Jacob's Island, Rotherhithe, 1887 - James Lawson Stewart © Museum of London

Going Underground

17th May 2019

Rivers that once flowed freely and were important enough to shape the look and feel of our capital are now trapped deep beneath our feet. Jack Watkins reviews a new Museum of London Docklands exhibition that aims to uncover the secrets of the city’s forgotten rivers, streams and brooks…

London owes its very existence to a river, namely the Thames or what Julius Caesar called ‘the Tamesis’. The bridge built by the Romans above the marshes at Southwark in 43AD instigated the rapid growth of a trading port which meant that, by the end of the 1st century AD, London had replaced Colchester as the capital of the Roman province.

It’s with London’s other rivers, however, that the Museum of London Dockland’s new exhibition is concerned. The curators say there are at least 16 lost, or secret, waterways still running beneath our feet, now buried in tunnels or encased in pipes, and often the subject of many an eerie mystery or ghostly legend. The ‘Big Three’ which once ran above ground north of the Thames are the Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne, and the exhibition looks at the history of these, as well as the more stream-like Walbrook, which rose in Finsbury and flowed into the City, and the Effra and the Neckinger on the south side of the Thames, ‘exploring themes of identity, development, effluence, manipulation, activism and sacred association’. Also examined are the ways in which the Lea and Wandle rivers have been the subject of much recent restoration.

On the effluence ticket, one of the most curious exhibits is a rare 12th century triple toilet seat made of carved oak, and once located above a cesspit close to the Fleet. It was placed behind a mixed commercial and residential building on Ludgate Hill and was doubtless shared by the shopkeepers and families who occupied the block. Of all the now subterranean rivers, the Fleet is probably the best known. It had two springs that surfaced on Hampstead Heath, one in the grounds of Kenwood House, the other at Hampstead Ponds. From there it ran down through Camden and flowed past the atmospheric St Pancras Old Church (where a young Thomas Hardy, in his pre-novelist days as an architect, worked on exhuming bodies and rearranging the graves in the churchyard in the 1860s, in preparation for the new Midland Railway).

The Fleet then continued down the valley of Farringdon Street and finally emptied itself into the Thames at Blackfriars. If you stand on the bridge and look back up New Bridge Street towards Ludgate Circus you are following the line of the old river as it approached the Thames. Fleet Street, to the west, took its name from it but did not follow its course.

The Fleet is loaded with history. It marked the western boundary of the City in Roman times, delineating the area against the more lawless Westminster, and during the English Civil War fortifications were built on both its banks. It was an important industrial waterway, lined with mills (a grinding stone from one of the Fleet corn mills is part of the exhibition), and when they were building Old St Paul’s Cathedral, cargo boats carrying stone from the quarries travelled down its length.

Inevitably it also became associated with pollution and foul smells. The monks of Whitefriars at Fleet Street complained that even their incense couldn’t mask the putrid aromas, and inmates of Fleet Prison died of the associated diseases. Several attempts were made to clean the river up, but by 1652 the flow was being blocked by butchers and other traders who persisted in using it as a dumping ground for their waste.

Among archaeological finds from the Fleet on display here are a dog’s collar, and dog and cat skulls, alongside an illustration from Alexander Pope’s poem The Dunciad, which contains a description of the dead cats and dogs which were regularly to be seen floating along the river. By the 18th century, its various stages began to be bricked over. These days the Fleet is used as a sewer, though in times of storms it will still break out of its channels to flood the basements of unfortunate properties along its route.

The name Tyburn is more associated with the gallows at the junction of the Bayswater and Edgware Roads where, from the 14th century up to 1783, when the place of hanging shifted to Newgate Prison, crowds in their thousands gathered to watch unfortunate souls meet their deaths. The Tyburn river which, like the Fleet, rose in Hampstead before flowing down in the direction of Regents Park and on to the West End, has left its own imprint on the modern streets of London, nevertheless. The dip in the ground at Bond Street Underground marks the line of the river, as does the lower part of Piccadilly. Lancashire Court, just off Brook Street and New Bond Street, was built on the east bank of the Tyburn, where ducks used to wander among the puddles in open fields.

The more easterly Walbrook, by the time it reached the City, ran between Cornhill and Ludgate, never being much more than a stream, and never navigable. Again, it was used for dumping dung and other muck, and by 1440 people were paying money to ensure it was covered up. It was already a ‘lost river’ by the end of the 16th century. Yet you could probably roughly plot a portion of its course by following the trail of the City churches which were built along its banks – from St Margaret Lothbury, to St Stephen Walbrook, and to the remains of the churchyard of St John the Baptist upon Walbrook, destroyed in the Great Fire of London and never rebuilt, in Cloak Lane.

The still rural character of west London well into the 18th and 19th centuries is reflected in the art of Paul Sandby, the landscape water colourist, who depicted fields at Bayswater, sheep and cattle grazing among red tiled dwellings in 1793. The Westbourne ran through Bayswater, but its source emanated from the famous Whitestone Pond at Hampstead, after which it wended its way down to Kilburn and eventually on to Chelsea. It was damned to fill the Serpentine in Hyde Park. You can still see the course of the Westbourne rushing through a massive iron pipe above the platform of Sloane Square Underground Station, according to Paul Talling, author of the book London’s Lost Rivers. Noise resulting from the river’s encasement in a sewer has been blamed for instances of alleged hauntings in the cellars of houses in the area.

In fact, as Peter Ackroyd relates in his London, there has always been some weird business surrounding these rivers. A study published in 1960 found that about 75% of ghostly disturbances occurred ‘in houses significantly close to watercourses wherein perhaps the spirit as well as the sense of buried water may be asserting themselves.’ As the Beach Boys once sang, ‘don’t go near the water…’

For more information visit www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands

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