The River Thames is London’s pride and joy. Not only is it close to some of London’s best attractions, it also offers some of the best views of the city skyline and is perfect for sightseeing tours, dinner on the Thames, private boat hire in London and more.
But the Thames wasn’t always London’s prized waterway. It has undergone a total restoration project to bring it back from being declared ‘biologically dead’ in the 19th century to today a river that is thriving with wildlife.

Cholera and the Thames

With a vast increase in London’s population during the Victorian era, the pressures on London’s sewage systems were high and cholera was spreading rapidly. Between 1831 and 1866, there were four notable outbreaks of cholera which killed over forty thousand Londoners.
According to Cholera and the Thames, “By 1850, population growth and the inception of the water closet resulted in ineffective and overflowing household cesspools. Water closets were responsible for households producing nearly one hundred additional gallons of waste per day on average.
“In 1848, in order to eliminate this problem, the Metropolis Sewers Commission mandated cesspools and house drains be connected to sewers, which emptied, unfiltered, into the River Thames. This worsened the problem and affectively turned London’s main waterway into an open sewer.”
Initially, experts believed cholera to be airborne or contracted through foul smells. Eventually, however, and after much debate, “it was agreed that the polluted River Thames, where the people of London drew their drinking water from, was to blame.”

‘The Great Stink’

In the summer of 1858, London was subject to ‘The Great Stink’ which finally persuaded the government to take action against the Thames’ overflowing sewage systems.
“The city of London came to a standstill,” says the Cholera and the Thames website. “Government could barely function; people resisted the urge to leave their homes, but demanded action from the government. What had brought London to its knees was the overwhelming stench that radiated from the surface of the River Thames.”
Having been a dumping ground (and drinking source!) since the 1600s, the Thames River was so contaminated with waste and pollution that it was officially the most unhygienic river in the world. But this particular summer, the centuries-old sewage began to bake and ferment in the sun. The smell was so bad, there are stories of men “struck down with the stench, and of all kinds of fatal diseases, up-springing on the river’s banks.”
Through a combination of “public pressure and abject nasal suffering, Parliament finally chose to act instead of leaving the issue for another ‘hot season’,” says the Cholera and the Thames website. “Within a record of eighteen days, a bill was created, passed, and signed into law that would refurbish the entirety of the River Thames.
“London’s most important river was finally getting the care it so rightfully deserved. The reformation of the Thames included not only the implementation of a sewage system – to be designed by the English civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette – but also a construction of embankments along its sides. With these reforms, the Great Stink slowly began to dissipate, and Londoners could breathe proper sighs of relief – not only for the clear air, but also for the other benefits that accompanied the integration of change.
“Not only did the Thames gradually evolve into one of the cleanest rivers in the world but the implementation of a functioning sewage system also aided in the elimination of several waterborne illnesses that had plagued London for centuries.”
sustainability on the river

What is being done now to ensure the sustainability of the river?

After wartime bombings destroyed some of the Victorian sewers, the river’s health had declined again, with the Natural History Museum declaring the river ‘biologically dead’ in 1957. When Britain recovered from the war and the sewage system was eventually fixed, the river started to breathe life again and is now home to 125 species of fish, seals, porpoises and other marine animals.
The River Thames Society looks to conserve the river and represent all river users from fisherman to boat owners. We spoke to the Chairman of the Society, Peter Finch, who told us how the organisation first came to be.
“The main impetus to the foundation of the River Thames Society in 1962 was an increasing concern at the polluted state of the river and we have sought solutions to this ever since.
“We have put pressure on water companies to modernise treatment plants to end the scandal of sewage leakage, supported the Tideway Tunnel proposal from the outset, lobbied local authorities to improve rubbish clearance near the river and urged the Government to tighten anti-pollution legislation.
“Through our River Wardens scheme, members keep a close eye on river conditions and the state of the Thames Path, with any problems raised with the relevant body – landowners, the Port of London Authority or the Environment Agency. Also, we have co-operated with groups such as Thames21 in organising clean-ups of the river banks and foreshore in an anti-plastic campaign and taken many other actions to improve the environment.”

Thames River clean-ups

Although London’s sewage systems may be state of the art now, the Thames relies heavily on the kind hearts of volunteers who take part in river clean-ups, such as those at Thames 21.
“Thames21 engages approximately 7000 volunteers in waterway improvement activities across London every year.” Says the Thames21 website. “We mobilise thousands of volunteers every year to clean and green the capital’s 400-mile network of waterways. Thames21 aims to transform neglected waterways into areas that everyone can use and enjoy, by using innovative and tailored community approaches.
“Removing litter from waterways, with the help of volunteers, has been a key part of our work for 20 years. Now, we also give communities an increasing number of opportunities to carry out research, environmental enhancements, to be trained as clean-up leaders and to form or be part of groups which look after specific areas of London, to improve waterways for the benefit of wildlife and enjoyment of people.”
Twice a year, Thames21 organises ‘count events’ to document the volume of wet wipes and plastic bottles in the Thames. “Attracting lots of media and public attention, The Big Counts are ideal for raising the red flag on how modern-day life is affecting our most precious natural resource, right in the heart of London.”
To find out more about Thames21’s clean-up programmes, you can visit their events page or sign up their newsletter.
learn about river thames sustainability

What is City Cruises doing to be responsible on the river?

Sustainability of the River Thames is at the heart of our business because without the river we could not offer the experiences that we provide 365 days a year. We started our sustainable project with the removal of plastic straws and little by little we have built this up to include the introduction of reusable cups and canned water onboard. It is our legacy to ensure that we leave the Thames in a better condition than it was 30 years ago when we started City Cruises. We will continue to build on our sustainable efforts next year, and beyond, with the aim of recycling up to 70 per cent of waste produced onboard all sailings in the next 12-months.
We know that our sustainable efforts need to go beyond recycling and so we extended it to include our company’s vessel refurbishment programme. We are proud to say that during City Gamma’s renovation, energy-saving engines were installed to ensure the boat will save more than 90,000 litres of fuel in 2020 making the vessel 17% more fuel-efficient.
We will continually drive the sustainable conversation internally and with our passengers. It is through these proactive communications directly with consumers that we are also introducing the opportunity to purchase reusable flasks onboard.
We are constantly on the lookout to ensure our organisation can achieve even higher levels of environmental performance, working closely with other organisations such as the River Thames Society. We also admire the work of Thames21 and its army of volunteers who provide essential support through regular river clean-ups.
For more information about City Cruises’ environmental impact and responsibilities, please visit our Environment webpage.