by Walworth Heritage Action Zone Project Manager, Stephanie Ostrich
The Thames winds through the heart of London, fed by its many tributaries, streams and brooks. Though we cannot see many of these rivers today, they still flow beneath our homes, our streets, and our feet. They also leave tantalising traces on the surface that hint at the rushing ‘lost river’ below.
One such river is the Earl’s Sluice which runs from the heights of Ruskin Park to Rotherhithe and into the Thames. In July, the Walworth Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) and Southwark Council organised a guided walk of part of the Earl’s Sluice from Walworth Road/Camberwell Road to the Thames, based on the walk in Tom Bolton’s book London’s Lost Rivers: A Walkers Guide.
Our intrepid explorers began at the Camberwell Road entrance at Burgess Park: the former terminus of the old Grand Surrey Canal. The canal, built in the early 1800s, was a bustling hub of industry, moving goods from the factories and workshops of Walworth, Camberwell and Peckham to the docks at what is today Surrey Quays; it also ran parallel to the Earls’ Sluice and was our first clue on our search for our lost river. The canal was infilled in the 1970s, and now is highlighted by the straight path running through the centre of Burgess Park.
The Earl’s Sluice once flowed as a river through the fields and marshes of south London; this natural feature made an excellent landmark and acted as a boundary along its length for several parishes and boroughs and was also the county boundary between Surrey and Kent. Another clue to its existence beneath our feet was found as we walked one street up, to Boundary Lane. Road names can be excellent clues to what once was here before.
Up until the 18th century, when Walworth and the Old Kent Road were small villages surrounded by fields and orchards, the river flowed under a bridge at the Walworth Road/Camberwell Road here and turned east to the Thames. It then flowed under another bridge at Old Kent Road. This area was called ‘St Thomas a Watering,’ an important spot on the medieval pilgrimage route from Southwark to Canterbury, made in honour of Thomas a Becket. It is also the first stop of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where they draw lots to decide who will tell the first tale on their journey, while their horses have a refreshing drink in the Earl’s Sluice. At a site near this spot stands a former pub and boxing hall called St Thomas a Becket – now a Vietnamese restaurant. The pub sign for St Thomas a Becket is still there, a memory of what was once here all those years ago.
We walked east along Albany Road in search of more clues of the Earl’s Sluice. In the past, Londoners did not think about littering in the same way as we do today. An easy way of disposing of rubbish – and of poo – was to dump it into the nearby river which would wash it out to sea. Unfortunately years of this meant our rivers eventually became open sewers! By the 1830s and 40s much of the Earls’ Sluice was culverted – covered over with bricks – which was more sanitary and also meant the land could be used for building houses over it. In 1858, a very hot summer made the Thames, which was full of sewage, smell terrible! This became known as ‘The Big Stink’ and because of this, Victorian engineers like Joseph Bazelgette were hired to build large purpose-built sewers across London; this included our Earl’s Sluice, which because diverted into the Earl Main Sewer.
So our poor Earls’ Sluice became a stinky sewer in the 19th century, but luckily for us the Victorian engineers left us some more clues to follow on our journey to the Thames. Large, green and functional, these stinkpipes jut out high above the street level and vent gas from the sewer below high into the air far away from our noses. As we walked along Albany Road, crossed Old Kent Road to Rolls Road, and turned onto Rotherhithe New Road and ventured to Surrey Quays we kept our eye out for this big green stinkpipes to make sure we were on the right track!
The Earl’s Sluice eventually joins the river Peck (from which Peckham gets its name) in South Bermondsey. We followed it as it flows under Eugenia Road and Concorde Way, which is still a boundary between Southwark and Lewisham. At Oldfield Grove, we got a closer look at the Earl’s Sluice as it crosses over the railway line here in an unassuming pipe.
At the end of Chilton Grove, we found the Earl Pumping Station, still helping to keep the Sluice and Earl Main Sewer flowing
We carefully ventured onto Plough Way, which was once known as Rogues Lane! Here off a side alley, we inspected two manhole covers. According to Tom Bolton, after rainy weather, you may hear the Earl’s Sluice rushing through the drains these cover.
Our walk concluded at the South Dock, where the Earl’s Sluice meets the Thames. There is still a sewer outlet here on the foreshore of the Thames. Unfortunately we arrived at our destination 15 minutes before high tide so we could not inspect it ourselves. But it’s given us an excuse to return to the Earl’s Sluice in the future!