The Dark Waters Project

Dark Waters is an audio-based exhibition about the Thames, and RIBA London has commissioned a unique Dark Waters Ordnance Survey Map for the exhibition.

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History at Tower Pier

'For Defoe the 'silver Thames' was silver indeed, liquid coin running through the heart of London. But it has always been a river of trade. Its tidal reaches, from The Nore to London and its environs, have always been hard at work. The Thames has been touched by sweat, and labour, and greed, and poverty, and tears. Its docks and wharves and factories were once the great machinery of empire, but its mercantile history stretches much further back.'

Peter Ackroyd


TOWER NORTH - Legal Quays, City East, The Tower



Smuggling has always been a problem and Elizabeth I decreed that all cargoes should be unloaded only in the established 'Legal Quays' between the Old Bridge and the Tower, where duty could be collected at the Customs House. As trade grew, and unloading became insufferably slow, 'Sufferance Wharfs' had to be established up and downstream to handle 'low duty' cargos.

M St Magnus the Martyr

First mentioned in 1067, the church once stood on the approach road to Old London Bridge, at the bottom of Fish St Hill, which led up to the Roman Forum on Cornhill. The first to burn in 1666 it was dedicated to the Norwegian Earl of the Orkneys 1116. When the New London Bridge was sited upstream in 1832 the church was cut adrift from its former revenue stream, and now sits on the expressway that Lower Thames St, the old quayside road, has become. Inside is a detailed model of the Old Bridge made by a parishioner, and one of the bridge's wooden piles sits by the doorway.

M PUDDING LANE, Estchepe (Eastcheap)

The oldest name for this street tells its story. Retheresgatelane means 'Cattle Lane'. Animals were ferried from Rotherhithe (Cattle Harbour), driven to Eastcheap, once London's principal meat market, and their dripping entrails (or puddings) carried back and dumped into the river.

M St Botolph's Wharf

The Muscovy Company leased the long-gone St Botolph's wharf on the legal Quays. It was led to by the still existing St Botolph's Lane.

Billingsgate Quay, Billingsgate Stream

At the moth of this lost stream developed a free port, equal in importance only to Queenhithe. Once one of the busiest and most important in medieval London, goods landed include fresh produce, citrus from Spain (hence 'oranges and lemons say the bells' of nearby St Clement's), salt, coal, and after the reign of William III (1688), fish. The market developed its own argot, particularly amongst the women (fishwives-tongue), who also had a reputation for bare-knuckle fighting.

The current Old Billingsgate Market building was built by Sir Horace Jones the architect of Tower Bridge. In 1982 the market moved to the Isle of Dogs. There was a story that the basement of the old fish market took 10 years to thaw. It was refurbished by Richard Rogers in 1989, and is now an events space.

M The London Coal Exchange, Lower Thames Street

The City was allowed to take a coal-tax, thousands of tons of which were coasted from the North East to the Coal Exchange wharves. It was this tax, on dirty smoky fuel, that funded Wren's rebuilding of more than 50 city churches and St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666.


Taxes on unloading at the Legal Quays were mentioned as early as 1275. Wool was then the then largest export. From the 13thC cargo was assessed for duty here at the Customs House built on Wool Quay, and it became the commercial centre of the Port of London. Geoffrey Chaucer worked here. Because of the storage of gunpowder, wines and tar it exploded in 1714. The current Old Customs House was built in 1817.

Ships took on a 'tide waiter' at Gravesend and when they arrived at Customs House captains fought their way to a desk in the 'Long Room' to register their load. Only then would a 'landing waiter' escort the unloaded goods to be weighed and assized. The main quay became so crowded that specialised Legal Quays subdivided ships by loads. Even so ships might wait for weeks in the Pool for assize.

In the 1860s fully half the Civil Service were employed in Customs and Excise, reflecting the huge earnings that the state made through the Port of London.

St Dunstan's-in-the-East

Dating back to 1300 this ancient mariners' church had an inspiring pre-1666 spire. Wren rebuilt it and in the storms of 1703 it was the one structure he felt to be invulnerable. Now ruined its garden remains as a secret refuge amongst the City's tower blocks.

Pool of London (Lower/Upper), The Long Ferry, PLA

After Alfred moved his court back within the city walls in the 9thC as defence against Danish marauders the deep Pool of London replaced Saxon Lundenwic as the Port of London. Traders and merchants gathered and formed Guilds such as the Mercers who specialised in wool and cloth. By the 14thC it had become the largest British Port; an importer of grain from upstream, and fish from Great Yarmouth and Ramsgate.

Known as the 'Long Ferry', the Pool was the first sight of land for most Elizabethan visitors to London from the Estuary or abroad. All had to disembark here, and foreigners were added to the register of foreign bodies, more accurate than any census of actual Londoners, and then to had to take a wherry upstream of the impassable London Bridge if they wanted to travel further upstream.

The Upper and Lower Pools are divided by Tower Bridge, whose drawbridge was engineered as a compromise between tall-masted shipping and the growing Road Lobby. Once opened many times a day it is now seldom raised.

In 1909 the Port of London Authority (PLA) was established to control the riverside and enclosed docks from The Nore in the estuary, to Teddington Lock upstream.


Old Jewry

The medieval Christian church forbade usury, and so Jewish foreigners, the only people allowed to deal in money, became the effective financiers of the Kings of England. Protected by the royal troops until 1290, the King eventually expelled the hated Jews, who were viciously persecuted.

Mercers Hall

In 1407 King Henry IV granted a royal charter to the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London (the Hamburg Company), a trading association of Mercers (dealers in wool) and Staplers (exporters of raw wool) that already had its roots in the 1216 Fraternity of St Thomas of Canterbury. Woollens and broadcloth were England's main export, to the Antwerp merchants who sat at the centre of the great medieval European trade axis between the Baltic and the Mediterranean.

The Hanse were the Mercers only effective competitors and their privileges were eventually curtailed under the Tudors (16thC) leaving The Merchant Adventurers with a virtual monopoly which lasted until the 1688 Glorious Revolution, when England was 'invaded' by the Dutch under William of Orange. The Company still existed at the beginning of the 19thC.

The Mercers themselves are still the most powerful London Guild and have produced more than 60 Lord Mayors, including Dick Whittington, Thomas Gresham and Lord Baden-Powell. Their hall, in Ironmonger Lane, is unique in having its own chapel, and was the first home of the Royal (Marine) Exchange Assurance Company. Mercer comes from the French word for merchant.

M Stock's Market

Sitting at the centre of it all, beside the Walbrook, the hub around which the City's financial institutions came and went, was a small riverside market, known in the 12thC as Stock's market.

M Change Alley, The Royal Exchange

The 17thC Garroway's and the 'Baltick & Virginia' Coffee Houses became the City's leading maritime auction houses where ships and cargoes were frenetically traded. Change Alley and the Royal Exchange House (1565), based by Gresham on the Antwerp Bourse, both standing near Stock's Market on the Walbrook, and became so frequented by prostitutes that they had to be rebuilt. Nearby Gresham St was once known as Cattestrate (Middle English catte = prostitute).

Jamaica Coffee House, London Stock Exchange

London's first coffee house, Bowman's of St Michael's Alley, eventually became the Jamaica Coffee House, and now the Jamaica Wine House, in Change Alley. Traders would run between the coffee houses, speculating wildly on voyages setting off, or loads coming in to the Port of London. By the 19thC all coffee houses had been replaced by more formal City institutions like the Stock Exchange, which had originally occupied a site next to Stock's Market, the site of the current Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor of London.

Bank of England

Founded in 1694, in the Grocer's Hall, the bank started with a massive loan to the state for war with France. The Bank soon began producing the banknotes that drove all competition aside, becoming the bankers' bank, where Goldsmiths amongst others deposited their surplus cash. Throughout its history it competed with joint-stock banks and sought a monopoly. It's 1890 bailing-out of Barings showed it to act in national interest whilst still having a peculiar quasi-independent role from the Government.

M Cornehulle (Cornhill)

The tallest of the three City hills, this was the site of the Roman Forum and Basilica.

M St Peter's Cornhill (St Peter upon Cornhill)

Mentioned first in AD 179 this is the oldest church in City. Perched just metres from the highest point in the city it was once the site of the grain exchange or market. It was for a while the church of the British Sailor's Society.

Gracechurch St

Leading from Cornhill via Fish St Hill to the Roman Bridge, this was once the main drag through London. Its name refers to All Hallows Gracechurch, from Middle English Graschirche, church on grassy spot, or maybe church with a grass roof, an old Saxon building tradition.

Langbourne River

Stow, the great chronicler of vanished waters, in 1598 described the even-then buried Langbourne that ran along what is now Lombard St, at that time known as Langburnestrete. The Anglo-Saxon words lang and burne might imply a long stream, but the older name was Langebord, probably referring to market stalls. The river is considered dubious by lost-river hounds, and is not marked on the Dark Waters Map.


Merchants from Venice and Genoa filled the 13thC vacuum left by banished Jewish financiers. They left us the words cash, debtor, double-entry book-keeping, and the name of the street they settled beside the putative Langbourne stream, where they conducted business on benches, or 'bancos'.

Thomas Smythe's House, Philpot Lane

Having lost-out to the Spanish and Portuguese in the Southern Oceans during the 16thC the English again missed a trick after The Dutch government founded a company that soon came to dominate the routes to Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Dutch United East India Company was massively capitalised and they controlled the pricing of the spices needed to flavour and preserve the often rank meat of the European diet.

In 1600 a small group of City merchants banded together to buy a few ships in order to muscle-in on the spice trade, and received a royal charter from Elizabeth I to create the 'Company of Merchants of London Trading to the East Indies', with a monopoly on all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

In 1661, loaded with wool, five ships set sail for The Moluccas. When they arrived, finding no one wanted wool in such a hot climate, they seized a Portuguese carrack of cottons and traded those instead. So began the rapacious 275-year career of the East India Company.

The operation was initially run from the house of Thomas Smythe, one of the founder merchants. The compagnia is an Italian invention, where responsibility is only to shareholders rather than governments, or peoples. The East India Company, which at its peak controlled most of the world's trade, is the mother of the modern corporation and had a history of tussles at home and abroad, becoming a byword for corporate inefficiency and trade monopoly, with tea as the universal symbol of oppression, hence The Boston Tea Party which sparked the American colonial revolution.

The company also led in the import re-export economy where cheap raw materials were shipped home, manufactured in the industrialised slum sweat-shops of Britain and London, and then sold back to the Indians and Chinese in exchange for quality commodities such as tea, saltpetre and spices. The Company raked off profit at each stage, even organising wars to ensure the maintenance of shareholders' dividends.


Built in 1799, where Lloyds now sits, there is no memorial to the 200 foot long 'Monster of Leadenhall', the HQ of the East India Company. Classically columned it had sculptures of Britannia on a Lion, Europa on a horse, both followed by Asia on a Camel. It was torn down in 1861; 3 years after Queen Victoria's government had absorbed the Company's territories and ordered its holdings dispersed.

Amazingly as late as 2007 a warehouse in Orissa, India still recorded as belonging to the British East India Company was erroneously sent an electricity bill in the name of the Company.

South Sea Company, Leadenhall

Founded in 1711 the company was intended to exchange labour, African slaves, for produce such as sugar and rum. In 1720 the government allowed the company to take up the national debt, share prices skyrocketed, and the subsequent collapse bankrupted many of the nobility. Nearby also sat the offices of the Africa and Hudson's Bay Companies.

Jardine Matheson's, 3 Lombard St

Founded in 1832 Jardine and Matheson aimed to aggressively remove the East India Company's monopoly in trade with Cathay. Based in Canton, this merchant bank utilised the technique of exchanging Chinese silks and teas for opium. The East India Company had already been flouting China's ban on opium imports from Burma and India for 50 years, but Jardine Matheson's were so effective that they amassed huge fortunes, later diversifying and legitimising their interests.

M St Mary Ax(e), The Baltic Exchange

The vanished church of St Mary Ax was so-named because it held one of the three axes supposed to have been used by Attilla the Hun to slaughter the one thousand virgins that accompanied St Ursula on her mythic mission to Christianise the East.

Founded by Baltic merchants, who had met in the nearby aptly named 'Virgina and Baltick Coffee House' of Threadneedle St, the Baltic Exchange still matches many of the world's empty ships to cargoes that need to be carried. The grand building was mashed by IRA bombs in 1992, but its stained glass windows were saved, and amazingly its bricks were bought by an Estonian businessman who plans to re-erect it in Tallinn, a former 'Kontor' of the Hanseatic League of Baltic merchants.

The Gherkin, formally 30 St Mary Axe, now sits where the Baltic Exchange stood.

M The Wall

After the Roman Empire's 5thC retreat the walls fell into disrepair until Alfred, threatened by Danish war parties in 900, moved back to build fortified Lundenburgh. It was the Normans who later laid out what is more or less the current street pattern.

M Grene Lane (Green Lanes), Upper Street

These two tracks led out of the Roman Moorgate and Crippplegate. They ran along the spine of higher, dryer land that culminated in Corn Hill, the Islington Spur. The deposits of Brick Earth or 'London Stock', a clay and gravel rich soil, found here on Lud Hill and under present-day Covent Garden, may have had more to do with the founding of Londinium and Lundenwic than other more commonly cited reasons. To make houses you need bricks.

M Earninga stræt (BISHOPSGATE, Kingsland High Rd (Ermine St))

The Old Roman Road to the North led straight from the Forum on Cornhill and out through Bishopsgate. The Hanse, whose ports lined the East Anglian coast were charged with the maintenance of Bishopsgate and the road to their East-Anglian Kontors.

Baring Brothers Bank, 8 Bishopsgate

London's oldest Merchant Bank, founded in 1762, became hugely powerful in 19thC international commerce until poor investments meant that the Bank of England had to underwrite its massive losses and restructure the bank as Barings Brothers & Co. Echoing this the whole company was brought down by a single Singapore-based rogue trader, Nick Leeson in 1995.

M Hog Lane (Middlesex St)

Forming the boundary between the City and Middlesex, now Essex, this street and nearby Petticoat Lane betray the former location of the East India Company's massive Cutler St Warehouse complex. The volume of loot was such that it overflowed the Company's warehouses around Fenchurch St and so in 1771, the Bengal Warehouse was opened in Bishopsgate. Much still survives, though converted into offices.


St Olave, Hart Street

This is the only remaining example of the five City churches once dedicated to St Olave, the Norwegian seafaring king who fought with Ethelred against The Danes at the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. The church has long-standing seafaring traditions; Lloyds is in the parish. The churchyard entrance has an arch with skull, crossbones, and spices. Pepys, who worked in nearby Seething La is buried here.

East India Arms, Fenchurch St

This pub is the last indicator of the huge East India Company warehouse complex that once stretched all the way to Aldgate. Goods unloaded from lighters at the Legal Quays were carted here for storage before distribution to processing, packaging and marketing centres. The old name, Fancherchestrate means by the church on marshy ground, another indicator of the possible course of the disputed Langbourne tributary of the Walbrook.

Lloyds, Great Tower St

Lloyds Register of Ships was founded in 1760, in a coffee house in Great Tower St, to offer investors a graded set of opportunities to invest in insuring ships and their cargoes after captains started lodging their manifests before sailing. Eventually insuring against all manner of concerns, such as natural disasters, Lloyds 'Names' accepted full liability, a high-risk that often bankrupted them, when they weren't making huge personal profits. The institution also developed a massive publishing business, occupying a site in the Royal Exchange, before moving to its current Leadenhall building in 1986.

M Tower Hill, Trinity Square, TRINITY HOUSE, PLA Building

Once a tothill or lookout-mound, like Thorney, this, the third hill of the City is probably one of the oldest sites in London.

In 1514 Henry VIII chartered the Trinity Guild, initially entrusting them with navigation up to Port of London, and later with installing, and maintaining buoys, lighthouses, beacons, and also in keeping the estuary and its channels silt-free. To fund their activities they were granted the exclusive right to sell dredged ballast. Trinity House still sits on the square which is dominated by the elegant 20thC Port of London (PLA) Building.

M Muscovy St, Seething Lane

This modern street name indicates the former HQ of the Muscovy Company which once sat round the corner in Seething Lane, along with The Navy Office. (Sivethenelane Old English: sifethca = siftings, bran, chaff, winnowing)

M The Tower, Traitor's Gate

Built by William I to consolidate his hard-won conquest of the City of London, and the marine approaches, the Norman Tower became the main Tudor prison. Tower Green and Tower Hill were the site of scaffolds for Royal prisoners; among them Henry VIII's wives Ann Boleyn, and Catherine Howard. The moated castle was surrounded by towers, each of which once controlled a water gate such as the existing Traitor's Gate in St Thomas' Tower, which once had a tide-mill to pump water to the rest of the castle.

M Christchurch, Spitalfields

Hawksmoor's masterpiece, this church towers over what was the City's main vegetable market where produce from the adjoining Tower Hamlets was sold. Archaeologists have shown that it sits atop a Roman burial ground. Possibly the source of the buried eastwards running Black Brook or Ditch, the church originally had only one bell, but then started to compete with St Bride's, Fleet St, and now has 12 bells.

M Commercial Rd

The new 18thC highway from city to docks, thronged with chandlers and merchants, drove straight from the East India Docks to their massive warehouses at Cutler St.


TOWER SOUTH - The Borough


Long Southwark (Borough High St)

Once the only southern entrance to the City of London, this ancient road ran over three islands to the old Bridge. Recent archaeology has revealed surprisingly extensive Roman remains, by AD 75 astride a wooden logged and gravel causeway, and by the medieval age the road was a major thoroughfare thronged by pilgrims, traders, travellers, clergy, merchants, royalty and commoners.

Inns and markets hence developed along its course that became established coach departure points; The King's Head to Dover, the White Hart to Portsmouth, the Tabard to Chichester, and the George to Canterbury and the Kent coastal ports.

Borough, Green Dragon Court, Borough Market

From the 10thC a market was held on Old London Bridge, one of the oldest recorded in Britain. In 1756 it was moved to reduce obstruction of the highway, and in 1851 it relocated to its current iron buildings as Borough Market. Along with Smithfields this is the last of the great London markets in their original locations.

The Tabard, Talbot Yard

This was the starting point for London pilgrims of St Thomas Becket to Canterbury and was featured by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales of 1345-1400.

The George Inn

This is London's only remaining galleried coaching-inn, now reduced to one of its original four sides.

Guy's Hospital

Given the amount of pilgrims passing, this was a profitable spot to place a hospital and in 1726 Thomas Guy, the son of a Waterman of Fair St, founded Guy's Alms Houses which in 1799 also opened the first English dental hospital.

St Thomas's Hospital

Until 1862 Guy's and St Thomas's faced each other across St Thomas St. Once part of the priory of St Mary Overee, and named after Thomas a Becket, it was destroyed by fire in 1540 and moved to the end of Borough High St. It was later moved again to make way for extensions when New London Bridge was built and it was finally relocated in Lambeth.

Marshalsea Prison

The area was not all trade and pilgrimage though, it also contained notorious gaols. Named from an ancient court held by Knight Marshal of the King's Household, Marshalsea was one of most important Elizabethan prisons, second only to Tower. It later became a notorious debtor's prison and Charles Dickens' father was imprisoned here from 1842. The twelve-year old Dickens had to go and work at a blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs, near Charing Cross to raise his family's keep. Closed on the repeal of imprisonment for bankrupts one wall of the prison remains standing.

M St George the Martyr

Standing at the meeting point of three Roman roads there has been a church here since 1122. The current, built in 1736 contains Roman stones in the crypt, and is the church of Dickens' 'Little Dorrit'. It also has a pipe, still visible, of an old water conduit from the Thames.

History of the piers

Download the exclusive Dark Waters history of the piers pdf here (pdf - 2MB).