The River Fleet has been a significant part of London’s history and development throughout the past two millennia, from the city’s start as a Roman settlement to the metropolis it is today. The Fleet is a tributary of the River Thames, and flows six kilometers from its start as two streams in Hampstead Heath, past Camden Town, King’s Cross, and Clerkenwell, to where it eventually empties into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. Though now hidden from view underground, the Fleet was a prominent part of life in medieval London. The river got its name from the Anglo-Saxon word fleot, meaning “tidal inlet.” The higher stretch of the river, around the valley where Farringdon Road is now located, was called Holbourne (from which “Holborn” is derived), from the word holburna meaning “hollow stream.”
Londoners used the Fleet, located just west of the medieval city wall, for myriad purposes in the medieval period. Since the days of William the Conqueror, the River Fleet was referred to as “the River of Wells” because of its many wells built along its banks, most notably Clerkenwell, St. Bride’s Well, Skinner’s Well, and Rad Well, along with a host of others. During the middle ages, the Fleet provided a trade route for ships from Holborn to the Thames. Two major bridges crossed the Fleet, but boats could still navigate the river until at least 1307. One of the Fleet’s most popular uses was as a site of waste disposal, which proved problematic. The river became a gutter for latrines, slaughterhouses, and tanneries. Animal blood and hair, dye, offal, and human excrement clogged the river, causing a stench so bad that, in 1290, numerous residents of the surrounding area, including the prior of a Carmelite house, the Black Friars (Dominicans), and the Bishop of Salisbury, signed a petition to express their complaints. Waste disposal was an issue throughout all of London, and in 1343 butchers were instructed to dump their waste in the Fleet in an effort to keep the animal remains off the street. Not surprisingly, this solution turned out to be less than ideal, and authorities soon abandoned the idea. The lower portion of the river, which was practically a sewer at that point, came to be known as the “Fleet Ditch.” The civic government took measures to try to clean up the river, passing an ordinance in 1357 that promised imprisonment for anyone caught disposing of waste in the Fleet, although this did not altogether solve the problem.
The River Fleet gave its name to Fleet Bridge (first referenced in 1197) and Fleet Street, also known as Fleet Bridge Street for a time. Fleet Street still exists today, and the bridge was located between present-day Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill. A number of significant medieval buildings were constructed on or near the banks of the Fleet. St. Pancras Old Church is one such building. The church is first mentioned in deeds from 1160-80, but the original structure was likely built centuries earlier. The road below the church was often flooded, and “overflowings of the River Fleete” are referenced in documents from 1331 regarding the enclosure of the church. Fleet Prison was another prominent building built near the Fleet, and took its name from the river. Built in 1197, the debtors prison was built on what is now Farringdon Street and was surrounded by the river and adjoining ditches. By the fourteenth century the water in the river and ditches was so polluted that it was thought to be detrimental to the health of the prisoners.
London tried to maintain the cleanliness of the Fleet for centuries, but this task was virtually impossible because, even after being cleared out, the river quickly returned to its sewer-like conditions. In the nineteenth century the Fleet was covered over, and remains that way today. Though now unseen and unnoticed, the River Fleet is an undeniable part of London’s history. The river flows beneath the city’s ever-changing urban landscape, a reminder that, while modern and medieval London might be separated by time, they share the same space.
- M. Conner McCallum