As I embark on the journey to document London’s hidden hydrology, it’s revealing how many books, websites, art installations, maps and more that have been created around lost rivers over the years. To begin, I thought it prudent to start at the beginning, or at least the modern version of this, with The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton. This may be considered the earliest version of a hidden hydrology publication I’ve seen, that is, exclusively focused on the disappearance of urban hydrological systems. This groundbreaking work was first published in 1962, with a subtext epitomized by the tagline: “A study of their effects upon London and Londoners, and the effects of London and Londoners upon them”. Barton describes the endeavor: “The purpose of this study is to show that these rivers, still silently flowing along beneath our feet though for the most part degraded into sewers, have played a considerable part in the development and history of London, and furthermore that their influence is still felt today… “ (14)
I purchased a copy of the 1962 book, and was excited about the inclusion of a fold up map which shows the the streams, which was a nice surprise, as I figured it would be missing (also a snippet of this in the header of the map). An image of this map I’d seen before online is this version, which can be found via this post from London By Gaslight from 2012, showing folds and all. I ended up scanning version in the book and stitching it together (it’s about 20″x 17″) because I really like the simplicity and style of the map (Click for larger version).
If you zoom in, shows some of the great detail of what is a superbly crafted map from over 50 years back. A zoom in shows a simple black and white line drawing with blue water (doesn’t get much simpler than that) along with some simple labels. The Westbourne, Tyburn, Fleet, and Walbrook wend through central London, and areas where it’s daylit such as the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
A further zoom shows the Rivers Walbrook and the Neckinger, along with Black Ditch, feeding the Thames on the east side.
The content of the book is organized around some of the main rivers on the north side, including the Walbrook, Fleet, and Tyburn, along with more geographically focused groupings to the west, south and east. There’s a fun section on ‘Dubious Rivers’ which questions some legends of these lost rivers. The final section includes broader information on the uses of the rivers, and discussion of “Disasters, Diseases, and Drains” which includes analysis akin to John Snow’s mapping of cholera – in this case looking at incidence of bronchitis overlain with lost river paths to see if there’s a correlation.
It’s a pretty amazing book, especially when you think of when it was written, as it draws on a range of historical information that obviously was a bit less accessible in the mid 1960s. I laughed when he mentions the following, in the Introduction, as it echoed what I feel most days: “For such a small theme, these lost rivers have been the subject of a considerable amount of literature, and an even greater amount of interest. Nothing has surprised me more in studying them than the number of other people doing the same thing. Yet in spite of this, there is only one book which purports to describe all the lost rivers (he’s referring to Foord’s 1910 ‘Springs, Streams, and Spas of London’) and even in this they are a secondary interest.” (14)
The sheer amount of rivers that ran through London leads to a number of interesting narrative opportunities, and the length of history of London adds to this potential creating an arc of time spanning centuries. It also provides a partial story that is constantly in flux, as mentioned in 1962: “…there is no hard-and-fast distinction between those which are buried and those which are not… some of these streams are partly buried and partly not, and who can say that in a few years they will not be as much lost as their historically more distinguished predecessors?” (17)
The illustrations run the gamut beyond the map above which highlights rivers buried and open at the time, along with historical images such as woodcuts, here below of the Fleet River in 1825 and River Tyburn in 1750 (between pages 32-33)
More descriptive maps, such as the one below, showcase small scale concepts, such as the development of early sewers concurrent with development, in this case from 1679, highlighting sewers built by Richard Frith to alleviate problems from illicit sewers he had built earlier. As mentioned by Barton: “This incident is only one of many clashes at this period between the authorities and the speculating builders who were so rapidly extending the fringe of London, and in tracing its consequences one gains a fascinating insight into this period of London’s history.” (52)
Another shows a much larger infrastructure intervention, the configuration of Bazelgette‘s 1858 interceptor sewers, which was driven by the ‘Big Stink’ and the need to ‘replumb’ the city to alleviate the health crisis created by the fouling of the rivers, as described by Barton: “Three large new sewers and the north and two on the south cross London from west to east, intercepting the old sewers on their way to the Thames.” (112) The waste is then deposited at outfalls well downstream of the city, and the “old rivers are relegated to the function of storm relief sewers…” (113) Thus a long-standing model for the transformation of many urban areas followed suit.
The book has an ample set of Appendices, including a good list of maps set in chronological order, and articles and books spanning back many decades. The connection and historical use of the Rivers is a constant theme in the text, with stories of use and the connection of life and rivers for centuries. This ideal is epitomized in this image from 1728, taken from Alexander Pope’s ‘Dunciad‘ shows the River Fleet, with the line:
“Here strip my Children! here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash thro’ thick and thin.”
As concluded in the original, Barton sums it up. “…despite the collective name by which these river are usually known and which forms the title of this book, they are not lost, but merely hidden: ‘a river can sometimes be diverted, but it is a very hard thing to lose it altogether’… The measure of the change is that today we need never stop to think about these streams, although they are still flowing silently along beneath our feet, ‘the ghosts of the rivers which once beautified Londong and the country round about…” (128)
This version was reprinted again in 1982 as the same text, and an official second edition shows up in 1996. The latter doesn’t mention any major changes, but does sport a new, color cover. I don’t have a copy of either of these, so can’t vouch for any changes, but it is interesting to see the timeline from the original publication date, and at least a glimmer of interest that sustained multiple printings over the decades.
A reprint in the form of a third edition emerged in 2016 which, along with another author (Stephen Myers) and a tagline ‘Revised & extended with colour maps’. It’s definitely an expansion of the original text, and it does incorporate ideas and parts of Myers’ 2011 book ‘Walking on Water’ which i will cover in a separate post, while including much of Barton’s original 1962 text, along with a new cover.
They do offer some new info, reported on London lost rivers expert Tom Bolton in this 2016 review from the Londonist, “Walbrook Stolen By Monks! New Lost Rivers Of London Has New Ideas” where he also refers to the original book as “London’s lost river bible”. This update includes some specific route maps, which highlight the individual rivers, something that wasn’t part of the original text. The route of the Fleet, shown below from headwaters to the Thames is a good example.
A more focused version shows the Tyburn flow around St. James Park, and the text allows for some visuals that were lacking in the original text about side channels and relationship of current conditions.
I also appreciate the sections showing the full route and overall elevations change, such as this for the Walbrook River below, with some modern reference points.
There’s a lot more imagery in this version, including more photographs and sketches, which is great, and they do cover a bit more in terms of history and context, adding chapters on development of London, and the key role of the rivers in defense, navigation, agriculture, fishing, mill-power and industry, as well as recreation. They mention that, often prior to waterways being lost, they are manipulated for many of the purposes above, for instance, the story of the Fleet. “After the Great Fire it was resolved to convert what had become a squalid nuisance into a beautiful asset. Under the direction of Wren and Hooke the lower 640 metres (2,100 feet) of the Fleet were deepened and widened, and an elegant canal created, 15.25 meters (50 feet) wide, lined on either side by wharves… crossed with high bridges.” (139) This modified Fleet is shown in the 1745 Rocque Map of London as the “Fleet Ditch”.
And while it was used for a time, in perhaps a refrain heard many times since, there “was not enough demand for a canal and too much demand for a street.” After covering portions of it , “the wharves became roads and the central strip a long arcaded covered markets. The remainder of the canal was covered over in 1766, and the canal became a sewer.” (141)
Barton & Myers do get a bit speculative as well,with the last chapter Regaining an Asset, where they discuss the new visibility and popularity of lost rivers, and the desire to restore the physical and spiritual connections to these urban waterways. They discuss a series of proposals for a number of of the rivers, including daylighting short stretches of the Walbrook, Fleet, Tyburn and Westbourne Rivers. Beyond restoration, they do acknowledge “It is simply not possible to just open up long lengths of the Lost Rivers to the surface, particularly within the inner city, downstream. These stretches have been completely integrated into the sewer system.” (206)
The solution could be attained by tapping source waters high up in the watershed, stating that “The springs there may be the only source waters of the Lost Rivers which have escaped pollution and remain accessible.” (206) An more expansive Fleet River Revival Project, seen below, would use gravity in “renewing a connection which existed before the rivers became polluted” (207) creating an abstracted system through the urban zones not following the exact route but taking advantage of current conditions to restore the general idea of the Fleet and other river corridors.
The update is a good exploration and adds a lot to the overall narrative, and the additional images, and the inclusion of the glossary is a nice touch. They have, unfortunately jettisoned the fold-out map, and the internal maps, in my opinion, are not as effective, varying in scale, cropped and rotated weirdly, and overly detailed as to overwhelm the key hydrological information. It’s funny to think of a book from 50 years ago actually having better maps than one published just a couple of years ago – but I guess it’s a case where color and detail isn’t always a positive, and this info in the hands of skilled mapmakers and graphic designers would make them more effective.
The book and its different editions provides a compelling history that is worth a deep dive. Someone can prove me wrong, but I think the 1962 version, beyond some early tomes on springs and spas, is the oldest version of the hidden hydrology literature. And it still holds up today. The updates add some technical rigor, and maps, but with the addition of the engineering co-author, it loses a lot of the original by trying to be too detailed and include too much explanation of routes, which is pretty boring reading. If you are in London and at all interested, I’d look at a local bookstore or get online a track down a copy. It’s worth a look.
HEADER: Image from Barton’s original 1962 Map of London’s Lost Rivers.