Let’s not beat around the bush, London has one famous river – the River Thames. The body of water that goes right through the middle of the city, winds a bit, turns up for the EastEnders opening title and then eventually drains out in the Garden of England (Kent). The Thames is the big dog of London rivers, 'fair enough', you say, 'good game', 'well played'. However, across London, there are smaller rivers, brooks, and streams that all became tributaries to the glorious Thames. South London has a number of notable rivers, with long histories, who have all seen major change throughout the years. Most of them are now at least partly subterranean, but they still exist, so here is the history of -some of- South London’s rivers.
Rising in Keston, Bromley and joining the Thames at Deptford Creek in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the story behind the 'Ravensbourne' name involves the legendary Julius Caesar of all people. Presumably camped in what is now Bromley, Caesar needed to provide water for his parched soldiers. In dire need, Caesar saw that a raven regularly alighted near their camp. Doing what any one of us would do, he followed the raven, discovering that the bird had been landing at a water spring. This spring provided clean water for his soldiers, and from this time became known as the 'Raven’s bourne'.
Whether this story is true, or not, the Ravensbourne has a peculiarly significant history. Much of which comes from the town that began its life as a ford of the river – Deptford. With references of Deptford comes the existence of the Ravensbourne; they simply cannot be separated. So when Chaucer mentions Deptford in the Canterbury Tales, he’s really referring to the Ravensbourne. Later on it would, naturally, become the site where the end of the Cornish Rebellion occurred, with the rebels ultimately being defeated at the battle of Deptford Bridge, in 1497. Obviously the Cornish rebels were drawn towards the Ravensbourne because of its utterly magnetic beauty (see above).
The most beautifully named river in all of London begins life in Bromley, flows through Greenwich and joins the mighty Ravensbourne in Lewisham. The name Quaggy is actually relatively modern and, up until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was referred to largely as 'Lee Water' or the 'Quagga'. Only in 1863 did the name Quaggy stick and it is most likely a reference to the nature of the ground around it. Though a small river, the Quaggy has actually burst its banks on a number of occasion, and as a result has become one of the UK’s most heavily engineered rivers as much of it is now guided by concrete channels. Still, this has not stopped the raging Quaggy rising above its banks on occasion, most recently in 2014, when it caused at least £100,000 worth of damage to properties in Eltham.
The furious River Effra ran through Herne Hill, Brixton and ended in Vauxhall. Like the Peck, it was covered over as a sewer in the nineteenth century, and evidence of its presence in the area exists in name alone now – Effra Road and Effra Parade. The name Effra is thought to be either Celtic for the word 'torrent', or, as an old pronunciation of Heathrow – the river once flowing through the Manor of Heathrow in Brixton, not the former hamlet of Heathrow in Hillingdon, which now lies underneath the airport of the same name. It has its own place in history most notable by, 'Cnut the Great', who famously believed he had supernatural powers and could control the sea, sailed up the river during his conquest of England in 1016, rather than telling the river to move. Despite being covered for some time, the Effra has reared its head again on a number of occasion such as in the 1950s when it flooded the Oval cricket ground in Kennington, and then again on an even wider scale in 2007.
One would not necessarily know that Peckham is named after the River Peck, if you went there. Mainly because there isn’t a river in Peckham. Really there is, it’s just underground these days. The name ‘Peckham’ is of Saxon origin and means ‘the village of the River Peck’. Why the River Peck was called the River Peck is unknown - one can only imagine the reasons behind it. Honestly it’s tough to think of an amusing reason for it. The river used to rise in Honor Oak, run through Peckham and onto Bermondsey, where it joined another lost river; the Earl’s Sluice. It was enclosed as the Earl Main Sewer in the 1820s and can only now be seen, briefly, in Peckham Rye Park.
Those who have been to Bermondsey will most likely recognise the name Neckinger from the road that runs directly through the area. That road is named after the River Neckinger, which ran through Bermondsey to St. Saviour’s Dock and is now covered over. The name Neckinger has a rather grisly origin and is believed to come from the term ‘Devil’s neckcloth’, a slang term for a noose. Until the eighteenth century, pirates were hanged near the mouth of the river Neckinger and displayed just a little further down on the Isle of Dogs. They weren’t the only individuals to meet their demise near the Neckinger. In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the life of the infamous Bill Sykes is ended in the squalid environment of the Victorian St. Saviour’s Dock.
Similar to Bill's fate, the Neckinger marks the end of our account of South London's long lost rivers. Now go forth and explore!
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