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Lost Rivers of the

City of London

Cool clear water in the City of London.

At the timeThe Fleet River estuary in the middle ages. of the Roman invasion, the site which was to become Londinium contained other rivers and streams besides the Thames. These rivers were not merely trickles of water that could be stepped over as you roamed the then countryside, they were large enough to navigate with barges and small ships. As the centuries passed these waterways became either clogged with rubbish, diverted to enable building work, or simply filled in and built over. They were used as natural sewers and made to pass through the tunnels, when constructed. By the time Stow came to write about them in the sixteenth century most had already disappeared completely, seeping away to find new underground routes to follow. Occasionally, water has been found emerging from the old courses of these streams. One notable case was when the Walbrook reappeared around the foundations of the Bank of England in the 1800’s. There were also many underground streams to which wells were dug. Some modern day names for areas originate from where these were placed, many of them quite famous. Clerkenwell comes from the ‘Clerks Well’, where the office workers obtained their water. The well is still there in an office building.

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The Walbrook river

The river Walbrook had been paved over and built upon many centuries before John Stow published his Survey of London in 1598. Much of his information came from earlier writers, and finding left over evidence such as old sluice gates. In fact, it started to disappear before the Romans left in 410 even though they used it to reach the Temple of Mithras on it’s bank by barge. It was the easiest place to dispose of building waste. After they left the river was used to dump just about anything including human waste. By the mid 1400's it was as if it had never existed.

This makes it hard to plot the precise course of the river, but with later excavations revealing the line of the river bed in certain places we can be almost sure of the route it took through the City, and on to the Thames.

Under the Bank of England

The bog at Moorfields

It then made a sharp turn under what is now the Bank of England, into Princes Street, flowing past the Grocers Hall. From there onto Poultry where, in 1456, St. Mildred's Church was erected over it. The Temple of Mithras stood beside the river as it passed Bucklesbury and flowed down to the Thames about ten metres west of the street now called Walbrook. Down Cloak Lane and under Horseshoe Bridge, it made a sharp change of course at the aptly named Elbow Lane, which is now College Street. From there it entered the Thames about 30 metres from Cannon Street. In the early days, the Thames shore line could come up as far as Thames Street at high tide.

The area outside the northern City wall was known a Moorfields (the famous Moorfields Eye Hospital takes its name from here.) It was a large marshy plain, a bog in fact. The Walbrook entered the city from here. It was quite a large stream with smaller tributaries joining it as it passed through the wall.

There is mention of bridges that were built over the river once it had entered, close to All Hallows Church. From here it flowed to Copthall Avenue, which can be seen today as a street off London Wall. There was a bridge at this point, and from there it flowed down into Tokenhouse Yard. St. Margaret’s Church, which stands next to Tokenhouse yard, was built over the river.

The name Walbrook

A barge to the Temple of Mithras

There are a few theories as to how the Walbrook got its name, but I tend to go for Stows explanation that it was a brook that entered the City through the wall. Its width is estimated at between four and five metres, flowing about ten metres below today’s street level. It was possible for quite large vessels and barges to navigate the river. It is hard to believe that a river of this size could be lost forever.

Before reaching the Thames it would have passed through Bucklesbury Passage where during the construction of the present building at No. 1 Poultry, archaeologists were allowed access, and made some interesting finds. These included a mosaic, which is now in the London Museum. It went across the street to St. Stephens Walbrook, and the Temple was situated on the site of the  Slug and Lettuce (at the time of updating, 2012, this has been demolished). There are now plans to return the Temple to it's original place after extensive redevelopment in the area which is in progress as I write.

The Fleet river

The Fleet wAn old print of the River Fleetas the largest of London’s rivers (apart from the Thames) and flowed through a large valley. Ludgate Hill and Holborn were on opposite sides of this valley as it neared the end of it’s journey, and Holborn Viaduct was built to ease the pressure on travellers and traders of having to negotiate steep slopes while travelling east or west with a cart. Although the river ran outside the walls of the Square Mile it was still within the outer City boundaries (known as  “without the walls”) to deserve a mention here.


From Hampstead Heath

It then flowed down Farringdon Road. There were a few bridges over this part. Stow mentions five of them in his 1598 survey. The Fleet Bridge, Ludgate Bridge, Oldbourne Bridge, Cowbridge, and a timber bridge between Blackfriars Monastery and Bridewell Palace. From here it flowed on to meet the Thames. It was known by several other names including Hole Bourne, Turnmill Creek, and the Wells River. If you visit the Farringdon area today you will still find street names associated with the river, like Cowcross Street and Turnmill Street. At the time of the Roman occupation the mouth of the Fleet was around 200 metres wide.

The Fleet river originates from the joining of two sources, one either side of Parliament Hill, on Hampstead Heath. It leaves behind, the Hampstead Ponds and travels underground down Fleet Road to Camden. It then passes right underneath the Regents Canal and on to Kings Cross, which was in medieval times called Battlebridge. This was supposedly named after the bridge where Boudica was defeated in battle but does not fit in with many historians findings. Many smaller tributaries joined the Fleet on its journey through London (Without the City walls). Two of these tributaries emerged in Holborn.

A stinking cesspit!

Once agaThe Fleet river runs into the Thames it was man and his disregard for the environment that caused the demise of the Fleet. Apart from using it to deposit excrement, dead animals and anything else needing to be disposed of, the butchers of nearby Smithfield meat market used it to take away their offal and animal blood. The stench in London must have been terrible! This is why flowers were an important part of many of the official ceremonies.

Sir Christopher Wren devised a plan to turn it into a canal, which when finished by all accounts, looked very picturesque. Unfortunately this didn’t deter the meat traders and ‘turd men’ so it wasn’t long before it was a heaving mass of animal by-products and shit. In 1765 this part of the river was permanently covered and by 1841 the rest of it had also been bricked over. What is left of the once grand Fleet now flows hidden under the streets through man made tunnels. It enters the Thames underneath Blackfriars Bridge.

The Tyburn (or Tybourne)

In his bookOld print of the Tyburn River. "The Groundwater Diaries" Tim Bradford points out that there are no streets or parks named after this river. He also notes that it’s course flowed underneath many important places in London, and lightheartedly wondered if it could be the river of power and secrecy. It does in fact pass near many famous London landmarks including Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and Lord’s cricket ground.

Reduced to a trickle

A hard course to plot

From the place where it crossed Oxford Street, a conduit was built in 1236, to supply water to the City. From Buckingham Palace onwards is where the lack of adequate maps make the task of tracing the watercourse more difficult. Waller and Besant, in 1895, took the view that it flowed on to Westminster and formed an island by splitting into two. The Abbey is supposed to have been built on this island.

Ormsby’s version, is that after the division, one stream made its way to Westminster and the other to Vauxhall Bridge. This made an even larger island.

The research of Woods, using many maps and documents from the 1600’s, caused him to believe that there was no division, and that no part of the Tyburn flowed to Westminster. This created no islands. In his book ‘The lost rivers of London’ (1960), Nicholas Barton makes the following suggestion, which sounds very logical to me:

After 1236, when the conduit was built to take water from the Tyburn into the City, only a trickle was left to carry on. As other nearby sources were impounded in 1355, and as far away as Paddington in 1439, it seems that the Tyburn had stopped supplying enough water. This would explain the lack of information on the river after this time.

The Tyburn was a small stream with its source at Shepherds Well, South of Hampstead. As with the other rivers, smaller tributaries joined it on the journey to the Thames. It has been the most difficult to plot an exact course after it left Westminster Abbey, owing to the lack of any early maps showing the areas through which it flowed in any great detail. The earliest written mention of the Tyburn dates back to around 785 AD.

The course it took to reach the abbey is fairly straightforward. It is only after this point that it becomes more elusive. From Shepherds Well, it flowed through Swiss Cottage to Regents Park, where it was joined by another stream from Belsize Park. Like the Fleet River, The Tyburn now crosses the Regents Canal, this time however, it goes over the canal via an aqueduct. It was joined by a second tributary somewhere near the London Zoo, and flowed from there, down to Marylebone Lane. It ran across Oxford Street (then Military Way), headed towards Grosvenor Square, Berkley Square, and underground through Piccadilly towards where Buckingham Palace is situated. This is where confusion sets in.