‘Water Lambeth: a public river, a hidden river and a vanished village’ is an exhibition juxtaposing paintings, photography, museum objects and maps to document Lambeth’s stretch of the Thames. Lambeth is defined by water. The Thames, running from Broad Wall through to Nine Elms, provides its northern boundary both separating it from and joining it to London, while Lambeth’s ‘other’ river, the River Effra, flows the length of the borough from the heights of Norwood to the Thames at Vauxhall like a secret watery spine. It was once a sparkling stream but has long since declined to polluted open ditch and now to a converted sewer. Today it is the psycho-geographer’s water course of choice: a buried river masquerading as a main drainage channel, a source of dubious urban myth (did Sir Walter Raleigh once sail up it to visit Queen Elizabeth in Brixton?) and a very real flood risk.
Taking these two rivers as its frame of reference, this exhibition focuses on the vanished medieval village of Water Lambeth, demolished to make way for the Albert Embankment in the 1860s, and the Doulton pottery works that departed Lambeth in the 1950s. The exhibition charts the hidden line of the Effra south from Vauxhall through Kennington, Brixton and Herne Hill to the high ground of Norwood using a mix of watercolours, prints, drawings, photographs, drainage plans and documents.
A second linked theme illustrates the battle for the supply of clean drinking water. Lambeth had one of the highest death rates from cholera in the 1840s epidemic - and it was an analysis of the different sources of supply used by two of its water companies that helped crack the mystery of how the disease spread as well as stampeding major public health legislation. This section charts the early growth of the water industry in Lambeth from wells at Clapham and waterworks at Vauxhall to the hilltop reservoirs and pumping stations of Streatham and Brixton.
The future success of London depends on creating vibrant public spaces that are accessible to all, well-connected by transport and surrounded by excellent amenities. Where will these opportunities coexist in the coming century? River rooms are exemplary public spaces along the Thames. As London grows and becomes increasingly dense, it will depend even more on such places that are accessible to all, well-connected by transport and rich with amenities.