It’s always a treat to travel on the Thames so when the Museum of London Docklands said they were launching their new exhibition Secret Rivers, we thought we should arrive by river boat to honour London’s watery past and present.
Taking one of the Thames Clippers along the Thames is a wonderful way to travel and see the sights that make London so famous. Whizzing past the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, St Paul’s, Tate Modern, Globe theatre, Tower of London and then under Tower Bridge is almost an overload of top sights.
Arriving at the museum’s building you are taken back in the days when London’s docklands were full of old warehouses and wharves, not Canary Wharf’s modern glass towers. Their new exhibition Secret Rivers is really good and I learned a lot about the Thames and its tributaries, so many of which are now lost or hidden.
A large map greets you on entry tracing the huge network of rivers which feed the Thames. Some I’d heard of, such as the Westbourne as I live close to it, the Fleet which gives us Fleet Street but I was not aware of the Wandle nor the Neckinger, both south of the river thus giving away my ‘north of the river’ preference!
The exhibition traces the life of London’s rivers through time from the Bronze Age to the present day, taking us through Medieval times, the poverty and pleasure of the 18th century onwards through the transformation of the Victorian era to the concerns and progress of the 21st century. There is plenty of history about how the rivers have changed over the centuries and most often have been lost and this story is well told through some fascinating objects.
You start the exhibition with the river Walbrook as it meets the Thames as this is where the Romans built their city of Londinium and their Temple of Mithras can be found. We are shown the sacred importance of rivers through a range of unexpected objects found along the banks. Mudlarking is a popular activity in London and thanks to the treasures they have found, we have extraordinary insights into life along the rivers through the ages. This Roman ‘curse tablet’ caught my eye as it was thought to have magical properties and the person named would be cursed by the deity associated with that place. This one says: Titus Egnatius Tyrannus is cursed and Publius Cicereius Felix is cursed’, strong stuff!
A second Roman remain which stood out was this marble tablet which suggests to use that there was a temple on the river bank dedicated to Mars Camulos (Deo Martica) a Romano-Celtic god. The inscription ends with the word ‘Londiniensi’ which is the first known mention of Londoners on a stone tablet, dating from the end of the 2nd century AD. This tablet lay hidden for 1600 years in Southwark until building work unearthed it
A case full of weapons has some very fine swords including a Viking one in the centre of this photo. Weapons such as these were prized, expensive possessions and would not have been thrown away lightly so we can guess that placing them in a river was as an offering not a means of disposing of them.
Moving on chronologically I was interested to see these 15th century wooden pattens which people wore to protect their shoes and raise them above the mud. Anywhere near the rivers would have been very dirty – and not just mud! – so pattens would have been an extremely useful item. These examples have a hinge to make walking easier.
Medieval toilets could be open air and multi user, a horrible thought for those preferring our single cubicle. A triple seated oak toilet seat was found over a wicker-lined cesspit over a channel of the river Fleet. We can read that the toilet was probably enclosed in a wattle and daub building so at least some privacy was afforded.
Rivers were gradually disappearing and we learn how the Fleet, London’s second river, was buried in the late 18th century after centuries of being used as an industrial and human sewer, sadly the fate for most of the now secret rivers.
There is a mesmerising film about the extraordinary series of tunnels which Joseph Bazalgette bequeathed to us to save London from what was known as ‘The Great Stink’. In 1858 the smell from the Thames, which was being fed by many rivers which were in effect open sewers, was getting so bad that the MPs in Parliament couldn’t stand it any more! They commissioned Bazalgette to solve this pressing problem and he devised a series of massive tunnels stretching 1,100 miles and he built Embankment to house them. This transformed condition of the river and life along its banks for wildlife and humans. The film was shot inside the tunnels and shows us the size and scope of these tunnels through wonderfully cut photography and a dreamy soundtrack.
Sections about the devastating impact of poverty and water-borne diseases such as cholera which hit Southwark so badly due to the polluted river Neckinger, contrast with the leisure time that the rich enjoyed in places such as the Serpentine Lake which was a diverted section of the Westbourne. Dickens gives us a shocking description of these poor and diseased areas of London in Oliver Twist in passages such as this one set in Southwark: “every lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch”.
I learned about previously unknown societies set up to bring lost secret rivers back to life, ‘daylighting’ as it’s called. One of these was so extraordinary that they suggested that to bring back the river Tyburn swathes of Oxford Street should be dug up and even Buckingham Palace which covers the river’s course! I love the idea of recovering London’s secret rivers but I think this plan is rather extreme.
The 21st century story of our rivers is about renewal and we are left feeling more positive as the focus is on cleaning up the water and the surrounding areas, reclaiming them for nature and leisure. These photos show a ‘before and after’ of the viaduct over Bow Creek in 1992 and 2018
The rivers of London have been the inspiration for literature, fiction and non-fiction, so a book display is there to encourage us to read more about our rivers. I’m feeling motivated to return to some Dickens. .
The final piece of Secret Rivers is a photograph of a swimmer in water, representing every London river. It points the way to the day when the Thames and all its tributaries will be clean enough for us all to swim in safely.
For more information about the Museum of London Docklands and the Secret Rivers exhibition click here. Don’t forget that entry to the museum and this exhibition are both free!
Full disclosure: I was invited by the Museum of London to see the exhibition ahead of its opening to the public and the boat trip was included in that invitation but the exhibition itself is free to enter. My views are not influenced by the invitation but I like to be transparent about these things.