The easiest pub quiz question in the world: name a river that flows through London. Answer: the Thames. A somewhat more difficult question: name another river that flows through London. A few might know of the river Lee (or Lea) that springs near Leagrave in Bedfordshire and joins the Thames at Leamouth in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. But how about: name a third river that flows through London? And a fourth, a fifth, a sixth?
We’d lose all but the more phenomenal pub quiz contestants here, even though there are in actual fact over a dozen natural water courses flowing through Britain’s capital. Many of them played important role in the development of the city, as the location of mills, the source of drinking water and as open sewers. Most of them have been pushed totally underground, forced into culverts, out of sight and out of mind – even if some of them have left their mark on the city’s topology. This map shows and names some of those lost rivers of London, all tributaries to the Thames.
Starting on the rive gauche of the Thames (which in this case means the north bank of the river), those are, west to east:
· Stamford Brook: the confluence of three smaller streams arising in West London, Stamford Brook flows into Hammersmith Creek before discharging into the Thames. Its name comes from ‘stoney ford’, and is remembered in Stamford Brook tube station. The stream was covered by 1900 and is now a sewer.
· Parr’s Ditch: also called Black Bull Ditch, this stream arose north of present-day King Street in Hammersmith, flowing under a bridge at Hammersmith Road and crossing what is now the St Paul’s Court estate to flow into the Thames where now Riverside Studios are.
· Counter’s Creek: arising in Kensal Green and flowing south through Little Wormwood Scrubs, Olympia and Earls Court to Sands End, where it flows into the Thames, Counter’s Creek can still sometimes be spotted by commuters on the westbound platform of West Brompton tube station, but only after heavy rainfall. Its tidal mouth is known as Chelsea Creek. Chelsea FC’s football grounds is known erroneously as Stamford Bridge because of confusion between Counter’s Creek and Stamford Brook.
· Westbourne: flowing from Hampstead through Hyde Park onto Sloane Square and thence into the Thames, the River Westbourne has left its mark on London toponymy, mainly by the other names it has been called through the centuries: Kilburn, Bayswater, Serpentine, Bourne, Westburn Brook, Ranelagh and Ranelagh Sewer. Kilburn and Bayswater nowadays are well-known areas in London. The Serpentine, formed in 1730 to beautify Hyde Park, was fed with the Westbourne’s waters until 1834, by which time it had become too polluted. Another area owing its name to this stream is Knightsbridge – named after a bridge over the Westbourne. It has been driven underground since the 1850s, when the area it flows through was gobbled up by an expanding London. An original part of the pipes it still runs through can be seen above the platform of Sloane Square tube station. At low tide, its mouth can still be seen some 300 yards west of Chelsea Bridge.
· Tyburn: originating in South Hampstead, flowing through St James’s Park and flowing into the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge in Pimlico, the Tyburn once branched to form the island of Thorney, the site of Westminster Abbey.
·Fleet: two springs on Hampstead Heath, directed into two 18th century reservoirs (Highgate and Hampstead Ponds) thereafter combine to form London’s largest underground river. The upper reaches were known as the hollow stream (‘Holborn’ in Anglo-Saxon, hence the name of that London area), its lower reaches as the Fleet (from Anglo-Saxon for ‘estuary’). The Fleet flows under King’s Cross, which was originally known as Battle Bridge, after a place where Queen Boudicca is reputed to have fought the Romans. It ends in the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. The river gave its name to Fleet Street, which in turn became a collective term for the British press, as most newspapers had their offices there. It almost gave its name to a tube line, but since its opening coincided with the Queen’s silver jubilee, the Fleet Line was named the Jubilee Line. On a quiet moment in front of the Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, Farringdon, you can still hear the Fleet’s flow through the grating. Another slightly more dangerous location for Fleet-spotting is the grid in the center of Charterhouse Street where it joins Farringdon Road.
· Walbrook: starting in Finsbury, flowing straight through the middle of the most ancient part of the city and into the Thames at Cannon Street Railway Bridge, this river’s name might derive from the fact that it flowed through or under the wall of Londinium, the Roman settlement on the site of present-day London. Legend has it that when London fell to the Saxons, these forced the original Celtic inhabitants to live on the east side of the river, while they lived on the west side of it – resulting in the still noticeable difference between London’s affluent West End and a more working-class East End.
· Black Ditch: possibly rising near Spitalfields, this river ran to Mile End, curving into Poplar to end in the Thames at Limehouse Dock. It may have been known by other names but by the late 18th century, it was called the Black Ditch.
Streams joining the Thames on its south bank are, west to east:
· Beverley Brook: rising at Cuddington Recreation Park in Worcester Park, Beverley Brook flows through Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park and Barnes and joins the Thames at Barn Elms, near Putney Bridge. Its name derives from the presence of the European beaver, extinct in Britain since the 16th century.
· Wandle: the Wandle springs from two sources: one of the Waddon Ponds in Croydon and another at Carshalton Ponds. It flows through Sutton, Lambeth, Merton and finally Wandsworth, where it joins the Thames. Both Wandsworth and the Wandle get their names from Wendle, a Saxon who settled in the area. Exceptionally among London’s ‘lost’ rivers, the Wandle is not subterranean for most of its length. Springing at Thornton Heath as the Norbury Brook, the river Graveney joins the Wandle near Summerstown.
· Falcon: the Falconbrook, or Falcon, springs on Tooting Bec Common, flows under Balham and enters the Thames at Battersea. It burst out of the pavement of Falcon Road (named after the stream) in Clapham Junction in July 2007 during floods that affected large parts of England.
· Effra: derived from the Celtic word for torrent (compare, in Welsh, ‘ffrydlif’), the Effra rises from multiple sources, among others in Crystal Palace and near Westow Hill, flowing under Half Moon Lane in North Dulwich, towards Herne Hill train station, from there towards Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, Brixton Road, on to Kennington and then ending in the Thames, near Vauxhall Bridge. In 1992, an arts project sparked a campaign to unearth the Effra.
· Neckinger: rising in Southwark, the Neckinger joins the Thames via St Saviour’s Dock, where pirates were hanged in the 17th century. The river’s name may derive from the term ‘devil’s neckcloth’ (i.e. the noose). In the 19th century, the mouth of the Neckinger was known as Jacob’s Island, a place of great poverty and squalor, described as the very capital of cholera and the Venice of drains. Charles Dickens lets one of his best-known characters, Bill Sykes (from Oliver Twist) meet a violent death in the mud of the Dock.
· Peck: the Peck, springing in East Dulwich and running through Peckam, was enclosed in 1823. It can still be seen on the west side of Peckham Rye Park.
· Ravensbourne: the River Ravensbourne rises at Caesar’s Well in Keston, flows through Bromley, Lewisham and Greenwich and is joined by several tributaries, among which the beautifully named River Quaggy (also known as Kyd Brook). It ends in the Thames in Greenwich Reach (also known as Deptford Creek), west of Greenwich proper. In 1580, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on board the Golden Hind in Deptford Creek after his circumnavigation of the globe.