• Tower Bridge in London. (Getty)Source: Getty
Ghosts, sewer pigs, polar beras... more than just a river, the Thames is a winding serpent full of strange myths.
Shane Cubis

9 Jun 2017 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2017 - 12:52 PM

One of the most famous rivers in the world, the Thames first came to the attention of Australians of a certain age at the end of our favourite TV shows.

More than a mere river-way that has given life to millions of Britons over the course of its existence, the Thames has also played host to plenty of strange tales, one of which is explored in the first episode of SBS's Digging for Britain.

Here are some of the oddest stories inspired by its often murky, sometimes toxic depths. True or false? You decide.


Queen Rat brings pleasure and luck

If you nodded enthusiastically at that Thames Television clip, you might also have been a classic Doctor Who fan and remember “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, a slightly racist serial that involved a hilarious giant rat puppet lurking in the sewers below 19th century London. Turns out that Leela-menacing rodent was partially inspired by the tale of Queen Rat. Unlike the TV version, the “real” Queen Rat would turn into a sexy lady when she saw a tosher (sewer scavenger) she liked the look of. If he pleasured her properly, she’d lead him to mucky treasures. If not, or if he talked about her, he was up for a mysterious drowning.


Monstrous sewer pigs lurk within its byways

The River Fleet wasn’t always part of London’s sewage system, and before it was built over to become the home of quality journalism, this waterway to the Thames became home to another species of swine. According to legend, a worker at the Smithfield Market lost a prize pig in the Fleet Ditch. She happened to be pregnant, and now the descendants of that litter feast upon the city’s filth. Of course, they’ve become more wild and aggressive over time, so be careful while sewer-spelunking. Especially if you’re a character in a Neil Gaiman novel.

The king’s polar bear used to fish in its murky depths

Obviously there’s a lot of enthusiasm for stories about animals in the Thames, but this one is actually verifiably true. In 1252, the king of Norway gave Henry III a polar bear because that’s what monarchs did back then. Another thing they did was strap a chain around their polar bears and send them into the nearest river to find sustenance.


It was once named Tamesis

The river was originally called Tamesis, which might mean “dark one” in Sanskrit or possibly “wide water” in ancient Roman. Make up your minds, linguists.

Captain Kidd’s piratey ghost haunts the realm

One of history’s most famous pirates, William Kidd nevertheless maintained his innocence even after pronounced guilty of five counts of piracy and one count of murder. He was publicly executed at Execution Dock (natch), and since then, his unquiet spirit has haunted the lanes alongside the Thames. Possibly because he’s still furious about falling into the mucky water when his first noose rope snapped, or maybe he’s angry about his body being tarred and hung in a gibbet as a warning.


It used to freeze sometimes

Those Doctor Who fans still with us after we slagged off the rat puppet will already know this from 2017’s “Thin Ice”. London Bridge, of “falling down” fame, used to have much narrower arches, which meant ice could build up and freeze the river. This led to “frost fairs”, where locals would set up stalls and enjoy the novelty of hanging out on the ice. The last frost fair was in 1814 and featured an elephant being walked across the ice. After that, the climate changed, the old bridge was replaced and the magic was ended.

Watch Digging for Britain on Saturdays at 7:30pm on SBS.

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