Lecture Details and Reviews

Henley and its Changing Relationship with the Thames

3rd February, 2015 Ruth Gibson

Ruth Gibson has had an interest in vernacular buildings since the early 1980s when she first joined the HA&HG. What is significant about vernacular buildings is not only how they were built and what local materials were used, but also what they can tell us about their uses over time, sometimes about their owners and how they contribute to the visual enjoyment and connection to the place, landscape or town they are part of. This talk will focus on the changing role of river transport, the very reason for the town's foundation as a royal market place and entrepôt; its prosperity due to that role in the first place, then came the development and expansion of different trades and the processing of local produce and their export to satisfy the ever increasing needs of London. Improvement in road and river transport in the C18th brought many changes until the arrival of the railway changed everything!


Reviewed by Graham on 9th February, 2015

Despite the wintry weather, the Margaret Day Room was filled to capacity by members of the Henley-on-Thames Archaeological and Historical Group and visitors for a talk by Ruth Gibson entitled "Henley and its Changing Relationship with the Thames".

For centuries the Royal River was the principal artery for transporting heavy and bulky goods such as grain, timber and wool to fill the many demands of the rapidly growing capital. It was the M4 of its day, and like modern motorways, heavy use often led to delays. Barges had to share the river with mills and fisheries and as the millers usually controlled the flash locks there was often a conflict of interest. Already in Edward the Confessor's time in 1065 there is a documented demand to remove the fish weirs from the Royal River; this is repeated in Magna Carta in 1215.

The river had only some 5 flash locks between Henley and London, but 20 between Henley and Oxford. This made Henley an attractive choice as an inland port, a place for collecting, storing, selling and shipping goods to London. The layout of Henley with its regular burgage plots along a wide, central market street and a stone bridge to allow goods from both sides of the river to be brought to the wharves, point to a royal foundation in the latter part of the C12th. At one time, Henley is reported to have contributed more annual tax than Oxford.

Mock Tudor facade of the Old Bell

Crown post in the Old Bell

Ruth Gibson illustrated her talk with many pictures and drawings of the historic building of the town, which were involved in the developing trade such as merchants' dwellings, storage buildings and inns to accommodate travellers, their horses and goods. The earliest structure in Henley is a surviving stone arch of the medieval bridge, now in use as part of the beer cellar of the "Angel on the Bridge" — yes it really did stand on the bridge originally.

The earliest timber framed building is now a small pub, the Old Bell. Behind the very ordinary 1930s mock Tudor facade is the cross wing of what may have been the impressive house of a London grain merchant. Hidden is an elegant crown post supporting the substantial roof timbers that have been dated to 1325.

The warehouses that dominated the river frontage have mostly disappeared, but many 15th and 16th Century timber framed buildings survive, usually hidden behind brick or stucco facades, some subdivided into small cottages, others still in use as hostelries into the late 19thC, when the railway came and took over the transport of goods and people, and the river lost its uses as a carrier, for milling and fishing and became the much loved river of pleasure we know today.

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