The River Fleet

Peter van der Linden

You cannot turn a river off like a tap.  The tributaries to the Thames in central London are hidden from sight today, but those rivers still flow as strongly as they did in the days of King Henry VIII.  The clues to their course are there for those who look. Some of the clues to the path of a hidden river are:

Course of the River Fleet

The longest and most important of London's subterranean rivers is the river Fleet.  It rises from springs a mile apart on Hampstead Heath, which feed a line of ponds on either side of Parliament Hill. One spring fills Highgate Ponds on the north side of Parliament Hill, and the other fills Hampstead Ponds to the south.  These ponds were dug in the early 1700's as water reservoirs for London.

Immediately after flowing through the ponds, the Fleet today goes underground, and stays underground, for the rest of its 5 mile course.

Here's an old Victorian map of the lower 4 miles of the Fleet.

The two forks soon join up before crossing under Kentish Town Road, then the river heads south east to Kings Cross.  An anchor was dug up at Battle Bridge, suggesting the Fleet was once navigable at least that far.  Battle Bridge is said to be where Queen Boadicea was defeated by Roman legions led by Suetonius, after she sacked the Roman fort of Londinium.  Popular accounts say that the Queen of the Iceni is buried under platform five at Paddington station.  Certainly, she is probably buried somewhere.  There's a statue of Boadicea on the Westminster Embankment, over the Ladies toilet (quelle delicatesse).

From Kings Cross the Fleet flows down the valley of Farringdon Street, finally falling into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge. The Black Friars were Dominican monks who set up a priory in the area in 1221.  The name distinguished them from the adjacent priory of Carmelite monks -- the White Friars -- at Bridewell.

The very word "Fleet" in a nautical context is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "estuary, bay or inlet".   Where it joined the Thames (under the current Blackfriars Bridge), the Fleet once was a broad tidal basin several hundred feet wide.  It was flanked with great wharfs for unloading coal and other goods.  But the use of the river higher up, as an open sewer and a dumping ground, greatly detracted from its use for trade.

The lower reaches of the Fleet were, frankly, a vast slum area. Most of the prisons of medieval London were in or near the Fleet valley:  the 'Cold Bath Fields Prison and New-Bridewell' in Clerkenwell, Newgate Gaol (near today's Old Bailey and which featured public executions up until 1868), the Fleet and Ludgate prisons almost touching each other, and then the old Bridewell Prison in Blackfriars.  The location of all these prisons originally stems from the cheaper land outside the City walls.  Notorious thief Dick Turpin lived in the Fleet estuary area.  He was most famous for escaping from Newgate Gaol by a climbing feat of great agility.

Rebuilding after the Great Fire of London

The history of the Fleet has been described as a decline from a river to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, and from a ditch to a drain. As housing and medieval industry (like leather tanneries, cloth dyers, catgut spinning, and tripe-dressing) spread to the north, the sweet waters of the Fleet became choked and polluted.   The meat and poultry market at Smithfield dumped foul offal and carcase remnants into the watercourse for many years.  Jonathan Swift (author of "Gullivers Travels") noted how quickly a rainstorm could turn the Fleet into a torrent, and what filth it would carry down in its wake:
      "Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
      Drown'd Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench'd in Mud,
      Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood".

The Great Fire of London provided the opportunity to reassess the area around the Fleet.  The fire broke out in September 1666 near Tower Hill and quickly spread across the City under the prevailing wind.  By the time it burned out three days later, the fire had consumed up to the east bank of the Fleet, crossed it, and was stopped just on the far side by the Temple gardens.  Over 400 acres, about two thirds of London at the time, lay devasted.

The rebuilding after the fire allowed new designs and new ideas.   Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, was built in the wake of the Great Fire.  Wren went on to convert the lower reach of the Fleet into a "New Canal" as elaborate as the Grand Canal in Venice. The mouth of the Fleet was broadened to a standard width of forty feet.  It was cut deeper, given stone embankments, and traversed by four new decorative bridges, at Bridewell,  Fleet Street, Fleet Lane, and Holborn. The New Canal was completed at a cost of 74,000 pounds.  Here is a picture of it, showing the Bridewell Bridge at the point where the canal/Fleet joined the Thames.  The bridge has that high arch to allow large goods barges to pass through.

This picture isn't a design drawing.  It's a painting from life. There were no photographs in those days, so the only visual records we have come from art like this painting "Mouth of the River Fleet" by Samuel Scott.  The New Canal was actually built and completed.

So where is the New Canal today?  It only lasted about 50 years, and in the end was a failure.  Ironically, Wren's biggest failure is within hailing distance of Wren's greatest and lasting triumph, St Paul's Cathedral. The bold and beautiful New Canal didn't work because (like Canary Wharf in the 1990's) the commercial demand was not there.  The problem with the New Canal basin was its location at the estuary of the Fleet. The development ignored the continual torrent of pollution flowing in from higher up the river.  The Fleet, like all the Thames, was an open sewer, and the problem continually got worse as the population grew.

The New Canal was filled in and paved over, starting in 1732.  It lay buried for 250 years until Wren's Fleet Street bridge was re-discovered in 1999.  Museum curator Simon Thurley studied old maps of the area, and worked in conjunction with the Thames Water authority.  Thurley succeeded in finding stones from the western end of Wren's bridge, embedded in brickwork from the 1700's in the Fleet sewer, underneath Ludgate Circus.

The biggest of London's lost rivers, the Fleet was the last to disappear underground.   Combined with sewage from settlements further upstream, the fate of the Fleet was sealed by the early 1700's. The Fleet was actually buried in five distinct phases.
Stages in Burying the River Fleet
The last open part of the Fleet (5) was buried when Hampstead started to be developed as a London suburb in the 1870's.
The excavation in 1812 of the Regent's Canal and the development of Camden town submerged the segment of river (3) between King's Cross and Camden
The 1863 construction of the Metropolitan line railway (4) buried the Fleet along Farringdon Road.
In 1732 Parliament ordered the Fleet to be channelled underground (1) from Holborn bridge to Fleet street.
In 1765, the lowest reach (2) from Fleet Street to the Thames, including the New Canal, was filled in and arched over.

The construction of the Metropolitan line in 1860-1864 was particularly interesting, as the first underground railway in London.  The line ran from Farringdon Road north to Kings Cross, and then west to Paddington.  The Metropolitan was built using the cut and cover method: instead of drilling a tunnel, the builders dug a huge trench and lined the sides with great brick archway walls.  A roof was laid across the walls, and then the road was put down again on top. The side walls were arched to minimize the amount of expensive brickwork. The spoil from the trench excavations was then used to create the terraces at Chelsea Football Club, Stamford Bridge.

The arches lining the tunnel trench require a solid foundation.  But in 1862 during the construction in Farringdon Road, the Fleet sewer burst and washed out support from under the archwork, causing a large section to collapse.  The Fleet flooded it to a depth of ten feet, all the way to Kings Cross.  Although photographs were in use since the 1830's, there was no convenient way to print them in newspapers until the photogravure process was invented in 1879.  Hence spectacular events were recorded in drawings, like this one from the Illustrated London News, rather than photographs. 

This drawing was made from the top of one wall of arches, looking across the trench to the other collapsed wall. The sewer was repaired, the Fleet laid to rest, and it has largely been confined there ever since, apart from a flood in 1915.  Some people say the houses along the course of the Fleet sewer are always damp and chilly.  Others tell stories of venturing into the deepest and lowest basement of a modern office block, and lifting a heavy manhole cover to reveal the Fleet rushing by, down below in a culvert.

There is a lot of hidden subterranean activity in London.  There are over twenty tunnels under the Thames in the Greater London area, carrying combinations of trains, cars, and utilities.  The tunnel carrying the Waterloo & City tube (popularly called "the Drain") runs under the Thames right where the Fleet flows in, as the line crosses diagonally from Waterloo to the Bank station.

Copyright (c) Peter van der Linden, 1999.  No reproduction without permission, but linking to this site is ok: