Above: Mouth of the River Effra shown on Stanford’s map of 1878.
The ‘Lost Rivers’ of London is a very large and interesting subject. If you have never considered it before then this article will describe just one of them – the River Effra. In the days of the Normans, about 20 streams were flowing across the land that we now call Inner London. They all fed water into the Thames. The cross-section of Inner London (north to south) is shaped rather like a saucer – with flat land beside the Thames. As you move further north the land rises, with hills around Hampstead and Highgate. Similarly in the south, the land rises around Dulwich, Crystal Palace and Brockley.
Most of the streams start as springs on those hills – as well as several other hills – and the water then flows towards the Thames. The stream that the London Borough of Lambeth can claim as its own is the River Effra. It actually rises just south of the borough boundary near Beulah Hill which is in the London Borough of Croydon. The stream meanders across the road called Crown Hill and along the line of Elder Road (in West Norwood). Sadly the route is now underground. Until 1935 the encased watercourse flooded during heavy rains every decade or so. There used to be an inscription on a white stone tablet up high on the side of a building in Elder Road which read ‘FLOOD LEVEL 17th July 1890’.
The underground course still passes through West Norwood before it crosses land in the London Borough of Southwark – where it flows through Belair, being the one place where you can see it – in the form of a small lake. The next location for the stream is Herne Hill. It now flows through culverts and sewer pipes under the ground. On occasions, the volume of the water has been so great that the land above it has flooded. This happened a few years ago at Herne Hill. There were bad floods nearby in Winterbrook Road. I hope you are paying attention – where else would there be floods in the winter other than in ‘Winter Brook Road’.
The line of the stream continues via Brockwell Park to Brixton. At this location, its course is still remembered by Effra Road and Brixton Water Lane. The route of the stream continues north beside Brixton Road where it turns west at what is now land on which stands St Mark, Kennington. The final part of the stream’s course is past where today’s Kennington Oval is situated and into the Thames just south of Vauxhall Bridge.
Above: Course of the River Effra plotted onto Google Maps. The outline of the London Borough of Lambeth is shown in RED.
Londoners are often curious as to where the mouth of the Effra reached the Thames. Well, the map at the top of this article will give you the answer. Even the mouth of the Effra – known as Effra Creek – has now vanished from sight but in 1878 Stanford’s map showed it clearly. This particular version of the map was for geological purposes, with roads shown on top of various colours to indicate the composition of the different clay and chalk layers on which London is built. After enhancing the map Effra Creek is clear to see. In 1878 it had a shape not dissimilar to that of today’s Deptford Creek – with a pair of tight bends.
It would seem that the creek was in use for docking small vessels. The Phoenix Gas Works was on the north side, so they probably unloaded coal on the quayside. On the south was the Belmont Candle Works. Sadly, there is no further trace of the Effra on Stanford’s map. The river probably flowed under Vauxhall Station (shown as a red rectangle). The exact course of the Effra has always been the subject of debate but the approximate line has been plotted onto Google maps and within the small scale of that map its route is fairly accurate. To help relate the river to the London Borough of Lambeth, its boundary is shown in red.