Events Calendar
Nov 10
10:00 - 13:00
Doing History Differently: An Oral History of the River Thames
short courses

Date: Saturday 10 November 2018

Study morning: 10.00 – 13.00

Course code: 18TON354

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This study morning will explore various aspects of the recent social and cultural history of the River Thames. With the aid of maps, photographs and listening to recordings with those who live and work on the Thames, we will explore two contrasting stretches of river in East and West London.

The study morning will draw heavily on a wide range of oral history recordings made by Dr Butler, who lived on a houseboat in London for ten years and undertook a range of research projects with riverside communities in London. The course will also include recordings made with dock workers in the 1980s from the Museum of London oral history collection.

We will listen and discuss highlights from these recordings to deepen our understanding of life on the River Thames in London in the 20th century, a period of rapid riverside development and change.

We will start up-river in West London at Hampton, featuring a once famous racecourse, an island casino, and numerous houseboats and riverside villas. This was a popular summer playground for wealthy Londoners, famously described by Jerome K Jerome in his comic travelogue Three Men in a Boat. We will encounter lock keepers, houseboat dwellers and yacht owners.

We will then go on to consider the memories of those who lived and worked on the wharves and docks in East London; in particular a stretch from Greenwich to Woolwich. We will hear dockers describe their work and their experience of the astonishing transformation of this stretch of river from the busiest port in the World to dereliction and regeneration.

Recommended reading

No preparatory reading is required.

Further reading

Butler, T. (2012) 'Memoryscape': Integrating Oral History, Memory and Landscape on the River Thames', in Kean, Hilda and Paul Ashton (eds.) Public History and Heritage Today, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 223-239.

Butler, T. (2011) 'The historical hearing aid: located oral history from the listener's perspective', in Trower, Shelley (ed.) Place, Writing, and Voice in Oral History, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 193-216. 

Croad, S. (2003) Liquid History, the Thames Through Time, Batsford Press

Naib, S.K. (1986) Dockland: Illustrated Historical Survey of Life and Work in East London North East London Polytechnic Press

Werner, A and Ellmers, C. (1995) Dockland Life: A Pictorial History of London's Docks, 1860-2000, Mainstream Publishing

There are countless general books on Thames history – a useful bibliography including key reports is here and an annotated list of archives with River Thames related material here

Additional information

This course is suitable for all, no prior knowledge is required. It allows you to spend time exploring a subject for interest, among like-minded people, without formal assessment. 

Intended learning outcomes

Participants will:

  • Gain an understanding of the recent history and cultural geography of the River Thames in East and West London
  • Consider thestrengths and difficulties of using oral history recordings for historicalpurposes
  • Appreciate how listening to a range of memories can deepen our sense of place
  • Learn aspects of the lived history of the River Thames directly from a wide range of people who live and work on the River.

About the tutor

Dr Toby Butler is a freelance heritage consultant and oral history trainer. He directed and worked on oral history projects in India, the USA, Wales and England. Toby is known internationally for his work exploring how history and memory can be used to interpret places and their pasts. He has a particular interest in using place-based multi-media and has created oral history trails along the River Thames and in Victoria Park in East London.  He is also the project director for the 'Ports of Call' project, which has been working with community groups and artists around the docks of East London to map and historically interpret the area ( and more recently directed the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial Project (


United Kingdom



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