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Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands – 24 May to 27 October 2019

The Museum of London Docklands has many permanent displays but throughout the year puts on temporary exhibitions on particular themes. The latest exhibition is due to open on the 24th May and is called Secret Rivers and I managed to have a preview before it officially opens.

Whilst the River Thames is famous around the world and played a pivotal role in the development of London, little is known about the other waterways that flowed in the capital. The exhibition explores a number of these rivers and streams and finds out why they have mostly disappeared.

The exhibition begins by looking at some of the ‘Secrets of the Thames’, one of these grisly secrets is over 250 Bronze Age human skeletal remains that were found in Mortlake. Little is known how and why they died and why they ended up in that particular location.

The Sacred Rivers section includes artefacts from Roman Londinium found in the Walbrook River, during archaeological excavations lots of metal working and other industrial activity was found.

The River Fleet which was considered London’s most important river after the Thames and was known for centuries for being clogged up with filth and debris. A painting called Entrance to the River Fleet by Samuel Scott make the Thames and Fleet look more like Venice than London. One of the more amusing finds from the Fleet is a medieval oak triple toilet seat from the mid 12th century. Although a bit primitive it was actually quite high status and was for private use in a building in Fleet Street.

The various rivers and streams were used for a variety of reasons, like washing, transport, dumping waste from a number of industries and rather strangely for entertainment. When the River Westbourne was blocked in Hyde Park it created the Serpentine Lake which often froze in the winter. A sketch by Thomas Rowlandson shows people falling about on the ice.

More seriously, water was often the cause of many nasty diseases, Jacob’s Island near Bermondsey was a notorious slum over swampy and muddy conditions The area was made famous by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

It was in response to the ‘Great Stink’ and disease that large scale sewerage works in the 19th century were undertaken by Joseph Bazalgette. During the construction of the London sewerage system, many of the rivers and streams were covered and used as part of the sewers. An excellent film gives more details about the enormous construction costs involved in this enterprise that would save thousands of lives.

Despite many of the rivers being covered, the names often carried on and became local areas. The rivers Effra, Fleet, Neckinger, Lea, Wandle, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne began to intrigue various people in the 1990s and ideas were put forward to bring them back out in the open. This was known as ‘Daylighting’ which started off as a joke but began to be taken more seriously.

The old rivers have a bit of a revival in popular culture with a number of modern books that reference the old waterways.

The exhibition tells the largely unknown story of London’s lost rivers and streams and has a large number of fascinating pieces of information and artefacts. Being surrounded on three sides by the River Thames, the Isle of Dogs has a special relationship with the river. No doubt people had special affinities with these other rivers before they were used and abused. This exhibition is a reminder that over time things usually change for the better and even the Thames is cleaner than it has been for centuries.