River Walbrook

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Above: Street name plate in the City of London.

A short street on the west side of Mansion House in the City of London bears the single-word name of Walbrook. It is not  ‘The Walbrook’ or ‘Walbrook Street’ but just ‘Walbrook’. I suspect that, for those who walk along it every day, going to and from their work, it is just a street name like any other and that familiarity with the name causes it to lose any historic meaning.

For those interested in the history of London it is a fascinating name because it is probably the only reminder on a street map of a stream that once ran through the centre of the Roman township then known as Londinium. In Roman and Saxon times it was an open stream whose source was near where two Roman roads once intersected. We know that point better as Shoreditch where the parish church of St Leonard still stands. The stream ran south across open fields before flowing through the ancient city, providing the residents with fresh water for drinking.

The Romans eventually built a massive wall around Londinium. A small culvert had to be provided for the Walbrook to flow through the foundations of that wall. However, what can look like a small stream will have a much larger flood plain from which it gains its water. By the 1400s and 1500s the Roman Wall was acting as a dam for the stream, preventing water in the ground from draining away, and the land became marshy. The medieval residents called the land north of the Roman Wall ‘Moor Fields’ and all attempts in the 1500s – and even through to Victorian times – never succeeded in properly draining the land. It was made into a park and Moorfields remains as a park today – in the centre of what we now call Finsbury Circus.

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Above: Outline map of the City of London showing the River Walbrook during Saxon times – about AD 600. The line of the Roman Wall is also shown.

The River Walbrook still flows in the ground under the church of St Margaret, Lothbury. In the 1980s a diver spent over two years replacing part of the foundations under the church, working in water that was still flowing through the foundations. Special waterproof cement had to be used during the work because there was no way that the stream could be stopped or diverted.

During the 1980s a retired plumber was attending one of my classes and he said that he worked on some of the large buildings being erected in the City after the Second World War. He said that the Walbrook was flowing under one of the offices he worked on and a 26 inch diameter pipe was put into the foundations to allow the stream to continue to flow freely below ground.

From the archaeology point of view, one of the most important finds in the City was discovered in the 1950s when workmen erecting Bucklersbury House discovered the footings of the Mithras Temple along with several pieces of statuary which are now on show in the Museum of London. The temple was found on the west side of the street called Walbrook. Due to the course of the River Walbrook being to the west of today’s street, the temple site had been on the east side of the stream. In the 1950s the developers were not interested in history and agreed to find a spot for the temple to exhibit it permanently. That spot was on land that was to the west of the Walbrook and it was not at a similar level.

Today legal requirements for dealing with archaeological sites have been tightened up. As it happens, just over 60 years after the temple was found, new offices are being built on the same site – as the new London headquarters for the media and television giant Bloomberg. They have agreed to re-site the temple masonry on its exact original spot. That is very commendable but, of course, moving all that stonework has destroyed its intrinsic value.

The mouth of the Walbrook – where it meets the Thames – was, until the 1980s, a dock with lock gates opening into the Thames. It was known as Walbrook Dock. The site was filled in but at least it established that the River Walbrook flowed to the west of the street by the same name.

Further north, the River Walbrook flowed across land that is now part of Liverpool Street Station. During 2014 that land was excavated in order to build a sub-surface ticket hall for the new Crossrail lines (which will open in 2018). An interesting find was several animal bones that had been planed flat and tied with cords onto shoes in order that the owner could use then a skates. They were estimated to be Saxon or Norman in date and they show that the River Walbrook had frozen over during the winter, providing recreational sport in the form of ice-skating.

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For subscription members there is a poster pdf showing the line of the River Walbrook superimposed onto the Agas Map of c1561.

-ENDS-

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