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Museum of London Docklands explores the story of the city’s forgotten rivers 4

a watercolour of a river scene

Jacob’s Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart. © Museum of London.

Museum Crush talks to archaeology curator Kate Sumnall ahead of an exhibition of art and archaeology revealing the fascinating story of London’s rivers at Museum of London Docklands

The Rivers Effra, Fleet, Neckinger, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne; they may not have the fame or continuance of the River Thames, but they have all played their part in shaping London and the lives of its inhabitants from the Bronze Age to the present.

At the Museum of London they are using two large areas of their collection – archaeology and paintings, prints and drawings – to investigate these rivers that once visibly flowed through London towards the central conduit of the Thames.

Today some of these rivers are deemed to be “lost” because they have become subterranean waterways, meandering beneath the city’s streets. Some of them are now part of the sewer system – like the Effra, the Walbrook, the Fleet and the Westbourne.

“It’s difficult to ascertain exactly how many waterways are still flowing in London because it gets very confusing,” admits curator Kate Sumnall. “The Fleet has a number of tributaries which flow into it before it goes into the Thames and the rivers also change according to which period of time we’re talking about. So the Walbrook in Roman times is very different to the Walbrook in medieval times.

a photo of a river running through a derelict industrial site

River Wandle at Merton Abbey, Merton. Photograph by Mike Seaborne. Courtesy Museum of London.

a photo of a riverbank wall and stream with trees

River Wandle near Merton Abbey, showing a similar viewpoint today (note the pylon visible from the bridge near Merton Abbey. Photograph by Museum of London Photographer John Chase. Courtesy Museum of London.

a photo of two gloved hands holding a brass collar with grey hound engraved on it

Dog’s collar found in the Thames. Courtesy Museum of London.

“They have been neglected in the past, but much like the River Wandle [in south East London] which the local community has been so active bringing back up to health, we are seeing native species re-occupying some of the rivers.

“They are still there, and they’re flowing. Some of them you can still see, others are beneath our feet, but the little clues around London survive. Once you start to pay attention to them, the rivers jump out at you and you realise that you know far more about them than you think.”

The reason why roads and buildings are the shape they are, says Sumnall, is because they often follow the curve of London’s old rivers. The road names and place names also offer some clues.

“Knightsbridge was originally called the Knights Bridge, which originally ran over the River Fleet,” she says, “Sadler Wells was actually a well linked to the River Fleet, and Clerkenwell – it’s another well.”

Sumnall’s knowledge of the geography and history of the rivers of London may surpass most people’s, but as archaeology curator she also has an in depth knowledge of the objects the rivers have given up. Thousands of these objects – many of them still actively donated by the ‘mudlarks’ who scour the Thames foreshore – now reside in the museum’s famous archaeology collection.

“The rivers have been used throughout time for a multitude of different reasons and we’ve got this evidence that has come from the riverbed and the banks,” she says, “and that gives us really valuable information about the river, the river course, the state of the river, water levels and human use – be it milling waste disposal and ritual. All of these bits of evidence are here and we can start to piece together the bigger stories.”

a photo of a bronze sword

A Late Bronze Age sword found in the River Thames. © Museum of London.

a photo of an assemblage of relic swords and other weapons

A 14th century sword, surrounded by other artefacts, before they go on display as part of the Secret Rivers exhibition, Photo © Matt Crossick/PA Wire

a photo of two gloved hadns resting on a piece of old wood with a round bum-sized hole in it

Conservator Luisa Duarte works on a 12th century triple toilet seat, Photo © Matt Crossick/PA Wire

Among the objects helping to tell these stories, big and small, is the museum’s famous three seater medieval toilet seat, which was discovered in the 1980s during the massive archaeological excavation of the lower Fleet Valley ahead of the Thameslink railway line.

“The Fleet is one of the most famous of the lost rivers and has been incredibly well documented throughout time,” says Sumnall. “It has been a backdrop to the novels of Charles Dickens; Shakespeare worked there, Ben Johnson wrote a poem about it and William Blake lived there, and one of the things that came up from the excavation of the Fleet Valley was this three seater toilet seat.”

The wooden seat was found atop a wicker lined cesspit, in the garden of number 7 of a row of mid-12th century buildings on what we now know as Ludgate Circus. There was also evidence of an orchard growing nearby.

There were two islands on the River Fleet at this time and the land was reclaimed around the southernmost one by filling in the channel to allow the row of houses to be built on top of it. The cesspit beneath the communal loo would have drained straight into the channels of the Fleet – a function this much abused London river carries on today.

“When we pieced the loo seat together with the historical research, we also started to find the names and the professions of the people who owned the nearby houses,” adds Sumnall. “So we have the names of the people who once used the loo seat, which is quite an amazing connection with the past.”

Possibly less tangible but no less powerful connections come from the museum’s impressive collection of weapons yielded by the capital’s rivers, including around 90 bladed weapons dating from the Bronze Age.

a photo of a carved fish shape

This bone miniature fish was excavated from the banks of the River Fleet. It is around 400 or 500 years old and dates from a time when the Fleet was still an open, freely flowing river used to supply water for nearby industries and households. © Museum of London

a photo of a woman holding a sword

Curator Kate Sumnall with a Bronze Age sword. © Museum of London.

a photo of a bracket in the shape of a finger attached to a rusty iron pin

A Roman bracket cast in the form of a finger or thumb. The bracket was probably used to support a plaque with inscription. © Museum of London.

This is a large number, but it isn’t something that is unique to London. Bronze Age swords have been found in various watery places across the continent and most experts agree that they are the Bronze Age peoples’ response to the water. There are a number of theories as to why these valuable objects have been put into the river.

“An offering to the gods? It might well be,” offers Sumnall. “These are not swords that have been used; they are valuable in terms of the bronze and would have taken a lot of craftsmanship to make. They are not things that are lightly thrown away or lost.

“They are exactly the same as the ones that are used as practical weapons, their edges are sharp, they would work perfectly well as a sword, but it’s not a model like some of the swords we see in Roman times.

“We see the same happening in the Viking period with a lot of spear heads, axes and swords being put into watery places – and more than can be explained through battles because where we’re getting the weaponry from doesn’t quite match up with where the battles took place.”

Other objects include a Roman bronze bracket in the shape of a thumb on an iron pin, which would have been hammered into the masonry of a temple site in Southwark.

During Roman times the Thames was much broader and braided with channels and islands and at Southwark there were a series of low-lying islands with a temple sited close to where the first bridge crossed.

“Southwark was a valuable bit of land to the Romans and in the temple we see their response to this very watery environment,” explains Sumnall. “One of the boundaries to the temple site was a channel with a bridge going over it so the Romans would have had this relationship with the water as they entered the temple site. We know that was important because they were putting religiously important offerings into the water.

“The finger bracket was probably used to hold a stone inscription, which again would have been an important sacred object of the site, imbued with power that couldn’t be lightly thrown away. I love the humour of it; it’s a finger holding up this important object, so it really makes me smile when I see it.”

a sepia print of watercolur of a church with cottage, trees and river

Exterior view of Croydon Church, Surrey. The River Wandle flowing in the foreground. Water colour by James Biourne . Courtesy Museum of London.

a watercolour of meadows with sheep and a stream passing by a cottage

Fields at Bayswater, looking towards Craven Hill, 1793. Watercolour by Paul Sandby. Courtesy Museum of London.

a photograph of a river with trees on either side and a footpath to the left

Old River Lea by the junction with Pudding Mill River looking south. Photograph by Mike Seaborne, 2006 Courtesy Museum of London.

a black and white photo of a concrete bridge over river with wasteland in the foreground

DLR viaduct over Bow Creek in fog, with Pura Foods in the background. Photograph by Peter Marshall 1992. Courtesy Museum of London.

The artworks on show also trace the flow of London’s rivers and they paint a very different picture of London. The rivers have shifted in size and course over time, partly due to natural causes, partly through human modification and the paintings, prints and photographs bring this into sharp focus.

Historically they allow us to look at how they were used and what it meant for the wider area. It’s also fun trying to pick out landmarks and see the historical evidence of how the river was being used in days gone by.

Paul Sandby’s Fields at Bayswater was painted in 1793 and offers a pastoral view of the capital with a blue stream gliding through the meadows and past cottages. James Lawson Stewart’s Rotherhite, painted in 1887, is at first glance a similarly romantic view – if you don’t look at the detail.

The water and the wooden galleried buildings offer an outwardly picturesque aspect of Victorian London until you notice how brown, slow flowing and fetid the river is – and how the wooden shutters of the dilapidated building are all hanging off.

“Charles Dickens visited Jacob’s Island after the social reformers started to highlight just how bad conditions were there and it’s what inspired some of the scenes in Oliver Twist,” says Sumnall. “But was he dramatizing? We’ve done some archaeology on the site and it seems Dickens depiction was pretty close to the truth – if anything conditions were worse than he portrayed.”

The painting also offers a portent of the fate of London’s many rivers and tributaries of the Thames. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 Christopher Wren’s vision for the River Fleet, which even then was narrow, slow flowing and filled with rubbish, was to turn it onto a Venetian style canal with docks and jetties that would make it into a more beautiful river. But the canal quickly became polluted and gradually over time more and more of it was covered over.

“Eventually it became part of Bazalgette’s sewage system,” says Sumnall. “But it’s still flowing beneath Farringdon Street.”

It seems we may not always be aware of them, but London’s rivers continue to shape the city and its people in so many surprising ways. This clever marriage of art and archaeology brilliantly reveals their history and tells us how.

Secret Rivers is at the Museum of London Docklands from May 24 – October 27 2019. 


Museum of London Docklands

London, Greater London

From Roman settlement to the development of Canary Wharf, this 200 year old warehouse reveals the long history of the capital as a port through stories of trade, migration and commerce.

4 comments on “Museum of London Docklands explores the story of the city’s forgotten rivers

  1. Graham Adamson on

    Fascinating ……. a long time interest of mine …… began when I was a co-founder of the City of London Archaeological Society . Is there a publication or catalogue to go with the exhibition ?


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