Duck Duck Book

20 – lost rivers of london
06.26.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: science

The lost rivers of London : a study of their effects upon London and Londoners and the effects of London and Londoners upon them / N. J. Barton.
London : Phoenix House, 1962.
[Multnomah County Library does not have this book; but its call number might begin with 551.4830942 — Rivers and streams, London]

This is a general-interest book on the topic of London’s lesser rivers and waterways — by lesser I mean smaller than the River Thames, and more likely to behave when put into a pipe. The rivers discussed in the book have more or less disappeared, and you won’t see them if you take a casual stroll around their former neighborhoods. Some are in sewers, some are in aboveground pipes, some have had their courses diverted, and some have dried up by having their water stolen upstream. It’s no surprise that there used to be lots of rivers in what is now London — it is a flat-ish place in a wet country surrounding the mouth of a major river. Water has to go somewhere, and even if it all predictably goes into the River Thames, it does have to get to the River Thames. It’s also not surprising that most of these watercourses are now buried or destroyed, since it has been a pretty major city for a thousand years. But I have to say, before I was introduced to this book it never really occurred to me to consider where all that water, and all those rivers, might have gone, in London or in any other city.

Barton acknowledges in his introduction that other writers have detailed various scientific, cultural, and public health aspects of the history of London’s rivers, but explains that he aims to provide a broader perspective. The book is awfully readable, for all its technical detail and historical miscellanea, and it is beautifully illustrated.

The contents give attention to the different watercourses separately, and then go on to discuss lost rivers that may be mythical, rivers in the context of civic development and infrastructure, industrial and recreational uses of the rivers, and finally, public health. The book has an index, and two lovely appendices: one a list of maps, and the other a bibliography of materials discussing the rivers. There is also a fold-out map showing the likely original courses of these lost waterways superimposed on a map of modern London.

You Portlanders might be interested to note that we also have many lost rivers and streams. Some of our most exciting small waterways and are still in evidence – Johnson, Tryon, and Crystal Springs Creeks, for example — but many many others have been buried in culverts or diverted. Unfortunately, I have found no narrative examination of the history Portland’s humbler waterways. Perhaps one needs to be written.

Metro (the Portland area’s regional government) has published a large map showing disappeared rivers and streams (Disappearing streams, [Portland, Or.] : Metro, [2001?]), but it doesn’t come with much explanation, and the scale is so broad that it’s a little hard to read.

n.b., The Lost Rivers of London was reprinted in a revised edition of the same title that is still in print (Historical Publications, 1992). I haven’t looked at the revised edition, and I don’t know if it includes the nice fold-out map.


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