= The Crawford Arts Review: London's not so secret rivers

Monday, 22 July 2019

London's not so secret rivers

Until Sunday 27 October

The good people of the Museum of London Docklands, housed next to a dock in what was an old sugar warehouse, must be more aware than most of the trading riches brought to London via the River Thames. Their major (and marvellous) new exhibition, Secret Rivers, must have made them newly aware also of the wonders of having drinking water at the turn of a tap and waste disposal at the push of a lever. Without London's tributary rivers and without the Thames, there would be no London at all.
The Thames as we know it today has some 15 tributaries, all, as will be explained below, either partially or completely underground, relatively unknown other than to Thames Water engineers. 

This exhibition offers an up-to-date history of those waterways told in writing, art, and by a wealth of objects weapons and brooches, platters and tankards, tools and toothbrushes. There is also a specially commissioned map showing every brook, creek and bourne (see below).

© Museum of London Docklands

I'd love the Museum to publish a full-size version of the map that we could all hang on our walls. Not every detail of the courses of these ancient waterways is yet known. But all it would need is a disclaimer saying that the Museum, while making every endeavour to make it accurate and complete, welcomes feedback. And that for future editions anyone with further knowledge of the system (those ancestral papers in the attic?) should get in touch. But go and marvel at what is hung on the Museum walls now. 

Pewter tankard with inscription
'J Hurst Fleet Cellar'
 © Museum of London Docklands

Perhaps surprisingly, many signs of the courses, meanders and valleys remain visible on the surface of today's London. That steep dip at the western end of Piccadilly? It's where the Tyburn crossed on its way south. Those winding lanes that thread through parts of Kensington, Marylebone, St Pancras and Holborn? Those trace the original river beds of the Westbourne, the Tyburn and the Fleet.

Not until 1245 did work begin on piping fresh drinking water from the streams to where people lived and worked. Conduits, including the Great Conduit, were built so that Londoners were able to collect fresh water via a growing network of pumps.

A view of Chelsea Water Works
© Museum of London
Before that it was off to your nearest stream or well with a receptacle to collect your own supply. It was not until 1613, when the 'New River' opened, piping water from the gentle slopes of Hertfordshire, that London and its growing population became independent of its native river system. 

What about the Thames? Well, true to all rivers, the Thames starts off as a series of fresh water springs, in the Thames's case, in Gloucestershire. But as it reaches London and approaches the sea from about Blackfriars Bridge, the head of the tide it becomes tidal and very, very salty. Although it was never able to provide drinking water, it became nevertheless the centre of London's maritime power and her wealth of trade.

12th century wooden toilet seat
excavated from the vicinity of
'Whittington laystall'
 © Museum of London

During the 19th century a combination of foul air and deaths by cholera and other water-borne diseases occurred. The fresh water streams as well as the Thames itself had become polluted by waste and the rubbish of trades and industry. It was decided that waste water and solids should be conducted via pipes out of the city. Enter Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Mostly by his efforts, rivers were diverted into pipes and effluent made its way neatly and hygienically through sewers to the sea and still later for treatment and return to the Thames. The sewers have lasted well, protecting the health of all of us. It was only in 2016 that the new Thames Tideway Scheme (the super sewer) began and is due to open in 2023.

Thanks to some wonderful outreach and liaison work by the Museum, a full programme of events for all ages as well as talks accompany Secret Rivers. You can also take a guided walk along the ancient river courses, seeing the city and its development in a new light, appreciating all that has been given us: water to live by, great sewers to keep us healthy, and gravity and atmospheric pressure as givens together with an engineer's ability to calculate the required bore of a pipe so that flow continues for the most part no matter what the circumstances. So popular are these river walks by the way that new series keep having to be added. Book early.


The Museum of London Docklands
No.1 Warehouse

West India Quay

London E14 4AL

tel: 020 7001 9844

Direct ticket sales: 020 7030 3300

Open daily: 10am
6pm (galleries close at 5.40pm)
nearest stop on Docklands Light Railway, West India Quay

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