purpose is, when necessary, to carry armed response units swiftly to the scene of an incident. Their firearms crews are ready to intervene at any moment and, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes see them in training.

A recent film by Maritime Police Instructor Danny Mizon posted by @liquid_highway1 shows one of their joint exercises with Thames Clippers, and he goes on to quote Mizon, who wrote: “Training our colleagues to board larger vessels travelling at higher speeds has been part of both London’s and the national capability for many years now but we couldn’t do it without the cooperation of our industry partners.”

Police Rib disturbing reflections on a practice run
Police Rib in high speed training by the Palace of Westminster

In March 2017, the counter terrorism police worked with City Cruises on an exercise involving the highjack of a sightseeing boat on the river Thames. The simulation was very realistic and warnings that this was going to take place with high speed pursuits and gunfire, were put out in advance on social media and elsewhere, so as not to alarm the public. It brought together, the Port of London Authority; the Coastguard; The RNLI; the London Ambulance Service; and the London Fire Brigade in a valuable exercise of coordination and cooperation underling the importance of protecting the river as lifeline to our city

Click on the Thames RIBs below to see latest information and Covid Secure preparations
Thames Rockets
Thames RIB Experience
ThamesJet and ThamesJet Private Hire owned by City Cruises

What’s in a name?

Names of some first responder vessels on the central London Thames

From the names of the London Fire Brigade vessels that clearly mark their function; the Port of London patrol launches linked to geography of the river; the RNLI’s homage to benefactors inscribed on their lifeboats; through to the Thames River Police’s commemoration of their founders and past heroes, there is much to reflect upon as you walk by the river.

The London Fire Brigade has two fire boats moored at their Lambeth river station by Lambeth Bridge: FIRE DART and FIRE FLASH. And, as their names suggest, they are ready to arrive with great speed to deal both with fires in buildings facing the Thames and on boats, as well as “rescuing vessels that have got into trouble, towing distressed vessels, and rescuing people and animals from both water and mud.”

Fire Rescue vessel FIRE DART, used daily for operations
Fire Rescue vessel FIRE FLASH is used for training and as a backup for FIRE DART

Among the many working vessels of the Port of London Authority there are four catamaran launches patrolling the stretch of the river from Putney Bridge to the North Sea. Simply named after Thames Bridges they are: BARNES, KEW, LAMBETH, and SOUTHWARK. Spotted from the embankment at Victoria Tower Gardens, the last two have been seen most frequently during lockdown.

Port of London vessel BARNES heading upstream past Westminster
Port of London vessel KEW heading downstream past Westminster
Port of London vessel LAMBETH passing a mooring close to Lambeth Bridge
Port of London vessel SOUTHWARK heading upstream towards Lambeth Bridge

Eighteen years ago four permanent RNLI lifeboat stations were set up along the Thames at: Teddington, Chiswick, Tower Pier (now by Waterloo Bridge and known as ‘Tower’), and Gravesend. Their creation came after inquiries and reports into the tragic sinking of party boat the MARCHIONESS. Fifty-one young people were drowned on August 28, 1989, when the dredger BOWBELLE rammed and sank her near Southwark Bridge. The RNLI now have a twenty-four hour presence on the tidal Thames every day of the year and have saved many lives. Tower lifeboat station is the busiest in the country.

Tower Lifeboat HURLEY BURLY taking a casualty to safety

HURLEY BURLY was named at a ceremony on October 31, 2011, in honour of Kay Hurley MBE, 1918-2020, who funded the lifeboat and was a major benefactor of the RNLI.

Chiswick Lifeboat BRAWN CHALLENGE

Chiswick Lifeboat, BRAWN CHALLENGE, was named in 2010 after Ross Brawn, OBE, engineer, and Formula One team principal, who initiated a massive fund-raising challenge to raise the £350,000 needed for the new lifeboat.

Chiswick Lifeboat DONNA AND DOUGIE B

The lifeboat DONNA and DOUGIE B was named in 2012 by Olympic rower Greg Searle in honour of Douglas ‘Dougie’ and Rosemary ‘Donna’ Battams, who having had no children, decided to leave money in their will to the RNLI. They had a strong association with the sea as Dougie had been in the Merchant Navy for many years before coming to work on the Thames for the Port of London Authority.

PATRICK COLQUHOUN II named after one of the founders of the Thames River Police

The introduction to the Thames Police Museum at Wapping, explains that “The Thames River Police was the first policing body ever to be set up. Its sole objective was the prevention and detection of crime on the Thames and it was to become the forerunner of many other police forces throughout the world.” The Thames River Police force was set up in 1798 by Patrick Colquhoun and John Harriott to counter the quite staggering amount of thieving that went on with impunity in and around the crowded London docks, causing great losses to importers and tax authorities alike. Some years later in 1839, the force, renamed the Thames Division, was amalgamated with London’s Metropolitan Police force, which had been created by Sir Robert Peel ten years earlier.

JOHN HARRIOTT IV, named in honour of joint founder of the Thames River Police
GABRIEL FRANKS II named after the first police officer to die in the Service

Gabriel Franks was the first British police officer to die on duty. He was employed by the Marine Police Office and was hit by a bullet while observing events during the Wapping Coal Riot in October 1798. He died a few days later. His memory is kept alive on the modern vessel named after him in the fleet of the Metropolitan Police Service Marine Policing Unit, as the service is now known.

SIR ROBERT PEEL II making a splash

After becoming Home Secretary in 1822, Sir Robert Peel oversaw prison reform and introduced wide ranging changes to British criminal law. In 1829 he saw through the Metropolitan Police Act, which set up the official police force for London. There is a fine model of the first launch (in service from 1947 – 1963) to bear the name SIR ROBERT PEEL in the Thames Police Museum.

NINA MACKAY II

Seen frequently patrolling the Thames is the MPS Marine Policing Unit launch, named in honour of PC Nina Mackay, aged twenty-five, who was fatally stabbed while arresting a man on October 24, 1997. There is a Memorial to her in East London where she fell but memory of her is kept in the public consciousness as the boat bearing her name frequently passes through central London on patrol.

As well as direct references to geographical or functional links, innovators, philanthropists and heroes have been remembered in the naming of boats that form an essential lifeline along the tidal Thames. I have only touched upon a few of them here but perhaps enough to awaken your curiosity as they pass by, serving Londoners and visitors alike.

Further information
London Fire Brigade
Port of London Authority patrol launches
RNLI on the Thames
Thames River Police Museum
You can also follow @LondonFire @LondonPortAuth @Londonlifeboats on Twitter.

Police launch NINA MACKAY on a “shout”…

The Naming of Tugs

The punchy names of Venetian tugs set me thinking…

Revisiting an anniversary trip to Venice in 1986 while sorting out photos during lockdown, I came across these tugs captured on film by my husband. Their assertive names made me think of some of the tugs that I’ve come across and photographed on the central London tidal Thames, the most noticeable being the Cory Riverside Energy tugs on their daily trips collecting and removing containers of London’s waste.

Their names ‘Reclaim’, ‘Recovery’, ‘Redoubt’, ‘Regain’ and ‘Resource’ make their mission and determination clear. Working with the tides, barges of empty containers are towed on the flood tide to collection points upstream and the filled containers are taken back downstream on the ebb tide. Punching through the water these purposeful red-capped tugs and their bright yellow containers command attention.

Cory tug RECLAIM towing empty barges upstream
Cory tug RECOVERY towing filled containers downstream
Cory tug REDOUBT heading downstream past the old County Hall
Cory tug REGAIN emerging from Lambeth Bridge
Cory tug RESOURCE passing under Lambeth Bridge

Another group of tugs, vessels in the fleet of GPS Marine Contractors Ltd., have had a different approach to their naming. The majority of them have names ending in “ia”. This idea is a legacy from the famous William Watkins Ltd. tugs which became part of a new company, Ship Towage (London) Ltd., on February 1st, 1950. In Thames Ship Towage 1933 – 1992 by J.E. Reynolds, the ‘William Watkins Ltd. Fleet List 1933-1950’ underlines GPS’s historic link with the company as back then names included: ‘Hibernia’, ‘Nubia’, ‘Scotia’, ‘Arcadia’, ‘Badia’, ‘Doria’, ‘Vincia’ ‘Muria’, ‘Fabia’, and ‘Cervia’. And John Spencer of GPS Marine explains that “many of the names you will see on our tugs were originally used by Watkins, now prefixed by GPS for reasons of corporate identity. But the tradition of ending names with an ‘ia’ still follows the same theme, such as for the tugs Iberia and Illyria”.

GPS tugs tow barges transporting tunnel segments upstream for sections of the tunnel lining of London’s new super sewer, the Thames Tideway project. Excavated tunnel material is loaded onto immense barges and towed downstream to East Tilbury in Essex. All this relieves London from much traffic and pollution. Their barges also carry aggregates to be used for making concrete, upstream to Hanson in Wandsworth.

Heading towards Westminster Bridge, GPS tug CAMBRIA pushing a barge loaded with spoil downstream
GPS tug ANGLIA side-towing a barge of building materials upstream
GPS tug IBERIA on a solo mission
GPS tug INDIA towing barge 1610 upstream to collect spoil from the Tideway tunnel works
GPS tug CERVIA emerging from Lambeth Bridge side-towing a barge of spoil downstream

Also involved in the transportation of material for London’s new sewer is the company Thamescraft Dry Docking Services, whose tug DEVOUT attracts quite a few *Likes* for my Twitter images. Spotting another of their tugs, DEVOTED, I was curious to find out if their names had any significance. Jack Deverell explained that “it’s just a play on our family name. The multicat ‘Jack D’ was named after me many years ago and the ‘Emilia D’, after my daughter.” These days ‘Emilia D’ is a familiar sight on the central London Thames.

Based in Greenwich for over twenty years the company operates one of London’s only remaining boatyards, carrying out half of all the annual maintenance work needed for London’s maritime tourism industry, and three-quarters of the Thames pleasure boat refit and maintenance work. In addition they deal with emergency repairs to vessels, piers, pontoons.

Thamescraft tug DEVOUT pushing tunnel segments upstream
Tug DEVOUT towing a barge after unloading tunnel segments further upstream
Thamescraft tug DEVOTED heading downstream past one of the Westminster moorings

Some time ago, the London Port Authority had a tradition of naming a number of their tugs with the prefix ‘PLA’. They included this rather random selection of names: ‘Plagal’, ‘Plangent’, ‘Platina’, ‘Plateau’, ‘Plastron’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Plasma’, ‘Plankton’, and ‘Placard’ to fit their pattern. I came across ‘Plashy’ last year, delivered to the PLA in 1951, and after two changes of ownership she is now part of Thames Link Marine Ltd.

Tug TLM PLASHY heading upstream towards Lambeth Bridge last summer

Boats of all kinds acquire their names for different reasons. Some to project a group or company image; some to honour a dignitary, a past hero, a benefactor, or a family member; and some are witty or whimsical. Ben, Waterman and Lighterman of the river Thames, told me that J.T. Palmer & Sons., at Gravesend, named three of their tugs ‘Nipalong’, ‘Nipaway’, and ‘Niparound’. However when the port authority of Auckland, New Zealand, was choosing names for their new electric tug, ‘Tuggy McTugface’ was deemed a step too far and excluded from the list.

Further Information
Detailed information on Thames Tugs: https://www.thamestugs.co.uk

The Liquid Highway: a rich resource for all kinds of information on the river Thames: https://theliquidhighway.co.uk/about/

A great Twitter feed for Thames news and historical photographs: @liquid_highway1

By clicking here you can see my earlier articles on Cory and GPS tugs.