River Effra

Diverted overflow outlet of the River Effra into the Thames, by Vauxhall Bridge, beneath Alfred Drury's sculpture of Science
Country England
Main source Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, Upper Norwood near Crystal Palace, London
River mouth historically Vauxhall of Upper Spring: Crossness
Progression River Thames

The River Effra is a converted river or former large stream in south London, England, mainly underground — due to its history and the pressing need in the late Victorian era for a surface water drainage system its contours have been used for a combined sewer similar to the Walbrook, draining for example much of the historic broadly defined areas of Peckham and Brixton.



The name Effra probably comes from Proto-Germanic *ēþrō via Old English ǣðre, which means 'runlet of water, fountain, spring, stream'.[1]

Post-industrial revolution

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 High Level Sewer, also known as the Effra sewer, running from Herne Hill eastwards under Peckham and New Cross to Deptford[2] — and from Putney, the Southern Low Level Sewer picking up remaining effluent from the old depression converted to sewer at Vauxhall, passing under Kennington and Burgess Park to Deptford merging to form the Southern Outfall Sewer that runs underneath Greenwich and Woolwich to Crossness.[3]

The main course of the River Effra was converted into a sewer and culverts identifiable through the sewers on Effra Road in Brixton,[4] South London and through a drainage grate in the crypts under St. Luke's Church, West Norwood, South London.


Boundary marker for Camberwell Parish on the route of the Effra at Gipsy Hill, where the fact of the watercourse there being a river was re-discovered in the 1920s.

Directionally the Effra travelled mainly NNW until north of Brixton where it then fed Lambeth Marsh and Walworth Marsh, joining Earl's Sluice and entering the Thames at Deptford Wharf. It was diverted in the 13th Century to run west from Kennington to join the Thames at Vauxhall.[5]

One branch of the Effra rises near Harold Road in Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, Upper Norwood, and flows through West Norwood (which is the north and northwest of 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 where it flows NNE. A second branch rises south of Gypsy Hill into West Dulwich via Croxted Road, after flowing from near The Westow House[n 1], Westow Hill down the middle section of Jasper Road following the railway tunnel which ends then becomes the sewer under the road Gipsy Hill. 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 branch 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.[3] The name cannot be traced back much earlier than 1840,[6][7]

Additional tributaries: One channel forms 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 instead west past Knights Hill down Leigham Vale to join at Dulwich Road.[2]

Rocque's map of 1746 called these confluences around Herne Hill railway station 'Island Green', reflecting routes then of the Effra.[2]

Mainly underground, what remains of the river Effra is somewhat less than what used to contribute to its source, being replaced by an extensive surface water separate drainage system — due to its convenient contours however to the early development of its adjoining neighbourhoods it is a sewer in the same way as the Walbrook which rises and flows in the City of London and certain other former London rivers and streams.[3]


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.[3]


Although little more than a stream in the south, until 1935 the encased 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".[2]

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.[2]

The 'Unearthing the Effra' Campaign

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.[2]

See also

Notes and References

  1. A public house on the southwest corner of Crystal Palace
  2. 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
Next confluence upstream River Thames Next confluence downstream
Tyburn (stream) (north) River Effra River Fleet (north)
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