The Thames Shifted To Peckham? Mad Plans From The 1930s

By M@ Last edited 78 months ago

Last Updated 13 November 2017

The Thames Shifted To Peckham? Mad Plans From The 1930s
Click/tap for larger version. Labels by the author to help locate familiar locations.

The Thames isn't very busy these days. Let's cover it over and create a massive new highway. That was the thinking behind this incredibly ambitious scheme from 1933.

It is the brainchild of William Walcot, a successful artist and architect of the early 20th century.

In Walcot's vision, the Thames would be removed from central London, its waters diverted along a new canal through south London (see below). The reclaimed land would be used for a major east-west boulevard, which would solve some of the capital's traffic problems.

The area in front of the Houses of Parliament would be converted into a 'quiet garden area' — at least until the tourists discovered it. Giant roundabouts would be built where today you would find Tate Modern and the Royal Festival Hall.

Walcot wanted to delete more than just the Thames. He also dismissed all south-facing train stations and replaced them with one monster terminus — in Kennington! Here's how it would have looked, complete with rooftop aerodrome.

The Thames, meanwhile, would run on a new course, a grand canal smashing through neighbourhoods that nobody would miss, like Vauxhall, Walworth and New Cross. It would be lined by markets and warehouses, to supplement the existing London docks. The route would have followed the now vanished Grand Surrey Canal, relying on 'slum' clearances to make space for the industry.

Downstream, the river would cut straight across the bottom of Greenwich Peninsula, reminiscent of 18th century plans to straighten the Thames. This would lead into a new harbour, where today we find little more than thousands of homes.

An editorial of the day called the grand scheme 'so outstanding in its splendid audacity, so thought-compelling, so stimulating, that one cannot but think (and hope) that its mere suggestiveness will lead to an eventual solution to London's problem'.

Fortunately, the Thames never came close to this kind of bullying. Yet one element of the scheme has come to fruition. In 1933, the South Bank was a largely industrial area, crammed with wharves, factories and warehouses. Walcot wanted to crack it all open and start again. He envisages a sweeping pedestrian boulevard lined with ambitious buildings.

Something like this began two decades later, when part of the South Bank was cleared for the Festival of Britain (1951). The stretch of river, continuing on to Tower Bridge, has since become one of the world's great urban promenades.

Still, somewhere in an alternative universe, we rather like the idea of cruise liners towering over Old Kent Road, and aeroplanes landing next to the Oval.

Images from The Sphere, 7 January 1933. Copyright, the Illustrated London News Group. Reproduced from the British Newspaper Archive.