In the 1960s, the River Wandle was officially classified as a sewer; today it is brimming with life and has one of the best urban coarse fisheries in the country.
It may not be a massive story, but sometimes it’s little things – like clean water – that matter most. The Thames is of course one of the best known rivers in the world, but it is not the only river that runs through London. The Wandle is a tributary of the Thames, and like the Thames it has had more than its fair share of problems, all or most of them man made. As long ago as August 9, 1882, the Times carried a law report on the case of Sklous v The Wimbledon Local Board Of Health; Mr Justice Chitty had refused to restrain the defendant from depositing sewage and sewage water on the plaintiffs’ land, and discharging it into the river, and they were appealing this decision. The defendant’s actions had led both to health problems and to a stench which was “absolutely intolerable”. Nowadays, thankfully, no public health body would engage in such behaviour.
In a December 1931 Parliamentary question, the Independent MP Eleanor Rathbone asked the Minister of Health among other things “whether he is aware that the River Wandle is a public sewer and therefore under the care of the London County Council; whether he has drawn the attention of the London County Council to this matter; and with what result?”
The Minister replied: “My attention has been drawn to this matter. I have been in communication with the London County Council and am informed that they are considering what remedial action can be taken.”
Obviously his fine words were not matched by equally fine deeds – a perennial feature of politics – and three decades and more onwards, the name sewer was still being affixed to this body of water. Then, finally, somebody decided to do something about it. Not that there weren’t setbacks, in September 2007, there was a major pollution scare but three months later it was restocked, and today, the Wandle has been very much in the news as one of the 10 most improved rivers in England and Wales.
In 2001, The Wandle Trust was founded specifically to restore and maintain the health of the river and its catchment. It appears to be doing a good job. There has even been talk of otters inhabiting the river along with the trout, a distinct possibility as they can now be found in every English county including nearby Kent.