London was once a city of rivers, criss-crossed by tributaries of the Thames and River Leas. Now most of those rivers have disappeared, converted over the centuries into sewers and canals. But although these rivers are hidden from view, they haven’t altogether vanished. Alongside tube lines, plague pits, and Roman Walls, the remains of London’s rivers still flow beneath the capital. These rivers are everywhere, underfoot in the case of the Walbrook or overhead like the River Westbourne which runs through a pipe in Sloane Square tube. Some gave their names to London’s boroughs, neighbourhoods, and roads: the Fleet, Tyburn, Effra, and Clerkenwell. Others, like Cock and Pye Ditch in Seven Dials and Pudding Mill River in Stratford, faded into obscurity. Remembered or not, London’s rivers are evidence of how the capital expanded. They provide a glimpse into the city’s grimy past, telling a story of filth, ingenuity, and disease.
Today, for most of us, the word ‘river’ conjures up images of swimming, fishing, and boats. If you were a medieval Londoner, however, the connotations were of something altogether less pleasant: shit. It’s impossible to consider the history of London’s rivers without also considering the history of shit. The unromantic problem of human effluent is part of every city’s past, nowhere perhaps, more than London. Population growth in cities forced an unprecedented number of people into the same area of land. Managing the resulting sewage was a daunting challenge. Before the Victorian era, most sewers were open, the medieval wooden toilets draining into rivers and cesspits. The cesspits were a health hazard, often exploding due to methane build ups. Raw sewage also spread diseases by fouling drinking water, leading to outbreaks of diseases like cholera. The development of the city hinged on the question of how to dispose of human waste?
Rivers supplied the most obvious answer. The Fleet and Walbrook rivers were both covered into sewers early on. Wells along the Fleet River had once been credited with healing properties. Suddenly the opposite was true as filthy rivers were linked with disease. Untreated waste and industrial by-products were drained directly into the Thames, giving rise to events such as the “Great Stink” of 1858. The hot summer weather created a stench so unbearable that the government had chalk lime and carbolic acid poured into the Thames. In a letter to the Times, Scientist Michael Faraday wrote:
“Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind. … The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.”
The odour coming off the Thames, it was noted, was so awful that it offended Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during a pleasure cruise. More seriously, the stench panicked a population that had lived through several recent outbreaks of cholera. For centuries scientists held to the “Theory of Miasma” which attributed the outbreak of diseases to impure air. The “Great Stink” was consequently associated with the cholera outbreaks that plagued the city. London cartoonists began to produce drawings of Thames water filled with monsters.
The situation clearly could not be allowed to continue and civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with finding a solution. Bazalgette responded by building 160 km of sewers, which included large portions of London’s lost rivers. The rivers incorporated into Bazalgette’s sewer system remain in a similar state today. Intrepid urban explorers, willing to brave the danger and the smell, can view the preserved Victorian brickwork. It was a useful but unpleasant end to many of the city’s river-ways.
Bazalgette, however, was only exploiting long established trends in London building. By the time of the Great Stink, London’s rivers had been used as sewers for centuries. In a city so driven by progress, rivers were inevitably appropriated for practical ends. Those that didn’t become sewers were often removed to make way for building works. What’s striking is that it could have ended quite differently. After London’s Great Fire in 1666, the architect Christopher Wren intended to model the newly rebuilt city on Venice with its system of canals. Many of the rivers were converted into canals but London was not destined to become a second Venice. The dream was ended by pollution as sewage blocked the waterways, which had not been constructed to include Venice’s elaborate drainage systems. The problem with London was that it was simply too full of shit.
Today there are a handful of rivers that remain above ground. The rivers Brent and Quaggy, among others, are only partially subterranean. The River Wandle, after years of being diverted, still flows through parts of South London. Once lined by mills, the river was so polluted that the water ran blue and pink from the tannery dyes. Now, much like the Thames, the Wandle has been regenerated. Over time London has learned to value its rivers, perhaps because there are fewer of them. What remains of the city’s lost rivers can be seen emptying into the Thames. Near Cannon Street, watchful pedestrians can see the Walbrook at low tide and near Vauxhall Bridge, the Effra. The curious can book walking tours of these rivers guided by Paul Talling, author of “London’s Lost Rivers.” The continued allure of these rivers is clear: in a city so marked by change, they provide a compellingly gritty map of London’s hidden history.