Above: Part of Rocque’s small scale map of 1746 showing the River Thames between old London Bridge to Wapping and Rotherhithe (Click image to enlarge to 1280×800).
John Rocque’s small scale map shows nearly all of Inner London and a large part of the Outer London Boroughs, particularly to the west. Working from the bottom left-hand corner – in the direction of ‘the source to the sea’ – the map shows the village of Thames Ditton on the south bank and the extensive property of Hampton Court Palace on the north bank. After flowing past Twickenham and Isleworth (north bank) and Richmond (south bank) the Thames reaches Chiswick (north bank) and Barnes (south bank). Further east, the Thames flows through Inner London and continues to the most easterly edge.
All the riverside villages – they were all riverside villages in 1746 – are shown probably invoking a nostalgic sigh as we realise that all those fields and footpaths have been ‘gobbled up’ by the 21st-century urban sprawl. The ‘Ouses in Between (as the title of the Victoria Music Hall song puts it) started to spread in the mid-19th century and the phrase from that song is probably one of the best ways of describing the growth of London. People living in the countryside – as they regarded it – in the 1800s began to see the fields turned into streets and houses, making the old-timers think that their whole world was going to become brick walls and chimney pots. How right they were!
The ‘villages’ now in Inner London are Hammersmith then Fulham (north side), Putney, Wandsworth and Battersea (south side). On the south side after the village of Battersea is seen the open fields – ‘Battersea Common Field’ which is today Battersea Park. Facing that on the north bank is the village of Chelsea. As the river turns to flow north, we see Vauxhall and the tiny village of Lambeth on the south side. On the north, just before we reach Westminster Bridge, is Westminster Abbey which is easy to recognise. Once around the next bend in the Thames, we notice how built-up the land is around the Strand but how open the land is on the south side. How different today!
The river is shown flowing under London Bridge, with the City on the north side and Southwark to the south. Notice the Tower of London whose plan has changed little from 1746 until today. To the east lies Wapping and Shadwell. On the south side is Rotherhithe. By the time the river reaches the next bend – before flowing around the Isle of Dogs – there are hardly any houses to be seen near the shoreline. The name ‘Isle of Dogs’ is shown across the ‘island’ while on the south side of the Thames are the densely packed streets around Deptford before reaching the unmistakable Greenwich Palace and the ornate gardens which have now become Greenwich Park.
The east side of the Isle of Dogs has the hamlet of Blackwall clearly marked. East and NE of Greenwich are just open country fields with the occasional footpath. To the east of the River Lea is Inner London ends and ‘Plaistow Levels’ is shown – in the County of Essex at the time of the map. That land is now part of the Outer London Borough of Newham. Just before reaching the edge of the map, on the south side of the Thames, we see part of what was then the village of Woolwich. Its dockyard had been established in Tudor times and Woolwich was to grow considerably over the next century.
Seen on the river are a large number of vessels. Sea-going sailing ships are clustered to the east of London Bridge, at Deptford and Greenwich and then along the banks of the Thames around Woolwich. The riverside east of London Bridge was still in use as the Port of London. No docks – like the London Docks or the West India Docks – were constructed until the beginning of the 1800s. The ships at Deptford were there because of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Deptford.
Upriver of London Bridge, a few craft are shown but they are smaller, like early versions of Thames sailing barges and wherries. Larger vessels could not pass through London Bridge.
The part of the map shown at the top of this article gives us an insight into the problems of using the banks of the River Thames as a port. From Roman times onwards the north bank of the Thames immediately east of London Bridge was used as the port. For the Romans, there were probably few ships needing to moor alongside and the quays which were used to store goods from various parts of Europe. Six hundred years later, the Normans were doing the same, with goods then being imported and exported to places including most of the ports of Europe. Another six hundred years after that brings us to the time of Rocque and those same quays were still in use but trade in London on the sea had grown enormously and hundreds of ships were struggling to sail up the Thames to deliver goods to quays, particularly those to the east of London Bridge on both sides of the river. The Thames was teeming with sailing ships moored beside its banks with still more moored in the middle, awaiting their turn to come alongside and unload their cargoes. By the time of Rocque’s map, ships were taking weeks just to travel from Woolwich and Greenwich up to quays near London Bridge because the Thames was literally choking with large sailing ships – rather like a gridlock for ships in the way that roads today clog up with motor cars.
The section of the map is far too orderly when it comes to showing the ships. They are in near formations on both sides of the Thames. For every sailing ship shown there were probably in excess of 30-50, each one needing considerable space on the river due to their enormous shape and ever-increasing amounts of sail. Another 50 years later, wealthy merchants owning those sailing ships were having large docks cut out of the banks of the Thames – like the London Docks and the West India Docks. The docks were, in effect, a means of increasing the available space for mooring a ship, in order to unload its goods.
Between London Bridge and the Tower of London is shown ‘The Keys’. These were the ‘Legal Quays which had been defined in the 16th century and were now considerably overworked due to ships trying to dock. On the southern bank was more mooring space, with warehouses between the river and Tooley Street. This space extended eastwards (note that there was no Tower Bridge) as far as St Saviour’s Dock. All this land was in the Parish of Bermondsey. Further east (at the eastern edge of the map section) was the Parish of Rotherhithe. The map continues with ships being moored much further east, Between the Tower of London and the eastern edge of this section of the map was Wapping, which was a small part of the huge parish of Stepney. As the map shows, there was no let-up in the clamour for space to moor alongside the land.
Even this map section has been reduced in size for the purpose of this article. The size and detail of the map are remarkable in that everything shown had to be observed and measured by men who were surveying such a vast amount of what we call Greater London for the very first time. There are some errors but they are few and far between. In the main, the map is a splendid record of the ever-growing metropolis of London in the middle of the 18th century.