Museum of London Docklands explores the history of the capital's many rivers, now mostly covered and culverted, and considers hopes to 'daylight' them
London used to be a lot more watery than we’d imagine today – that’s the key message behind Secret Rivers, the new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands about the many rivers and brooks that helped shape the capital but are now nowhere to be seen.
And most of us don’t even know they were ever there. I lived in Brixton for five years, frequently noticing the signs for Brixton Water Lane and Effra Road, without ever quite realising that the River Effra ran through the area until the late 19th century. I’m sure many others are equally ignorant of the plentiful waterways that once flowed through their part of London and helped shape the urban landscape– the Neckinger, Tyburn, the Peck, the Black Ditch in Poplar, the Westbourne, although the Fleet and the Walbrook may be better known.
All these are represented in this illuminating new exhibition, which combines an informative historical approach with archaeological artefacts plus artworks inspired by the rivers and field recordings of the rivers today. Along the way, the exhibition draws out certain themes such as their role as sacred places – many Roman temples and shrines were located close to water – and also their relationship to both poverty and pleasure within the city.
The aim of the exhibition is to raise awareness of how London’s landscape has been formed by rivers, and how the population has interacted with them over time.
‘We hope people will leave here with a better understanding of London’s riverscape and how watery it was, and with a better understanding of their localities,’ says Jackie Kelly, a curator at the museum.
These waterways began to disappear from view with the expansion of the city and the impact of population growth, which led rivers to become increasingly polluted by industrialisation or diverted for new uses. Most have now been canalised or culverted. Most passengers of Sloane Square underground station probably have no idea that the large pipe visible at the station carries the river Westbourne.
Any romantic notion of these lost rivers is dispelled by descriptions of some of the waterways, in particular the foul state of the Neckinger at Jacob’s Island, an infamous slum and cholera hotspot within the river at Bermondsey. There is also a 12th century, three-seater toilet seat recovered from a yard that once faced onto the Fleet, which was notoriously clogged up and filthy – we learn that toilets were often located directly over rivers that might also be used for washing and even bathing.
There were repeated, failed attempts over the centuries to clean the Fleet. Once one of the widest of London’s rivers, it had been narrowed by the Knights Templar, who built a mill on it. After the Great Fire, the Fleet was deepened and widened to create a short canal between the Thames and Holborn Viaduct but problems persisted and in the 18th century the river was gradually covered over and incorporated into the sewer network.
Evocative accounts of filth, disease and dead dogs are contrasted with a section on the manipulation of natural waterways for the pleasure of the wealthier residents of the capital. The Serpentine in Hyde Park was created in the 1730s at the behest of Queen Caroline by the damming of the Westbourne. The same river was used to create an ornamental canal in Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in west London.
Some would like to see these rivers ‘daylighted’ or returned to view. There’s a look at a provocative art project proposal in 1992 that set up a fictitious regeneration agency to reinstate the Effra. We also learn about the eccentric Tyburn Angling Society, which wants to daylight the Tyburn that once flowed through Mayfair. A plan including the location of fishing huts and bridges shows that this endearing endeavour may require the demolition of Buckingham Palace.
Other rivers have in part been restored/rewilded, such as the Wandle at Merton near the site of Merton Priory and also some of the waterways of the Lea Valley, although the disappearance of the Pudding Mill River beneath the London 2012 Olympics stadium is cited as the most recent example of London river culverting.
The inclusion of artworks and literary references is testimony to the creativity inspired by these hidden rivers. The writer Iain Sinclair put it eloquently in a quote from 2013 included towards the end of this enjoyable show: ‘They’re not lost, not at all… the rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams’.
Secret Rivers, until 27 October 2019, Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay, London