There is evidence of human habitation living off the river along its length dating back to Neolithic times. The British Museum has a decorated bowl (3300-2700 BC), found in the River at Hedsor, Buckinghamshire and a considerable amount of material was discovered during the excavations of Dorney Lake. A number of Bronze Age sites and artifacts have been discovered along the banks of the River including settlements at Lechlade, Cookham and Sunbury-on-Thames. Some of the earliest written accounts of the Thames occur in Julius Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54BC when the Thames presented a major obstacle and he encountered the Iron Age Belgic tribes the Catuvellauni, and the Atrebates along the river.
Under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43, the Romans occupied England and recognising the River's strategic and economic importance, built fortifications along the Thames valley including a major camp at Dorchester. Two hills, now known as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, provided a firm base for a trading centre at the lowest possible point on the Thames called Londinium where a bridge was built. The next Roman bridge upstream was at Staines (Pontes) to which point boats could be swept up on the rising tide with no need for wind or muscle power. Many of the Thames’ riverside settlements trace their origins back to very early roots and the suffix - “ing” in towns such as Goring and Reading, Berkshire owes their origins to the Saxons. Recent research suggests that these peoples preceded the Romans rather than replaced them. The river’s long tradition of farming, fishing, milling and trade with other nations started with these peoples and has continued to the present day. Competition for the use of the river created the centuries-old conflict between those who wanted to dam the river to build millraces and fish traps and those who wanted to travel and carry goods on it. Economic prosperity and the foundation of wealthy monasteries by the Anglo-Saxons attracted unwelcome visitors and by around AD 870 the Vikings were sweeping up the Thames on the tide and creating havoc as in their destruction of Chertsey Abbey.
Once King William had won total control of the strategic Thames Valley he went on to invade the rest of England. He had many castles built, including those at Wallingford, Rochester, Windsor and most importantly the Tower of London. Many details of Thames activity are recorded in the Domesday book. The following centuries saw the conflict between King and Barons coming to a head in AD 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta on an island in the Thames at Runnymede. This granted them among a host of other things under Clause 23 the right of Navigation. Another major consequence of John’s reign was the completion of the multi-piered London Bridge which acted as a barricade and barrage on the river, affecting the tidal flow upstream and increasing the likelihood of freezing over. In Tudor and Stuart times the Kings and Queens loved the river and built magnificent riverside palaces at Hampton Court, Kew, Richmond on Thames, Whitehall and Greenwich.
The 16th and 17th Centuries saw the City of London grow with the expansion of world trade. The wharves of the Pool of London were thick with sea-going vessels while naval dockyards were built at Deptford. The Dutch navy even entered the Thames in 1667 in the raid on the Medway.
A cold series of winters led to the Thames freezing over above London Bridge, and this led to the first Frost Fair in 1607, complete with a tent city set up on the river itself and offering a number of amusements, including ice bowling. In good conditions barges travelled daily from Oxford to London carrying timber and wool, foodstuffs and livestock, battling with the millers on the way.