Henley and its Changing Relationship with the Thames
3rd February, 2015
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.
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.