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LOST RIVERS that once flowed through the City

The Temple of Mithras

Before reaching the Thames the Walbrook passed through Bucklersbury Passage. 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 Museum of London. It flowed across the street to St. Stephens Walbrook where the Temple of Mithras stood on the bank of the river. The remains of the temple were uncovered during excavation work in 1954. It was reconstructed and stood in Queen Victoria Street until the Walbrook Square project was purchased by the Bloomberg company in 2010. The Temple of Mithras can now be visited 7 metres below the modern street level, as part of an exhibition space beneath the Bloomberg building. When they moved the temple away three water feature sculptures by Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias were installed on the pavement.

The Fleet River

The Fleet was the largest of London’s rivers after 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 to the Thames. 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 (“without the walls”), so merits a mention here. The Fleet originates from the joining of two sources either side of Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. It leaves 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 Boadicea was defeated in battle but does not fit in with many historians findings. Many smaller tributaries joined the Fleet on its journey through London. Two of these tributaries emerged in Holborn.

A stinking cess pit

It was mankind’s disregard for the environment that caused the demise of the Fleet river. Apart from locals 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 area was also used by leather tanneries. 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 would have 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 book "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. 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 reaching Westminster Abbey, owing to the lack of any early maps showing the areas through which it flowedl. 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.

Reduced to a trickle

From the place where it crossed Oxford Street a conduit was built in 1236 to supply water to the City. From Buckingham Palace onwards. This 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, led 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: “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.”

Sir Hugh Myddleton

Best remembered as the man who created the New River to bring clean water to London when other sources ran dry. The first attempt by Edmund Colthurst ran out of funding. Myddleton funded the work, helped by King James I, to completion. Construction of the 42 mile long river lasted from 1608 to 1613. It ran from Hertfordshire to Islington, where there is another statue of Myddleton. You can still walk parts of the river today.

Cool Clear Water

Apart from the Thames, Londinium contained other smaller rivers and streams. These rivers were not mere trickles, in what was then countryside, they were large enough to navigate with barges and small ships. As the centuries passed these waterways became clogged with rubbish, diverted to enable building work, or filled in and built over. They were used as natural sewers and made to pass through the tunnels. 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. 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.

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 other 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 to the Thames. Moor Fields was an area outside the northern City wall (Moorfields Eye Hospital takes its name from here.) It was a large marshy plain. The Walbrook entered the city from here, a large stream with smaller tributaries joining it after 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. 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 Bucklersbury 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 was much wider and the shoreline would come up as far as Thames Street at high tide.
Walbrook water feature Fleet enters Thames at Blackfriars Bridge Entrance to the Fleet River as it emerges into the Thames, by Samuel Scott, c. 1750 The Fleet passing by St Pancras Old Church Part of the New River in Cannonbury Statue of Hugh Myddleton on the Royal Exchange