Pudding Mill – Requiem for a lost London river

The Pudding Mill River (known also as Pudding Mill stream or Hunter’s Mill stream) was a major waterway forming part of the network known as the Bow Back Rivers. The Pudding Mill formed an alternative north-south route from St Thomas’ Creek (the southernmost west to east waterway which leads from the A12/A102(M) Bow roundabout to the Waterworks River) to the Old River Lea. It and the City Mill River formed an inverted ‘Y’ at the southern end, with the City Mill River being a branch from the Pudding Mill River to the Waterworks River.

The City Mil lRiver was originally a branch off the Pudding Mill River but at some stage it was diverted to become an independent through route between the Old River Lea and the Waterworks River.

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The Bow Back Rivers in the 1800’s

The large area of land between the Pudding Mill and Waterworks rivers was historically known as Nobshill, later Knobs Hill. It was quite a substantial hill and largely survived until 2006 when levelling began to make way for the Olympics stadium. Knobs Hill has the dubious claim of being the only hill in London to be razed entirely to the ground!

As part of the improvements planned in the by the Lee Conservancy, the Pudding Mill River was truncated at a point north of Marshgate Lane and its junction with the Old River Lea altered. The Pudding Mill River was never given the full Bow Backs redevelopment works. In an ironic twist of fate it became a dead-end waterway, and the much improved and widened City Mill River became the main north-south route. – much wider than some of the UK’s older ship canals! City Mills lock replaced the old Marshgate lock at roughly the same location. The Waterworks River was tidal and could only be used at certain times, giving access to wharves in the Temple Mills area to the north. The Bow Back Rivers redevelopment works commenced around 1932, but despite popular opinion, the works were not completed until 1948 at the most.

The prominitory known as Knobs Hill was also a part of the Lee Conservancy’s 1930’s scheme. Its sides were revetted to form steep slopes leading up to a fairly flattned summit. The widening of the City Mill River and Old River Lea clearly required this work. Spoil from these works were used to level the summit of the hill, forming a failry even plateau. The revetted sides of Knobs Hill extended from a point by Sun Wharf on the City Mill River northwards to Carpenters Junction, then south west along the Old River Lea to where the natural declivity in the hill occurred by the junction with the Pudding Mill river.

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The Bow Back Rivers in the 1930’s (left) before re-construction. Right – as they existed in the 1980’s.

The reconstruction of the Bow Back Rivers was intended to serve two purposes – better flood management and further encouragement of water borne traffic. Despite the network serving Stratford, Old Ford and Marshgate Lane better than before, the wide expanses of the City Mill River and the new locks did little to encourage freight traffic. The large expanse of industrial estates around Marshgate Lane did not actually begin until around the late 1970’s, hence many of the ‘wharves’ date from that time and are only named as such because they were next to the rivers, and not because they were places served by barges. Anyone investigating the area’s history needs to bear in mind the martime history of the area was in part influenced by later 20th Century construction works, and not from history.

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The remains of Old Ford tide gates at left seen just to the east of the junction with the Pudding Mill River

The Pudding Mill River was semi tidal until the works to improve the rivers began. Previously Old Ford tide gates (just to the east of the junction on the Old River Lea) kept the water in the Lee Navigation and Pudding Mill River reasonably level except on certain high tides (which these days still could technically reach as far as Tottenham under certain conditions.) Below these tide (or flood) gates the City Mill and Waterworks Rivers were entirely tidal. After the reconstruction works just the Waterworks River remained entirely tidal whilst the remainder were occasionally affected by certain high tides. This explains the substantial waterway walls (seen in the picture below) which managed the navigations at a standard level but also prevented any flooding should high tides occur.

With the London 2012 Olympics the network was regenerated, and City Mills Lock restored and converted to electric operation. The sheer size of the Olympic Stadium meant that two of the area’s main landmarks had to go. The first was Knobs Hill, and the second unfortunately the Pudding Mill River.

The concrete sides of the remaining waterway were demolished and grassed banks instead provided. However this work has swept away a lot of the Bow Back River’s heritage such as bollards, notices, plaques marking completion of works and so on, although some aspects such as the rivetted cast iron footbridge at Carpenters Lock and the lock itself have been retained.

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The entrance to the Pudding Mill River from the Old River Lea

Despite the common notion that proposals had existed to restore the Pudding Mill River as part of the 2012 Olympics scheme, the sad reality was that the Pudding Mill River was surplus to requirements. The idea of restoring the Bow Back Rivers as part of the 2012 Olympics is something that doesnt tell the full story. The ‘restoration of this ancient network of rivers in fact pertained to the 1930’s scheme and restoration as such is not applicable because the nature of the network was irrevocably changed in the 1930’s. So the ‘legacy’ that has been left by the Olympics in fact consists of waterways roughly eighty years old at the most and at the youngest just sixty years of age. It is one of the cruellest tricks postulated in the name of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park when claims are made that the area’s waterways have been ‘restored.’ They havent.

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Looking south from the Old River Lea towards the second Pudding Mill River overbridge. Swans used to nest here.

It is believed that the first bit of the Pudding Mill River served as a wharf which explains the wide expanse of waterway at this location. The first 300 yeards or so from the Old River Lea probably of post-war construction. The rest of the river from a point near the ‘nuclear facility’ bridge was just occasionally used to access the other parts of the Marshgate Lane industrial estate and also to store barges that were surplus to use.

Most of the Pudding Mill River had a considerable depth of water until the 1980’s, when it was infilled southwards of the North Outfall Sewer. During 2006 it was found that one could walk on the dried up bed of the Pudding Mill river at its sotuhern extremity. In its last decades, the section from the Old River Lea to a point near the Northern Outfall Sewer was the only part to retain any water though not in any way navigable. The Pudding Mill River was the narrowest of all the Bow Back Rivers, but this was not of a great concern because it was no longer a through route.

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Views of the Pudding Mill River by the Old River Lea junction, in its final years, including the first road overbridge. Notice how much difference between these and those taken in 2003. This site is now the north west corner of the olympic main stadium.

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2003 – a view southwards along the Pudding Mill River with London’s nuclear experiment facility at top right.

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Improvements to the Pudding Mill River, 2001

Ironically, improvements were made to the Pudding Mill River at the start of the 21st century, including tree planting, the building of an attractive wooden bridge, and picnic areas. There were further projects in hand, unfortunately not to come to frutition because London’s winning of the Olympics a few years later changed all that. The real costs of the Olympics does not include the waste expended on improving the Pudding Mill River (and other parts of the Bow Back Rivers.)

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The climb from Old River Lea’s path to Marshgate Lane (at right on Knobs Hill.) Pudding Mill River hidden in trees left

The Pudding Mill River (and the Old River Lea) ran along a deep cleft in the surrounding land and there were some fairly substantial climbs from either waterway up to the summit of Knobs Hill. In the view above there are two signposts on the fencing surrounding Parkes Galvanizing works. These say (top) Lee navigation towpath (bottom) Old Ford locks. Parkes Galvanizing Works was the site of the old Nobshill Corn Mill. This was demolished around the 1890’s and Knobs Hill cottage was built here. The cottage existed until around 1948, when the Pudding Mill River’s junction with the old River Lea was realigned. It appears no other building stood here until Parkes works was built. All these developments clearly took advantage of a natural cleft squeezed into the side of Knobs Hill at the junction of the Pudding Mill and Old River Lea.

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By Parkes Galvanizing works was this sign claiming the Pudding Mill River for the Lee Anglers consortium! Some hope! Perhaps a couple of decades before – but defintely not in the last years of the river, during this latter period anglers instead fished the Old River Lea.

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A short distance away a lorry thunders down the hill on the northern part of Marshgate Lane. Offices built around the early 1990’s are visible on part of the Knobs Hill plateau. This area has been entirely flattened and forms the north western corner of the Olympics stadium. This road extension was not built until after 1983 hence the section from Knobs Hill Road to Carpenters Road with its crossings over the City Mill and Waterworks Rivers was clearly a very late addition to the Bow Back Rivers scene in the last two decades before the stadium was built.

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Pudding Mill River in 2003 by the ‘nuclear facility’ access road bridge.

Notice the gas cyclinders in the far distance in the above picture. These were sited about where the river was stanked off just beofre the Northern Outfall sewer. These cylinders can be seen in later photographs and they help to keep a perspective in the different views showing the old Pudding Mill River.

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London’s nuclear facility. This was adjacent to the Pudding Mill River and belonged to Queen Marys University

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The rear of the nuclear facility from the path that formerly led to the Northern Outfall sewer

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Just south of the Nuclear facility, from Marshgate Lane there were good views of Canary Wharf

The new wooden footbridge that spanned the Pudding Mill at the point where there was a good view of the Canary Wharf. The ‘Nuclear Facility’ was actually a reactor built buy Queen Mary College in 1966, and decomissioned by 1982. The reactor’s decommissioning was supervised by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Queen Mary College assert that the “reactor was exceptionally small … and produced virtually no energy.” However, a furore arose when the Olympics people discovered that a nuclear reactor had once existed here, as they did not know about it prior to the bidding. Tests were conducted in and around the building, and on the Pudding Mill River itself. No abnormal radiation levels were to be found, hence giving the locale a clean bill of health.

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The bridge over the Pudding Mill river which existed just a few years before being demolished for the Olympics park

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The Pudding Mill River in 2003 from the (then) new footbridge looking a bit more healthy than in its final few years.

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Marshgate Lane and the Pudding Mill River. Knob’s Hill was razed to the ground – to make way for the Olympics stadium!

View of the Pudding Mill River and industry on Marshgate Lane. All this has disappeared under the Olympics. Marshgate lane climbed up to a summit (historically known as Knobs Hill) before steeply dropping down to the Old River Lea valley. The hill has gone, flattened to made way for the main Olympics stadium. It must be the first complete hill ever in London’s history to be removed! Note the banner in the picture above saying “2012 – Killing Local Businesses.”

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Scan of a picture in a magazine showing the hole left by the razing of the ancient Knobs Hill (top left.) The raised earthworks alongside the City Mill River is all that is left of Knobs Hill. The revetted sides created by the 1930’s Bow Back Rivers reconstruction scheme can be seen. Both the City Mill and Waterworks River courses can be seen. The trains in the middle are on what is known as Thornton Fields sidings where stock is stabled between the peak periods on the Great Eastern mainline

Next: Pudding Mill Requiem Part 2

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