Julia Fullerton-Batten Old Father Thames

The River Thames is not even the longest river in the British Isles and a mere pygmy in comparison with many other rivers in the world, yet its significance to British and world history is immense. The river starts as a small trickle in hills to the northwest of London and travels for nearly 450 km through the south of England, the centre of London and thence out into the North Sea via the Thames estuary, passing some of England’s most picturesque towns and villages on its way.

London is one of the major cities of the world today, but it would not have existed if it were not for the River Thames passing through it.

As a teenager I moved from Germany to live in Oxford on the banks of the River Thames, though the stretch of the river there is called Isis, and the Thames has been a fascination for me ever since. I now live in West London but am still just a short walk from the river. Its constantly changing face with the tide and the seasons, the activities on and around the river are for me compulsive viewing and inspiration. But above all there is the history of the Thames along its entire length with an infinite variety of stories that encompass birth, baptism, death, flooding, sun-bathing on the shore, the story of the ‘Ladies Bridge’, messages in a bottle, riverside scavenging youngsters, prostitution, damaged masterpieces, and countless other whimsical, idiosyncratic and tragic happenings.

I am not alone in my admiration of the glories of the river. It has been an inspiration for many painters. There are more paintings of the River Thames than I had ever imagined could be possible. Monet painted the river repeatedly. Turner too captured the working river even revealing the early nineteenth century fumes and smoke from the city’s factories and river traffic. Whistler was yet another. In the 1860s and 70s he was drawn to paint the bustling and rapidly changing urban neighborhoods close to the river. But when one views all these works, it is not at all difficult to understand why they all found it such an attractive, potent subject matter.

My fascination with the Thames is my current project. The investigation and photographing of cultural and historical narratives which occurred along its banks.

The Frost Fair of 1814 Fire Eater

With our present concerns about global warming, it may be a surprise to many to learn that the northern hemisphere was in the grip of a ‘Little Ice Age’ between the 17th century and early 19th century. During this period the River Thames froze over in 24 winters. On six occasions beginning in 1608 and ending in 1814, the ice was thick enough for Londoners to set up tents and hold the famous Frost Fairs.

Even back then, it was apparent that the construction of the ‘Old’ London Bridge was a root cause for the build-up of ice as its many narrow arches reduced the flow of water and ice was more prone to form. When the bridge was demolished in 1831 and replaced by the ‘New’ London Bridge it was built with much wider arches. Combined with other changes made to improve the flow of the river freezing over of the tidal part of the River Thames became a thing of the past and so the Frost Fair of 1814 was the last one Londoners have experienced.

The lead up to this Frost Fair was an unnaturally heavy frost, severe even for those times. Over a period stretching from the end of December 1813 to the end of January 1814, the ice build-up became thick enough for people to ice skate or sledge across the river from one riverbank to the other. Unable to ply their trade, the watermen demanded a toll for letting people onto the ice.

Knowing the history of prior Frost Fairs London tradespeople soon set up make shift tents which they decorated with ‘flags of all nations, streamers and signs’. A street called ‘City Road’ was created. All kinds of entertainment were on offer. The most startling event was when an African elephant was led across the frozen Thames close to Blackfriars Bridge.

Over the next four days until a gradual thaw set in Londoners flocked onto the frozen river to enjoy the party. Kitchens and furnaces were set up offering food and, of course, gin and beer were plentiful. Pickpockets, gamblers and prostitutes all did a roaring trade, especially as visitors got more drunk. Some paid to have the watermen escort them off the ice again, especially as the ice was not entirely safe in places. In fact, it was recorded that three men broke through the ice, disappeared from sight and were presumably drowned in the freezing water.

Annette Kellerman Swan of the River Thames

Annette Kellerman was an Australian professional swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer, and business owner. She arrived in the UK in 1905 aged 19, with the goal to swim the English Channel, she failed three times. However, she became the first woman ever to swim any distance on the Thames. She swam from Putney to Blackwall, a distance of 27km. On these occasions she wore a one-piece bathing suit that she had self-designed. This was very daring and controversial as, at that time women still wore bloomers and long sleeve dresses. Her daring apparel was duly noted and became headlines in the UK press. Two years later she was arrested in the USA for indecency as she continued her fight for the right of women to wear a fitted one-piece bathing suit above the knee.

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson gained worldwide recognition and became the heroine of the British population, especially among womenfolk, when, in 1930 aged 27, she became the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia. Her plane was a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth bi-plane. She named it Jason. It now hangs in the Science Museum in London. She subsequently set records for flights to Moscow, New York and Tokyo, and survived several crash-landings in doing so. As well as gaining her incredible pilot credentials she graduated from Sheffield University with a Bachelor Degree in Economics.

In 1940, at the outbreak of WW II, with 164 other female pilots, she signed up with the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Their job was to ferry military aircraft, fighters and bombers, single-handedly to various RAF bases around the country.

My image illustrates the tragic death of this remarkable woman. She lost her way flying a plane in bad weather from the North of England to a base near Oxford. She lost her way and had to bail out of her plane when it ran out of fuel over the Thames Estuary. A minesweeper close by saw her enter the rough sea on her parachute and attempted to rescue her. The boat’s commandant jumped overboard, but was unsuccessful. He died two days later from hypothermia. Amy’s body was never found.

Bathers at Tower Bridge

Standing today in the shadow of Tower Bridge, one of the most iconic of London’s bridges, we would never consider that, in the 18th Century, the area was once a popular bathing spot for all classes of society, foremost, however, for women and their children escaping the claustrophobia of crowded dwellings in Central and the East End of London. Of course, it was only possible to bathe or sunbathe for short periods of time as high tide on the Thames was every 3 – 4 hours, making it unsafe to do so. Laws prohibiting bathing were introduced in 1815 for indecency as men had started bathing in the nude. Tower Beach, as it was called, was used for paddling, sunbathing and swimming from 1934 to 1971, but the poor water quality once again forced closure. However, the improved quality of water in the Thames may soon mean bathing will be possible again.

I chose to profile the 1950s era in my image, photographing women and children in vintage one-piece swimwear and period dresses; the men in the shot were going about their daily business against the iconic background of the Thames and Tower Bridge. Interposed are some of the entertainments of the day, Punch and Judy shows, donkey rides, and the fast food on offer, ice cream and hot dog stalls. Most of the stalls and equipment were designed to facilitate a hasty retreat from the artificially prepared beach as the tide began to rise.

Escaping the Flood

Flooding has occurred along the River Thames for millennia. As the size of London and its population grew, the effects of flooding grew more intense, causing considerable damage to homes, the land, disruption to people’s lives and death. High walls, now called The Embankment, were built along the banks of the river in London in the 18th Century but flooding still occurred. Only when the Thames Barrier became operational in 1982 could the potential for flood waters reaching London be successfully controlled.

In the first half of the 20th Century flooding happened with such regularity that people living on low lying land along the banks of the Thames developed a very stoic attitude towards the flooding. Black and white photographs from that time recorded images escaping from the upper windows of their homes, walking on a raised pathway of wooden planks, rowing boats or paddling improvised craft down flooded streets, and vehicles ploughing up to their axles through the flood water.

My image shows two elegantly dressed ladies poling their way through deep flood water perched precariously on a door they had wrenched off its hinges. A little girl sitting in a galvanised bath accompanies them. They have rescued their pet rabbit and carry it with them in a birdcage, the only receptacle they could find in their haste. A suitcase contains a few clothes for a few night’s stay in drier accommodation. In the background, the river has claimed a prestigious victim as rather expensive, locally parked car idly bobs up and down, partially submerged in the flood waters.

The Lady of Shalott

The famous English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson first published ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in 1832, a poem based on one of the legends surrounding King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. In his poem ‘The Lady’ lives isolated in a tower on an island called Shalott close to Camelot, King Arthur’s palace. She bore the curse that if ever she looked at Camelot from her window she would be punished. Her only view of the outside world was its reflection in a mirror. Too curious, she one day stole a look, the mirror shattered. Bewitched by what she had seen she climbed out of the tower window, took to a boat, and floated down the Thames River in the direction of Camelot.

On the bank of the river, she sees Sir Lancelot, one of King Arthur’s knights, and instantly falls in love with him. But he does not see her and cannot return her feelings. She dies before reaching Camelot where Lancelot finally sees her – but only as a corpse.

My image is based on the famous 1888 painting made by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, ‘The Lady of Shalott’. He portrays ‘The Lady’ as she sits in the boat as a sorrowful maiden dressed in virginal white. He heightens her sensuality with bright red lips, long flowing hair, and a low-slung sash. She has just cast off from the island, the mooring chain is still in her hand, a crucifix lies near the bow of the boat and three nearby candles suggest her spirituality. But only one of the candles remains lit, a portend of the fateful future awaiting her. The tapestry that drags in the water is one that she had woven on her loom during her lonely days in the tower.

Waterhouse painted three different versions of The Lady of Shalott. It is believed that his wife modeled for this one.


John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, hanging in the Tate Gallery, London, has long been one of my favourite works of art. Ophelia was a noble-woman in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. She was frustrated in her love of Hamlet. The painting shows the beautiful and vulnerable Ophelia lying on her back in a stream after falling from a tree, still clutching flowers that she had just collected. She was singing, unaware of her eminent pending doom. Air trapped in her clothing kept her afloat until they were saturated, and she drowned.

It is well known that Millais created the painting in two stages. The first stage in 1851 was to paint the background, using the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey as his location. The second stage in 1852 was to paint in Ophelia, using Elizabeth Siddal (‘Lizzie’)as his model. She had been a milliner and was only 19 years old when discovered by the Pre-Raphaelites, who appreciated her unique beauty. She sat for several of them before Millais hired her for his painting of the second part of his Ophelia project.

During preparatory researches for my ‘Thames’ project I was delighted to discover that Hogsmill River is a tributary of the Thames. I decided that this justified including the very moving story of the creation of Millais painting in the project.

I was aware that several other photographers had shot versions of the Ophelia painting. Although I decided to shoot the scene in its entirety, I otherwise wanted to make my image as authentic to the actual creation of Millais’ painting as possible. With the help of the vicar of the local Baptist Church, who knew the details of Millais’ stay in the locality, I was able to shoot the scene on the exact spot where he created the first part of his painting in 1851. Furthermore, recognizing their importance to the interpretation of the content of the painting I replicated in my image every single flower present in the painting. In addition, I ensured that my model had similar features, hair and skin coloring to those of Lizzie. I dressed her in an antique dress onto which my stylist handstitched the gold applique to replicate the dress she wore in the painting.

For his second stage of the painting Millais’ had Lizzie lie fully dressed in a water-filled bathtub. Now winter-time he kept the water warm with oil lamps placed under the tub. Once, pre-occupied with his work, he let the oil lamps go out. Lizzie lay acquiescent in the increasingly colder water for several hours, afterwards she became very ill and was sickly for the rest of her short life. To ease her health problems she took laudanum, an opiate, and became addicted to it. She experienced a long and turbulent relationship with another famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti before marrying him and bearing a still-born baby daughter. Depressed, she died from an overdose of laudanum, aged 33. What a tragic coincidence that Lizzie’s death in real life eventually mirrored the fictional fate of Ophelia!

The Grain Tower

The Grain Tower is an off-shore fort that was built in the middle of the 19th Century to protect the River Thames from invasion by the French navy. Standing 600 metres out to sea, it can only be reached a high tide by boast or at low-tide by a causeway. The tower was initially oval and three stories high, with 3.6metre thick the walls. It was named after the next nearest town of Grain in Kenta and was manned by a gun crew with barracks, storehouse and officer’s quarters. Internal gangways connected various parts of the building.

My story involves a report in The Times newspaper of 23rd May 1867, which reported that Marie Eugenie, the youngest daughter of Captain E. F. S. Lloyd of the Royal Engineers had died at the Grain Tower. We can assume that he was the commanding officer at the time, also that his wife and daughter were residing in the barracks at the time. Marie Eugenie may have fallen sick from tuberculosis, then a very common cause of death, or experienced a fatal accident. In my image we see the disconsolate father carrying the body of his precious daughter across the causeway to her burial place on the mainland, in Grain.

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