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Going underground: Mile after mile of ornate brickwork and labyrinthine tunnels which reveal the beauty of London’s hidden River Fleet
By Stephen Hull
Last updated at 10:25 PM on 16th September 2011
It is steeped in history with its banks rumoured to be where Queen Boudicca’s army fought battles against the Romans. Some believed it had healing powers and even today there are stories of wild pigs living on its hidden shores.
But mention the River Fleet to most Londoners and you’d probably get a blank expression.
Now this key feature of London’s hidden past has been brought to life in a series of stunning photographs which show how the historic waters still flow through the modern city.
Snaking under the streets of Camden, Holborn and King’s Cross, the River Fleet once openly flowed for four miles from Hampstead Ponds to the more famous Thames.
Long since covered and forgotten after generations of development the river was vital for Londoners as a place to do business.
In the time of the Romans the Fleet was a major river which mills, butchers, tanners, brewers and ordinary people would rely on for water supply.
Wells were built to extract waters which people believed had healing qualities, which gave rise to the name Clerkenwell.
It even gave its name to the street that would become the home of the British newspaper industry – Fleet Street.
But as the years passed and London developed into an industrial empire the clean waters soon disappeared, being replaced with a rancid, stinking flow.
Polluted with dead dogs as well as remains from daily life, butchery and sewage, the once glorious Fleet turned into a sorry state.
In 1598 John Stow, author of The Survey of London, wrote that the Fleet was ‘impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it.
And in 1728 Alexander Pope famously wrote: ‘To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams / Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames/The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud/with deeper sable blots the silver flood.’
The stench and state of the river made it increasingly unpopular.
After the the Great Fire of London in 1666 Sir Christopher Wren put forward plans to widen it so that it could act as future fire break and stop flames spreading.
But his dream was ignored and the river was converted into a canal. This, however proved even more unpopular and it remained largely unused.
Then it was gradually covered over and eventually became incorporated in the Victorian sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette.
First the lower section was cut off to be used solely for a sewage pipe and eventually this applied to the upper sections too.
Locals say you can hear the waters of the Fleet running through grating in Clerkenwell. On some days the waters can still be seen discharging into the Thames underneath Blackfriars Bridge.
Images courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/jondoe_264/4844232655
A fleeting history of the Fleet
- Once a major river used by the Romans, the Fleet’s powerful current was strong enough to drive a tidal mill (a watermill powered by tides) on one of the islands on the east side of the Fleet estuary.
- By AD 900, the point where the Fleet met the Thames was 100 yards wide. The name ‘Fleet’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fleot (‘tidal inlet’).
- One of the tributaries of the Fleet was called the Holburna (‘hollow stream’) by the Anglo-Saxons, from which we get the name Holborn.
- After the Norman Conquest of 1066, London expanded – and industry sprouted up around the Fleet, which became popular with boats and barges. It also became increasingly polluted.
- Road names which stand to this day – such as Newcastle Lane, Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane – hark back to the barges which brought down coal from the north of England.
- As early as the 12th century, the stench from the river was overpowering. A number of tanneries along the river’s edge used the Fleet as a dumping ground for food waste, animal excrement and offal; butchers used it to discard rotten animals. Human sewage and industrial waste only added to the problem – turning the area into a slum over time.
- During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), pirates sailed up the Fleet to launch an attack, which ended in failure.
- After the Great Fire of London of 1666, architect Christopher Wren was tasked with giving the river an overhaul. Drawing inspiration from the canals of Venice, he introduced four bridges (at Fleet Street, Fleet Lane, Holborn and Bridewell) for barge traffic and renamed it New Canal. But much like the Thames at the time, the canal of Fleet suffered from pollution – and the barges rarely came.
- By the 1730s, the stench had become such an embarrassment that the ‘sewer’ was bricked over – a process which ultimately took 140 years.
- Higher up the Fleet, where the water was pure, several wells and spas sprang up. The most popular were Clerk’s Well, Bagnigge Well, and St Bride’s Well. The wells may now have gone – but are commemorated in such place names as Clerkenwell and Brideswell.
- When the Regent’s Canal was constructed in 1810 – 1815, the Fleet was buried northwards to Camden Town.
- By 1880, the entire river, apart from the few hundred yards from the source springs, was underground in pipes, conduits and the New Canal bed.
- In 1846, a build-up of sewage and gases led to a huge explosion. Pipes in the King’s Cross area blew up and a great wave of sewage poured through the streets, damaging buildings and houses.