Wanstead Watercourses: the "River Holt"

by Barry Hughes

The following article was published in the Wanstead Historical Society Journal, September 2001. Thanks to Barry Hughes of Snaresbrook for permission to include it on this site.


ON SUNDAY 30th April 2000, whilst on an organised walk in Wanstead Park, I heard recounted a fable made familiar by our late lamented President, Winifred Eastment (1976). This fable relates to Eagle Pond having once been the source of water for the ornamental lakes of Wanstead Park The lakes are said to have been created by the toil of labourers and, as a stroller can see nowadays, they descend in order from the 'Basin' which once provided an approach to the House, south and east through Shoulder of Mutton pond - so named from its shape. Heronry Pond - the one which has so often been lacking water and for which a borehole is now operational - Perch Pond, and OrnamentaI Water with the 'canal' which those in Wanstead House once saw at the end of the 'Long Walk'. On older maps Reservoir Wood is shown as a pond but on a map of' "Wanstead Park" (page 130) forming an estate lease book of 1833 (D/Dcy, P3,ERO [Essex Record Office]) this is labelled as, 'Great Pond now drained and planted'. Across Blake Hall Road, however, there was the Great Lake with Lake House on an island, but this need not concern us as it may well have had its own supply of water from a spring.

Mr G.T. Colvin (1991) was equally misguided when he wrote of, "a leaking filter bed at the Water Works -- fed the Rising Sun pond, went on to the Eagle Pond, across to the Whipps Cross children's boating pond, and in to the Whipps Cross lake - went on to Wanstead FIats -- then to the Wanstead Park boating lake and into the River Glen -- part of the River Roding." As a sequence this is impossible for any water to follow; as a source of water it is never likely to have been significant compared to the natural drainage of the area.

Adam Holt was, according to Elsden Tuffs (1962:44,148) "Earl Tylney's gardener" and gave his name to the 'River Holt' shown on "old maps". (Tuffs, op cit.). Others have said that he was the "Head Gardener" or an "engineer" (current display in the "Temple", Wanstead Park). In his will (Family Records Centre, Quire 296, folio 159) he describes himself as "gardener". Harvey (op.cit.) writes that, "Adam Holt -- paid rates from 1710 to 1729 on a large area of ground near Grove Green, and on a much smaller property as a non-resident until 1733. He acquired 99 year leases on land in Leytonstone from 1735 to 1824 and from 1734 to 1833 (D/DK Fl and D/DCy/P3, ERO) and this land seems to have been used for a nursery garden, although on the site plan of 1815/16 (D/Dcy/P3) there is marked "formerly Adam Holt's nursery". Perhaps in earlier days he supplied some of the planting of Wanstead Park? The site in Grove Green - near Union Road, Leyton, is thought by Harvey (1974:87) to be that taken over and run as a nursery by John Hay around 1759 and continued after his death in 1792 by James Hill (1793-1888). When Holt was born I do not know, but he died at the age of 82 on 26th August 1750, according to his gravestone in St Mary's Churchyard (Grave 1212, details available in Newham archive service) and from this his year of birth should be around 1678.

The "old maps" to which Tuffs (op. cit.) referred are still available, some are Ordnance Survey (OS) maps of the scale 25 inches: 1 mile and available in Ilford Central Library. British Library Map Room, Greater London Library, and elsewhere; others are Wellesley Estate Maps available only in the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford (D/DC4 P3). The last are on a larger scale (circa 30": 1 mile) and serve as records of leasehold, copyhold, etc. On these the "Holt Channel" or "Holt River" (Fig. 1) is shown crossing what is now the Woodford Road (page 115B, 152B), passing along East Row, on the north side of where the "British Queen Pub" is now, crossing the New Wanstead Road to run in front of the houses now numbered 36-46 before cutting the corner into Spratt Hall Road (p. 160, op. cit., ERO). The curve of Spratt Hall Road reflects the former course of Holt's Channel. Another plan (p - 247, op. cit., ERO) shows the Holt passing under Cambridge Park Road and bounding the eastern side of Little Blake Hall (plot 219), where it is marked as "Holt Channel". Another plan (p. 119) shows two channels running southward: one to surround Blake Hall bordering Blake Hall Road; the other heading south towards the Basin but within 60 yards of this it turns abruptly towards the channel surrounding Blake Hall yet, only a few yards away, turns south and disappears off our maps whilst heading south at about 100 yards west of the Basin. This route would suggest entry into the Great Pond i.e. what became Reservoir Wood, supporting an earlier reference to it once having been part of the series of lakes in Wanstead Park. On the other hand the Tithe map of Wanstead (1841: copy in Ilford Reference Library) shows a channel discharging into the Basin midway along its northern most edge and has no sign of the more westerly branch.

So why is it a fable to say that Eagle Pond acted as a reservoir? Easiest to begin at my house in Snaresbrook Road (Fig. 1, BH) where a contemporary O.S. map (c.50":1 mile, scale of 1:1250) shows the road surface to be at 27.5m "above the Newlyn datum": this converts to 90.2 ft o.d. and as the level of Eagle Pond is at present about three feet below road level, the water surface cannot be above 87 ft. Older O.S. maps (eg. Essex sheets LXV.15, published 1881 but based on survey of 1862-3) use Imperial Measurements (ie. altitude in feet) and on such a map the eastern end of Snaresbrook Road, outside the Eagle public house, is shown at 88 ft; downhill below Eagle Pond, at the junction with Wanstead High Street a low of 77 ft is reached and from here southward it climbs to 82 ft just before the old entrance Lodge to the Crown Court, then 96ft near the present entrance, and 106 ft at the end of Crown Court property, a little before the point where Holt's Channel once crossed the road (marked on Fig. 1). So, the "popular supposition" that water came from Eagle Pond would also have to suppose ability for Wanstead water to flow uphill! Where Holt's Channel crossed the New Wanstead Road, the road surface is given an altitude of 104 ft, the beginning of Spratt Hall Road is marked at almost 104 ft, the Cambridge Park Road end as almost 102 ft - a nice, gentle gradient ensuring a smooth flow towards the Park. Winifred Eastment's (1975:114) view that it would be, "-- more likely and logical -- flow in the reverse direction, from the Basin into Eagle Pond", would entail a peculiar kind of Wanstead "logic" which Stephen Pewsey (2000) has recently discounted in this journal. Let there be no more doubt as to the direction of flow: but from where does the water come, if not from Eagle Pond?

Recourse to the same, large scale 0.S. maps will show Holt's Channel continued into Leyton Flats and it is still there today as a ditch, cutting across the Flats and the downhill slope of the underlying "Boyn Hill Gravel" - an old Thames river terrace of the same age as that on which Heathrow Airport has built its runways, so as to intercept and drain away any surface water. Its course is marked by oak trees and where they end it may have once turned north, towards Snaresbrook Road, as is shown on the 0.S. 1896, 26" sheet where it is co-terminus with a stream which today skirts the eastern boundary of Forest School. This is shown too by Butler (1962, unnumbered Figure) as a branch of the "Phillebrook" (elsewhere spelt Phillibrook or Fillebrook) which went south, roughly following the course of James Lane to empty eventually into the River Lea. At the present time drainage from Gilbert's Slade, once the route to the windmill on Salway Hill, is directed into the Round Pond and then Hollow Ponds. The presence of Hollow Ponds and the profusion of old pits testifies to the former value of Thames flood plain gravels for road surfacing. As the gravels are underlain by impermeable London Clay the water they store seeps out at the junction with the clay (Sumbler 1996). Many other drainage ditches occupy the ground between the car park and Eagle Pond and represent past attempts to divert this flow into Eagle Pond, whence down to the Roding River, but not, alas, to Wanstead Park. Jack Elsden Tuffs was right when he wrote (1962:44), "[the Bason] was fed by the River Holt, an artificial watercourse (named after Adam Holt the Earl's gardener who constructed it) which started behind the present Royal Wanstead School and then ran southwards down the line of the future Spratthall Road". Two minor points remain to be made: One is that Holt's Channel and any natural surface flow has been irrevocably disrupted by the cutting of the railway line (c.1854); the second is that one of the Wanstead Park Leasehold maps (p. 160) shows a "Sluice Pond" across the New Wanstead Road from where Spratt Hall Road takes its leave, now the site of a three-storey block of flats (Bourne Court), and that would seem to have acted as a relief pond for the Holt Channel if flow were excessive. Any overflow could have continued downhill and northward into the Snaresbrook, now buried underground in a 3½ ft brick pipe and emptying into a sewer which follows the course of Elmcroft Avenue to open into the Roding River a little upstream from the motorway underpass. Rocque's map (1735) shows the sluice pond as a larger, formally shaped pond extending towards Eagle Pond but that this was intended fancy rather than established fact is shown by the depiction of a formal garden on the northside of Snaresbrook Road, opposite Eagle Pond, when we know from the terrier of leaseholds (ERO D/DCyP3) that houses were established and occupied by at least 1740.

Literature Cited

BUTLER, R.E. (1962) The buried rivers of London. London Naturalist 41:31 - 41

COLVIN, G.T. (1991) Lack of fresh water is destroying our ponds. Waltham Forest Guardian and Gazette Newspapers 15th March, p. 19.

EASTMENT, Winifred (1976) Wanstead through the ages. Dawn Press,
1 Spratt Hall Road, Wanstead E11 2RQ

HARVEY, J. (1974) Early nurserymen. Phillimore, Chichester

PEWSEY, S. (2000) The Wanstead Spa. Wanstead Historical Society Journal (45): 14-20

Sumbler, M.G. (1996) London and the Thames Valley. British Regional Geology, HMSO.

TUFFS, J. Elsden (1962) The story of Wanstead and Woodford from Roman times to the present. Published by the author.


(See also The Lake System of Wanstead Park by James Berry and Alan Cornish)