Local history

In search of the Quaggy

What’s in a name?

We’re often asked what does Quaggy mean? Good question.

We know where the River Quaggy is, where is starts and where it goes, but why Quaggy?
In his book – available from QWAG – historian and QWAG member, Ken White, says ‘The name Quaggy as referring to the whole river seems to be modern usage, local names are given in the past, if indeed with a name at all.’

Ken’s charmingly handwritten illustrated book, ‘The Quaggy River and its Catchment Area’ is available from QWAG

Ken’s charmingly handwritten illustrated book, ‘The Quaggy River and its Catchment Area’ is available from QWAG

Ken adds, ‘Rocque in 1745 has it as Lee Water, and in the early 19th century the New Cross Turnpike Trust refers to Lee Water. Hasted, in the version by Drake refers to the Quagga rising at Eltham.’

We’re getting closer. Then, Ken reveals all:
‘The 1863 O.S. map names Quaggy River at Eltham. This is thought to be a reference to the state of the ground. A field at Lewisham was called Quaggs. Upstream at Grove Park it is The Chinbrook, and at Petts Wood the Kyd Brook. At Blackheath and Eltham small feeders have long been known as the Upper, Middle and Lower Kidbrook. A larger tributary is now known as the Little Quaggy, rising at Elmstead Wood and Mottingham.’

Now we know.

1066 to the 1960s

In Norman times, the local rivers helped drive farming and commerce. Many mills were built on the rivers to make paper and glass and to both draw water from and dump waste into the rivers.

Rapid urban growth in the 19th century brought the railways, growing towns. Lewisham turned from being a small village into London suburb.

With the building boom of the 1920-30s pressure grew to modify the course of the local rivers and to contain them in tight, straight, deep and hard-sided channels instead of allowing them to meander as they should in a flood plain and to have natural banks and features.

The pressures are summed up in the 2010 Ravensbourne plan:
‘…As these urban areas have needed to expand in the last few decades, they have witnessed the river’s gradual alteration from an open green river corridor, rich in habitat, to a heavily constrained artificial channel, hidden away ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

‘This has long constrained the potential of the rivers and has had a strong impact upon our ability to reduce flood risk and mitigate the potential impacts of climate change; the wildlife the river can support; as well as our opportunity and accessibility to use and enjoy the river.’

Years of careless, misguided policies and intensive development, often right up to the river edges, has removed most of the natural river habitats and flood plain.


‘In September 1968, after a week of heavy rain, the Ravensbourne burst its banks from Loampit Vale through Lewisham and all the way up to Beckenham. The Pool River flooded up to Bell Green, and the Quaggy overflowed.

‘These events reinforced the decision to put substantial lengths of the river into concrete channels and underground culverts during the 1960s and 1970s to minimise the damage and impact which flooding could cause to the then more heavily urbanised area.

‘At the time this was perceived as the best way to manage and control the river, as well as to reduce the risk of flooding by conveying water as quickly as possible downstream. Over 50% of the rivers in the Ravensbourne catchment are now artificial and there are over 70 culverts’.

Extracts from the Ravensbourne River Corridor Improvement Plan (2010)

Water Pressure

Instead of being celebrated as natural assets our local rivers were treated with suspicion and subjected to heavy engineering ‘solutions’ to control the water and, in theory, prevent or curb flooding.

Instead, the risk and the potential damage during more extreme floods has increased.
Fortunately, the authorities and experts seem to be rethinking. For example Lewisham Council’s Ravensbourne Plan holds out hope for a better future for our abused rivers:

‘Although recent urban development have neglected their importance, future urban regeneration in the borough will need to restore its relationship with Lewisham’s rivers to support its long term sustainability.’

QWAG has helped challenge and change the outmoded views that have encased our rivers in concrete, and allowed them to be polluted and devoid of as much life as they could sustain.

Treated properly and allowed to act naturally, our urban rivers can be an ally in controlling floods, will improve conditions for nature and create better places for people.
That’s why QWAG has inspired and worked for restorations such as:

  • the Sutcliffe Park flood alleviation in Greenwich near the Lewisham border
  • the Chinbrook Meadows re-naturalisation at Grove Park near the Lewisham-Bromley border
  • the restoration of the Ravensbourne in Ladywell Fields and at Cornmill Gardens, Lewisham

Modern Times

QWAG is working to for more improvements across the catchment and helps the authorities and developers to ‘do right by our rivers’ in Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham.
New development creates ways to rectify past errors by getting the rivers out of concrete, restoring the rivers and their banks for wildlife, helping reduce flood risk and letting people enjoy new contact with their rivers.

QWAG keeps watch for more of these opportunities from small scale development to mega schemes like the revamp of central Lewisham where new retail, commercial and housing development has far-reaching effects on both the Quaggy and Ravensbourne.

Make a splash without getting wet!