Saturday, 8 December 2018

London's Invisible River Fleet

One of London's numerous underground rivers, the River Fleet is perhaps the most famous. The Fleet once ran pure and freely from Highgate and Hampstead down the valley now occupied by New Bridge St., Farringdon St., and Farringdon Rd. before emptying into the Thames.

The Fleet was once called the River of Wells because there were so many wells along its course, some of them holy. It was also surrounded by various religious foundations, monasteries, convents, and friaries. Henry VIII erected Bridewell Palace along its banks, but his son Edward VI gave it to the City of London to serve as a school for boys and a house of correction for women of ill repute. An interesting juxtaposition of functions that. "Bridewell" later became a general house of correction for many types of offenders, and the term became generic for such institutions. 

One reason the royals gave up Bridewell may be the fact that the river had become a foul open sewer, clogged with animal carcasses from nearby Smithfield Market, refuse from tanneries, and the wastes and castoffs of untold numbers of Londoners. 

The noxious miasmas that the Fleet "Ditch" -- as it was often called -- exhaled may be the reason why it was surrounded by prisons, workhouses, and cheap housing. It was a good place for housing if not thinning out the poor and undesirable. Many criminals had their haunts along or near its banks. Dickens placed Fagin's den in nearby Field Lane on Saffron Hill.

The Fleet river/ditch/sewer was gradually covered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today it is almost forgotten, but you can see evidence of it as it flows into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. Or, you can see the water at its source in Highgate and Hampstead Ponds.

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