Above: Part of a painting by Samuel Scott, about 1750, looking across the Thames at the mouth of the River Fleet. The spire of St Bride’s church is on the left.
The City of London evolved into the piece of land we know today during the Saxon and Norman periods. There is no evidence that the land was occupied before the coming of the Romans who were the first people to found a township on the site. There were probably three main reasons for establishing Londinium on the chosen site. (1) Because of the need to be situated beside a large river – to allow large ships from Italy to bring goods to Londinium – it was essential to find a suitable site. (2) It is believed that the Romans also wanted a site where the Thames could be bridged – so as to link both shores. (3) Much of the land beside the Thames was very marshy. Locations we now know as Plumstead, Woolwich, Greenwich, Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey (on the south side) were unsuitable. Similarly, East Ham, West Ham, Isle of Dogs and Stepney could not be considered either. (4) The site of the City of London is on two very small adjacent hills – Ludgate Hill and Cornhill. The land does not rise very much but compared with the place names just mentioned it is much better drained.
Beside the two hills – Cornhill and Ludgate Hill – flowed the small River Walbrook. In Roman times and up to the days of the Normans it flowed above ground. After that it was gradually culveted and today it flows entirely below ground. To the west of Ludgate Hill is a dip in the land which then rises very gently – now covered by streets we know as Fleet Street and Holborn. In that dip was a much longer stream, rising at Hampstead and flowing along the dip just mentioned before it joined the Thames. It was the River Fleet whose name derives from the old English word ‘fleot’ meaning inlet or creek. Strangely, Fleet Street runs at 90 degrees to the course of the river and does not follow the line of the stream.
As with the River Walbrook, the River Fleet is now underground flowing mainly through the large sewer pipes. The course is known and be described briefly. Because it passed the sites of several well-known wells in medieval times it was often called the ‘River of Wells’. The water power was also used to drive several mills and was therefore also referred to as ’Turnmill Brook’. Near today’s Farringdon Station is still a street by that name.
The river Fleet rises between Hampstead and Highgate and its two branches form the Hampstead Ponds and Highgate Ponds. These two branches joined near Camden Town and once flowed south past old St Pancras church and Kings Cross. The rest of the river valley is marked by the line of Farringdon Road, Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street. The estuary of the Fleet was tidal and used to be navigable from the Thames, into which it flowed (where New Bridge Street is today) up to the point where Holborn Bridge (now Holborn Viaduct) is situated. In Tudor times a second bridge, called Fleet Bridge, crossed the stream where Ludgate Circus is now.
Until Norman times, and probably even later, the river Fleet would have flowed for much of its length through the Forest of Middlesex. In 1306 there were complaints that the river was so silted up due to tanners, at Fleet Bridge and Holborn Bridge, that ships could no longer sail up to Holborn Bridge. It was cleared out, but the river was not as wide or as deep as it had previously been.
Another record mentions that in 1502 the river Fleet was cleaned out, widened and made navigable. Cargoes of fish and fuel could then be rowed up to Holborn Bridge. In 1588 the river was cleared of silt. By 1603 the Fleet was choked more than before and trade fell away completely.
By 1765 the river had become so obstructed with silt and refuse that it was vaulted over. Roads were laid out on the newly-gained land which we know as Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street. It was one of the earliest examples of town planning in London. Once the line of the new streets had been established, a new river crossing in the form of Blackfriars Bridge was built, opening in 1769. When everything had been completed it was probably regarded as a ‘by-pass’ to the traffic-choked streets of the rest of the City of London. They should see it now!
Working north of Farringdon Street the name changes to Farringdon Road and then King’s Cross Road which leads up to the busy road intersection at King’s Cross itself. Further north, the old church of St Pancras, standing in its large churchyard, is still to be seen and it was here that the Fleet once flowed around that ground. To the north of the church is Camden Town and then Kentish Town which are on land where the Fleet once flowed. Finally, further north, is Fleet Road which is on the line of the old stream. The source – around Hampstead Ponds and Highgate Ponds – is the northernmost point. In fact the River Fleet is the largest of London’s subterranean rivers.
Above: View looking west from the beach. The River Fleet still flows into the Thames but now it is through a sluice in the embankment wall under Blackfriars Bridge.
So, where is the evidence? Well, along its original course, that is not so easy. In spite of being a long stream there is almost no evidence. At Hampstead and Highgate, of course, there are the ponds. In the main it is a matter of looking up the old maps, noting the buildings beside the stream and trying to pin-point the locations today. The water in the river still flows and has to go somewhere. On the riverbank of the Thames – when the tide is low – it is possible to see the water flowing out at Blackfriars Bridge. Its a sad end to a once important river in London!