Anne Renwick tells the story of how the Effra, one of London’s lost rivers, came to play a key role in THE GOLDEN SPIDER.
Hello, I’m Anne Renwick, steam punk romance author. Welcome into the laboratory and this podcast. I’m going to talk a little bit about the lost rivers of London. If you’ve looked at a map of London at any point, you’ve probably noticed the Thames, the main river that flows through it, but have you ever noticed any tributaries flowing into that river? I bet you haven’t. Today’s podcast is an explanation of why the city of London was built on a vast alluvial floodplain. What is an alluvial floodplain? Alluvial means sediment that’s been moved around by water. If you look at pictures that show London as it must have been before anything was built there, you’ll notice that the river meanders and sort of twists and turns and changes its pathway a few times in the images that there are tributaries flowing into the Thames. It’s also tidal. So when the tide comes in, the water level of the Thames in London goes up, tide goes out, the water level will drop for the moment.
Let’s jump forward to around 1840. We’re into the Victorian era at this time in 1840 London. What we have for waste control, our cesspools are accessible at each house for the the household inhabitants. The night soil, the physical solid waste had to be collected and removed from these cesspools. Now the wastewater also had a tendency to seep out of these cesspools. It would seep to the ground, it would seep into the streets. It would seep into these old streams that used to feed into London’s these old streams, which were basically nothing more than open sewers by this point. So clean drinking water was becoming a very serious problem. Nope. Not becoming a serious problem. Clean drinking water was a serious problem. Most people had to get their drinking water from shallow Wells using a bucket. They lower down the rope, pull it back up.
So what were you getting? You were getting anything that might’ve seeped into your groundwater. Now, if you were wealthier, you might be lucky enough to have your drinking or your household water being piped into the house via some sort of private company. But let’s think about where all those open sewers were flowing directly into the Thames. Where were these private companies getting the water they were pumping into the households? It was pretty dangerous. It was coming from the Thames. Why? Because by the end of the 18th century, the wealthy now had flushing toilets and where did all that got flushed flow? You probably guessed it, into the Thames now in the Victorian era, cholera, a horrible disease that gives you sort of watery diarrhea was becoming a problem globally. There was an outbreak in 1831 and in London alone, 6,000 people died. So you can only imagine what the Thames water must’ve looked like under a microscope.
At this point, it must have been an absolute nightmare. This outbreak was certainly not the last one to affect London. In 1848 to 1849 they saw another color outbreak and this time, 14,137 people died in London alone. It happened again, another cholera outbreak in 1853 this time, 10,738 people died. Now, part of the problem was at the time, generally people believed that cholera was caused by something called miasma – an unseen, something floating around through the air. Now, it was known by some at this time that the problem really lay in the drinking water, but since the general population didn’t believe this, they didn’t do anything much about it. For a while, enter someone named Joseph Bazalgatte – I may be saying that a little bit wrong, just reading the name. This engineer Joseph saw the problem with the open sewers in London and started to formulate a plan.
He talked to other engineers. He walked around, he got the lay of the land and he ended up presenting a plan to stop all the sewage from reaching the Thames. London knew they needed to do something about all this sewage that was above ground and visible, but they were typically trying to decide what to do. I’m sure the politicians were arguing and various people were presenting plans, but any case, we arrive at June, 1858 and we have something called the great stink. There was some really unusually hot days that month and it made it crystal clear to the people sitting in parliament that they needed to do something. Now fairly quickly for politicians, a plan was passed and put into action and Joseph Bazalgatte was told to implement his plan. Now his plan involved building a whole bunch of new sewers that intercepted the existing ones such as they were and together all of the sewage and move it further down river, down river from London without much consideration for the people who were down river, I assume.
In any case he did this using gravity whenever possible, he replaced 165 miles of existing sewer ditches and turned them into tunnels and buried them below ground. He also built more than 1,100 miles of new sewer to do this. He ended up using 318 million bricks. It was a big boom for the brick industry around this time. So if you have a chance, look at the show notes, I’ll link you to some images of these Victorian underground sewers that he built. All brick lined. They’re actually beautiful in their own way, with arches and tunnels. Have a look. There’s an interesting blog about a person who crawled into the tunnels with a guide and had a look around. He took a lot of pictures while they were underground and they’re really worth having a look at. Now the system was designed to function mostly by using gravity, but there were times where gravity wasn’t up to the job and so pumping stations were built.
One still exists, the crossness pumping station. In fact, you can visit this Victorian architectural wonder in London. They give tours, you just show up and the pumps, the giant steam engine pumps still function and they turn them on and you can go watch and I so very much want to visit this place, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity, so I’ll definitely put that in the show notes. Have a look. As you might imagine, those people living downstream of where the sewers emptied into the Thames were not particularly pleased and it was fairly soon afterwards in the 1880s, or not soon enough, depending, I guess on your perspective that the first sewage treatment took place. In fact, it got so bad that 1887 they actually dredged up the sludge, put it on a barge, somehow transported it out into the ocean and dumped it at sea.
A practice which was rightfully banned in 1998. Now, as we move into the 20th century, leaving the Victorian era behind, all was not perfect. From time to time. The sewers would overflow fairly rare event, thankfully, but it does and did happen when there’s a particularly heavy rainfall or for example, in 1928, when there was a really heavy snow fall uphill that the melt off began to all float downstream, so to speak, and flooded London. The flood was so bad that for the first time in 80 years, the moat at the Tower of London was actually filled. So how did I end up doing all this research, studying the lost rivers of London, getting dragged into these fascinating stories from history? Well, while I was looking around for places for my characters to go, I ran into these sewage systems of London and I thought, ooh, that would be really fun to have to force them underground like this.
Now, that didn’t end up happening, but when I learned about the Effra, a particularly interesting former tributary of the Thames ideas began to form. So let me tell you about the Effra. This is the river that Sebastian and Amanda are sent to to go looking for something. Try not to give away the story. In any case, the effort river was pretty much considered a stream farther upstream as it used to run through a farm and until there was a heavy rain, it have a lot of volume coming downstream. The River Effra or what’s left of it. Empties as a storm channel besides Vauxhall bridge under the M16. Even as late as the 1600s, it was already pretty much an open sewer and so when it was finally covered over, it became an actual sewer somewhere in the mid 18 hundreds. One interesting story associated with the River Effra is the story about a coffin that washed down this tributary and ended up floating down the Thames.
Apparently it came from West Norwood Cemetery further upstream when the grave was examined, it was found to be undisturbed, but there were comments that it was um, the grave was dug too close to the river and what with subsidence and waterflow, eventually the coffin got picked up and carried downstream. That must’ve been quite the shocker for the people who found it. While fascinating, this coffin story isn’t the reason I picked the River Effra to appear in my story. The reason I chose it is because it actually empties into the Thames near something called for something that was called South London Waterworks. Remember how I mentioned that the wealthy were able to have water pumped into their homes. Well, this is one of those pumping stations. South London Waterworks was established in 1805 and it actually drew its water, it drew tidal water from the mouth of the Effra and stored them in reservoirs before supplying houses with water.
Are you cringing? You should be. Because at this point already in 1805 the Effra had been pretty much an open sewer for, you know, the better part of a century or more. A little bit later on, this South London waterworks was bought by another company and became the Vauxhall Water Company. Believe it or not, it wasn’t illegal to use water from the Thames, from the tidal region for domestic use until after 1852 there was legislation was passed and they made it so that after 1855 this would become illegal. So what happened? The water pumping companies pretty much all moved upstream to where the water was somewhat better. But the reports of the quality of water, even after they’d moved, apparently were pretty grim. So how does this tie into my books? Well, the South London waterworks building in my book, the golden spider becomes the company Airship Sails where they’re sewing the giant balloons that will lift dirigibles into the skies.
So we have the River Effra emptying into the Thames next to our company, South London waterworks or Airship Sails in the book. And this is all next to the Vauxhall Bridge, a bridge, which plays an interesting role in my story. Well, so let’s look a little bit at its history. The bridge that’s currently in place, the Vauxhall Bridge of today was built to replace an earlier bridge in 1906. Now the bridge that would have been there during my story in 1884 was in fact actually having structural difficulties. In 1879 inspections of the bridge revealed that the two central piers were badly eroded. In fact, something called a timber cradle was exposed. The bridge was in such poor condition that by 1895 it was clear they were going to have to do something about it. And they started consulting with the engineers and looking into replacing it.
So the River Effra the old waterworks building and the Vauxhall Bridge played fairly important roles in The Golden Spider. So on my last trip to London, I predictably dragged my entire family into a bookstore and we wander about for a good half hour hour, and I stumble into a section that has a few books facing outward. And I see a book called Rivers of London. Ooh, I’d already published The Golden Spider and knew all this history about the lost rivers of London. So this book just called to me. So I snatched it off the shelf and I read the back and I am instantly fascinated. So rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich, which is called Midnight Riot in the United States, they changed the title, that happens sometimes, is an absolutely wonderful book. And I have the British cover because I hauled it home with me from that bookstore.
So this is my first book recommendation to you. This is a don’t miss this book. It’s London current era with a lot of paranormal mixed in. Absolutely wonderful. His whole series. Wonderful. So what is this book about? I’m going to read you the back back cover just a little bit here. This is London as you’ve never seen it before, a city of wonders and terrors, a city of ancient secrets which is haunted by its past, a city where you are never far from magic, a city Peter Grant will help you discover if you take my recommendation and read this book, one of the characters in there, you’re going to meet someone named Lady Tyburn. The Tyburn is one of those rivers. I’ve mentioned a lost river of London, the River Tyburn and becomes an actual live character in his books. And one last random fact, you can actually visit the remnants of the River Tyburn in the basement of an antique shop. I will link to that in the show notes. So have a look at that for curiosity’s sake. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip down the rabbit hole into my research on the rivers of London that became sewers and how the London Victorians solved a looming public health crisis.