The Bourne through the Ages

When John Warkworth, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, first mentioned our Bourne in 1473, he at once gave it that character of ill-omen and the name of Woe-water. Such superstitions would have plenty of support in national events when Warkworth wrote towards the end of the Wars of the Roses. Battle, famine and pestilence were all signs of the times:

“In the same yere [1473 New Style] womere watere ranne hugely with suche abundaunce of water that nevyr manne sawe it renne so muche afore this tyme. Womere is callede the woo watere: for Englyschmen, when thei dyd fyrst inhabyd this lond, also sone as thei see this watere renne, thei knewe wele it was a tokene of derthe or of pestylence or of grete batayle; wherefore thei called it womere (for we as in Englysch tonge woo and mere is callede watere, which signyfieth woo watere;) and this womere is vii myle from Sent Albons at a place callede Markayat; … … and another at Croydone in Suthsex that when it betokeneth batayle it rennys foule and trouble watere; and whenne betokene the derthe or pestylence, it rennyth clere as any watere, but this yere it ranne ryght trouble and foule watere.”

John Warkworth’s Chronicle, 1473

Camden in his Britannia shows a more sceptical attitude to the Bourne’s prophetic qualities—

“For the torrent that the vulgar affirm to rise here sometimes and to presage dearth and pestilence; it seems hardly worth so much as the mentioning tho’ perhaps it may have some truth in it.”

Camden’s Britannia, 1586

Childrey, a West Country clergyman with archaeological interests, again associates the Bourne with pestilence–

“The rising of a bourn or stream near Croydon (as the common people hold) presageth death, as the plague; and it has been observed to fall out so. The rising of Bourne in places where they run not always, we have before proved to be caused by great wet years which are generally most sickly; and if they prove hot as well as wet (because heat and moisture are great disposers to putrefaction) they prove also malignant and for the most part pestilential. And the reason why the rising of this bourne does not always presage the plague is because all wet years do not prove hot.”

Childrey’s Britannia Baconica, 1661

Another distinguished author can be added to the list, Daniel Defoe—

“Parish of Warlingham as I have frequently heard, rises a spring upon the approach of some remarkable alteration in Church or State which runs in direct course between Little Hills to a place called Foxley Hatch and there disappears and there is no more visible till it rises again at the end of Croydon Town near Haling Pound where with great rapidity it rushes into the river near that Church. I must not here forget to observe that Rusticks are obliged to drive their cattle a great Way for water. It began to run a little before Christmas and ceased about the end of May at that glorious Aera of English Liberty the year 1660. In 1665 it preceded the Plague in London and the Revolution of 1688.”

Aubrey’s Surrey 1723

Contrast this with Braithwaite’s account. This down-to-earth approach is best understood against the background of the battle for a clean water supply after the cholera epidemics during the first half of the Victorian era—

“When the springs at Marden Park have flowed about 30 days in the direction of Croydon, they commenced flowing in the direction of West Wickham in Kent. There is evidence that the Bourne ran during two entire years, in 1841 and 1842, a period of great rain.”

F. Braithwaite, Institution of Civil Engineers, 1861

A rambling guide from 1881 explains—

“Ordinarily the Bourne is a tiny stream, flowing over a shallow pebbly bed (often dry in the summer) by the side of the road, from Smitham Bottom to Croydon, where its little rill serves to augment the water of the infant Wandle. But every 7th year it swells in an extraordinary manner, rushing along its narrow bed like a torrent, overflowing the whole of the roadway, and invading the dwellings of the inhabitants of the low-lying quarter of Croydon known as Old Town. This singular phenomenon has been observed for centuries, and yet its cause is still an unfathomed mystery which nature guards most jealously.
The origin of this stream seems to be as much a secret as the cause of its septennial overflowing. The topographers of Surrey have been content to inform us that the Bourne has its rise near Godstone and though old residents in the neighbourhood agree in informing curious strangers that it rises in Marden Park, situated between Godstone and Caterham, I have never met with a person who has seen the spring. According to a statement in one of the latest guide-books, the source of the stream is in Stoneham Lane, between Caterham and Coulsdon; but so tiny a rill, the bed of which is often dry in the summer and in some places overgrown with aquatic vegetation, so as easily to be mistaken for a dry ditch, may easily elude observation …. It is strange that no one has ever traced its course during its septennial flood, and thus set to rest at least the question of its origin. May it be the rambler’s good fortune to see the Bourne in flood-time!”

From: Croydon to the North Downs; a Handy guide to rambles in the district 1881


BATLEY, James (1962) Local History Records I
NEWBURY, K M (1974) Local History Records XIII


The East Surrey Bournes: A 19th Century Detective Story>>