Whenever anyone mentions vanished London rivers to me, I can't help thinking of Georgette Heyer's 'Grand Sophie' where I first read about the Wandle. So when there was an opportunity to find out about another of South London's rivers, I decided to make like Mr Fawnhope and jump unbidden into a carriage, in search of verdure, watery pleasure and poetry. Even the musical name 'Effra' conjures images of bucolic enjoyment, and according to Mr Ackroyd, 'is named from the celtic word yfrid, or torrent'.
If I'd have done this a couple of hundred years ago, I may have found a torrent of water. Although not wide enough to carry Queen Elizabeth's barge to Sir Walter Raleigh's Brixton home, or even to allow Canute to sail up it, there was certainly a stretch of water, heading to the Thames. The lecture I attended on the 4 September seems like a long while ago, and was part of both the TotallyThames festival and the Lambeth heritage festival, where lost rivers was a theme. Archivist/speaker Jon Newman took us on a tour of the main stream and tributaries of the Effra, from Croydon to Vauxhall, through the changing landscape, and why it eventually vanished from view.
In atmospheric style worthy of Bill Fontana's River Soundings, we arrived at the hall to sounds of the modern underground Effra, as recorded by Jon. His work had enabled him to bring together many images and mentions of the lost river, using the maps by Nicholas Barton in his book the 'Lost rivers of London', so it was interesting to see modern day photos alongside historic material. For instance I loved the various tourist style Edwardian postcards juxtaposed with the photographs of how it is now; a dip in the asphalt.
The main concern of this stretch of water seems to have been health related given that it had been used as a sewer since 1700s. By 1850's from the reports of the Lambeth Vestry areas of the north and east of the district, away from the Thames were badly effected by unfiltered sewage. This foul condition and contaminating influence on the atmosphere seriously endangered the health of children at Woodvale children's home. When land was bought to be used as a cemetery in Norwood they realised that a polluted stream running through it wasn't a good idea so they covered it up, and so the first part of the river disappeared. However water caused problems for the cemetery for many years, causing damage to the catacombs as well as flooding.
As the image above shows, the view looks south towards the South Metropolitan Cemetery - Norwood Cemetery - across Lancaster Avenue before the area was developed, and you can see the Effra in the mid-ground. As the development of the area carried on, bit by bit, it was covered over. It's effects can still be felt, however, the Half Moon Pub at Herne Hill, built around 1880, was badly affected by the 2013 flooding and has yet to reopen. The course of the river takes a detour from Herne Hill and flows the length of Dulwich Road. This is the geological marker of the fault line - London clay to north and gravel to the south.
So on into Brixton, through the Effra Hall Estate, and another pub. It used to be a home for the nervously or mentally afflicted as over the early 1800s which reflects the decline of the area. The wealthy didn't want to live there so large villas were turned into boys school or lunatic asylums. Later they were knocked down and sold off. As we head into Kennington, if it were 1799 the river would flow past the Kennington gallows for Surrey assizes. Many images show crowds assembled for the executions and preachers like Whitfield / Wesley would preach to the crowd. Twenty four years later St Marks Church was built and the transformation of the ground from legal to sacred took place.
Heading even further north, the river became tidal and flooding continued to have an impact on the low lying area around Oval. Given the state of the water by the 1850s, the water supply company based here was in big trouble - it was just too polluted to drink. One site says; Arthur Hassall, in his 1850 book, Microscopic Examination of the Water Supplied to the Inhabitants of London, wrote of the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, "It is water the most disgusting which I have ever examined. When I first saw the water of the Southwark Company (before the merger), I thought it as bad as it could be, but this far exceeded it in the peculiarly repulsive character of living contents."
The development brought mixed fortunes to the area; more people, more waste. Part of the reason why it vanished was because it had become the receptacle of all the drains and privies of the houses. Suburban development had happened earlier than in other places and the result was a severe public health issue, especially in light of the water being supplied. By 1855 there were laws laid out for a new London local government infrastructure, and Sir Joseph William Bazalgette was instrumental in getting London's drainage laid out. Instead of the river running roughly north-south, he designed it so the sewers took it out, decanting the Effra, east and away. Finally Norwood Cemetery was no longer at risk from flooding.
In 1881 south Londoner John Ruskin in a miasma of artistic romance took issue with the new engineering works. He claimed that the river ‘doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river had been bricked over for the convenience of Mr Biffin the chemist and others. Evidence that art critics can't entirely be trusted with the appreciation of engineering progress. Indeed Mr Biffin the Chemist would have been happy not to have his basement washing around with filthy water.
By Vauxhall Bridge you can no longer hear the Effra; the mouth is silent and dry, below Brixton it has basically ceased to be. But still it is interesting to realise that the hall that the lecture was being held in has repeatedly offered emergency accommodation to flood affected people. In June 1914, Sunday joints were flushed out of ovens and people slept in this actual hall. A really entertaining and informative lecture in a perfectly atmospheric location.