Lewisham’s long-forgotten High Street Stream literally disappeared overnight 150 years ago.
A previous news item – A river runs round it (23rd November 2006) – described an unusual link between the new Kaleidoscope Centre for Children and Young People and QWAG. It also mentioned that the Centre had another unusual link to Lewisham’s river network – and it’s a fascinating story.
The village of Lewisham was established in Saxon times in the vicinity of the parish church of St Mary’s – the area now called Ladywell. It’s hard to believe but in those days, a substantial stream arose at Catford, flowed northwards through the village, and empted into the River Ravensbourne at Lewisham Bridge, just above its confluence with the Quaggy.
Over the next thousand years, the village grew along the banks of the stream until it stretched irregularly all the way from Rushey Green to Lewisham Bridge. This 1770 print of “A view at Lewisham, in Kent” may depict the stream. The suggestion is based on the identification of the inn as a forerunner of the George, which today stands at the southern end of the High Street. It’s an interesting speculation, but one without any substantiating evidence.
From the late 1700s, for a brief period of about seventy years, Lewisham was considered a fashionable place to live. Many of the fine houses built during that period made a feature of the ‘High Street’ stream as it came to be called. In 1817, Henry Stainton bought one of these at the north end of Rushey Green. In 1835 he extended his estate southwards through the purchase of the land known as Springfield (the source of the High Street stream), now buried under Catford shopping centre. By diverting the stream, he was able to build extensive water features in his garden.
His much altered house – which, after the purchase, also became known as Springfield – survives today as Eric Lindsey’s shop. This picture shows the late 18th century house, its mid 19th century extension and the Kaleidoscope Centre to the south. Here, 150 years ago, disaster struck.
By the 1850s, sewage was a big problem. Even before the 1858 “Great Stink” forced the government to accept Bazalgette’s visionary plan for a network of intercepting sewers, local solutions were being sought. One of these was a sewer constructed in 1855/6 between St Mary’s church and Bell Green. It crossed the Springfield estate and during construction, the trench sliced through the impervious lining of Henry Stainton’s ornamental pond. The pond emptied but alas, so did the High Street stream feeding it, disappearing into more permeable strata beneath.
Henry Stainton’s son, who now owned the estate, was furious. To restore the water, he took the Board of Works to the High Court but lost the case. Lewisham was fast becoming urbanised, the balance of power was shifting, and the local authorities of the day were not particularly concerned about the loss of a picturesque stream.
For the big landowners, first attracted by the ‘rural’ feel of Lewisham, the writing was truly on the wall. The wealthy merchants fled. Their estates were broken up and their grand houses, with the ironic exception of Springfield itself, were flattened. Local historian John Coulter remarks of the stream’s loss “if it is possible to point to any one moment at which Lewisham ceased to be a village, this is that moment.”
In 1841 – some 15 years before the debacle – Thackeray’s almshouses were opened in the grounds of the Priory, immediately north of Springfield. A commemorative print made to mark the occasion shows a set of steps leading down to a “beautiful trout stream, forming a handsome sheet of water.”
In this picture, taken from the same spot, bench seats occupy the site of the steps. Today the course of the stream is marked merely by a wide grass strip. This runs by the road for a few hundred metres, between the Kaleidoscope Centre and the Jolly Farmers pub by St Mary’s church. Sadly it’s the only remaining hint of what was once Lewisham’s most distinguishing landmark.
QWAG would like to thank John Coulter for his help in the preparation of this article, which draws heavily on his excellent book Lewisham: History and Guide, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1994.