Lower Thames

My dad was a beat PC along the lower stretches of the Thames. He also rowed for the Met. I asked him for stories about corpses on the river for something I’m writing about  and he sent this. I want the psychogeographic cop memoir to be a thing in 2016, please. 

The freeboard or gunwale of a sporting rowing boat is about twenty centimetres, maybe thirty on a sturdier boat. You sit low in the water and get to know it intimately. The modern oar blade is shaped like a cleaver, for maximum leverage, but we used the old-fashioned Macon spoon blades because they don’t catch the flurries and uncertainties of the tidal water. You can get it clip on an unseen mud bank and not get caught up.

The Met boated from Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, on the Isle of Dogs and directly opposite Greenwich pier. The best time was either side of low tide as the wash of faster boats dissipated across the mudbanks and the really big boats could not operate at this stage of the tide. In theory the bigger boat gives way to the smaller.

The problem is that once they are going they can’t stop and they can’t move out of the centre channel, so the rower needs to be aware and get out of the way. This is no place for an untrained cox and even more difficult for the lone sculler. You will hear other boatmen call out ‘have a look, sculler’ when the river is busy or there is a problem in sight. There is no aggression intended; it’s just that everyone covers each other on the river.

The Met were paying guests of Poplar and this was sometimes an uneasy relationship. The club had been formed by Thames watermen and dockers. They were tough men who remembered the last dock strikes. They were hugely protective of their river-craft and access to their river. They were mainly old style socialists and many were open to a bit of small scale ‘venture-capital’ if it came their way. Mixing with the Old Bill was a matter for delicate diplomacy, although we all had the same pragmatic and physical approach to life’s problems. And the river bound us together once afloat.

We included members of the River Police in our club. I always felt they were a bit like the French Foreign Legion: there is no career path after the boats and most came to forget. There is little activity other than to pootle up and down, doing nautical stuff and rescuing the occasional body. It follows that this was a haven for eccentrics. We used to row heavy boats with these guys. These were similar to naval whalers, which are clinker built with a rowing crew of five. In the old days the odd man in the bow had to handle the harpoon! These things were dreadful to row as you had to bend from the waist and stand into the oar, however they could handle rough water and were designed for the open sea. The advantage was that our men knew the river and its banks intimately, plus it was their beat, so nobody on the river crossed the Thames Division.

The Thames is tidal to some extent all the way up to Lechlade. This means an upstream current twice a day set against a continuous flow of ground water. At any time one will be stronger than the other. There will also be some point, some region or stage of the river where this action levels out. A point where the two currents are roughly equal, a floating object would move up and down, but generally settle down and stay put.

The lower part of river between Tower Bridge and the Thames barrier, just beyond Greenwich, had this quality. The pool of London extended just up from Tower Bridge where there was the last of the deep water and the lower pool was by Wapping Reach, just below the Tower. This was as far upriver as the big ships could sail, as marked by the HMS Belfast today.

On these waters, you would be in a form of stasis, moving at the cusp of the tide, a watershed. The groundwater is in constant interchange with the tide. There is no sense of winning or losing, just flow. When you physically travel on it, when you row it, you have to work with this flow. It has its own time and its own strength; you have to comply, to work with it. You lost sense of clock time. Perhaps this was its attraction, the way it enforced compliance to the equilibrium of change. All very Zen, really, and well put in a koan attributed to Ikkyu: ‘If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going.’

That koan was about death, as are many deliberations on the river. Although I never considered it as doom-laden as Dickens, or gibbet-strewn as in pirate times, trade and property had to defend their capital and frighten the lower classes, and they defined the lower river as a place of fear.

The peculiar equilibrium of the Lower Thames, with its opposing currents and tidal shifts, meant that strange fates awaited corpses washed up there. The oddities of the way the river worked could be adapted for professional purposes.

If you drop a corpse into this environment there is a three-day rule. When the body goes in it will initially float, and then sink. It might get caught up somewhere, but it usually goes down. Then the gut starts to brew up and the body will return to the surface, generally after three days. Until these gases dissipate, the body will float for a while before settling back down. Usually it will be found and recovered – but not always. This is probably why so many murders and thrillers have the bodies cut up, although this is probably more cliché than common practice.

Nonetheless, anyone who has died on the river was treated with great dignity and respect. There was a small unit at Thames Division, headquartered at Wapping Stairs, who tracked down the identities of those who had committed suicide, or had just been retrieved from the water. You couldn’t deal with this without a grim humour and a pragmatic approach. Suicides were ‘jumpers’ and bodies were ‘stiffs’, although this was rarely an accurate term as rigor mortis held no sway after the body came back up.

It was also said that the body could move around of its own volition when convenient. In the language of the McCarthy trials, I was never and did not know anyone involved in such practices. But if a body did not need to come ashore at any particular time, why hurry it? There was every chance that it might wash up somewhere better prepared instead.

The protocol was that if a body was afloat in the river, Thames Division dealt with it. If it was washed up on the foreshore, the riparian division dealt with the case. If it was a sudden death with no suspicious circumstances it was a uniform job, for the finding officer to deal with. If there were suspicious circumstances the CID were informed and took over.

The site of the body could even become a crime scene – inconvenient with a rising tide. For the humble PC, the first scenario could mean hours with a smelly corpse and a nasty, inconvenient attendance at the autopsy for continuity of evidence. The local D.I. had the authority to declare a ‘special event’; the time immediately after a murder was known as the ‘golden hour’ when memories are fresher and suspects still close. Therefore, the local CID boss had to be able to authorise extra overtime and cancel leave. This meant overtime, lots of overtime. Overtime was the oil that lubricated the machine of investigation.

So, in a spirit of pure speculation, an innocent body might get washed up and stranded at low tide, perhaps only just held there by a snagged strand of clothing on a piece of wire from a drowned shopping trolley. For the night duty PC, this body might be too dangerous to recover, or might even float away from his reach and back into Thames Division’s remit. Or it might quietly go with the flow and onto the next Division’s foreshore. On the other hand, for the cash-starved night duty detective, it could present an honest opportunity. The slightest evidence of foul play would mean a murder enquiry and his or her first claim to be part of the murder squad.

The Lower Thames was a vibrant and feisty place, a place of work, travel and opportunity and even escape. It had an exoticism. When they closed down a warehouse in Shad Thames to demolish and develop what is now Java Wharf, the wooden floors gave off an intense smell of the spices which had been stored there for centuries and had leached into the woodwork and structure of the building, and pervaded the surrounding streets.

The river leaves the tight walls on its banks along this stretch and starts to meander, dropping its mud and detritus on the way. It opens out and breathes a bit, like a commuter leaving the tension of the city and loosening his tie on the train home. The mud contains traces of all the lives and industries of the city, some of them pretty grim: effluent, nitrogen run-off from fields, antibiotics and other drugs from human and agricultural use. Rowing near the River Lea, where there were discharges of dry cleaning fluid, it was understood that if you fell in a quick shower was matter of urgency. All of this stuff is deposited in the mud banks, mostly on the inside of bends, the sorts of places where, if you were unlucky, a body might wash up. The mud of the Lower Thames has seen all sorts of things.

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