What is the issue?
‘A river can sometimes be diverted but is a very hard thing to lose altogether’ - J.G. Head: paper read to the Auctioneers’ Institute in 1907

Residents of Dulwich and its surrounding area will be no strangers to the link between the historic river Effra and the region’s ability to flood. After the river was banished underground in the mid 19th century, repeated flooding plagued the new Victorian developments above as the Effra forced its way back to the surface. In April 2004, 10cm of rain fell in 30 minutes causing dramatic flooding in central Herne Hill, scenes that were seen once again when a water main burst in August 2013, flooding the area in just 10 minutes. Lost rivers have a desire to return, and the increasing unpredictability and intensity of downpours that we are experiencing is giving them the helping hand they need.

The word Effra is believed to originate from the Celtic word for torrent. John Ruskin, who grew up in Herne Hill, thought it was ‘doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river’. In fact, there is no record of the name before 1810. Old maps (such as John Rocque’s 1746 London… and the Country Near Ten Miles Round) call the river the Shore or the Washway.

The main stream rose in Norwood, ran through what is now Norwood Cemetery and along Croxted Lane (now Croxted Road) to the bottom of Herne Hill, an area once known as Island Green, where a bridge carried the Norwood Road across it. Here, it was joined by at least two tributaries. One flowed via Belair Park - where it was dammed to form the ornamental lake that still exists - behind what is now Burbage Road to Half Moon Lane; the Ambrook, which still runs through Sydenham Hill Wood to the round pond, flows down via the golf course to feed the lake in Dulwich Park; while another branch originated in Brockwell Park.

From the confluence of these streams, the Effra flowed along the side of Dulwich Grove and Brixton Water Lane, across Gresham Road and Canterbury Crescent to Brixton Road by the police station. From there it flowed along Brixton Road as far as St Mark’s Church, where it turned west along the line of Prima Road, under Clapham Road, curving south around Kennington Oval - whose shape it dictated - to emerge in a creek at Vauxhall.

As early as the 17th century, the lower reaches of the Effra were seriously polluted: on a map of Vauxhall Manor dated 1691, the river is already labelled ‘Common Sewer’. As the city expanded south, effluent was discharged into it further and further upstream until, by the early 19th century, the river was an open sewer as far as north Brixton. The inhabitants of the houses on the east side of Brixton Road had to cross footbridges over the malodorous channel to reach their front doors, so by the middle of the century it was bricked over as far as Herne Hill.

In 1858, construction began of Joseph Bazalgette’s vast sewage system, designed to channel effluent away from the Thames in central London and out into the estuary where it would pose less of a threat to health. A new pipeline diverted much of the Effra’s flow from Westow Hill away to the east, beneath Peckham and New Cross, to the pumping station at Deptford.

Despite this, the river and its tributaries were still visible - if diminished - in places above Herne Hill: Stanford’s 1864 map shows a tributary of the Effra (labelled ‘Watercourse’) flowing north towards Half Moon Lane and running along it, past the Half Moon pub, to Herne Hill, and another branch from West Norwood alongside Croxted Lane. These are also visible on the 1870 Ordnance Survey map, where the Norwood branch is labelled ‘River Effra’, but by the end of the century, these too had been channelled underground.

Modern day

Although the river is now largely out of sight, with the exception of the lofty metal stink pipes that emerge along Dulwich Road, the Effra should not be out of mind. When above ground, the water course flowed at a depth of 6ft and an average width of 12ft so it is easy to comprehend the major influence that this volume of water could have. When combined with our increasing household consumption of water and the huge amount of rainwater runoff from an ever increasing expanse of hard surfaces, it is easy to understand how the sewer system designed for Victorian London may become overwhelmed. Water can no longer soak into the ground; it can only flow.

One solution lies in large scale engineering projects, such as those seen in Southwark Council and Thames Water’s Flood Alleviation Project currently underway in Dulwich Park and sports ground and Belair Park. This £4 million project is an example of sustainable drainage on a huge scale, relandscaping the area to give flood water somewhere to collect away from houses while it slowly soaks into the ground and drainage system.

However, another solution lies in small scale landscape features that hold rain where it falls. Widespread adoption of these into our urban areas has the potential to significantly reduce flood risk whilst delivering a wide variety of benefits for people, wildlife and the local climate:

  • Green roofs: vegetation on the roofs of our houses, sheds and public buildings absorbs and evaporates rainwater back into the atmosphere, providing urban cooling in the process and reducing the urban heat island effect that keeps our cities warmer than their surrounding rural areas;
  • Rain gardens: divert rainwater runoff from your roof through downpipes into a specially designed basin planted with species adapted for intermittently wet and dry conditions - it’s not always raining! Green roofs and rain gardens also provide great wildlife habitats for bees and bugs, as well as the wealth of other species that they provide for including birds and bats;
  • Permeable paving: removing tarmac, concrete and other sealed surfaces in favour of reinforced grass, gravel or brick pavers will allow water to soak into the ground beneath. If the area is not needed for car parking or heavy use, you could even use the spaces to create new growing areas for plants, vegetables or wildlife;
  • Rainwater harvesting: perhaps the easiest way to reduce the amount of water going down the drain whilst also reducing household consumption is through rainwater harvesting. It can be surprisingly fruitful as one water butt can collect as many as 500 large watering cans worth of water each year! Discounts are available at www.thames.savewater.co.uk

The Lost Effra Project

Led by London Wildlife Trust, The Lost Effra is a busy local project, working with communities to create green spaces and run activities to help reduce local flood risk and restore the relationship between water, our urban areas and their communities. For more information please contact Helen Spring, Lost Effra Project Coordinator on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow us on twitter at @LostEffra.



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The Dulwich Society - Registered under the Charities Act 1960, Number 234192

The Society’s aims and objectives are to foster and safeguard the amenities of Dulwich, both in the interests of its residents and the wider local community of which it is a part, and to increase awareness of the varied character that makes the area so special.

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