Walbrook Wharf: the river, rubbish and Romans
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
City of London's only working freight wharf has Roman origins.
Walbrook Wharf is the only freight wharf still operating in the City of London, keeping alive a commercial maritime tradition on the River Thames in the City that dates back to Roman times. This sense of continuity with London's earliest times is a romantic notion, only slightly dulled by the fact that Walbrook Wharf today operates as a waste transfer station.
City facility run by 125 year old company
The facility is situated on the Thames just west of Cannon Street Railway Bridge and east of Southwark Bridge. It is owned by the City of London Corporation, the local authority for the Square Mile at the ancient heart of the wider metropolis of London. The waste transfer station at Walbrook Wharf has capacity for 85,000 tonnes annually. It was originally opened in 1963 and is operated by Cory Environmental, a resource management, recycling and energy recovery company.
Incorporated in 1896, Cory celebrated 125 years on the Thames on 14 October 2021. The company's origins were in the transport and supply of coal into London. After unloading coal from its Thames barges, known as lighters, it then filled them with refuse to be dumped in the marshlands of Kent and Essex. Its history also includes the transport of coal and aggregates.
Cory is no longer in the coal trade, but continues to remove waste from central London.
Rubbish from industrial premises and households is taken by road to Walbrook Wharf, where it is containerised and loaded onto barges (there are also similar facilities at Wandsworth, Battersea and Northumberland Wharf in Blackwall).
Containerised waste goes to Bexley
Containers are lifted by a gantry over the wharf's riverside walkway, which is closed to pedestrians briefly whenever waste is being transferred onto barges. The refuse is then towed down river by tug to the Belvedere Incinerator in Bexley, in south east London.
Although its function is far from glamorous, Walbrook Wharf has 'safeguarded wharf' status, which means that it must remain a working wharf and cannot be redeveloped for non-port use.
Lost River Walbrook's Shoreditch source
Walbrook Wharf is where one of London's lost rivers, the River Walbrook, flows into the Thames. It used to be an open river, but has been covered over since the 1500s.
One of the sources of the river is said to be a spring in the churchyard of St Leonard's in Shoreditch, underneath an old water pump that still stands (but no longer works). The river entered the City of London through the old City walls close to Carpenters' Hall (between Throgmorton Avenue and Great Winchester Street, at the junction of London Wall and Blomfield Street).
The River Walbrook, which now flows underground as part of the sewer network, winds its way south from London Wall under the Bank of England and under the buildings on the west side of Walbrook (the street of the same name) and Dowgate Hill.
It discharges into the Thames through an outlet in the embankment wall underneath Walbrook Wharf.
The Walbrook joined the Thames at Dowgate
The site is approximately the location of a gate in the Roman river wall to allow the Walbrook to flow into the Thames. The wall, the southern stretch of the City wall, was built alongside the Thames in around 275AD (the main City wall was built around 200AD).
The gate allowed access between the docks and wharves built on the Walbrook and the Thames, but was further inland than the current wharf as the Thames was wider at that time (its north bank was roughly where the southern pavement of Upper Thames Street is today).
By medieval times the river wall had gone, but a dock continued where the gate had been. Indeed, to this day the gate's Saxon name is recalled in the street name Dowgate Hill and the Dowgate ward in which the wharf is located.
As with all the gates that were originally Roman, the names that live on today come from Saxon or medieval times. There are competing theories about the derivation of the name Dowgate.
'Dow’ is Anglo Saxon for water and we are talking about a water gate, so that seems straightforward, but 'Duue' is Old English for dove and may also have been a personal name, so the gate could have been named after the bird or a person.
There is also a third possibility. John Stow, who published his 'Survey of London' in 1598 calls it "Downe gate, so called of the sudden descending or down-going of that way from St John's church upon Walbrook unto the river of Thames". Even now, Dowgate Hill still descends quite steeply from Cannon Street towards the river. The street called Walbrook runs from the Cannon Street junction with Dowgate Hill up towards the Mansion House.
Stow goes on to describe how, in 1573, after a heavy rain shower, a "lad, of the age of eighteen years…was taken by the feet and borne down with the violence of that narrow stream and carried towards the Thames with such a violent swiftness as no man could rescue or stay him, til he came against a cart-wheel that stood in the water-gate, before which time he was drowned and stark dead".
London owes its founding, in part, to the Walbrook
The Walbrook is one of the reasons why the Romans chose to settle in this area and to found London. Before it was covered over and disappeared under ground, the river provided fresh water for drinking and also for flushing away the waste products from trades - two vital factors for a new settlement (as they are for today's City).
Although never much more than a stream, the valley carved into the landscape by the Walbrook creates two hills on either side of it. On its west bank, Ludgate Hill, and on its east bank, Cornhill.
These two hills are on firm ground, by contrast with much of the land either side of the Thames closer to the sea, which was then very marshy downstream of today's London. This gave the Romans somewhere that was both habitable and defendable. The Walbrook was also navigable 200m up from the Thames, roughly the junction of Canon Street and the street Walbrook today.
Crucially, too, the Romans chose the area because it was the first point on the Thames moving upstream from the sea where a ford and then a bridge could be built and where the Thames is still tidal (which helps to carry ships to and from the sea more quickly). The River Fleet to the west of the Roman city also came into the equation (it now flows under Farringdon Street, emptying into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge).
These points were vital, but the Walbrook was also an important contributory factor in why there was a port and, in turn, a city called London at all.
After the Anglo Saxons resettled the City within its ancient Roman walls from 886AD, the Walbrook became a social dividing line. Saxons lived more to the west of the river, with greater wealth and prosperity, while the poorer indigenous Britons lived to the east. This east/west divide between rich and poor remains, at least partly, a characteristic of London today.
Just as there are different theories on how Dowgate got its name, the same is true of the River Walbrook. The simplest theory is simply that the name is descriptive: the river ran through the wall of the City.
However, it is also thought that the name may derive from the Anglo Saxon term weala broc, meaning the brook of the foreigners (a reference to the ancient Britons, also known as the Welsh or weala).
The more gruesome explanation is that Walbrook is a variation of the Saxon Galobroc and was named after a defeated rebel Roman leader named Livius Gallus.
According to a story from the 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, the soldiers of the legion commanded by Gallus were all beheaded. The discovery in 1838 of a large number of human skulls in the Walbrook under Blomfield Street appeared to support this story, but more recent excavations suggest that the skulls may have been washed away from a nearby cemetery.
The River Walbrook, out of sight and out of mind today, and Walbrook Wharf, with its cargo of waste that most of us would prefer to be out of sight and out of mind, offer little to the casual observer.
Nevertheless, they are reminders of the City of London's history as a major port from Roman times through the Saxon, medieval and Tudor periods until the Great Fire.
The wider London area, under the Port of London Authority, continued as a major port, but the focus of activity moved further downstream of the City of London from the late 17th century onwards.
I know that I am talking rubbish - this time, I really do - but Walbrook Wharf continues a thread that stretches back to the founding of the City of London by the Romans.
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