As England’s longest river and spanning 215 miles (364km), the River Thames has shaped British history. From medieval times to modern-day London, the ancient waterway has captured the attention of visitors and residents alike.
The river is well-known all over the globe and has somewhat of a reputation. It was originally called Tamesis, which is largely believed to mean “dark one.” There can be no doubt that its murky waters harbor all sorts of intriguing stories, and well, some of them are grimmer and uglier than others. Have a look at ten dark stories the River Thames has to tell.
10 Suicides on the Thames
Suicide is a worldwide issue and a stark reality of The River Thames. It is an increasingly common site for attempted suicides, with now around 700 incidents occurring every year. Between 30 and 50 of these incidents end in fatality.
In 2019, Prince William began his crusade on combating male suicide, which included a program to prevent accidents and self-harm incidents along the river. He even wrote the foreword for a man who almost died by suicide. Johnny Benjamin recounts his nearly tragic tale of stepping onto a ledge of a bridge in London in his memoir, The Stranger on the Bridge.
It is said that, on average, a body washes up on shore every week. Unfortunately, suicide and accidental drownings account for the majority of them. While these events don’t often end up in the papers, such tales of loss shroud the Thames in a legacy of heartbreak.
9 The Minke Whale Tragedy
A recent incident taking place in May of 2021 left onlookers amazed and saddened as they discovered a whale in the Thames. A minke whale calf found itself trapped in the river for a couple of days—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. While Londoners reveled in the sighting of such a magnificent creature in the capital, only 24 hours later, officials had to euthanize the same whale to prevent further suffering.
It’s hard to know how the whale veered so far from its natural habitat, but it does happen from time to time. In 2019, a humpback whale died after it collided with a boat. In 2006, people discovered a bottlenose whale, but a failed rescue attempt also ended in the whale being euthanized. These deep-sea mammals end up weakened and starved in the wrong environment. There is little that someone can do when they are in this condition, and it is believed that euthanasia is the kindest option to take.
8 The Execution Dock
Capital punishment was a very normal occurrence in London before the second half of the 20th century. Executions were largely carried out for crimes relating to murder and treason, of which hanging was the most common method. However, executions for crimes relating to piracy and offenses committed at sea were carried out at altogether different gallows.
Those found guilty of piracy charges were sentenced to death and paraded from Marshalsea Prison over London Bridge and towards Wapping, where Execution Dock was located. The dock was based slightly offshore, just below the low tide line, since this was where maritime jurisdiction began. On the way, condemned pirates would be allowed a last quart of ale.
The actual execution was far more painful and took longer than usual as the hanging took place on a shortened rope to make sure the prisoner’s neck wouldn’t break. Instead, they would die slowly from asphyxiation. Their bodies would spasm grotesquely during the suffocation process, and this came to be known as the marshal’s dance. Once dead, they were cut down and chained to the bank of the Thames until submerged by three tides of the river.
The final hangings took place on December 16, 1830.
7 The Man Who Drowned Trying to Save a Drowning Woman
Another one of the more recent tragedies of the River Thames is the heroic but ultimately heartbreaking story of 20-year-old Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole. Folajimi was one of two men who jumped into the river to save a woman who had fallen from the London Bridge.
On April 24, 2021, the man known to his friends as “Jimi” attempted to rescue the fallen woman around 12 am. While the coast guard and marine police patrols were able to retrieve the woman and the other man from the water safely, they could not find Olubunmi-Adewole. They discovered his body almost six hours later after a widespread search. We will remember him as a hero for what he did.
6 The Great Flood of London in 1928
A policeman on patrol noticed a surge of water washing over the road in the early hours of January 7, 1978. He would go on to notice that the bank of the River Thames had burst. Realizing the danger he raised the alarm. Residents were awakened and evacuated while firemen and volunteers attempted to pump water out of homes and tried to lay sandbags in areas under threat. The river flooded much of central London with fatal consequences.
In the end, 14 people drowned. One man had to identify the bodies of four of his daughters. Almost a thousand homes were destroyed, leaving an estimated 4,000 people homeless. It was reported that the water reached notable landmarks, including Big Ben, the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, and the Tower of London. The Tate Gallery was so badly flooded the water almost reached the top of the ground floor doors, damaging thousands of artworks.
This was the last time the heart of London was ever underwater.
5 Murder of Claire Woolterton
On August 27, 1981, 17-year-old Claire Woolerton had met her boyfriend at an Ealing amusement park. She left after they had an argument and insisted on walking home. No one saw her alive after that. Her mutilated body was found on the River Thames promenade. The detectives assumed that the killer intended her body to be dropped into the river but was unaware of the pathway in the darkness. The absence of blood indicated she was murdered in another location. The investigation into her murder was intense but ultimately led nowhere.
That was until forensic DNA evidence—which investigators stored away in the hopes that future technology would reveal more information—was tested in 2011 after they reopened the case. This led to the conviction of Colin Campbell, who was then 66 years old and serving a manslaughter sentence for the death of Deirdre Sainsbury in 1984. The detectives identified similarities between both murders at the time. However, there was no proof linking Campbell to Claire’s murder, and he adamantly denied any involvement.
Campbell’s defense in Deirdre’s murder trial centered around his epilepsy condition. He argued he was not in control of his faculties and was backed by a medical professional. In 2013, he used the same defense by the same medical professional who no longer supported the notion.
4 The Hauntings of the River Thames
With the River Thames being a part of so many dark tales, it’s no wonder there are all sorts of ghost stories recounted over the years. One sighting that’s been reported by many people is the ghost ship seen on the stretch of water just east of Westminster Bridge and Big Ben. Apparently, the ghost ship is crewed by three mysterious men, often seen on misty days where vision is partially obstructed. It is said that the ship enters beneath the bridge but never appears on the other side.
Another famous ghost story is told by people who believe they witnessed a figure jumping from the same bridge on New Year’s Eve. Locals claim that this is the ghost of Jack the Ripper, who was never caught but took his own life in 1888. Could this be the minds of partygoers playing tricks on them, or could there really be something supernatural going on?
3 The Marchioness Disaster
On August 20, 1989, a pleasure boat, called the Marchioness, was filled with 130 partygoers celebrating the 26th birthday of Antonio de Vasconcellos, a city banker.
Just before 2 am, less than 40 minutes from boarding, an 18-meter dredger collided with the Marchioness, and the second blow ended up overturning the smaller vessel. The Marchioness sank within a minute of the impact. Emergency units were deployed to the scene at once, but sadly 51 people were reported dead after being pulled from the water. Some were discovered eight miles away days later. Antonio de Vasconcellos was one of the casualties.
At the time, it was decided that facial verification would be too traumatic for the victims’ families, and so the coroner, Dr. Paul Knapman, decided to cut off the hands of 25 victims for identification purposes. This information only came to light in 1992, when it was discovered that the families had not given permission to do so.
There was no immediate public inquiry, but in 2000, an official inquiry stated that poor lookouts on both vessels were responsible for the accident. The captain of the dredger had not even known that the collision had taken place and therefore didn’t assist in the rescue. He was ultimately acquitted of any wrongdoings in 1991.
2 The River Thames Torso Murders
One of the most grizzly sets of murders involving the River Thames is the series of unsolved murders that took place between 1887 and 1889. There were four incidents that occurred over the years, happening while the infamous Jack the Ripper was active, but are believed to be committed by another serial killer. The cases have been documented as the Rainham Mystery, the Whitehall Mystery, the murder of Elizabeth Jackson, and the Pinchin Street Torso Murder. Overall, the body parts of four female victims were discovered scattered along the Thames. Only one victim was ever identified.
It began in 1887 with the Rainham mystery. Workers came across a female torso in the River Thames, and within the next two months, various other body parts were discovered. Then in 1888, the dismembered remains of another woman were found at three different sites. Elizabeth Jackson’s torso was found in the Thames on June 4, 1889, while more body parts were discovered later that week. A final female torso was found in September of 1889, suggesting this to be the work of a serial killer. However, to this day, no one has solved any of the cases.
1 Princess Alice Disaster
A largely forgotten tragedy is that of the sinking of The Princess Alice in 1878. The ship was filled with over 700 Londoners returning from a seaside day trip to Kent when the ship was sliced in two after being plowed by a 890 ton oil collier. Eyewitnesses describe the absolute panic on board as the event unfolded, with women and children screaming as the ship began sinking. It was even worse for the unfortunate passengers trapped below deck. On top of all the commotion, tons of sewage leaked into the water, making the stench unbearable.
Crew members attempted to throw out lifebuoys and even planks of wood, but the heavy Victorian clothing of the time ultimately weighed the passengers down. Survivors described having to push drowning people off them in order to survive. Between 600 and 700 people lost their lives, and decaying bodies were still being washed up onto the riverbank over several weeks. Only about 100 people survived the disaster.