When Anthonis Van den Wyngaerde executed his sweeping panorama of London in 1543, he drew some two dozen ships in the Thames, but only four of them downstream from St. Katherine's Dock. A century later, however, Wenceslaus Hollar carefully represented well over a hundred seagoing vessels in a ribbon of masts winding down river as far as the eye could see. By the 1650s a mariner noted the difficulty of navigating the Thames at low tide, especially during “mackerel time,” and Admiralty Judges at Doctors' Commons near St. Paul's were hearing complaints that congestion in the river was endangering London's environment. Petitioners alleged in 1658 that Jenkin Ellis, a shoemaker and wharf owner, had so exploited his foothold of just ten yards along the north shore of the river, by selling permission to anchor ships eight-and ten-abreast, that the entire bank from St. Katherine's Stairs to the Dock was ruined. It had once been, said witnesses, a “fair sandy ground” where “people might pass on foot,” where watermen could “wax and tallow their boats.” But after Ellis had arrived in 1640, the bank slowly turned to “mud…ooze and dirt,” and “the current of the Thames near shore” where the ships lay was now so “hindered…that if not timely prevented,” the river would be “choked up.” Fires carelessly tended aboard the ships when they were grounded at low tide threatened houses in the entire precinct. When riding at anchor near the shoemaker's wharf, the vessels forced lightermen to row in midriver “against the strength and current of the tide.”
The rising number of ships in English waterways had apparently reduced everyone's margin for error in the seventeenth century. For collisions in the Thames and elsewhere were providing the civil lawyers of London's Admiralty Court with a stream of cases. Ironically, this litigation, it is argued here, reveals both the resourcefulness of England's maritime judges and the major cause of a decline in their authority during the late Stuart decades.