Exploring the Falcon Brook

This is an attempt to rediscover the route of one of south London’s lost rivers, the Falcon Brook, based on a walk undertaken in 2002.

A direct walk along the Falcon Brook’s course is a little difficult all in one go, as south of Balham it consists of two main branches.

One of these has its sources on Tooting Graveney common, probably one on each of the east and west sides. A tributary coming in from the east soon afterwards, with its own source somewhere near Conifer Gardens on Streatham High Road, was known as the Woodbourne. Another name, given to this branch or perhaps another, was Streatbourne, which is said to have been used in Roman times. More recently, the Woodbourne, as with other ‘lost’ rivers, has shown its presence: in 1967 a local newspaper carried a story with the headline ‘Sunken streams delay Tesco’s’.

To follow the route from Streatham Hill station, head south a little and turn west into Woodbourne Avenue, naturally. Cross Tooting Bec Common past the Lido and follow the stream north westward along the line of Doctor Johnson Avenue. In the 19th century these were the grounds of Bedford Hill House. William Cubitt, Lord Mayor of London in 1861, landscaped them around the brook, creating an ornamental lake. The name of Hillbury Road here allides to the artificial moumd he created.

Left into Elmbourne Road and then right takes you to ‘Streathbourne Road’ heading just north of Tooting Bec station, which seems to follow the route of this lower branch. In 1865 the Metropolitan Board of Works approved spending £30,000 to cover over and redirect the brook here. From the shallow stream valley this area was known as the ‘holloways’. A farm here alongside the brook was owned by Sir Peter Daniel, a Sheriff of the City of London in 1683 and MP for Southwark in 1685. Clay was dug along the banks in that period for making bricks and tiles, and gravel pits were dug here. Balham High Road here, incidentally, follows the Roman Road Stane Street from Chichester.

To continue along this southern course, the stream follows Rowfant Road, but is now crossed by the railway, so it is easier to walk up Balham High Road and turn into Chestnut Grove, and thence across to Ravenslea Road. Turn right up Mayford Road, then right into Birchlands Avenue and meet the other course just south of Nightingale Road.

The other main branch also begins just east of the main Streatham Road, but slightly further north, where it is Streatham Hill. Walking north from Streatham Hill station, the stream’s source is somewhere near Downton Avenue on the east side. Head west on Telford Avenue – in 1986 a brick conduit could still be seen alongside Telford Park Lawn Tennis Club. The area flooded in 1914.

The stream then runs along the top of Tooting Bec Common. Three large elm trees used to marke the course here alongside Emmanuel Road. At Cavendish Road, the brook heads north, with two very short tributaries joining from the south and south east in the common. Cavendish Road was once called Dragmire Lane.

This eastern branch was once known as the Hydeburn and there is a reference to it as early as 693AD. Balham House once stood near here on Balham High Road, built in 1787 and rebuilt in 1880 before being demolished to become the Duchess Theatre in 1898. The stream was covered as a sewer in 1866. It is believed that the waters can be heard near where Weir Road meets Cavendish Road.

Turn left off Cavendish Road into Dinsmore Road (though a Hazelbourne Road slightly further north may be telling), and walk alomg Oldridge Road and Calbourne Road to connect up with the other route. Thomas Cromwell owned the land in this area until his execution in 1540, when Henry VIII took it over. After two years the king sold it to a local carpenter.

From the meeting point of the branches, turn north off Nightingale Road into Rusham Road and Montholme Roads, then follow Northcote Road and all the way to Battersea Rise – this is the stream’s route. At Battersea Rise there used to be three ponds – not to mention the lavender fields remembered by Lavender Hill (continue up St John’s Road) – they were still there in the 1830s.

Here is the first reference on this route to the Falcon’s name: the Falcon Inn, on Falcon Road just next to Clapham Junction station. The inn was mentioned as the Faulkeon in 1765, when Sir Oliver St John settled here. His family crest has a falcon rising, suggesting how the brook got its name. The 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows a horse trough outside the inn. In the early 17th century, this area was still largely wooded.

Continue up Falcon Roadn as far as the bend where Ingrave Street comes off to the west. Battersea was once an island of sorts. It has been suggested that the Falcon divided here – the eastward branch supposedly ran through Falcon Park, then alongside what is now the main railway line to Victoria, connecting with the Nine Elms Ditch and entering the Thames just beyond Battersea Power Station.

Meanwhile, the surer course westward ran along Ingrave Street, through York Gardens and across York Road. There were mills here on the lower stretches, and York Bridge is marked on 19th century maps. A pumping station here handles storm water. This branch was also known as the York Ditch or York Sewer. Turn up Cotton Row to the Thames and there is the faintest suggestion of a former creek here, which is perhaps the mouth of the lost Falcon Brook.

Further reading

  • Barton, Nicholas – The Lost Rivers of London (1962,1992)
  • Foord, Alfred Stanley – Springs, Streams and Spas of London (1910)
  • Trench, Richard & Hillman, Ellis – London under London (1984,1993)

Further sources consulted at Wandsworth Local History Service, Battersea Library. With thanks to Henry Braun.