River Fleet – some early ramblings

I do love a river. This river is no more, well it is underground somewhere, and I am sure others can tell you much more about its modern day rumblings. I am also very fond of a good map, particularly this one in 1746 at locatinglondon.org early map of 1746 ; and lastly of google books (try the advanced search with full view) for River Fleet; and we get these little goodies:

Printed in 1871 : The Fleet Ditch, or rather river—rendered classical by the verse of Ben Jonson, Swift, Pope, and Gay—was anciently a broad and limpid stream, which had its rise in the high grounds of Hampstead, and was further fed by the waters of certain wells, called Clerken-well, Skinners-well, Fags-well, Tode-well, Loders-well, and Rad-well; “all which said wells,” says Stow, “having the fall of their overflowing in the aforesaid river, much increased the stream.” It was from this circumstance that it anciently obtained the name of the ” River of Wells.” It was crossed by no fewer than four stone bridges in its course, by way of Kentish Town and Camden Town, to the Thames; one of these bridges standing at the foot of Holborn Hill, then called Holborn Bridge, at which point the River Fleet united itself with the waters of the Old Bourne, or stream, from which Holborn derives its name. Anciently, the tide flowed up the Fleet river as far as Holborn Bridge, the present Bridge Street being the channel of the stream. According to Stow, such, in the reign of Edward the Second, was the depth and breadth of this now filthy ditch, “that ten or twelve ships navies at once, with merchandizes, were wont to come to the aforesaid bridge of Fleet.” The other bridges of the Fleet were Fleet Bridge, Bridewell Bridge, and Fleet Lane Bridge.

In 1606 we find no less a sum than twenty-eight thousand pounds expended for the purpose of scouring the Fleet river and keeping it in a navigable state. Pennant, speaking of the performance of this work, observes—” At the depth of fifteen feet were found several Roman utensils; and, a little deeper, a great quantity of Roman coins, in silver, copper, brass, and other metals, but none in gold. At Holborn Bridge were found two brazen Lares, about four inches long; one a Bacchus, the other a Ceres. It is a probable conjecture that these were thrown in by the affrighted Romans, at the approach of the enraged Boadicea, who soon took ample revenge on her insulting conquerors. Here were also found numbers of Saxon antiquities,—spurs, weapons, keys, seals, &c.; also medals, crosses, and crucifixes, which might likewise have been flung in on occasion of some alarm.” The Fleet river was again thoroughly cleansed in 1652 at a considerable expense. About sixteen years afterwards, in hopes of its proving a lucrative speculation, another large sum was expended in re-opening the navigation as far as Holborn. For this purpose the river was deepened, wharfs and quays were erected, and the banks were cased with stone and brick. The speculation, however, proved anything but a profitable one; and, accordingly, between the years 1734 and 1737, it was partially arched over, and in consequence of further improvements which took place in 1765, was almost entirely concealed from view.

One of the last glimpses to be caught of this nauseous stream we availed ourselves of many years ago, on the occasion of the destruction of some old houses in West Street, at the south end of Saffron Hill, which had been the hiding-place and stronghold of thieves, and an asylum for the most depraved of both sexes, from the reign of Queen Anne to our own time. Here, according to tradition, the notorious Jonathan Wild carried on his crafty and nefarious traffic of plunder and human blood. We remember well how the black and disgusting looking stream flowed through a deep and narrow channel, encased on each side with brick, and overhung by miserable-looking dwelling-houses, the abode of poverty and crime. The stronghold of the thieves consisted of two separate habitations—one on each side of the ditch—ingeniously contrived with private means of communication and escape from one to the other. For instance, in the event of either being invaded by the myrmidons of the law, a plank might be readily thrown from one aperture to the other, and as readily withdrawn in the event of pursuit; or, in the last extremity, the culprit could plunge into the ditch, and pursue his course down the murky stream, till either some familiar outlet, or the habitation of some friendly companion in crime, afforded him the means of escape. The principal building, known in the reign of George the First as the Red Lion Tavern, was unquestionably of great antiquity. Its dark closets, its trap-doors, its sliding panels, and its secret recesses and hiding-places, rendered it no less secure for purposes of robbery and murder, than as a refuge for those who were under the ban of the law. In this house, about thirty years ago, a sailor was robbed, and afterwards thrown naked, through one of the apertures which we have described, into the Fleet ditch,—a crime for which two men and a woman were subsequently convicted and transported for fourteen years. About the same time, although the premises were surrounded by the police, a thief made his escape by means of its communications with the neighbouring houses, the inhabitants of which were almost universally either subsistent upon or friendlj’ to pillage and crime. At the demolition of these premises, there were found in the cellars, among other mysterious evidences of the dark deeds which had been perpetrated within their walls, numerous human bones, which, there can be little doubt, were those of persons who had met with an untimely end.

In ancient times, the great city wall, commencing at the Tower, after taking a circuit round London, terminated nearly at the foot of the present Blackfriars Bridge; running parallel with, and to the east of, the Fleet river. Here stood a strong fortress, the western Arx Palatina of the city, the remains of which were afterwards used in constructing the neighbouring palace of Bridewell; which stood on the west side of the Fleet river, and the walls of which were washed by its waters, appears to have been a formidable fortress in the reign of William the Conqueror, and was the residence of our sovereigns at THE PALACE OF BRIDEWELL.

And in 1845, in the Doings of London, we have :

Peregrine found himself, with his friend Mentor, once more in Fleet Market. “But stop awhile,” said Mentor to Peregrine, as in all probability, by the next time you come to London, this market-place will be annihilated; for, as it appears it is soon to be removed from its present site, in order to make way for a variety of projected improvements on the spot, it may be as well to give you a little of its history. It arose about the year 1736, in consequence of the wish of the city to erect a mansion-house or residence for the Lord Mayor; and who, conceiving Stock’s Market, near the entrance to Lombard Street, the most centrical situation for that purpose, obtained permission to arch over a part of the Fleet ditch, and transfer it thither. “In a preparatory petition of the city, presented Feb.26, 1733, to the House of Commons, by the sheriffs, several particulars are stated relative to the then nature of the site, which, connected with others known of it in remote times, are highly interesting. It sets forth, that, by act of Parliament, 22d Car. II., entitled an Additional Act for Rebuilding the City of London, &c. the channel of Bridewell Dock, from the Thames to Holborn Bridge, was directed to be sunk to a sufficient level to make it navigable, under certain limitations therein prescribed, which was done; but that the profits arising from such navigation had not answered the charge of making; that part of the said channel, from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge, instead of being useful to trade, as was intended, was filled up with mud, and become a common nuisance, and that several persons had lost their lives by falling into it; that the expense of cleansing and repairing the same would be very great, and a larger annual charge would be required to keep it in repair, without answering the intent of the act; it therefore prayed that a bill might be brought in to repeal so much of that act as related to the said channel, and to empower the petitioners to fill up that part of it from Fleet-Bridge to Holborn-Bridge, and to convert the ground to such uses as they should think fit and convenient.

“‘The creek or channel alluded to had its entrance from the Thames, immediately below Bridewell, and reached as far as Holborn Bridge, at the foot of Holborn Hill, where it received into it the little river Fleet, Turnmill Brook, and another stream called Oldbourne, which gave name to that vast street. The tide flowed as far as Holborn Bridge, and brought up barges of considerable burden. The Fleet river flowed in a valley, which may still be traced from this spot to Battle Bridge, near the Small-Pox Hospital, and though it might once have been celebrated for its transparent waters (and “possibly some of our very, very early ladies,” as a certain writer observes, “might have honoured it by smoothing and adorning their shining tresses from its surface),” it had several centuries back become occasionally so filthy as to be almost intolerable. So long since as 1290, we learn from the Parliament Rolls, that the White Friars, whose convent lay on its west side, complained of the putrid exhalations arising from Fleet River, which were so powerful as to overcome all the frankincense burnt at their altar during divine service, and even occasioned the death of many of the brethren. They begged that the stench might be immediately removed, lest they should all perish. The Black Friars on the opposite side, and the Bishop of Salisbury, who then lived in Salisbury Court, united in the same complaint.

“‘But little redress, however, appears at this time to have been obtained, for the great Henry Earl of Lincoln, who had his mansion somewhere near Shoe Lane, strongly reprobated the existence of this nuisance, in a Parliament held at Carlisle in 1307, in which he was joined by the city of London, who represented, by petition, that the course of the water which ran at London under the bridge of Holborn, and the bridge of the Fleet into the Thames, was wont to be so large and broad, and deep, that ten or twelve ships used to come up to the said Fleet Bridge with merchandize, &c., some of which ships went under the said Bridge unto Holborn Bridge; but that the course was then obstructed by the filth of tanners, and other stoppages made in the said water; but chiefly by the raising of a quay, and by diverting of the water, which they of the New Temple had made for their mills without Baynard’s Castle, and praying for an inquest as to the same. And this was further explained by the commission itself for such inquiry; which states it to have been asserted, that the course of the water of Fleet, running down to the Thames, as well by dung and filth, as by the exhalation of a certain quay by the master, &c. of the New Temple, for their mills upon the Thames, near Castle Baynard, newly made, was so stopped up, that boats with corn, wine, faggots, and other necessaries, could not pass up as thentofore.

These representations occasioned the removal of the nuisances complained of, and we hear little of the Fleet River until the year 1606, when nearly £28,000 was expended in cleansing it. On this occasion, numerous Roman vessels, coins, and other antiques, were discovered, besides remains of the Saxons, in spurs, weapons, keys, seals, &c.; also, medals, crosses, and crucifixes, most of them supposed to have been flung in at different times of alarm. “‘It changed, after this period, its nobler name of Fleet River for Bridewell Ditch, and Fleet Ditch, which designations were applied respectively to those parts of the stream which ran next Bridewell and the Fleet Prison, near each of which was a wooden bridge for foot passengers. And in this condition it continued until the small tenements, sheds, and laystalls, on the banks of it, were burnt down in the fire of London. A commission and inuiry to make it navigable to Holborn or Clerkenwell were moved for two years after this calamity by the celebrated William Prynne, in consequence of which, in the act for rebuilding London, just mentioned, it was enacted, “that the channel of the River Fleet to Holborn Bridge should be sunk to a sufficient level to make it navigable;” and it was accordingly finished and re-opened in 1673. “‘By the directions of this act, a passage was to be left on each side the channel of not less than 100, no more than 120 feet wide. The stream itself was 2,100 feet long, and 40 feet in breadth; so that two lighters might meet, and pass each other without difficulty in any part of it; and the style of finishing it, with its roads, wharfs, bridges, &c. must have rendered, at first, the appearance of the whole extremely handsome. It was wharfed on both sides with stone and brick, laid with terras; had a strong campshot all along on both sides, above the brick wharfing, with land-ties in several places; and was guarded with rails of oak breast-high, above the campshot, to prevent danger in the night. The depth of water, at the head at Holborn Bridge, was five feet, at a five-o’clock tide, which is the slackest of all tides; but, at spring and other neap tides, there was much more water. It had wharfs on both sides its whole length, constructed in a uniform manner, with appropriate buildings, and four stone bridges; viz. Fleet Bridge, Holborn Bridge, a bridge facing Bridewell, and another, anciently called “Smalee Brigge,” opposite the end of Fleet Lane. The Fleet and Holborn Bridges were of stone, before the fire, but were afterwards enlarged and beautified with iron gratings, and carved work in stone; those opposite Bridewell and Fleet Lane are described as “two fair bridges standing upon two stone arches, over the river; having two steps to ascend and descend on either side, and half a pace over the arches, all of Purbeck and Portland stone.” “‘That it became subsequently much neglected, we learn from the city petition in 1733; and though great sums of money are said to have been, from time to time, expended on this Stygian Lake, the task of keeping it clean appears to have been as fruitless as that of Sysiphus, for we find Pope, near the period mentioned, inviting his heroes in the Dunciad to its filthy stream:

“Here strip, my children—here at once leap in;
And prove who best can dash through thick and thin.”

“By the act for converting the site into a market (6 Geo. II. c. 22.), i. fee simple of the ground and ditch is vested in the Lord Mayor, commonalty, and citizens of London, for ever; with a proviso that sufficient drains shall be made in or through the said channel or ditch, and that no houses or shed shall be erected therein exceeding fifteen feet in height. The ditch was arched over with a double arch, with a common sewer, from Holborn to Fleet Bridge, and the market finished, and proclaimed a free market, on the 37th of September, 1737, of which the following notice is given in the Gentleman’s Magazine for that month: “Friday, 30. The stalls, &c. in Stocks Market being pulled down, the Lord Mayor, &c. proclaimed Fleet Market a free market.” “‘From a contemporary publication, describing it as then erected, it seems to have since undergone but very little alteration. “In the middle a long building is covered in, containing two rows of shops, with a proper passage between, into which light is conveyed by windows along the roof. Over the centre is placed a neat turret, with a clock in it. From the south end of this markethouse, piazzas extend on each side of the middle walk to Fleet Bridge, for the convenience of fruiterers. At the north end are two rows of butchers’ shops; and from thence to Holborn Bridge, a spacious opening is left for gardeners and herb-stalls. The whole market is well paved.” “‘The north end has been of late years improved by a good pavement, and the erection of many convenient stalls, and the south by two handsome shops; but the centre part, with its pretty little spire, remains in its original state. This market is busy at all times, but particularly so in the fruit and vegetable seasons. Considerable quantities of earthenware are also sold within it, besides every kind of flesh and fish. The never-ceasing hammers of the undertakers, for which this spot was formerly noted, appeared at one time to have almost driven away the more quiet inhabitants, but there are now a variety of good shops carrying on other trades, at its sides. “‘The market ceases at Fleet Street; from whence Fleet ditch continued open till 1764, when the building of the new bridge at Blackfriars suggested the expediency of converting the remainder into an open street, and the archwork was continued (but with a single arch only) from Fleet-Bridge downward to the river, and Bridge Street and Chatham Place were built.

This improvement, exclusively of other reasons, seems to have been in a great measure a matter of necessity, from the accidents passengers were liable to: for on Thursday, Jan, 11, 1763, we find from the papers, that “a man was found in Fleet Ditch, standing upright, and frozen. He appears to have been a barber, from Bromley in Kent; had come to town to see his children, and had unfortunately mistaken his way in the night, had slipped into the ditch, and, being in liquor, could not disentangle himself.”

“‘The negotiation for the loan of £150,000 for the removal of Fleet Market from its present site, was closed on Wednesday, July 14, 1824. Alderman Sir Charles Flower took it. Bonds of £100 were issued, and the whole sum was taken by the baronet at 3% per cent. interest. “‘The new market is to occupy nearly the whole of Shoe Lane, on one side; it is then intended to build a new prison in St. George’s Fields, between the King’s Bench and Bethlehem Hospital, and take down the present Fleet Prison; to remove most of the houses; to open, on the north side of the foot of Holborn Bridge, a grand street to Islington, to be on a line with the Obelisk in Bridge Street, Blackfriars. This, when completed, will certainly be one of the greatest and most useful improvements in the city since the rebuilding of the houses after the great fire.

In 2018 :  And now you know!

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