River Traffic of Roman London
While the Roman province of Britain was developing, soon after the Romans arrived in the mid-1st century AD, there was a great reliance on imported goods. The ports of the province were very important during this period. The port of Londinium was probably founded to take advantage of the tidal river, which would allow the incoming tide to carry vessels into the port, while the ebb tide would help to carry them out. The port of Roman London gradually expanded over the next 200 years. This expansion resulted in dramatic changes to the waterfront on the north bank of the River Thames. The first ever bridge over the Thames was built by the Romans around AD 50 and settlements had developed at either end.
The main port developed on the north bank of the river, where land reclamation extended the riverbank. It was extended by up to 15 metres by the late 1st century AD, when the northern bank would have been just north of Thames Street. 50 – 75 years later, a major reorganisation of the port area took place and the waterfront was rebuilt about another 25 metres south of the late 1st century quay).
Evidence of this Roman land reclamation can be seen in the number of timber revetments found in Southwark, which were used to create the new surface for the quay structures.
In the Roman period, Southwark was made up of small islands of higher, firmer ground set among wet, boggy marshland and water channels criss-crossed the area. The River Thames itself was much lower and wider than in the present day, and may have been up to 1 km wide at high tide. The present day Thames channel is around 200 metres wide. The continuing process of land reclamation gradually changed the waterside environment. Each new extension to the quay on the north bank of the Thames was constructed at a lower level than the previous one, which suggests that the level of the river was dropping. Once the river level had fallen below a certain point, it would no longer experience the effect of the tides, which had been a major factor in the original siting of the port. Without the tide helping boats enter and leave the port, the quay and Londinum itself, went into decline in the 4th century AD. This is probably because the lowering of the river level had affected the port’s ability to make a profit; The quays were no longer maintained and gradually disappeared under foreshore deposits of mud, rubbish and other debris.
Several different types of Roman vessel were needed in order to bring cargo into the city and move it inland. Examples of three types of boats have been found in London. These boats would have performed different roles in the movement of goods:
- A sea-going merchant ship was found at County Hall in 1910. This ship had a rounded hull and projecting keel, which suggests that it was designed to operate from quays rather than being dragged up onto a tidal beaches.
- A small sailing ship was found at Blackfriars in 1962. This ship had a broad flat bottom, suggesting that it was designed to work from tidal shores, probably distributing goods to coastal settlements along the Thames Estuary and beyond.
- A flat-bottomed lighter, or barge was found in the Guy’s Channel in 1958. This vessel is described in more detail below, but would have been used for the onward movement of goods once they had been offloaded from bigger sea going ships. It needed less than 1 metre of water to float which meant that it could operate easily on rivers.
All sorts of goods were imported into the Port of Londinium. Samian ware (a type of luxury pottery) was imported from from Gaul, glassware from Italy and Syria, basalt millstones from Germany, bronze tableware from Italy and amber from the Baltic. Food stuffs included olive oil, grain, wine, fruit products and fish sauce, came to Britain from Gaul, Spain, Italy, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Locally produced goods would have also passed through the port, such as salt from coastal salt producers. Food and drink was transported in a variety of containers, including: pottery jars called amphorae, in barrels, sacks and probably others such as leather skins which do not often survive on archaeological sites
The Guy’s Channel boat
The remains of an oak boat, or barge, were found in 1958 by the archaeologist Peter Marsden. The boat was found lying in what had been a silted estuarine creek known as the Guy’s Channel. The bow and forward part of the boat were excavated by Marsden between 1959 and 1960. It was found to lie on a north-south orientation close to the east bank of the creek. The boat measured around 15 metres long and around 4.2 metres wide. The boat is thought to be made in Britain. It appears to have been abandoned in around AD 200, after which time the creek silted up. The boat was a river barge and could probably have carried a cargo of around 7 tons. The boat is a Scheduled Monument, which means that no investigation of it can take place without consent being applied for. Recently (2010) an exploratory shaft was excavated to check the status of the vessel. It was found to still be in place and in good condition. The boat lies under New Guy’s House, a service road and the corner of the Bloomfield Centre, which are all within the grounds of Guy’s Hospital.
The fact that the boat was found in the Guy’s Channel shows that these waterways were once navigable. It is possible that these channels may have been more heavily used earlier on in the life of the Roman port, providing natural landing places before the further development of the port on the northern bank of the Thames (Drummond-Murray et al 2002: 79).
Milne, G, 1995. English Heritage Book of Roman London: Urban archaeology in the nation’s capital. London: BT Batsford
Milne, G, 1985. The Port of Roman London. London: B T Batsford
Marsden, P, 1980. Roman London. London: Thames and Hudson
Drummond-Murray, J, Thompson, P with Cowan, C, 2002. Settlement in Roman Southwark: Archaeological excavations (1991-8) for the London Underground Limited Jubilee Line Extension Project. MoLAS Monograph 12. London: Museum of London Archaeology Service
Greater London Historic Environment Record