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Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands

Everyone knows the River Thames and many people have also heard about the River Lea. You can also walk along beautiful canals in London. But did you know that under your feet (or even above your head) the secret rivers and canals are carrying their waters hidden from our eyes? The exhibition Secret Rivers in Museum of London Docklands tells about some of those rivers with archaeological objects, old and contemporary art and videos. The exhibition is open until 27 October.

The most famous of these secret or sometimes even called as “lost” rivers is the River Fleet (click this for more information). It has also given a name to Fleet Street. It opens the exhibition. The most eye catching thing of the exhibition is the large video installation of the River Fleet nowadays, as part of London’s sewerage system.

Of all the secret rivers besides the Fleet that have made it to the exhibition are rivers Effra, Neckinger, above mentioned Lea, Wandle, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne. On the museum website it’s said: “Each river will highlight a broader theme such as poverty, industry, development, effluence, manipulation, activism, sacred association and restoration.”

Here is a quotation from a book called London Under London. A subterranean guide by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman:

There are over a hundred miles of rivers in London, fed by over a hundred springs and wells, which once flowed and gurgled through meadows and valleys. Villages sprang up on their banks. As London grew the villages turned into suburbs and the streams into sewers. Hidden from view, recalled only in street names, they trickle through a succession of platforms, ravines, caverns and culverts under the city: still there in spite of their long and tortuous transition from spring to stream to sewer, and from ditch to dyke to drain. (p.23)

That is poetry.

Some of the streams are still visible: Ravensbourne, Beverley Brook and the Wandle and of course the River Lea. A couple of rivers or streams are lost, at least all the information has been lost – or were those rivers just fairytales? The famous London historian John Stow describes the route of the Langborne, but no trace of the stream have been found. What about Shoreditch? No sign of it either. Its existence might have just been a misunderstanding, simply mixing up things and it might have never existed. And if I understood correctly, the Cranbourn might just have been an illicit sewer. (Barton, pp. 60–67)

And then there are those that definitely exist but are flowing under our feet. Another quotation from the same book telling about the gradual process of burying the rivers and streams:

The rivers formed natural valleys; valleys were natural roads; houses sprang up along roads; roads required drains; drains flowed into rivers; rivers became sewers; sewers became culverts. (p. 27)

Back to the Fleet . The river was one reason for the Roman establishment of the first settlement near the Thames (Clayton, p. 37).

Roman bone dice_(c) Museum of London, small
Roman bone dice. © Museum of London.

The Fleet was an important river but slaughterhouses and particularly tanners – tanning was a very important industry in the medieval era – caused lots of pollution. Bridges were spanning over it and wharfs were flanked the Fleet. But the Great Fire destroyed the wharfs. The river was deepened from the Holborn Bridge to the Thames and Christopher Wren got a new bridge erected at the Holborn. The river was now called the New Canal. On this image below from Wellcome Collection there is seen the New Canal and the Fleet Bridge that was built by Wren.

s3 L0005000_L0005015 full size
The mouth of the River Fleet, as in 1725. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

It seems that the image that was made after Samuel Scott’s painting didn’t quite match with the reality. As written in London Under London (p.34), “… its banks became focal points for the lower forms of London life”.

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) wrote in his poem A Description of a City Shower:

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,/And bear their trophies with them as they go:/Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell/What street they sail’d from, by their sight and smell./They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,/From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,/And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,/Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge./Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,/Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,/Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

Cat and dog skulls with a dog's collar (c) Museum of London, small
Cat and dog skulls with a dog’s collar. © Museum of London.

At that time the river was very polluted. A big part of it was arched in the 18th century and it started to transform into a sewer that it’s nowadays. From London Under London (p. 37):

In 1732, just ten years after Wren’s death, Parliament gave permission for the Fleet to be arched over from Holborn Bridge to the Punch Tavern at Fleet Street. 1765, its lower reachers, from Fleet Street to the Thames, were also arched over. The Fleet had become a sewer – its role enshrined in the mid-nineteenth century by William Pinks, when he called it ‘the Cloaca Maxima’ of the metropolis.

                             The arching-over of the River Fleet provided eighteenth-century London with an underground myth comparable with the alligators under twentieth-century New York – an obese pig lost in the sewer. Soon whole species of subterranean pigs were reported to be living under London.

The upper reaches from Camden Town to King’s Cross were covered in by the early years of the 19th century. (Clayton, p. 42)

In this link you can find wonderful pictures of the Fleet Sewer.

In the opening part of the exhibition there are on display artifacts unearthed in excavations of the River Fleet e&. There are small items and then something quite big; a communal toilet seat from the 12th century. The seat is made of a single plank of oak. In the exhibition there is also a replica, so you can try it yourself.

privy seat
This 12th century toilet seat was excavated from the vicinity of ‘Whittington lay-stall’. © Museum of London.

Here you can read the whole and fascinating story about the toilet seat, where it was found and even about those people whose bottoms have been touched this object seven centuries ago.


Neckinger and Westbourne

The Neckinger ran from Bermondsay Abbey to the Thames. This was industrial area and the water of the streams could be lead through artificial channels to feed the mills. As Barton writes, the Neckinger was considerably altered in the area because channels were constructed to feed Abbey water-mill and the result was the creation of Jacob’s Island. Jacob’s Island was infamous for its squalor in the 19th century. It was even called the “capital of cholera” (Barton, pp. 54–56;  Clayton, p.51)

Jacob's Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. James Lawson Stewart
Folly Ditch, Jacob’s Island, 1887 – James Lawson Stewart. © Museum of London.

I like the story how the Neckinger got its name. According to Barton it comes from Neckinger Wharf that was located at its termination. Barton writes that the wharf “appears on a map of 1740 as the ‘Devol’s Neckenger’: this is supposed to derive from the fact that Thames pirates were executed there, and the rope which was used to hang them became known as the Devil’s neckcloth or ‘neckinger’.” (Barton p. 56)

The Westbourne, originally known as Kilburn, was a big stream that stayed open until quite late. Its waters were flowing into Hyde Park forming ponds. The Serpentine was created – following Queen Caroline’s orders – in 1730 by damming its course (Barton, p. 43; Clayton p. 44). Below is Thomas Rowlandson’s vision about people skating on the Serpentine. Its original name was Serpentine River, but it is known better as Skaters on the Serpentine. This is the second version from 1786. The first version is from 1784 and that version is in the National Museum of Wales. The Serpentine had frozen during the severe frost late January/early February 1784 and people went to enjoy skating. (Payne & Payne, p.81). The Westbourne stopped feeding the Serpentine in the 1830s as the stream started being too polluted.

Skating on the Serpentine 1786
Skating on the Serpentine 1786. © Museum of London.

The Westbourne was also flowing through Ranelagh Gardens – public pleasure gardens that was opened in the 1740s – where certain W. A. Mozart gave a concert as a kid. The Ranelagh Rotunda was designed by William Jones. It is said that Jeremy Bentham might have got idea from the Rotunda for his Panopticon prison plans, but that’s just speculation as there are other candidates for the model, too.

A view of the intended Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens: 1742
A view of the intended Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens 1742. © Museum of London.

The Westbourne fell into the Thames in Chelsea. Just above the mouth of the stream it was diverted into two and part of the river was feeding the reservoir of the Chelsea Waterworks (established in 1723). (Barton, p. 43; Trench & Hillman, p. 45)

A View of Chelsea Water Works
A view of Chelsea Water Works. © Museum of London.

The Bayswater area was growing and more drainage and sewerage was needed. The proposal made in 1808 of discharging effluent into Westbourne just before the Serpentine was naturally not a very welcome idea, so the result was that the river was diverted away to the east to a new sewer. (Clayton, p. 45) Its use as a sewer – now known as Ranelagh Sewer – was increasing, and little by little it was covered and the project was completed in 1856–57. Until recently its outfall had been able to see at low tide.

The Westbourne/Ranelagh Sewer is not totally hidden. It can be “seen” as its waters are running inside a culvert above the underground railway tracks at Sloane Square station on its way to the Thames.

Here are some wonderful images of the Ranelagh Sewer.

One section of the exhibition is telling about not-so-serious ” projects” which aim was to daylight The River Tyburn and The River Effra, both nowadays part of the London sewer system, to regenerate the cityscape. Behind the Effra project there was an artist group called Platform, and the Tyburn Angling Society has dreaming about unearthing the River Tyburn. It would mean knocking down some buildings, like Buckingham Palace, so I somehow think it won’t happen. Of course the exhibition is telling also a more serious projects like the successful restoration projects of the Wandle and the River Lea.

Besides these there are lots more to see. In the end I give some links where you can read more about the exhibition. The last section of the exhibition is devoted to the rivers and contemporary art.

The Heath - 12. Andy Sewell
The Heath – 12, 2006–2011, Andy Sewell. © Museum of London.


Text © Katriina Etholén


Nicholas Barton: The Lost Rivers of London. Historical Publications, 2000 (reprinted from the 1992 revisited edition, orig. 1962)

Antony Clayton: Subterranean City. Beneath the Streets of London. Historical Publications, 2013 (first published 2000, revisited and extended edition 2010).

Matthew Payne & James Payne: Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757–1827. His Life, Art & Acquaintance. Hogarth Arts, 2010.

Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman: London Under London. A Subterranean Guide. John Murray, 2000 (reprinted from 1993 edition, orig. 1984)

The free exhibition is open daily 10am – 6pm until 27 October.

Museum of London Docklands’ website can be found here.

More articles about the exhibition:

This one is on the RIBA journal’s website.

Here is a good article about the exhibition published in The Guardian.

Here you can read a detailed story about the exhibition.

More information about the hidden rivers of London can be found here.


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