Pool of London

Pool of London, City/Tower Hamlets/Southwark

The part of the Thames between London Bridge and Cuckold’s Point (which is located at the north-eastern tip of the Rotherhithe peninsula)

Pool of London, 7.18am, 11 March 2007

A pool (in this con­text) is a deep and still place in a riv­er – and thus a good place to moor a boat. London’s pool is divid­ed into upper and low­er parts, which are respec­tive­ly west and east of Tow­er Bridge.

Marked with a big pink pin on the map below (beyond the right edge on small­er screens), Cuckold’s Point is the east­ern extrem­i­ty of the Pool of Lon­don. It was named from the set­ting up here in 1562 of a pair of cuckold’s horns on a may­pole (a cuck­old was tra­di­tion­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed as hav­ing horns on his head). As well as being a gen­er­alised warn­ing to hus­bands, this may have had some con­nec­tion with the Horn Fair at near­by Charl­ton, to which fer­ry-borne rev­ellers could have come via the land­ing place at Cuckold’s Point Stairs (also known as Horn Stairs). Local leg­end says that King John grant­ed an estate in the vicin­i­ty to a local miller whose wife he had seduced.

For cen­turies, car­go ves­sels trad­ed at river­side wharves in and around the City of Lon­don. When these quays grew increas­ing­ly over­crowd­ed many boats took to moor­ing in mid­stream and load­ing or unload­ing with the assis­tance of barges. The Pool was a peren­ni­al for­est of bob­bing masts. As ear­ly as 1586 William Cam­den boast­ed: “A man would say, that seeth the ship­ping there, that it is, as it were, a very wood of trees dis­branched to make glades and let in light, so shad­ed it is with masts and sails.”

As Britain’s empire expand­ed and the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion took hold, the Pool became the busiest sec­tion of riv­er in the world, crammed not just with ocean-going ships bear­ing exot­ic pro­duce from for­eign lands, but boats full of immi­grants and emi­grants, skiffs bring­ing oys­ters and fish from the Thames estu­ary or North Sea, and col­liers trans­port­ing coal from Tyne­side.

Hidden London: The Pool of London by Thomas Luny, early 19th century

The first police force was formed at the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry to pre­vent theft and fraud in the Pool of Lon­don. Around this time the river­banks began to fill with impos­ing ware­hous­es, sev­er­al of which sur­vive, notably at But­ler’s Wharf and Hay’s Wharf on the south shore of the Upper Pool.

With the con­struc­tion of inland docks such as West India and East India, and lat­er Roy­al Vic­to­ria and Roy­al Albert, the largest ships found new berths but the Pool remained a hive of activ­i­ty until the ineluctable decline of Lon­don as a port in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry. There­after, the lim­it­ed traf­fic that remained on the Thames mere­ly passed through the Pool rather than moor­ing here, though HMS Belfast took up a per­ma­nent river­side posi­tion as a muse­um ship in 1971.

Late in the last cen­tu­ry the Lon­don Devel­op­ment Agency and oth­er bod­ies attempt­ed to make the Pool of Lon­don the focus of a regen­er­a­tion and tourism pro­gramme for the shore­line between Lon­don Bridge and just beyond Tow­er Bridge, embrac­ing attrac­tions from Bor­ough mar­ket (South­wark) in the west to St Katharine Docks (Tow­er Ham­lets) in the east. How­ev­er, pub­lic aware­ness of the Pool remained scanty and fund­ing for the ten-​​year scheme ceased in 2007.

The Pool of London has been depicted in etchings by Whistler, sketches by Turner and paintings by Monet and André Derain, among many others.

The 1951 film Pool of London was a ‘drama of the river underworld’, directed by Basil Dearden.

Further reading: Peter Stone, The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of Nations, Pen & Sword History, 2017
and Geoff Lunn, Port of London Through Time, Amberley, 2011