The River Runs Through Lambeth

The first exhibition in Morley Gallery this September is Water Lambeth. Exploring and displaying material from the Lambeth Archives the Gallery will present work which documents the history of the borough and the rivers that flow through it. Lambeth Archives Manager Jon Newman gives us an insight into the exhibition.

Water Lambeth

Lambeth is defined by water. The River Thames forms its northern boundary and Lambeth’s earliest place of settlement. The River Effra, Lambeth’s other waterway, runs north to the Thames the length of the borough from Norwood to Vauxhall like its secret, submerged spine. This exhibition explores the importance of these different versions of water to Lambeth’s history and identity.

River Thames

Water Lambeth was once a real place. Its old timber and brick houses, running south along the Thames from Lambeth Palace and the parish church to Vauxhall, made up the original riverside village of Lambeth. Once it had been home to fishermen and boat builders, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it had become an overcrowded and uneasy mix of industry and poor housing squeezed in between the river and the main railway line into Waterloo.

Duke’s Head Court, Lambeth, watercolour by J Findlay, 1850

Water Lambeth vanished completely in 1870 in an area clearance more comprehensive than anything since imposed and in its place came the Albert Embankment: a riverside boulevard with elegant cast iron lamps beneath which was concealed a river flood barrier and a main sewer. Thanks to William Strudwick, unsuccessful architect turned photographer, we have a record of this vanished place. Between 1865 and 1868 he photographed its back alleys and blighted streets prior to their demolition using a cumbersome plate camera. His painstakingly composed photos of dirty children in cramped courtyards and cobbled streets have both authenticity and humanity.

New Street, Lambeth photographed by William Strudwick, 1865

After the construction of the Albert Embankment in 1870 Doulton rebuilt their potteries behind its new street line in a highly ornamental style with tall Venetian chimneys. Doulton’s works dominated Lambeth’s riverside until their closure in 1956 when they were quickly demolished. An industry that was once so dominant has left few traces. Today the only remnant is South Bank House on Black Prince Road which had been Doulton’s offices.

Doulton’s works seen from Millbank, watercolour by Streatfield, 1906

Water Lambeth_07396 webEnzo Peccinotti’s precisely aligned colour photography captures the current monumental rebuilding of Lambeth and superimposes the emerging river frontage of 2015 onto earlier black and white versions of Water Lambeth.

Water Lambeth 2015 and 1920, Enzo Peccinotti River Effra

Rising in the Norwood hills and flowing north through Herne Hill and Brixton to the Thames at Vauxhall, the River Effra and its tributaries run the length of Lambeth like a secret underground spine. During the nineteenth century the Effra became a convenient sewer into which the streets of new-built houses could drain their waste. Slowly from the 1840s, first the Surrey and Kent Commissioners of Sewers and later the Metropolitan Board of Works began to cover over the river. This initial work was cosmetic, concealing from sight and, to a lesser extent, smell the state of the river. Then as part of his 1860s Main Drainage scheme for London Bazalgette the buried the Effra below ground in pipes while his successors diverted its flow eastwards into his intercepting sewers to carry Lambeth’s drainage out to the Southern Outfall at Crossness.

The Effra flood of 1914 at West Norwood

The upper river still flows but above Brixton the Effra’s stream is lost in the complexity of London’s drainage. Vauxhall Creek, one of its mouths into the Thames, was filled in after the war. The remaining ‘river mouths’ beneath Vauxhall Bridge are part of south London’s elaborate system of storm relief sewers draining surface water after heavy rain. For the rest of the time these mouths are silent and dry.

The Effra reduced to a storm drain at Vauxhall Bridge, 1956

David Western’s careful mapping of the river onto the gallery wall and his photographic survey of the underground course of its main stream is set alongside images from Lambeth Archives allowing us to recover the history and precise geography of Lambeth’s vanished waterway.

Water Lambeth runs at Morley Gallery from 3 – 13 September.

The first exhibition in Morley Gallery this September is Water Lambeth. Lambeth Archives Manager Jon Newman gives us an insight into the exhibition.

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