Social Justice

The unexplored relationship between Black history and the River Thames

A new film sheds light on the historical relationship between Black history and the River Thames.

Image of ultra runner Martin Johnson ahead of his big 184 mile run along the Thames Path.

Martin Johnson ahead of his big 184 mile run along the Thames Path, from Woolwich, south-east London to the source of the river in the Cotswolds. Image: (Patagonia/Youtube).

Running a marathon can be one of the most challenging experiences of someone’s life, but for Martin Johnson, it was also a journey of historical discovery that led to him investigating the critical relationship between Black history and the River Thames. 

New film Run to the Source sees ultra-runner Johnson, 38, undertake a 184-mile run from the Thames barrier in Woolwich, south-east London to the source of the river in the Cotswolds. His goal was to break the record time but running the Thames path was also on his bucket list. 

“I’ve always had this ambition of running the full Thames path. After running 100-mile distances, it’s always that question of how far can you go now – what can you do next,” he said. 

The film, which is directed by British filmmaker Matt Kay, captures every step of Johnson’s inspiring journey, taking the audience on an extraordinary historical tour through the Thames’s Black history. 


The Thames plays a crucial role in the Black history of Britain. Many Black people worked as slaves or sailors on the docks, or arrived as merchants with goods for trade, building the monuments and economy that shaped the country. Landmarks dotted along the river such as the Tower of London and London Docklands are filled with stories of the tragedy or heroism of Britain’s Black history which are rarely told today.

For Kay, directing this film was an important moment in showcasing Black British history. 

“I try and give a voice to underrepresented groups and communities,” Kay told The Big Issue. “It’s something that I thought would be inspiring for the people that may know some parts of Black British history. But lots of it, I feel we’re not often really taught. 

“I think the relationship between the river and Black British history is incredibly important. It’s intrinsically linked through colonialism. By just having it physically there, but then also being a part of something greater than that, which is often kind of brushed over,” he said. 

Image of British director Matt Kay

While working on the film, the relationship between Black history and the Thames offered a new perspective for Johnson, one that he never imagined before. 

He continued: The landmarks that we’ll see today I run past daily on my commute. I didn’t even acknowledge that they were over there. Suddenly they have this newfound meaning for me.” 

Black history rarely gets a mention in British society, but research has shown that the first Black presence in Britain dates at least 2000 years. Black people have lived in Britain since the Roman times. 

“Our history is long but if you go to the books, we’re not there. We’re trying to help people now to understand our presence,” said Angela, B. Morgan, a London history tour guide.

“We want that sense of belonging to the city, to this country, even though our skin colour is different. It’s that story that, in a sense, is connected to this river.” 

African merchant men were instrumental in keeping London’s docks operational, as they worked as sailors on merchant vessels. They ensured that goods arrived safely in Britain’s ports. 

“Where we’re talking about the docklands there was a Black presence, because you had African Merchant Navy men coming in, right up until the 20th century. But because of the way they were recording people, they didn’t necessarily record their ethnicity” Morgan added. 

“Research has uncovered the stories of Black Britons who lived in the Tower of London,” said Dominic Burris North, another tour guide.

One chilling story told of Edward Francis, a 16-year-old boy who was enslaved in the Tower of London in the late 17tth century. He attempted to escape more than once, which highlights “the desperation of many enslaved Africans that were here in Britain to escape from their core reality,” Dominic said. 

The Royal Air Force Memorial on the Thames also plays a significant role in being one of the historical landmarks of Black history in Britain. William Robinson Clarke was the first Black pilot to fly for Britain but “his heritage in terms of his colour wasn’t mentioned. It’s only because they found a photograph of him wearing his wings – that we now know of him,” Morgan said. 

Kay says his journey to the Museum of London Docklands with Johnson played a significant role in formation of the film. 

“For me, within Britain, we think of slavery as happening just in the Americas and in the Caribbean. We don’t actually think of enslaved people really here in Britain. Seeing in the Docklands Museum the numbers of enslaved people that were taken to Britain, often young boys was quite shocking,” he said. 

“For MJ, when he was running the length of the River Thames, he drew on lots of these facts, stories that he’d heard along the way, as inspiration to help him continue and help him run”. 

Kay emphasises the crucial significance of Black history being at the forefront of the public sphere, not only from directors but from many others too. 

“I feel that it is one of great importance. Not just for directors, but of people in all kinds of art forms,” he said. “I feel history is always something that is a little bit subjective and is often told from the people in power, which gives only one side of history. It’s crucial for people from different ethnic groups [that they] are given a chance to tell the stories and the parts of history which often are left out.” 

As for his highlights directing the film Kay said: “The whole process has been a highlight, being able to work with the archive, that was a real privilege. 

He continued: “The footage you’re used to seeing, say, footage from Alabama and Montgomery, when they’re taking part in the bus boycotts. But you wouldn’t be able to visualise or picture what the Bristol bus boycotts look like.” 

Thanks to the new film, this material and insight into Britain’s Black history will be more accessible than perhaps any time in the recent past.

Run to the Source is available now on the Patagonia YouTube channel.

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