London’s Lost Rivers

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, currently the commander of the International Space Station, has an awesome Twitter feed in which he frequently posts amazing pictures of Earth as seen from the ISS. For example, he recently posted this picture of nighttime London as a memorial to Margaret Thatcher’s passing:

London from ISS
(Click to enlarge)

What’s striking about this picture is that you can clearly see the River Thames as it bisects London. What you can’t see in the picture, however, are the 21 other rivers in Greater London that flow into the Thames. And that’s because, in most cases, the rivers are now underground:

London's lost rivers
(Click to enlarge)

Here’s a brief summary of just a few of London’s “lost rivers”:

*     *     *

The largest, and perhaps most well-known, is the River Fleet. The river begins as two separate steams near Hampstead Heath, an ancient park which first entered the historical record in AD 986 when the gloriously (and accurately) named King Ethelred the Unready gave one of his servants land there. From Hampstead, the streams flow through Kentish Town to Camden Town, where they join. The river then flows underneath King’s Cross, which was previously known as Battle Bridge, because Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus said the Romans fought legendary Iceni ruler Boudica at a bridge over the Fleet there. It then flows down Farringdon Road, and then Farringdon Street, before ending in the Thames underneath Blackfriars Bridge.

For centuries, the Fleet was a regular part of London life. It’s thought that the Romans built the world’s first tidal mill on the Fleet. The Anglo-Saxons, who called it fleot, meaning “tidal inlet”, dug several wells next to the river, from which Londoners got place names like Clerkenwell, Bagnigge Well and St. Bride’s Well. They also used the Fleet for shipping, and two short streets now named Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane were originally wharves.

Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

– Jonathan Swift, on what the Fleet looked like after a heavy rain

But by the 1200s, the river had become so polluted that the area became home to slums and prisons. Sir Christopher Wren advocated widening the river after the Great Fire of London (1666), but instead a man named Robert Hooke turned the river into a canal in the style of Venice in 1680. The upper part of Hooke’s canal was never popular, so in 1736 the area was covered up and a market built over it. The market survived until 1829, by which point it was so decrepit that it was knocked down and modern Farringdon Road was built in its stead. And the lower part of the river – already mostly covered by bridges and buildings – was built over in 1769 as part of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge.

To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames
The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
with deeper sable blots the silver flood

– Alexander Pope, 1728

The most famous part of the Fleet is probably the street named after it. For centuries, Fleet Street was home to most of London’s newspapers, and although most have since moved away, “Fleet Street” is still synonymous with the British media, in the same way that “Madison Avenue” in synonymous with American advertising.

The current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wants to uncover the Fleet as part of a “beautification plan” for the city, although the government agency tasked with the project is unsure it can be done.

*     *     *

The Walbrook was an incredibly important river in Roman times. It bisected the city of Londinium, and the Romans used the north end for fresh water and the sound end, by the Thames, as a sewer. The name comes again from the Anglo-Saxons because it was a brook that flowed under or through the wall that surrounded the city.

The river was covered over in 1440 by Lord Mayor Robert Large during the rebuilding of St. Margaret Lothbury church. London historian John Snow noted in 1598 that the river had been so completely paved over that it was entirely hidden. In 1860, the aptly named archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers dug in the river bed and found 48 human skulls… but no other bones. Who, exactly, those skulls belonged to remains a mystery. Some think they belong to troops of Julius Asclepiodotus, the Roman consul who brought Britain back under Roman control in 296. However, the basis for this story comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 book History of the Kings of Britain, which is not known for historical accuracy. So others believe the skulls come from a battle between the Romans and Boudica.

Incidentally, Augustus Pitt Rivers was one of the first, and perhaps the highest profile, advocates for cremation in the UK. The practice was deeply unpopular before Rivers came along, but by 2008 an estimated 72.44% of all British deaths end in cremation, not burial.

And lastly, the Walbrook culvert runs directly beneath the vaults of the Bank of England. If someone hasn’t written a cool heist novel about using an underground river to steal a whole lot of gold… well, someone really needs to!

*     *     *

Here’s something you might not know: Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster were originally built on an island in the Thames! It was called Thorney Island, and it was bordered by the Thames on one side and the Tyburn on the other. Before it was covered over and made part of London’s sewer system, the Tyburn ran from Hampsted through Swiss Cottage (so named for The Swiss Tavern, a hotel built in the style of a Swiss chalet in 1804). It then flows underneath Buckingham Palace and through St. James’s Park, ending at the Thames near the Whitehall Stairs, close to Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister.

The river also gave its name to the Tyburn neighborhood, the area of London where prisoners from Newgate prison were publicly hanged from 1388 until 1793. Indeed, the name “Tyburn” became so synonymous with hanging that when a large marble arch – originally intended as the entrance of Buckingham Palace – was moved there in the early 1850s the neighborhood readily accepted the new name Marble Arch.

An interesting side note: there was once a pre-Roman monolith in the area known as Ossulstone (from “Oswald’s Stone” or “Oswulf’s Stone”). For some reason, the monolith was covered over with dirt in 1819, but dug up again in 1822. After Marble Arch was finished in 1851, the monolith was moved there, and spent almost 18 years leaning against the arch. But then a curious archaeologist published a paper about the stone in 1869, and the monolith shortly thereafter disappeared. It has never been found.

You can still see parts of the Tyburn in modern London. For one thing, Marylebone Lane – a curvy street in an area full of otherwise straight streets – follows the path of the Tyburn:

Marleybone Lane
(click to enlarge)

Also, Grays Antique Centre (near the intersection of Bond and Oxford Streets) has a water display in the basement they claim is the Tyburn:

Greys
(click to enlarge)

*     *     *

The River Westbourne ran from Hampstead Heath through Hyde Park to Sloane Square and then on to Chelsea, where it emptied into the Thames. It was originally called Kilburn, from the Anglo-Saxon Cye Bourne, meaning “royal river” (bourne being the Anglo-Saxon word from “river”, which is why so many English place names end in –bourne). It has also been known over the years (and in certain places) as the Kelebourne, Bayswater, Bayswater River, the Bayswater Rivulet, the Serpentine River, the Bourne, the Westburn Brook, the Ranelagh River and the Ranelagh Sewer. For instance, the river was called “Bayswater” in the area that is now the Bayswater neighborhood. And the posh area of Knightsbridge was once literally a knight’s bridge over the Westbourne; it’s thought that the Empress Matilda – daughter of Henry I, and technically the first Queen of England – met her supporters at Knight’s Bridge in 1141 (Matilda’s reign only lasted a few months, as the crown was being fought over by her son, the eventual King Henry II, and her cousin, Stephen of Blois; for this reason, she’s rarely included on “official” lists of English monarchs). The river also forms much of the boundary between Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

As recently as 1437, the waters of the Westbourne were considered clean, and so in 1439 conduits were created to carry drinking water to the City of London. However, by the time the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Belgravia and Paddington were developed in the early 1800s, the river had become a stinking sewer. So the decision was made to simply build over it and incorporate it into London’s sewer system. You can still see the original iron conduit at the Sloane Square tube station. Despite being heavily bombed in World War II, the conduit from the 1850s (seen in green in the photo below) remained intact:

Sloan Square Tube Station
(Click to enlarge)

*     *     *

Hackney Brook was one of the few “lost” rivers of London that did not end in the Thames. It began in Holloway and ran through the northern parts of Hackney and Islington before ending at the River Lea at Hackney Wick. In the 1860s, workers found several 200,000-year old flint axes in the river, some of the oldest known artifacts in Britain.

Like so many other rivers in London, Hackey Brook was first used for water and transport and then culverted into a sewer. Unlike most of London’s other lost rivers, however, sewer lines were added into and around Hackney Brook so haphazardly and with so little documentation that no one has any idea of where the original river is. All they know is that there are a ton of sewer lines in the area, and one of them was once a river.

*     *     *

All the rivers mentioned thus far are on the north side of the Thames. The River Neckinger, on the other hand, is on the south bank of the Thames. The river, which is now entirely enclosed, begins in Southwark and goes to St Saviour’s Dock where it enters the Thames. That area was originally called Jacob’s Island, and it was famously poor, so much so that the Morning Chronicle newspaper called it “[t]he very capital of cholera” in 1849.

A century before, the island was famous as being the place where pirates were hanged so that they’d be visible to sailors passing on the Thames. In fact, that’s where the “Neckinger” name probably comes from – a corruption of the words “devil’s neckcloth”, a slang term for a noose. Bill Sikes, one of the main characters in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, dies at St Saviour’s Dock. No wonder the area was renamed: it’s now an upscale area known as Shad Thames.

*     *     *

Still on the south side of the Thames, the River Effra has a couple of interesting facts. For one thing, when it was converted to a culvert, part of it ran through a drainage gate in the crypts of St. Luke’s Church, West Norwood. Also, there is a legend that, at some point during the Victorian era, a coffin suddenly appeared in the Thames and floated downstream. The coffin was traced back to the West Norwood Cemetery. All kinds of conspiracy talk started when it was found that the grave appeared to be undisturbed. Come to find out, however, the ground underneath the coffin gave way and so the coffin fell into the Effra, where it floated out to the Thames.

*     *     *

Yes, lost rivers are seemingly everywhere in London. And although I’ve mentioned some of their more interesting stories in this article, you can find their influence almost anywhere in the city. Neighborhood or street names which seem inappropriate or out of place might have those names because one day, in the distant past, a river ran through the area. Seemingly inexplicable rises and falls or curves in roads might be because there was once a river there. The Den, home of the Millwall Lions football club, is situated where it is because an underground river curves around the stadium.

Most important, I think, is that despite being covered in concrete or rerouted by brick culverts, the rivers are still there, as they were hundreds, thousands, or even then of thousands of years before there was a “London”, and likely will remain for centuries to come.

2 Replies to “London’s Lost Rivers”

  1. Hello Jim,
    nice post. One correction. The flints from Hackney Brook aren’t the oldest artifacts found in Britain. Many finds pre-date them. For instance Boxgrove on the south coast of England, excavated in the 1990s, the site dates to around 500,000 yrs before present (http://www.archaeology.co.uk/specials/the-timeline-of-britain/boxgrove.htm). The oldest British tools have been found on the North Norfolk coast at place called Happisburgh (pronounced haysborah) in the early 2000s. These flints may be as old as 800,000 yrs before present (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2010/july/ancient-britons-were-earliest-northern-europeans72335.html)

    cheers

    MR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.