Should you go for a walk along any stretch of the Thames on a sunny afternoon round about this time of year, you’re almost guaranteed to spot some wildlife on your way. Be it fish or ducks or gulls or herons or seals or even small land mammals and, of course, a multitude of insects, the river and its banks are nigh on heaving with life these days. But that wasn’t always the case. And there have been times in the river’s history when far scarier creatures than these roamed the banks and the flood plains of the Thames…
Many of you will remember the tragic tale of the ‘Thames whale’ and the media frenzy that poor creature unintentionally provoked – but can you imagine the reaction of the press if a hippo was spotted happily swimming under London Bridge? Or if a woolly mammoth went on a rampage along the Embankment? Or if a straight-tusked elephant was seen munching its way through the flora of Docklands? Or if a woolly rhinoceros charged across Waterloo Bridge, scattering oblivious commuters in its wake?
Had they been around at the time, the red-top tabloids would have probably not even batted an eyelid at any such sights, as there is much archaeological evidence for all of these large and frankly quite scary prehistoric creatures living in and around the river area – alongside our Paleolithic ancestors, who hunted these beasts for their skins and meat.
However, of all the modern forms of animal life supported by the river, mute swans are probably the one creature that more people associate with the Thames than any other. Appearing elegant and graceful as they glide across the water, they can actually be bad-tempered and distinctly snappy (having been bitten by an irate swan as a child, I can testify that their beaks are pretty powerful weapons).
Like their mammalian Stone Age forebears, swans were at one point regularly hunted for food. Considered to be such a high-class delicacy on medieval aristocratic and royal tables, the Crown unilaterally took ownership of all mute swans in the 12th century (presumably to stop those revolting peasants from catching and eating them?) – and a bizarre Thames ceremony known as Swan Upping evolved as a result.
Swan Upping continues as an annual event to this day, and, although it appears at first glance to be a bunch of posh gits in silly outfits messing about in boats, there is actually a more serious and scientific method behind its madness. This Thames-based avian census allows scientists and ornithologists to ring swans, give them a yearly health check, and produce conservation data on these beautiful birds.
So what about these salmon then? Surely there’s no such thing in the dirty, polluted Thames? Well, considering the amount of crap (literally) that ends up in the river these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that was indeed the case. Perhaps surprisingly, there are now over 100 species of fish native to the Thames, although that wasn’t always so.
For many centuries, fishing was big business in London. Fish of all kinds (including salmon) were caught in the river itself and the wider Thames estuary, and were then sold at Billingsgate Market in the City – one of the most ancient markets in the whole of London.
But by the mid-19th century, the Thames had genuinely become a sewer. In fact, by the 1850s, the levels of pollution in the river were so high that the Thames fish population and the associated fishing industry were entirely obliterated, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that any salmon at all were found in the non-tidal stretch of the river again.
After over a century without fish, the river has now recovered enough to provide a home for many varied species – salmon being but one of these (another of these Thames species is, strangely enough, the seahorse). In fact, the largest salmon ever recorded in non-tidal waters was caught in the Thames near Maidenhead in 1993. Weighing in at fourteen and a half pounds and measuring almost a metre in length, this was clearly one big fish!
And the crocodile? You can forget about any conspiracy theories of enormous, sinister reptiles lurking in London’s sewer system because this tale is possibly even odder than that – although whether it is actually true (or not) is lost in the mists of history…
For many hundreds of years there was a royal menagerie at the Tower of London. First recorded in the late 12th/early 13th century, by the 18th century the menagerie was open to the paying public – and it actually continued to exist until the first half of the 19th century when it was moved to Regents Park to become London Zoo.
This regal collection of wild beasts featured – at various times – bears, lions, leopards and various other examples of nature red in tooth and claw, including a medieval polar bear (which astounded Londoners when it was taken down to the banks of the Thames on a long chain in order to fish!).
Many of these creatures arrived at the Tower as expensive diplomatic gifts to the monarch of the day from other European royals. The ‘luxury’ nature of such presents and the royal status of the gift-givers and recipients meant that the menagerie was not just a fun day out for bloodthirsty Londoners – it was also a live and dangerous reminder of royal wealth, power and influence.
According to Peter Ackroyd’s fascinating book Thames: Sacred River, the crocodile we’re concerned with here arrived in London towards the end of the 12th century in the baggage train of the returning ‘crusader king’, Richard the Lionheart – basically a posh (and live!) medieval version of the kinds of souvenirs modern holidaymakers still bring back from their travels, if you will.
This poor confused creature was taken to the Tower, where it is said to have “promptly escaped into the Thames” (Ackroyd, 2008; p,243), presumably terrifying assorted East Enders in the process. Whether this runaway croc was recaptured history does not relate, but I can’t say I blame it for escaping either; Richard wasn’t the most pleasant of monarchs!
Amusing though all this is (I can just imagine a medieval Peggy Mitchell screeching “But you’re FAAAHMLY!” over her shoulder at the crocodile as it chases her down the river bank…), I haven’t been able to find much in the way of other sources to back up Ackroyd’s tale – although that’s not to say there aren’t any. I honestly wouldn’t worry though. I mean, come on, let’s be sensible – it’s not as if there are crocodiles or any other creepy creatures in the Thames these days, are there?
Or are there...?