The River Effra is a former stream or small river in south London, England, now culverted for most of its course. Once a tributary of the River Thames, the contours of the Effra were used in the Victorian era for a combined sewer draining much of the historic area of Peckham and Brixton.
|Main source||Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, Upper Norwood near Crystal Palace, London|
|River mouth||historically Walworth Marsh; outlet now at Vauxhall|
The etymology of the name "Effra" has been much disputed: there is no evidence that it was applied to the stream before the late 18th century, and early 19th century gazetteers gave it no name. A map of 1744 refers to it as the "Shore", and it was also referred to as "Brixton Creek" and "the Wash". "Effra" may be inherited from Proto-Germanic *ēþrō via Old English ǣðre, which means "runlet of water, fountain, spring, stream". Other, also unlikely, suggestions include Ruskin's, that it was "shortened from [the Latin word] Effrena", that it was from a Celtic root "yfrid" or that it derived from an Anglo-Saxon placename "heah efre" ("high bank") recorded in a charter of 693 for a spot on the bank of the Thames.
A more recent suggestion is that the name is a corruption of the place-name "Heathrow", the name of a manor which once covered some 70 acres south of present day Coldharbour Lane and east of present day Effra Road. By the 1790s the land making up the Manor of Heathrow was known as Effra Farm. There is evidence that the name was first applied to the stream at Brixton, perhaps taken from the name of the farm, and was only later extended to the rest of its course. A 2016 book by the Lambeth archivist supports this view and suggests other etymologies are a product of 19th century antiquarianism.
Before the 19th centuryEdit
The drainage basin of the stream covered around 20 square kilometres of present day inner South London. Historically the Effra was fed partly by a line of springs that emerged at between 80 and 100 metres OD along the 5km ridge of the Great North Wood, where a layer of gravels overlay the impermeable London Clay. There were also springs at a lower level in Dulwich, the various tributaries meeting near Brixton before flowing to the Thames.
The lowest part of the river was diverted as early as the 13th century, after the monks of Bermondsey Priory made an agreement with neighbouring landowners to end flooding problems. Before this time the river's course ran either into Walworth Marsh, which after draining became Walworth Common, or into the Earl's Sluice to reach the Thames. The lower, northern part of the river appeared in Ogilby's Britannia of 1675 as the "New River".
While the upper, southern parts of the river were rural, they became increasingly suburbanised as the 19th century went on. The art critic John Ruskin, who grew up at Herne Hill close to one of the Effra's tributaries, described "the good I got out of the tadpole-haunted ditch in Croxted Lane", and made an early sketch of a bridge over it.
Until c.1850 Brixton Road, where it ran along the course of the stream, was known as the "Washway", the stream itself often being called the "Wash". By this period the Effra was heavily polluted with domestic waste, thanks to increasing development along its course, and by 1821 was classed as an open sewer downstream of North Brixton. It still often flooded in heavy rain and residents in Brixton Road and South Lambeth repeatedly complained of their houses being inundated.  In 1847 the commissioners of the Surrey and East Kent Sewers, under the direction of surveyor Joseph Gwilt, carried out works "arching over" (culverting) the Effra as far upstream as Herne Hill.
When the London sewerage system was constructed during the mid-19th century, its designer Sir Joseph Bazalgette incorporated flows from the River Effra into the southern division of the system. The Effra Branch Sewer, about 3 miles in length and costing some £19,400 to construct, received much of the Effra's surface water and ran from the Norwood area into the Southern High Level Sewer at Croxted Lane. The Southern High Level itself ran from Herne Hill eastwards under Peckham and New Cross to Deptford. Here it joined the Southern Low Level Sewer, which picked up remaining effluent from the old depression converted to sewer at Vauxhall and passed under Kennington and Burgess Park to Deptford; the two branches merging to form the Southern Outfall Sewer that runs underneath Greenwich and Woolwich to Crossness.
As the area was increasingly urbanised, the remaining parts of the Effra's upper course were incorporated into the surface water drainage system, although some parts remained open and marked on Ordnance Survey maps until the later 19th century. The main course of the Effra remained as a sewer and culverts beneath Brixton Road, South London, and seen through a drainage grate in the crypts under St. Luke's Church, West Norwood, South London.
The Effra flowed generally NNW until north of Brixton. At this point it turned northeast and then east running through the grounds of Bermondsey Priory. It fed Lambeth and possibly Walworth Marshes, and may have joined the Earl's Sluice, which entered the Thames at Deptford Wharf. After diversion in the 13th century, it ran directly west from Kennington to join the Thames at Vauxhall.
One branch of the Effra rises near Harold Road in Upper Norwood Recreation Ground and flows through West Norwood. Where Norwood High Street merges at the fountain with the A215 to form Norwood Road, it is joined by a small tributary from Knights Hill ward. A second branch rises south of Gypsy Hill and runs into West Dulwich via Croxted Road, after flowing from near the Westow House,[n 1] Westow Hill down the middle section of Jasper Road. After the Paxton pub opposite the end of Gipsy Hill it captures water from Hamilton Road, forms the back garden line of Croxted Road and joins the other tributary at the South Circular, where it now forms the sewers of Croxted Road, Dulwich Road, Dalberg Road, Effra Road, Electric Lane, Brixton Road, Harleyford street/road separated by the Kennington Oval.
Another small tributary rose in Belair Park, going under Burbage Road and Half Moon Lane, Dulwich and North Dulwich to join at Dulwich Road. A further stream ran from Tulse Hill west past Knights Hill down Leigham Vale to join at Dulwich Road.Rocque's map of 1746 called these confluences around Herne Hill railway station 'Island Green'.
A local story tells of a coffin found floating down the Thames in Victorian times, which was traced back to West Norwood Cemetery.[n 2] Cemetery staff were puzzled to find that the plot the coffin had come from was undisturbed. Further investigation revealed that the ground beneath the grave had subsided, and the entire coffin had fallen into the underground Effra river, floating downstream to Vauxhall and entering the Thames.
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Although little more than a stream in the south, until 1935 the culverted watercourse flooded during heavy rains every decade or so; an inscription on a white stone tablet high up the side of a building in Elder Road, West Norwood reads: "FLOOD LEVEL 17th July 1890".
After a three-hour-long storm on Sunday 14 June 1914 the sewer overflowed again and flooded houses along its path from Elder Road to Chestnut Road, and locals were forced to evacuate their homes for several days. Further floods in the 1920s prompted works to enlarge the sewer. This was sufficient until a small part of the local area was flooded again during a powerful downpour on 20 July 2007.
The 'Unearthing the Effra' CampaignEdit
In 1992 a project by the London arts group Platform sparked a local campaign to dig up the river. The 'Unearthing the Effra' project was based around a mock 'Effra Redevelopment Agency', which included a public office. The project gained publicity in local newspapers and radio stations.
Notes and referencesEdit
- A public house on the southwest corner of Crystal Palace
- Under which goes the first mentioned high source of the Effra in the south of the illustration at the Walbrook River website from the book N. Barton's Lost Rivers
- Bonner, A. "Surrey Place-names" in Surrey Archaeological Collections v XXXVII, pp.126-7
- The Effra and Lambeth Marsh, vauxhallandkennington.org, accessed 12-07-18
- Parliamentary Papers: 1780-1849, V. 52, Part 7, p.135
- John R. Clark Hall: A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary For the Use of Students
- Bonner, p.128
- Survey of London (1956) v.26, The Parish of St Mary Lambeth, LCC, p.137
- Knight, M. The Effra in Dulwich, accessed 12-08-18
- Ruskin, Praeterita, p.76
- The Town Planning Review, Volume 25 (1954), 74
- "Construction" in The Artizan, v 1 Third Series (1847), 279
- "Metropolitan Improvements". The Athenaeum n.1947 (Feb 18, 1865), 235
- The Story of Norwood J.B. Wilson & H.A. Wilson ISBN 978-0951538418
- illustrations 1, 4 of the webpage of the Walbrook River page - a synopsis which cites the following books:
Nicholas Barton, The Lost Rivers of London (1962)
Anthony Clayton, Subterranean City (2000)
Michael Harrison, London Beneath the Pavement (1961)
Alfred Stanley Foord, Springs, Streams, and Spas of London. (1910)
J. G. White, History of The Ward of Walbrook. (1904)
Andrew Duncan, Secret London. (6th Edition, 2009)
- Southwark and Lambeth Archeological Society http://www.vauxhallandkennington.org.uk/lambeth_marsh.html
- Greenwood, Daniel (24 March 2015). "The differing worlds of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods". The Dulwich Society. Retrieved 12 July 2018.
- Referred to in John Constantine Hellblazer 238 as a gateway to "shadow London"