Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review: Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands – 24th May to 27th October 2019

Exhibition Review: Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands – 24th May to 27th October 2019

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development of London, however for centuries there were a series of waterways in the capital that have mostly disappeared. The history of some of these waterways is the focus of a new major exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. The exhibition entitled Secret Rivers uses archaeological artefacts, art, photography and film to reveal the stories of London’s rivers, streams, and brooks, exploring why many of them have been lost over time.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The exhibition begins by looking at some of the ‘Secrets of the Thames’, one of those secrets is over 250 Bronze Age human skeletal remains that were found in Mortlake. Whilst the remains confirm the presence of human habitation in this period, but how and why they died in this location remains a mystery.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The Sacred Rivers section includes remains from Roman Londinium found in the Walbrook River, during archaeological excavations there is evidence that Roman Londoners used the Walbrook to transport goods, metal working and other industrial activity. Other objects found like Venus figurines and stylii seem to have a more ritual intention.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The Biography of a River section tells the story of the River Fleet which was considered London’s most important river after the Thames. Known for centuries for being clogged up with filth, the exhibition shows the Fleet is a very different way with a oil painting called Entrance to the River Fleet by Samuel Scott. The artist was a disciple of Venetian painter Canaletto and shows the Fleet entrance with a bridge across that looks more like Venice than London.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

An unusual find from the Fleet in the exhibition is a medieval oak triple toilet seat from the mid 12th century, the toilet would have been for private use in a building in Fleet Street.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The Poverty and Pleasure section illustrates that the rivers and streams were often used for a number of reasons. When the River Westbourne was blocked in Hyde Park it created the Serpentine Lake which often froze in the winter. A comic painting entitled Skating on the Serpentine, 1786 by Thomas Rowlandson shows people from a variety of social backgrounds ‘enjoying’ a skate upon the ice.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

A less enjoyable water view is Folly Ditch, Jacob’s Island, 1887 by James Lawson Stewart, this area was considered a disease hotspot because of poisoned water open ditches. The area was made famous by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, it was where murderous Bill Sikes comes to a sticky end.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Many of the rivers and streams were utilised by the large scale sewerage works in the 19th century especially those constructed by Joseph Bazalgette. During the construction of the London sewerage system the rivers became covered by culverts and used as storm sewers.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The rivers may have disappeared from sight but the names often carried on in the area and gained an almost mystical quality. The River Effra, Fleet, Neckinger, Lea, Wandle, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne in particular began to intrigue various people in the 1990s and the ‘Daylighting’ section looks at the Still Waters project by the Effra Redevelopment Agency. Although much of this project was a ‘spoof’ on London developers, the idea that rivers could be restored to the daylight began to be taken seriously.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Toward the end of the exhibition, artists look at the idea of ‘renewal’ with Data Flow, 2019 by Michael Takeo Magruder and a series of modern books that reference the old rivers.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

This interesting and engaging free exhibition tells the largely unknown story of London’s lost rivers and streams. These waterways played an important role in the function of the city, however as the city grew, so did the waste that was often dumped into the water. The rise of water borne diseases like cholera led to action in the form of modern sewers developed during the 19th century. Therefore it is quite ironic that there is a movement to bring these rivers back into the ‘daylight’, as the exhibition illustrates for centuries these waterways were far from idyllic but full of all manner of filth and disease.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the Museum of London Dockland website here

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