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The Guardians Of London’s Lost Rivers

January 31, 2020
by the gentle author

London is situated upon a river basin and owes its origin to the Thames. Yet once upon a time many other rivers flowed through the city which have been ‘lost,’ mostly absorbed into the modern drainage network or occasionally diverted into decorative water features such as the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Adam Dant’s latest map celebrates the sources of the lost watercourses of the capital, delighting in the profanity of their transformation from wild streamlets to stinky sewers, through waters swollen by the effluent produced by mythic figures of London lore.

Some discreet digital smudging has been applied to avoid compromising those who read Spitalfields Life in the workplace, office or schoolroom. Unexpurgated limited edition prints are available by mail order for connoisseurs.


Click to enlarge

If London’s lost rivers ever had anything by way of protective gods, like the Old Father Thames and his wife Isis, then as river guardians they have performed a very poor job indeed it seems – or maybe not.

London’s lost rivers continue to flow, they still have identifiable sources and across this map of what is perhaps  – as the torrent of guide books, novels, exhibitions, walking tours, and maps suggests – the city’s worst kept secret, they maintain a vigorous current.

By manifesting the histories of their meanderings as personifications of their sources, each gets an identity that needs no higher power than that which keeps the springs gurgling. Even without such phenomena, Londoners provide an ample stream of liquid too.

By the Middle Ages, some – most famously the Fleet and the Walbrook – had already become open channels of waste and were culverted over. Yet it was the Victorians who built a system that, by so efficiently hiding the passage of effluvia through the Thames’ tributaries, led to the complete disappearance of these former rivers.

Joseph Bazalgette’s network of vaulted sewers redirected the Tyburn and the Westbourne to good purpose, carrying off those things on which we do not wish to dwell. Would not a guardian of such a lost river be a bit ‘pissed’? I have conjured a cast of perpetually micturating masters and mistresses, depicted according to the particular histories of each river.

Thus, the River Tyburn flows from the ‘pissen-breeches’ of the hanged man at Tyburn’s ‘triple tree gallows,’ while a gang of sailors provide the source of the Neckinger, close to the docks, and the angel which appeared in the branches of a tree in William Blake’s garden is the fountain head of South London’s lost river Peck.’ – Adam Dant





Adam Dant’s MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND is a mighty monograph collecting together all your favourite works by Spitalfields Life‘s Contributing Cartographer in a beautiful big hardback book.

Including a map of London riots, the locations of early coffee houses and a colourful depiction of slang through the centuries, Adam Dant’s vision of city life and our prevailing obsessions with money, power and the pursuit of pleasure may genuinely be described as ‘Hogarthian.’

Unparalleled in his draughtsmanship and inventiveness, Adam Dant explores the byways of London’s cultural history in his ingenious drawings, annotated with erudite commentary and offering hours of fascination for the curious.

The book includes an extensive interview with Adam Dant by The Gentle Author.

Adam Dant’s limited edition prints including THE GUARDIANS OF LONDON’S LOST RIVERS are available to purchase through TAG Fine Arts

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Holford permalink
    January 31, 2020

    Some of these rivers are lost and now integrated with the drainage systems underground but others may be just unknown. I grew up with Beverley Brook as part of my playground. It is the nearest thing to a countryside, babbling brook in London. Most of its course is through green areas from Richmond Park to Barnes Common. Happy days paddling and looking for aquatic wildlife. That was long ago but I would be surprised if it isn’t still a clean river considering the expensive areas it flows through!

  2. Paul Bommer permalink
    January 31, 2020

    This is pure joy and pure genius! Much needed piss-take on this gloomy day

  3. Sue permalink
    January 31, 2020

    I too grew up with Beverley Brook at the bottom of the garden in Beverley Rd. We built dens but never paddled as were firmly told that a boy round the corner had fallen in some years before and developed polio. Other memories were the dread when after heavy rain the high sides filled up to the top (probably eight foot or so) and a torrent of brown water flowed through. The thought of falling in brought on nightmares. Then there was the day when the army came round as someone spotted a small wartime bomb in the water.

  4. M.D.West permalink
    January 31, 2020

    Wasn’t it the invention of the water closet which really messed up the rivers flowing into the Thames leading to the ‘great stink’ in the early 1800s…before W.C.s people used earth closets and there were collections of solid ‘night-soil’ by cart which were transported to farms

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