Ruskin and His Love for the River Wandle

Victorian art critic saw its pollution as a metaphor for the human race

River Wandle by Strathville Road, SW18 . Picture: Keith Rose


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On its Eastern side Putney is bordered by the River Wandle. One of the many small rivers which feed into the Thames. But few have had such a champion  as the preeminent  Victorian art critic John Ruskin. 

For him the pollution of the Wandle was a grotesque metaphor for  the pollution of the human race which he believed had been going downhill since the  golden age of Venice in the 15th century.  At one time the Wandle was  christened  Britain's hardest working river. It was its industrial potential which attracted the Huguenots.

In 1870 the fifty year old  Ruskin wrote of the Wandle(as he remembered it as a boy)  in The Crown of Wild Olive,”No cleaner or diviner waters ever sang with   constant  lips of the hand which giveth rain from heaven”.

That was the Wandle that Ruskin, the boy enjoyed. Ruskin was  brought up an extremely God fearing man at one time destined for the Church , forty years later he went on “I  have never seen anything so ghastly in its inner tragic meaning...neglect of the delicate sweetness of the English scene...Just where the stainless water,trembling and pure, like a body of light enters the pool at Carshalton...the human wretches of the place cast their street and house foulness..having neither the decency or energy to cast it away,in all places where God meant these waters to bring joy and health.”

Ruskin abhorred the effect of industrialisation on both man and  scenery.  Croydon and the beginning of the Wandle had a special place for Ruskin. For it was there, while it was still a village,he played with his cousins and escaped the totally exclusive and intensive one to one he had with his mother-to whom he was so devoted. Devoted enough to fruitlessly spend time and money trying to clean up Margarets Pool, Carshalton-now dry.

That Ruskin wrote often about filth,purging, cleaning and redemption is of course discussed by many who study the inner workings of this massively influential man.

Today although the Wandle where it reaches  the Thames on Putney’s Eastern border looks like Ruskin’s foul nightmare,  its 12 mile course is considered  one of the bright lights of post industrial ,cleaned up London. Even the idealistic Ruskin might have been proud.

Hugh Thompson

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January 22, 2021

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