The Thames And The Constraint Of Its Flow

The discursive currents of flow were lived out in the context of the specific "natural area" and historical conditions of the Thames.

Geoarchaeological reports indicate that the condition of the Thames has changed considerably in the period of human occupation (Gibbard 1985). This change meant a move away from a Thames of irregular shallows and pools to a more ordered river with many of its most awkward meanders cut through, its shallows dredged, its descent regulated by weirs. This change can be seen as the result of a long process by which a discourse of improvement was constructed in such a way that the river was represented as in need of engineering.

While at the beginning of the early modern era the condition of the Thames was seen as a manifestation of the harmonies of creation, by the eighteenth century it had generally come to be seen as a work of fallen nature. For Leland (written 1535-1543, published 1744) the condition of the river even at its source gave evidence of divine benevolence where "is the stream servid with many of springes" (vol. III, 100). Likewise, for Camden (1695) the river's upper course was "pleasant and gentle" and in harmony with the landscape (col. 137). Yet by the end of the sixteenth century, drawing on the direct experience of users of the river, there was a growing belief that the condition of the river was unsatisfactory. Most important in the development of this discourse was Bishop's petition of 1585 which was principally directed at the presence of watermills on the river that "stoppe the course of. ..Ryver [sic]" (in Furnivall 1908: IV, 418). Similarly Taylor's dyspeptic catalogue of the wrongs of the river (1632) linked the damage caused by private interests that had "barr'd its course with stops and locks" (unpaginated).

The desired improvement of the Thames was enabled by an administrative infrastructure established to control the river (Fishbourne 1882). The Thames was one of England's four Royal Rivers and from Saxon times had been administered by the Crown (Thacker 1968). In 1197 conservancy of the Thames was transferred by the Crown to the Corporation of London, which came to exercise a haphazard administrative control over the river below Staines. The Crown continued to intervene sporadically in the regulation of the river but the first time that an administrative apparatus for the river was made permanent was with the establishment of the Oxford-Burcot Commission in 1605 to improve the Thames between Cricklade and Burcot. Comprehensive and permanent regulation of the river was only established in 1751 with a commission given power over the whole river above Staines, but the 1751 Commissioners proved relatively ineffective and were re-established in 1771 with greater powers and an intended aim of reengineering the river. This attempted solution to the problem of navigation on the Thames was initially met with opposition from the Corporation of London. It was only at the beginning of the nineteenth century that the Corporation, at first tentatively, accepted the Commissioners' case that building locks could improve the river and also protect the rights of property and trade associated with it.

The principal means of implementing improvement on the Thames was the installation of locks and associated works. Weirs existed on the Thames by as early as the end of the eighth century (Thacker 1968) and by 1771 there were perhaps 33 of them (vol. I, 171— 173). They had mainly been installed to create a head of water for milling but also helped produce an increased depth of water for navigation. They were often known as "flashlocks" from the "flash" of water they created when opened to allow navigation and, as millers and navigators alike relied on an adequate head of water, this loss was usually regretted by both parties. From the seventeenth century flashlocks were replaced or supplemented by modern locks, usually then known as "poundlocks", that increased the head of water and economized the amount of water necessary to float a boat up or down the river. While until 1771 there were only 3 locks, such was the rapidity of their adoption that by 1793 this had increased to 25 (vol. I, 156).

To see these works in context it is, however, necessary not only to assess the real pressures of political economy and the imaginary of institutional affairs but also the symbolic realm of the personal feeling of the individuals involved in deciding upon them, so it requires now to turn to Edward Loveden Loveden and William Vanderstegen.

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