There is something about an underground river that trumps all the other subterranea out there. Deep shelters, gas mains, disused Tube channels and cable ducts have their charms for some, but these are the latter-day products of an infrastructure-clogged age, whereas a river lives on in the mind as something primordial and pre-societal.
Jon Newman, River Effra: South London’s Secret Spine (2016)
In my previous post (see Looking for the Lost), I introduced the hidden River Effra and its course from the hills of Norwood (in what was previously the Great North Wood) to its current outlet at the Thames at Vauxhall. This month I want to focus on the connection between the river’s route to Vauxhall from its two main sources in Upper and Lower Norwood and the south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors through which it passes, albeit underground.
My family’s London story starts almost two hundred years ago with the arrival of my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, a master tailor, from North Yorkshire to the capital. He established a tailoring business in the Thameside parish of Horsleydown (near to the southern approach of today’s Tower Bridge), living ‘over the shop’ with his Kentish wife and later young family (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). As he grew successful he moved further out of London – to then semi-rural Brixton in the 1840s, while his successful son, a mahogany merchant, bettered him still with his upmarket residences in Croydon, Gipsy Hill and finally Clapham.
Even by the time James Skelton arrived in London to seek his fortune in the 1820s, polluted sections of the River Effra had already begun to be covered up or ‘arched over’ as it passed through the inner south London suburbs, where it was more often than not used as an unofficial sewer. Less than fifty years later, when my great-great grandfather lay freshly buried up in Nunhead cemetery, new housing developments covered huge tracts of what had formerly been fields and market gardens, the river had to all intents vanished into London’s much-needed new underground sewerage system, a project which gained in impetus after The Great Stink of 1858.
But had James Skelton been even aware of the watercourse which ran through his adopted home? When he moved from Brixton to Walworth with his second family in the early 1850s (see When I Grow Rich), did he know that the new estates which were springing up around Kennington Park were pumping their waste into a covered waterway which still ran and sparkled further out in the hills of Norwood? Perhaps when he’d lived in Cold Harbour Lane in the 1840s, he’d seen evidence of that same water course in the open ditches of Brixton. Here there were still uncovered channels which had begun to stink from the effluence from householders, and which demanded attention from angry residents. In fact, his own relatively new house, which like others would have been fitted with a new-fangled ‘flushing toilet’ most likely used the river as a sewage outlet without the occupants even realising where their waste was deposited.
James Skelton’s ‘new’ house on Coldharbour Lane
By the time his oldest son, the mahogany merchant James William Skelton moved to Gipsy Hill in 1870, James senior had finally succumbed to the chronic respiratory infection which shortened his life and that of many other Londoners . He therefore he never had the chance to visit James William and his family in his newly built home in the relatively rural village of Gipsy Hill, made popular by the arrival of The Crystal Palace in 1851 after its removal from Hyde Park when The Great Exhibition finished. In their rather grand villa in The Avenue – now Dulwich Wood Avenue (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship) – the family would have had glimpses of the giant glass-paned roof of this building.
Crystal Palace from The Avenue, Gipsy Hill
The burgeoning suburban enclave of Gipsy Hill, with its new railway and glass palace (or monstrosity, depending on your viewpoint), was a place and time that straddled modernity and antiquity. James William Skelton’s villa also faced onto a large field used by the local dairy for their cows, so the family would certainly have felt the collision of these two worlds. Part of that field still exists today, a tree-bordered segment of grass caught between busy streets in a strange sort of parody of a country green, whose various names over the years of Bell Meadow, Hunter’s Meadow or French’s Field are testament to its long history. And it was through this damp field that the Upper Norwood Branch of the Effra once ran.
French’s Field in Gipsy Hill today
I have already mentioned the fact that my father’s boyhood home in Denmark Road, Brixton (from where he watched the Crystal Palace burn down in 1936), was located just around the corner from the old Coldharbour Lane family home of his unknown great-grandfather (separated in habitation by almost a century, although both houses were roughly of the same age). Those who have followed my quest from the beginning may remember that when my grandparents moved out of Brixton to Gipsy Hill in 1938, they also unknowingly once again found themselves only a few minutes away from where a member of the ‘other Skelton family’ once lived.
It seems strange to think that my father or grandfather might have walked past the houses in The Avenue, or Coldharbour Lane, admiring them for their grandeur. Not for the likes of us! they might have said (my father always liked to remind me that I was barely two generations away from having to become a domestic servant when I grew up). In another twist – although it is perhaps not so strange, given the terrain – the Lower Norwood Branch of the river once ran through Norwood Park, made from the remains of Norwood Common, in Salters Hill, just a hop, skip and a jump away from my father’s new home in Durning Road, and a green space where he possibly played with his schoolfriends from nearby Gipsy Hill School in the short time he lived in the area before the outbreak of war necessitated his evacuation to the countryside.
Norwood Park 1890
These two Norwood branches of the Effra eventually meet at Croxted Road (previously Croxted Lane), where the eminent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, recalled playing as a child in the 1820s at the same time as my great-great grandfather was setting up his tailoring business in riverside Bermondsey. As the historian John Newman points out in his book about the River Effra, the meandering path which followed the trajectory of the old watercourse at this point still felt like a quiet spot until developers finally took advantage of the stream-free land. This was also the point where, in 1865, the Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer for the new Metropolitan Board of Works (previously the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers) linked up the river to his newly-created Effra Branch of the south London sewerage system. This underground brick sewer interrupted the natural path of the Effra to channel the water through the growing suburbs. When it reached Deptford it met up with the Southern Low Level and Southern High Level sewers, the effluence from these three sources pouring out into the Thames down river at Crossness.
In reference to Croxted Lane, Newman quotes Ruskin (from his strange 1884 autobiography Praeterita), who described the demise of the winding thoroughfare as such: The fields on either side of it are now mostly dug up for building, or cut through into gaunt corners and nooks of blind ground by the wild crossings and concurrencies of three railroads. Half a dozen handfuls of new cottages, with Doric doors, are dropped about here and there among the gashed ground: the lane itself, now entirely grassless, is a deep-rutted, heavy-hillocked cart-road, diverging gatelessly into various brick-fields or pieces of waste.
Croxted Lane c1865
Ruskin also mentions this spot when reminiscing about his youth (he was born in 1819). In Praeterita he states: The summer of 1832 must, I think, have been passed at home, for my next sketch-book contains only some efforts at tree-drawing in Dulwich, and a view of the bridge over the now bricked-up “Effra”, by which the Norwood Road then crossed it at the bottom of Herne Hill: the road itself, just at the place where, from the top of the bridge, one looked up and down the streamlet, bridged now into putridly damp shade by the railway, close to Herne Hill Station.
Bridge over the Effra at Herne Hill, 1823
We have all known rural or semi-rural spots that exist no more, so can sympathise with Ruskin’s sentiments. When I lived in Whetstone in North London in the 1980s, I often used to walk up to the green belt area around Totteridge Village to soak up the atmosphere of what to me (as a young Scot) appeared a very English idyll. By approaching the village and surrounding countryside from the intensely built up streets around Whetstone, it seemed to give the place a more bucolic air than had it been buried in the countryside, so much was the contrast between the two areas (see A Rose in Holly Park). My final destination – the snug bar in The Rising Sun, at that time a very traditional English pub – was the icing on the cake (or the froth on the beer) of a walk in that locality.
Enticing Footpaths at Totteridge Green Belt
I sometimes feel that pockets of countryside in and around towns and cities are more poignant places to visit because of the urban sprawl that surrounds them, and I appreciate Ruskin’s ‘gateless’ description of Croxted Lane. For him the absence of gates was certainly negative, despite the fact that earlier in the century such constructions were more often associated with the unpopular Inclosure Acts. Wooden gates and stiles which lead onto twisting paths lined with trees and hedges always appear inviting to me, and are one of the things I love about walking in the British countryside. I am currently reading Praeterita (such are the interesting side shoots of family history research) and notice that for Ruskin the gates and stiles often appear to be symbols of entrance onto public rights of way (rather than deterrents), something that the contemporary walker can appreciate.
Writing in the decade after Ruskin, in his book South London, the Victorian novelist and historian, Walter Besant, states that: In older days – at the end of the eighteenth century for example, the Effra, a bright and sparkling stream, ran out of the fields above what is now called the Effra Road, and so along the south side – or was it the north? – of Brixton Road. Rustic cottages stood on the other side of the stream, with flowing shrubs -lilac, laburnum and hawthorn – on the bank, and the beds of the simpler flowers in the summer: the gardens and the cottages were approached by little wooden bridges, each provided with a single rail painted green. What can be more enchanting than this image – if it did indeed exist.
However, by 1865 Bazalgette’s sewerage system had drained off most of the river at the points where it met or was intersected by the three main sewerage channels in south London, mentioned previously. So while my great-grandfather may have recollected some of the still open ditches which carried the river through south London in the mid-19th century, when he died in 1867 the new sewers had removed almost all traces of the river from sight. Only when the ‘river’ flooded (a relatively regular occurrence until the creation of storm relief sewers at the lower parts of the river at the end of the century) did the waters of the Effra reassert themselves.
It is a fascinating exercise to lose yourself in one of the many detailed Victorian maps of the area and see sections of the Effra, spring to life once more. Perusing the detailed Stanford Library Maps of London and its Suburbs from the 1860s and 70s (link here) it is possible to follow the course of the river from its Lower and Upper Norwood sources (and become confused by its many tributaries) until it disappears at Brixton. But to scroll through these maps is as painful – if not more so – than the experience of looking at the images in Lost London, which I described last month. Out jumps Bloomfield Hall – restored again to all its glory with the ornamental lakes – before it was pulled down in the following century to make way for the Bloomfield Estate where my grandparents moved to in 1938, full of awe for their indoor bathroom and electric lights. And look! Here comes the Effra snaking into Brixton shortly before it would disappear for good into Bazalgette’s underground sewer.
Joseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station. Photograph: Otto Herschan/Getty
What a place the outer suburbs were then – mineral springs and nurseries and market gardens are spread throughout south London with lanes and waterways linking and defining them. Footpaths follow watercourses (as in the example of Croxted Lane, above) which the cartographers have lined with trees, making one ache to be able to step inside the map and walk along their shady paths. The names of these places – Water Lane, Springfield, and Brockwell House give away the old sources of water, many of which allowed the market gardens to proliferate (also aided by their proximity to a steady source of manure) until selling the land to speculative builders became a much more lucrative proposition.
Perhaps we should leave the last word (almost) to Walter Besant, who wrote the following in his book entitled simply South London, in 1898: It is difficult, now that the whole country south of London has been covered with villas, roads, streets, and shops, to understand how wonderful for loveliness it was until the builder seized upon it. When the ground rose out of the great Lambeth and Bermondsey Marsh – the cliff or incline is marked still by the names Battersea Rise, Clapham Rise, and Brixton Rise – it opened out into one wild heath after another – Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney, Wimbledon, Barnes, Tooting, Streatham, Richmond, Thornton, and so south as far as Banstead Downs. The country was not flat: it rose at Wimbledon to a high plateau; it rose at Norwood to a chain of hills; between the Heaths stretched gardens and orchards; between the orchards were pasture lands; on the hill sides were hanging woods; villages were scattered about, each with its venerable church and its peaceful churchyard; along the high roads to Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth bumped and rolled, all day and all night, the stage coaches and the waggons; the wayside inns were crowded with those who halted to drink, those who halted to dine, and those who halted to sleep: if the village lay off the main road it was as quiet and secure as the town of Laish*. All this beauty is gone; we have destroyed ii: all this beauty has gone for ever; it cannot be replaced. And on the south there was so much more beauty than on the north. *A biblical oasis, in present-day Israel, now called ‘Don’
Since Besant wrote his book, there has been much more destruction of south London, not least in twentieth century wars that he would not live to experience. Yet his text was written at a time when ideas of progress were often different from today, even though it often feels a case of ‘two steps forward; one step back’. If Besant were to travel forward to our current time (and what a trip that would be!) he might be both shocked and surprised in equal measure. The killer London smogs have gone, but air pollution from traffic-congested roads has replaced them. Rows of so-called ‘slum dwellings’ have been eradicated, although cheaply built and isolating tower blocks now stand in their place.
Besant would most likely soon realise that we are now grappling with issues that were once seen as the answers to the very problems the Victorians (and those who came after them) tried to solve. However, I believe he would be interested in the contemporary solutions which aim to rectify some of the mistakes previous generations made. One of these is the London Wildlife’s Trust Lost Effra Project, an urban greening initiative which aims to combat the problem of flooding in the Effra catchment area after heavy rain. As mentioned last month, this is done through soft engineering solutions which at the same time also increase biodiversity in inner city neighbourhoods. No doubt Besant would be heartened by the current awareness of such environmental issues and the local involvement in this project and others like it. It’s a message he might be keen to take back with him to the 19th century.
The Incidental Genealogist, May 2019
Thank you, fascinating as always, and highlighting the work of civil engineers. We forget how they have improved our conditions. I could not help think about the clear rivers James Skelton left behind, singing over stones, stained by peat after rain, trout, wagtails, lined with alders and willows ……