The Westbourne or Kilburn is a mainly re-diverted small River Thames tributary in London, rising in Hampstead and which, notwithstanding one main meander, flows southward through Kilburn and the Bayswater (west end of Paddington) to skirt underneath the east of Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake then through central Chelsea under Sloane Square and it passes centrally under the south side of Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Ranelagh Gardens before historically discharging into the Inner London Tideway. Since the latter 19th century its narrow basin has been further narrowed by corollary surface water drains and its main flow has been replaced with a combined sewer beneath its route.

The river was originally called the Kilburn (Cye Bourne – royal stream, ‘Bourne and burn‘ being the Germanic word equivalent to rivulet as in the geographical term ‘winterbourne‘) but has been known, at different times and in different places, as Kelebourne, Kilburn, Bayswater, Bayswater River, Bayswater Rivulet, Serpentine River, The Bourne, Westburn Brook, the Ranelagh River and the Ranelagh Sewer. It is of similar size to the Fleet.

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Rising from several sources in Hampstead,[1] the river flows south through Kilburn (also the name of the river at that point) running west along Kilburn Park Road and then south along Shirland Road. After crossing Bishops Bridge Road, the river continued more or less due south, between what is now Craven Terrace and what is now Gloucester Terrace. At this point, the river was known until the early 19th century as the Bayswater rivulet and from that it gave its name to the area now known as Bayswater. Originally Bayswater was the stretch of the stream where it crosses Bayswater Road, «Bayards Watering» in 1652 and «Bayards Watering Place» in 1654. It is said that there is a reference to Bayards Watering Place as early as 1380. There were a few houses at this spot in the eighteenth century and, it seems, a man called Bayard used or offered it as a watering place for horses on this road (formerly Uxbridge Road). The river enters Hyde Park at what is now the Serpentine and is within the park joined by a tributary, Tyburn Brook. The Serpentine was formed in 1730 by building a dam across the Westbourne at the instigation of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, to beautify the royal park. The Westbourne ceased to provide the water for the Serpentine in 1834,[2] as the culverted Westbourne had become the most convenient main sewer and the Serpentine is now supplied from three boreholes from the upper chalk underneath Hyde Park.[3] The Serpentine was widely imitated in parks and gardens nationwide.[3]

The Westbourne left Hyde Park (both before and after it had been dammed to form the Serpentine) at Knightsbridge which was originally a bridge over the Westbourne itself. It is recorded that, in the year 1141, the citizens of London met Matilda of England (Queen Maud) at this bridge. The river ran from Knightsbridge south under Bourne Street, SW1 and follows very closely the boundary between the City of Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea,[n 1] joining the River Thames at Chelsea.[4]

The waters of the Westbourne or Bayswater were originally pure and in 1437 and 1439 conduits were laid to carry water from the Westbourne into the City of London, for drinking. In the 19th century, however, the water became filthy and impure by its use as a sewer, and the rise of the water closet as the prevailing form of sanitation.[5]

When Belgravia, Chelsea and Paddington were developed, it became necessary to drive the river Westbourne underground to build over it. The river was therefore directed into pipes in the early part of the 19th century, work which was completed in the 1850s. Since then, the Westbourne has been one of the lost rivers of London, running underground in a pipe.

The pipe can still be seen running above the platform of Sloane Square tube station.[6] It is located just below the ceiling towards the end of the platforms closest to the exits. The pipe is the original one constructed in the 19th century. Although the station was badly bombed during the Battle of Britain in November 1940, the old iron pipe was not damaged.

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After flowing beneath the location of the Chelsea Flower Show and beneath a corner of Chelsea Barracks, the river flows into the Thames. Its lower course is, like the Thames, tidal.[7]

A vestige of the river, a wide quay opens into the river Thames about 300 yards (270 m) west of Chelsea Bridge. An overflow outfall, from a pipe named the Ranelagh Sewer, can still be seen at low tide, as most of the Westbourne’s course has been used as a convenient depression in the land to place the local sewerage system, some of which takes surface water to form a combined sewer which links to two intercept sewers, the Middle Level Sewer and the Northern Low Level Sewer in the London sewerage system.

The finest and most intelligible map of the whole course of the Westbourne, superimposed over the Victorian street plan, is found in an article by J. G. Waller, published in the Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol VI (1882) pp 272–279.

Waller’s map shows that the stream never ran further west than the easternmost extremity of Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill (an east-west road ending at Queensway where the course lay). Westbourne Grove is, as its name suggests, west of the bourne.[8]

River Westbourne crosses Sloane Square Underground Station in a large pipe

Sloane Square Tube Station

See the part of the route of the River Westbourne and some other lost rivers of London for yourself with Paul Talling, author of this website and the book London’s Lost Rivers.

Arising from  streams to the west of  Hampstead Heath, joining up in the Kilburn area with another tributary (from Frognal) called the Kilbourne and flowing through Hyde Park, Sloane Square and into the Thames near Chelsea Bridge.

The Kilbourne joins the Westbourne at the site of Kilburn Priory which dated from the days of Henry 1 and the river supplied the Priory’s moat and provided the inhabitants with water and fish until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and the building was destroyed. The water from this spring was then discovered to contain properties similar to Epsom Salts and gave rise to spas and pleasure gardens including the Kilburn Wells.

The origin of the name Westbourne is not clear and it does not appear before the 19th century. The  areas named Westbourne such as  Westbourne Grove were called that as they lay west of the bourne or river. The river itself was named Bayswater Brook in a London map dated 1824 and named the Westbourne later on. The name Bayswater is said to have derived from ‘Bayard’s Watering Place’, first recorded in 1380, where the River Westbourne passed under the Uxbridge road (now Bayswater Road) , a ‘bayard’ being a horse which would have taken water from the river. Another explanation is that he land now called Bayswater belonged to the Abbey of Westminster when the Domesday Book was compiled; the most considerable tenant under the abbot was Bainiardus, may therefore  be concluded that this  ground known for its springs of excellent water, once supplied water to Baynard, his household, or his cattle; that the memory of his name was preserved in the neighbourhood for six centuries; and that his watering-place now takes the abbreviated name Bayswater.

Two other crossing of the Westbourne are documented and quite infamous in their time: Knightsbridge and Blandel Bridge. Knightsbridge to the south of Hyde Park was a stone bridge and  the habitual haunt of highwaymen and robbers for centuries. The bridge is reputed to be named after a duel between knights. It is recorded that, in the year 1141, the citizens of London met Matilda of England at this bridge.The bridge at Sloane Square was called Blandel Bridge and was later renamed Grosvenor Bridge. It was nicknamed “Bloody Bridge” going back as 1590 so named allegedly following the murder of Lord Harrington’s cook who was attacked and beaten to death by highwaymen. Bloody Bridge once comprised of a footbridge with a plank before a more substantial bridge, 16 feet wide and lined by high walls, was built in the reign of Charles ll.The Serpentine, was formed in Hyde Park in 1730 by the damming of the Westbourne under orders of Queen Caroline — wife of George II – to increase the aesthetic qualities of the Royal Park. Although in 1834 the Westbourne became too polluted and the Serpentine is now supplied from water pumped from other sources.

The Westbourne also supplied the ornamental waters in Kensngton Gardens.  A tributary called Tyburn Brook, joined the Westbourne from the east in Hyde Park is covered elsewhere in this book.

The waters of the river were originally pure and in the 13th century conduits were laid to carry water from the Westbourne into the City of London, for drinking. In the nineteenth century, however, the water became filthy and impure as it was by then being used as an open cesspit. Due to the development of the area and the need to hide this cesspit in what was becoming quite upper class vicinity the river was culverted between Hyde Park & Sloane Square in 1827 and the stretch down to the Thames in 1854. Parts of the river north of Hyde Park survived until 1871. The culvert is now known as the Ranelagh sewer and the outfall can be seen at low tide on the Thames. Noise resulting from its encasement in a sewer has been blamed for instances of alleged haunting in the cellars of houses in the Sloane Square area. The Westbourne/Ranelagh Sewer can be seen at  Sloane Square Tube Station where it crosses the track in a large metal pipe


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