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Tower Bridge: How Terrible Thames floats Horrible Histories down the river

Woods Silver Fleet operates the boat hosting the shows from its Tower Quay Pier in east London

Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet
Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet – image Matt Grayson

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It’s fair to say the Woods family have some history with the river.

Thames Watermen since 1866, Lillian and Alfred Woods launched sightseeing tours of the capital from the Tower Of London in the early part of the 20th century – an enterprise that boomed in the 1950s around the Festival Of Britain. 

Lillian then encouraged her son Alan with his idea to gradually build the Silver Fleet – a series of vessels built for the Thames in Kent and Suffolk shipyards. 

While Alan remains chair of the company, today its course is steered by the next generation – siblings Thomas, William and Kate – who have spent the last two decades overseeing its growth as a provider of luxury river cruise ships for events and private charters. 

Over the years the Silver Fleet has welcomed film stars, politicians and members of the royal family on board – and that remains its core business.

But history also has a funny way of coming full circle and, in possession of refurbished 1980s vessel Silver Sockeye and, having acquired Tower Quay Pier, the family has made a move back to sightseeing, albeit with a fairly big difference. 

“We had this boat, which was built by my father with a lot of love – it was looking fantastic after its refurbishment, with all the lovely woodwork inside – and we thought it would make the best sightseeing cruise in London,” said Kate Woods, who works as design and development director at Woods’ Silver Fleet.

“We also thought there was nothing on the river to entertain children, so we looked and looked and, without really understanding how Horrible Histories worked, we approached Neal with the idea that we were Thames Watermen with a nice history and that it would be an interesting idea to bring the brand to the Thames.

“We’d also bought the pier by Tower Bridge, which is a great location, so we were absolutely delighted when it fired him up.”

Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery
Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery

Neal, by the way, is Neal Foster – actor manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, resident at The Old Rep Theatre and the man responsible for bringing Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to the stage worldwide as well as conceiving performances under its irreverent cartoon umbrella for the likes of Warwick Castle.

Woods’ approach resulted in Terrible Thames, a tour unlike any other on the river in that it’s a full blown theatrical performance complete with sound engineer, soundtrack and an ever-changing backdrop as the boat makes its way to Parliament and circles back to Tower Quay Pier via Execution Dock at Wapping. 

Co-written by Neal and Terry, one of the biggest challenges for the team was adapting the content to the speed of the boat – something that constantly changes and is dictated largely by the ebb and flow of the tide.

“We’ve been doing Horrible Histories since 2005 and in the West End for 10 years, but we’d never done it on a boat,” said Neal.

“I was instantly attracted to the idea – I’ve always loved rivers. If I’m visiting a city, I’ll always head for a trip on a boat, so being on a boat for long periods suits me very well.

“It was also clear there was an awful lot of history in the section of the Thames we’d chosen to work with, so wherever possible we decided we wanted to attach it to whatever you could actually see from the boat. 

“When we were writing the show, the two biggest problems were that firstly I didn’t know where the audience’s attention would be – whether they would be looking at the actors or at London going past.

“It turns out they were looking at the actors a lot more than expected so we had to make sure the characters really pointed to the things they were talking about. 

“The second issue was the change in speed – you could almost say no two trips are ever the same – so the script had to be adaptable to cope with that while still being manageable for the actors, all while performing for the audience. 

“That’s why we’ve had to rehearse thoroughly – you need actors who can think on their feet and react quickly.

“It’s a bit like doing Hamlet, but the ghost might appear at the end of the play instead and you have to kill Claudius three acts early.

“It’s why you need the sound engineer – to make sure everything happens at the right time.”

The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames
The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames

Terrible Thames cruises run regularly at weekends and during school holidays – with a full complement of half term sailings from May 30 to June 3.

“With stories constantly updated and added, it’s a 45-minute ride designed to impart knowledge with plenty of humour and the brand’s customary gore.

“The whole thing that Terry is doing with Horrible Histories is to tell you the history you don’t know or that the stories you think you know are actually completely different,” said Neal. 

“One of the captains working on the boats said that he had been on the river for 20 years and he hadn’t ever known any of the stories, and that’s a chap who has lived and breathed the river.

“It really is something for Londoners as well as visitors to the capital.

“When we were writing it, Terry came up with the great idea of it being hosted by a teacher and a student who has won their school history prize and is being taken on the trip as a treat.

“The student and their family have been on the river all their lives so they are quite confident they know more about its history than the reluctant teacher. So it then becomes a battle about who knows more. 

“There are 40 or 50 stories in the show, which takes in Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Cleopatra’s Needle, Parliament and the Gunpowder Plot – which was really on November 4 – Boadicea destroying London, the Golden Hind and even people fleeing the Great Plague by hiding on boats on the river, who died because that’s where the rats all were.”

Kate added: “I’ve been really touched by people’s reactions to it.

“With all the trained Thames watermen, there’s a real London feel to the whole experience and it’s been put together with so much love, from the actors to the illustrations on the boat that were hand-drawn especially for us.

“There’s something about the two brands going together that works so well.

“It’s been really well received, and we were sold out at Easter, but we do sometimes have walk-in spaces so if you’re in the area, it’s always worth checking the timetable.”

Terrible Thames cruises take place at weekends, daily in school holidays and on occasional days during term time to accommodate tourists and school visits.

  • Adult tickets cost £22 off peak and £25 on peak, with kids costing £14-£15 respectively. Under-3s go free and family tickets cost £65-£72 for two adults and two kids.

Bookings can be made here

The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier
The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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