Treasures of the Thames


London Bridge in 1682

When Lady Bette made her dash for freedom across London Bridge on Monday 7 November 1681 it was a seething morass of carts and coaches, horsemen and tradesmen, pedestrians and pigs, all squeezing between the palatial houses and the luxury shops which lined both sides of the cramped roadway. The congestion had become so bad that just a few years later most of the dwellings were demolished and rebuilt so the street could be widened.

Despite all the noise and bustle the bridge was still a highly desirable address. Many of the houses had ‘pent-houses’ built above them. A pent-house in the late seventeenth century was not a top floor flat but a pleasant roof garden for strolling and taking the view. The shops were top end. There was a smart milliners at the sign of ‘The Dolphin and Comb’ a wig maker at ‘The Locks of Hair’ who offered both straight and curled, and rather more curiously a silversmith at ‘The White Horse’.

The air was considered to be healthier on the Bridge and fresher than in other parts of London, the stink of drains less pervasive. Buckets of ordure and other waste were lowered directly from windows into the waters of the Thames. The strength of the current was the great cleanser. It was also the great danger.

Bodies floating in the river were an everyday occurrence. Some of them were murders many more were suicides, but there were also huge numbers of accidental drownings, particularly when boats attempted to pass between the arches of the bridge where the pent up waters boiled and frothed.

One such accident occurred early in the morning of Friday 25 June 1697. Captain Price together with three merchant friends, a Mr Morice of Canterbury, an Exeter merchant called Mr Drew and another unnamed gentleman, disembarked from the Centurion frigate, recently arrived and moored lower down the Thames. They got into the Captain’s pinnace, a large rowing boat manned by a crew of eight sailors, and set out towards the City.

The four men were anxious to deposit 18,000 guineas in gold, a very sizeable sum of money equivalent to some 20 million pounds or more today, in a bank at the earliest opportunity. They had the coins all neatly boxed in the pinnace with them.

It was already dark but there was a lantern in the stern and there were numerous lights along the banks of the Thames to guide them on their way. A strong ebb tide was flowing fast against them though and in trying to negotiate the boat between the arched pillars, they crashed into one of the massive stone stanchions. The pinnace immediately split open and sank. The weight of gold in the boat probably did not help their situation. All those on board drowned and the gold sank to the muddy bottom of the Thames and was lost.

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