Wellesbourne: Brighton's 'lost river'

Group of men, women and children with bicycles in Pool Valley. 18th Century Bun Shop and clock factory in the background.
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council

Please note that this text is an extract from a reference work written in 1990.  As a result, some of the content may not reflect recent research, changes and events.

Brighton’s ‘lost river’ was an intermittent stream known as the ‘Wellesbourne’ that ran from Patcham and beyond to the sea at Pool Valley , but only at those times after prolonged rainfall when the water-table within the porous chalk bedrock reached the surface along the London Road valley and water from springs was thus able to flow without repercolating, a  phenomenon similar to the Winterbourne at Lewes today.
One of its principal sources was the pond in front of All Saint’s Church, Patcham , now marked by a slight depression. In most winters the pond overflowed and water ran to the bottom of Church Hill (then named Spring Street) where it would be joined by water from other springs in the valley as far as Pyecombe; these included one at Brapool, which means ‘pool by which bracken grew’. The stream then flowed into another pond at the corner of Old London Road and Ladies Mile Road , and along the road to Brighton where it was joined at the Level by another winter-bourne from Falmer that ran down the Lewes Road valley. The stream finally debouched into the sea at the ‘pool’ of Pool Valley , or perhaps slightly to the east, diverted by an artificial bank to protect the inlet {10}. The Domesday Book records the presence of a mill at Preston in 1086, possibly a water-mill powered by the stream.
The bourne often flooded the Valley Gardens in the winter and skating was occasionally possible on the frozen Steine . The swampy nature of the central valley probably prevented development upon it, but once the Steine had become a fashionable promenade with the arrival of visitors from the mid eighteenth century, such conditions were unacceptable. In 1792-3 the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Marlborough, at their own expense, laid a wooden sewer under the western edge of the Steine to carry the bourne to the sea which also drained a stagnant pool that collected in front of the Prince’s Marine Pavilion ; the Wellesbourne was culverted and Pool Valley was also bricked over. Following inundations in the winter of 1827-8, another drain was laid all the way from Preston Circus to the Albion Hotel.
Particularly strong flows of the Wellesbourne occurred in 1795, 1806, 1811, 1827-8, 1852, and finally in 1876 when both Lewes and  London Road were impassable, but since the construction of the Patcham Waterworks in 1889, and the consequent siphoning of water from its sources, the bourne has never flowed again. The Wellesbourne, corrupted to ‘Whalesbone’, may have given its name to the hundred through which it flowed, but although often referred to as an ‘underground river’, it is only so in the sense that spring water from Patcham may be carried under the  London Road by sewer; there is no stream flowing within the chalk or Coombe deposits of the valley. After very heavy rain the water-table rises and reaches the surface in basements along the valley and occasionally at Preston Park and the Valley Gardens , giving the impression of an invisible stream. The Parks and Recreation Department uses water from the chalk along the valley for watering its gardens.

Any numerical cross-references in the text above refer to resources in the Sources and Bibliography section of the Encyclopaedia of Brighton by Tim Carder.

The following resource(s) is quoted as a general source for the information above: 1,2,3,15,127a,245-246,289

Comments about this page

  • The comment: ‘…. the Patcham Waterworks in 1889, and the consequent siphoning of water from its sources, the bourne has never flowed again’ is incorrect. I was one of the last intake of Patcham Junior school pupils to attend the old Patcham schoolhouse in Old London Road in 1961-62 in Miss Collins’ 2nd-year class. During the 1961-62 winter the Wellesbourne surfaced in front of the Black Lion at the bottom of Church Hill and flowed for several days along the Old London Road as far as the London Road.

    By Keith Wilson (19/11/2020)
  • The Brighton & Hove Gazette, Saturday 17th January 1925, carried the following item on page 2…a stream of water 6ft wide in places flowed down the western side of the main( London) road this week. Villas between Withdean and Patcham which have cellars are affected by the surplus water. On Tuesday, water from the burst springs was flowing down the main London Rd south of Patcham in greater volume than on the previous day and there was a continuous stream from a hundred yards south of Patcham School to within a like distance of the Preston boundary-a mile of water.”
    It was this winter flood which also caused The Level to flood and subsequently freeze when it was used as a skating rink. I do not have the exact reference for that event.

    By Dr Geoffrey Mead (21/11/2020)
  • Back in the 1970s I was an electrician working for British Rail,in the Brighton works there was a shaft that went down some 200 ft to a cavern that was full of water, we had to maintain two submerged pumps that provided water for the steam engines in the loco sheds, that cavern was so large that we could not see the perimeter.

    By michael eke (20/05/2021)
  • Further to Michael’s comment re the “well” in the old Railway Works, I have a British Railways plan (orig. 1934) showing a “well pumping plant”, next to the old machine shop, with a 7” diam. pipe rising from the cavern below.

    I am not surprised to read that two pumps were used to move the water 200’ up to the pumping house.

    By Brian Matthews (29/05/2021)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.