Julia Fullerton-Batten’s stories of the Thames

Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten’s Old Father Thames series explores the “infinite variety” of stories the river has to tell – everything from the mudlarks of Victorian London to the annual swan upping ceremony

Each story has been recreated in lavish detail, with costumed actors imaginatively recreating historic events such as Annette Kellerman’s controversial appearance in a one-piece bathing suit, and the 1928 flooding of the Tate Gallery.

Fullerton-Batten’s photographs also explore more recent river stories including the whale that appeared in 2006, and this year’s Durga Puja – a Hindu festival that sees a Durga effigy immersed in water (something only infrequently permitted in the Thames).

Top image: Baptisms along the Thames. One of the more ancient rituals on the river. Above: The Ladies Bridge. Waterloo Bridge was completed during WWII by hundreds of women who worked as welders, joiners, stonemasons and labourers

The photographer says she’s been fascinated by the river since moving from Germany as a teenager, and living close to the banks of the Thames in Oxford, where it’s known as the Isis.

“Its constantly changing face with the tide and the seasons, the activities on and around the river are for me compulsive viewing and inspiration,” says Fullerton-Batten, whose home in London isn’t far from the river bank. “But above all the history of the Thames along its entire length with an infinite variety of stories that encompass birth, baptism, death, flooding, sunbathing on the shore, the story of the ‘Ladies Bridge’, messages in a bottle, riverside scavenging youngsters, prostitution, damaged masterpieces and countless other whimsical, idiosyncratic and tragic happenings.”

“Now is an ideal time in my life to take on this project, ‘Old Father Thames’, and chronicle not only its history, traditions and customs along its length, but also my own personal long-lasting fascination with ‘The Thames’,” she adds. “My pictures explore the history and spirit of this unique river. I became so engrossed with it that I even joined a rowing club to feel closer to the river’s ebb and flow as it passes through London.”

Bengali Durga Immersion (‘bhashaan’). Durga Puja is celebrated annual in September or October, and concludes with the immersion of an effigy of Durga into a river or other body of water

Creating the series required months of preparation before each shoot, including getting permission to shoot along the Thames, and planning around the tides, as the water level rises by seven metres in London twice a day. Fullerton-Batten organised all her own pre- and post-production, as well as licenses, lighting, and logistics, making this an “extremely complex, time-consuming and, on occasion, nerve-wracking” project.

She says she had around six hours, at the most, for setting everything up, arranging props and lighting, getting people in place and photographing them. Although the Thames is cleaner now than it’s been in the past, the crew had to be careful to avoid broken glass, syringes and raw sewage.

“I have always tried to be true to the story and find and shoot the scene at the exact location where the event took place in the past,” she adds. “For example, full immersion baptisms took place in the Hatchets Ford at Cricklade in Wiltshire. I managed to find the exact spot where this took place until the mid-20th century.”.

Fullerton-Batten’s series highlights the many different roles the river has served over the years, some less savoury than others Using anecdotal evidence, Fullerton-Batten has portrayed Slut’s Hole – now more conservatively named Fisherman’s Place – in Chiswick as home to  a group of enterprising local ladies, and depicted the suicide attempt of Marie Wollstonecraft, who jumped from Putney Bridge in 1795.

She’s also uncovered some of the less familiar rituals that surround the waterway, including the practice of swan upping – an annual ceremony dating back to the Middle Ages, that saw swan owners mark their birds with nicks in their beaks.

Lady of Shalott. Based on the 1888 painting by John William Waterhouse, and shot in the exact location in Ewell, Surrey where he painted the river background (before adding Ophelia later later, using a model immersed in a bath tub).

The photographer found the stories through books, galleries and museums, as well as through “peculiar place names” and tales of the river people shared with her. Fullerton-Batten says she felt compelled to share some pieces of history, such as the unrecognised legacy of the women that built Waterloo Bridge. “For over 70 years the details of its completion remained hazy until an historian found photos of women welders in a remote archive and proved the riverboat men’s story,” she told CR. “They knew who carried out the work to complete the new Waterloo Bridge, but for them it was and will always remain ‘The Ladies Bridge’.”

Some aspects of the Thames’ history, however, would have been impossible to recreate – such as the original wooden London Bridge and its street markets, and the frost fairs held in the 17th and 19th centuries when the river froze over.

Fullerton-Batten says Old Father Thames is an ongoing project, which she plans to continue until early 2020, when it will be shown at the Fotografiska Museum in London.