How London’s Rivers Got Their Names

Beverley Brook

London’s only river whose name sounds like a Hollywood film star. It’s actually a corruption of beaver brook, after the toothsome mammals that once frolicked in its waters. The nine-mile river rises in Worcester Park and flows through Wimbledon and Richmond before spilling into the Thames at Barn Elms.

Brent

Unlike many of the other rivers here, this 18-mile watercourse still cuts a visible meander through the terrain of north-west London. It’s also thought to have one of the most ancient names, dating back to pre-Roman times. Scholars believe it’s derived from the Celtic word brigant, meaning ‘elevated’ and also has associations with the goddess Brigantia. The borough of Brent, Brent Cross and the area of Brentford both take their names from this river.

Counters Creek

A small stream that once flowed from Kensal Green down past Olympia and Brompton Cemetery to flow into the Thames at Chelsea. ‘Counters’ is believed to derive from Countess — specifically Countess of Oxford Maud (or Mathilda), who held the Manor of Kensington in the 14th century. The bit nearest the Thames was canalised in the 19th century, and is today partly followed by the Overground route past Olympia.

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A rough map of London’s main rivers, not showing all tributaries.

Earl’s Sluice and Peck

These two watery playfellows rise south of Camberwell and Peckham respectively to merge together into a kind of Y-fronts conformation, before bothering the Thames at Rotherhithe. Earl’s Sluice is probably named after the first Earl of Gloucester (son of Henry I). As for the Peck, dunno. Nobody seems to speculate. Can’t help you there. As recompense for our ignorance we will tell you that you can actually paddle in the Peck — a short ornamental section dribbles through Peckham Rye Park.

We think this is the Peck, climbing over some railway tracks in a pipe.

We think this is the Peck, climbing over some railway tracks in a pipe.

The Effra meets the Thames

The Effra meets the Thames

Effra

A buried river, well-known thanks to its course under Effra Road, Brixton. The name is thought by some to be of similar pronunciation to an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning ‘runlet of water, fountain, spring, stream’. Others say it’s Celtic for ‘torrent’. A third theory posits Effra as a particularly lazy corruption of ‘Heathrow’, the name of a former manor in the area (and nothing to do with the airport). It might even have been named for a local farm as late as the 19th century. Perhaps the spooks at MI6 can puzzle it out; the river flows beneath their building to reach the Thames at Vauxhall.

Falcon or Falconbrook

This stream unites Balham, Clapham and Battersea. It takes its name from the family crest of local landowners the St Johns, which includes a falcon. You’ll find many a Falcon (and St John) in the area, including a prominent pub at Clapham Junction.

Fleet

A very well-known subterranean river, the Fleet today flows as a sewer from Hampstead Heath via King’s Cross and Farringdon to reach the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge. The name is a common one across the land and comes from the Anglo-Saxon word flēot. In case you’ve never taken the considerable trouble to learn Old English, this describes a tidal inlet, which the Fleet remained until relatively modern times. The Holbourne (various spellings) is also associated with the Fleet. It is variously described as a former tributary or another name for the main Fleet itself, in the area known as Holborn today. That word means ‘hollow brook’ or possibly ‘old brook’. Read more in our paddle through the River Fleet.

The author, paddling through the River Fleet.

The author, paddling through the River Fleet.

Hackney Brook

Easy. It’s a brook that flows through Hackney. The name ‘Hackney’ probably dates from Anglo-Saxon times, though isn’t recorded until the 12th century. Those in the know reckon it’s derived from Haca’s ey, an ‘ey’ being an area of raised ground in marshland and Haca being some kind of land owner of chieftain. The best thing you can possibly do right now is plug in your headphones and enjoy this edition of Hackney podcast in which Iain Sinclair follows the buried stream.

Lea

After the Thames, the Lea is the capital’s biggest river. You’ve probably seen it spelt as ‘Lee’ in some places. You might, had you lived in former times, also have written Ligan, Ligean, Lygan, Luye or Leye — all of which reflect a probable Celtic root meaning ‘bright’ or ‘light’. The river once formed the boundary between Middlesex and Essex, and — earlier still — King Alfred’s territory from the Vikings. Today it merely keeps Tower Hamlets and Newham from squabbling. The Lea has many tributary rivers whose origins we frankly can’t be arsed to research.

A coot inspects the 'light/bright' River Lea

A coot inspects the ‘light/bright’ River Lea

Neckinger

St Saviour’s Dock near the Design Museum gives some indication of the former outfall of Southwark’s River Neckinger. The unusual name is thought to come from ‘neckercher’, an old cravat or neck-cloth, perhaps because of the river’s looping profile. There’s also an association with the practice of hanging of pirates at the mouth of the river, at a point sometimes known as the Devil’s Neckerchief.

St Saviour's Dock, opening to the Neckinger

St Saviour’s Dock, opening to the Neckinger

Quaggy

Ever since we first discovered this south London river, we’ve wanted to invite Suggs along, push him in, and sing ‘Quaggy trousers, Quaggy trousers’ until he tells us to shut up. The oddly-named watercourse is a tributary of the larger Ravensbourne, and supposedly gets its name from the quagmire-like surroundings. Giggity. In its upper reaches, it’s also known as the Kyd Brook, hence the placename Kidbrooke.

The delicious Quaggy

The delicious Quaggy

Ravensbourne

This 11-mile river rises in Keston, to the south-east of Greater London, hitting up Bromley, Catford and Lewisham before debouching into Deptford Creek. In fact, Deptford gets its name from its erstwhile situation as a deep ford on the Ravensbourne. The origins of the name are uncertain, but one fanciful tradition has Caesar (Julius or Claudius…it’s not clear) following a raven to the source of the river in order to find fresh water.

Roding

London’s only double-entendre river (OK, the Earl’s Sluice is another candidate). It oozes from the ground near Stansted Airport, working its way down to Barking Creek and forming much of the boundary between Newham and Barking & Dagenham. Roding is a corruption of Hroda, an Anglo-Saxon boss who presided over settlements in the Roding valley. Towns along its course, like Ilford and Redbridge, also get their names from its aqueous passage.

The Roding

The Roding

Rom

Like the Lea, the Rom also forms the boundary of two boroughs: Barking & Dagenham and Havering. At this point, smartypants readers will have guessed that Romford gets its name as a ford on the River Rom. Not quite. It’s thought that Romford means a ‘wide or spacious ford’ over a river whose original name is forgotten. Through a linguistic backflip, that river later adopted the name Rom to harmonise with Romford. Fortunately, nobody has yet used a similar backformation to set a rom-com in Romford.

Stamford Brook

London’s only river whose name sounds like a US politician (although we think Tyburn Gallows might have made a good Republican senator). This lost stream separated Hammersmith and Chiswick, and gave its name to the area and Underground station. It’s said to derive from Stoney Ford, which doesn’t sound at all gubernatorial.

Thames

For purely alphabetical reasons, London’s most important river finds itself near the foot of this article. Thames is perhaps the most ancient name in the London area, and undoubtedly flows back to some pre-Roman appellation. The Celtic name is thought to have been Tamesas, meaning ‘dark’, and offering a tempting contrast to the River Lea’s light/bright origins. In truth, nobody really knows. Everything in this town eventually seems to get named after Boris Johnson (Boris bikes, Boris bus, Boris Island…), so we might as well assert that Tamesas was a corruption of Boris-ass.

Tyburn

This good old London name is infamous from the execution site, dubbed the Tyburn Tree, from which numerous malefactors could be simultaneously hanged. Before the gallows, there was the river, which still flows as a drain through Marylebone, Mayfair and out near Westminster. You can easily trace its route on a map by looking for the wobbly street lines in these otherwise grid-like areas. But the name? Well, it’s a bit dull really. Tyburn derives from the Old English Teo Bourne, which means ‘boundary stream’. Because this is such a prosaic derivation, there are other Tyburns around, including the Tyburn Brook (a tributary of the Westbourne).

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Walbrook

The Romans centred Londinium on Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, the two mounds rising either side of this river. The leading theory on the origins of the Walbrook’s name is simply that it was a brook that ran through the City wall (at Finsbury). Another option, though somewhat puzzling, is that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon Weala broc meaning ‘brook of the Welsh’.

We recently got to stand on the actual, original bed of the Walbrook, exposed in an archaeological dig. The orange barrier is not original Roman.

We recently got to stand on the original bed of the Walbrook, exposed in an archaeological dig. Unlike the timbers, the orange plastic barrier is not Roman.

Wandle

This river, Wandsworth Town, the wider borough of Wandsworth, and the increasingly ubiquitous Wandle beer all owe their names to a person called Wendle, who controlled the land around here in Anglo-Saxon times. We know absolutely nothing else about Mr Wendle, but thanks for the beer, sir.

Westbourne

By now, you’ll have grasped that anything ending in ‘bourne’ or ‘burn’ is likely to have something riverine about it. The Westbourne is no different, merely being a river that flows to the west of town. Connecting Hampstead to Chelsea via Bayswater, Hyde Park, Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, it might today be dubbed the Poshbourne. This privilege is reflected in its older name  — Cye Borne, meaning ‘royal stream’ (and hence Kilburn, where it also flows). Today it’s a sewer, and you can poke your head in at low tide like we did. Look ↓

westbourne

Notes for pedants

We’re aware this is not a complete list. In fact, it’s nowhere near. London contains dozens if not hundreds of streams, tributaries, rivulets, ditches and other channels not listed here. We give it 10 minutes before someone leaves a comment to say ‘You’ve forgotten the Bollo Brook, you arse’, or ‘I can’t believe you tosspots missed off the Cock and Pye Ditch’. So be it.

Throughout this article we’ve used phrases like ‘flows into the Thames’. This is shorthand for ‘used to flow into the Thames’. In reality, most of these rivers are now sewers and are intercepted by larger sewers before they can despoil the great river (except in storm conditions when they can overflow into the Thames).

See also

All images by the author.

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  • http://www.clipp.co ☞ Craig Stanford ☜

    You’ve forgotten the Bollo Brook, you arse!

  • Frank Bath

    Good work. I used to live on Askew Road in Shepherd’s Bush. I once saw my road named Gaggle Goose Lane an old map. I think this must have been a watercourse – Stamford Brook or tributary? I believe it filled the manorial ornamental lake in nearby Ravenscourt Park before finally entering the Thames through a swinging valve gate as a sewer beside Hammersmith pier.

  • Jon B

    You can also walk under the Westbourne courtesy of the big pipe across Sloane Square station

  • Gerald of Highbury Barn

    Fine, informative piece. Thank you, dear Author.

  • Mark

    River Rom only marks a part boundary with LBBD. In runs under Romford town centre and well within the borough to the north. Roomy ford is correct, missing river name is Murkydyche or something like that AFAIK

  • Frank Norman

    Fascinating stuff. Must have taken hours of intricate research. But no Dollis Brook?? I look forward to part 2.

  • Garrett Lamb

    Another excellent article. Just a note though to Walbrook – the Anglo-Saxon term Weala referred to the Celts that they encountered and to a lesser extant, the Romans. So for all practical purposes, the term simply meant “foreigner”. So “Weala broc” would actually mean “Brook of the Foreigners”, which, considering that it flowed through an old Roman settlement, would make sense.

    • Terry Cee

      Bit off, though, that the Anglo Saxons should refer to the indiginous population as ‘foreigners’, doncha think?

      • Barth Anderson

        Yet, correct. And telling that the Anglo-Saxons should call anyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon “waela.” It also can mean “slave” in some contexts. i.e., everyone is potentially a slave to the A-S. ;) “Weala” is also the source word for Wales, Cornwall.

  • Scott

    Can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s book “London Under” for anyone interested in the underground rivers and anything else beneath London

  • Carol Walton

    I can’t believe you tosspots missed off the ‘Cock and Pye ditch’!! Love the sense of humour!

  • Andrew

    It’s not so hard to learn Old English. If your interested look out the correspondence course run by The English Companions.

  • Thony Christie

    Fleet also exists in German. Hamberg has lots of fleets

  • misswhitemoth

    The Roding is pretty lovely. Great work, Mr.Brown

  • Phil

    Great piece – thanks. One note re the Westbourne – I had read elsewhere that when it was the Cye Bourne, “West Bourne” was the name of the district that lay to the West of the river – and over time it became adopted as the name of the river itself.

  • HHGeek

    “Fortunately, nobody has yet used a similar backformation to set a rom-com in Romford.”

    Yeah, but there was an entire episode of the sitcom ‘Chelmsford 123′ dedicated to building a bypass around Romford …

  • http://stepoutsideguides.com Francesca Fenn

    Fascinating stuff – and a compelling set of revolting photos to go with it. Probably as well they’re generally hidden! Except my local, the Roding.

  • hazel

    River Crane and Duke of Northumberlands River in SW London (joins Thames at Isleworth)