It might be hard to believe today, but London was once teeming with rivers and canals – even if most of us would struggle to name more than one or two. From Roman times right up until the Victorian era, waterways criss-crossed the city before flowing into the Thames.
As the city grew, many of these rivers were filled in and built over – and millions of Londoners and tourists have little idea that they’re trotting over these forgotten torrents every day. Keep your eyes peeled, though – several clues to these rivers are littered throughout the city, and each stream has a story to tell.
Here are 8 of London’s lost rivers:
1. The Walbrook
The most important river in Roman London, the Walbrook ran directly down the middle of the city as it existed one thousand years ago. It flowed through modern-day Shoreditch and north of the Wall of London, built to protect the city from invasion. By the 15th century, it had become so full of sewage that it was paved over – and with it, a central piece of London’s history disappeared.
2. The Fleet
London’s largest lost river, the River Fleet began its course in Hampstead and ran all the way down to the Thames, giving Fleet Street its name. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, once described it as bursting with “dung, guts and blood”. Perhaps fittingly, it exists today as a small sewer.
3. The Tyburn
Thousands of camera-wielding tourists march above the Tyburn every day without realising it; the river runs directly underneath Buckingham Palace and out towards Westminster Abbey. It was mentioned in writing as early as the 8th century, but by the Victorian era had all but disappeared – except for one tiny tributary, which still exists in the basement of Mayfair antiques store, Grays.
4. Stamford Brook
Clues pointing to this lost West London river can be found in the names of the District Line Tube station in Chiswick, and in nearby Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home stadium. Its source in the leafy suburb of Ealing was a popular Victorian medicinal well – but by the start of the 20th century, it had grown dirty and was covered.
5. The Effra
Danish King Cnut the Great is said to have sailed up the Effra during his conquest of London in 1016 – and a century later, a Victorian folk story told of a coffin being spotted floating down the waterway. The Effra ran up south London, through Brixton, and joined the Thames at Vauxhall – earth dug up during it eventual enclosure was used to build the banks of The Oval cricket ground.
6. The Westbourne
Commuters at Sloane Square Tube station in Chelsea might be interested to know that the remains of this historic river runs directly above their heads, in a large metal conduit above the station’s platform. The rest of the river, which also ran through Hyde Park, was driven underground in the 1850s to allow building work to take place.
7. The Earl’s Sluice
The Earl of this river’s name was Robert, the First Earl of Gloucester and illegitimate son of King Henry I. The waterway ran through Camberwell and into east London, flowing underneath the current location of Millwall Football Club’s New Den ground. Today, there’s little evidence that the river ever existed, aside from a small mural on Old Kent Road.
This submerged river in south London has given its name to several streets near Tooting and Clapham. The Falcon pub has stood near its banks for over three centuries, and the river, now underground, made an unwelcome re-appearance in 2007 when it burst and flooded the streets above.