The Walbrook, once bustling river in medieval London, takes its name from the Old English wala, meaning “of the Welsh,” and broc meaning “brook.” Although currently known as Walbrook, in the first record of this river, from 1274, it was called “Walbrookstrate.” The Walbrook River rose, with its tributaries, near the Shoreditch area of London, along the intersection of Curtain Road and Hollywell Lane. It continued passed Moorfields and flowed south through the City of London, north of the City Wall, and flows into its terminus, the River Thames, at the ward of Dowgate (past the current Cannon Street Station).
During Roman London, the river was used for its fresh water, with Londoners’ waste moved down to the River Thames. The Walbrook essentially divided Roman London into two parts, with the west of the river acting as a mode of transport and the east of the river housing the Temple of Mithras. While the Walbrook was once a source of fresh water for the people of Roman London, the area around it eventually became very unsanitary in Anglo-Saxon and Norman London. In fact, because of the immense pollution of the river and its flooding, the Walbrook was surrounded by mostly open gardens and marshes. In 1383, the Court of Common Council ordered the aldermen of the Coleman Street, Broad Street, Cheap, Walbrook, Vintry, and Dowgate Wards of the City of London to ensure that the latrines situated near the river were approved, for there was an immense amount of filth present in the river.
Although it was not the most sanitary river in London, the Walbrook allowed for its ward to thrive because the river was crucial for trade. Dowgate was the connection between the River Thames and the rest of the City of London, which allowed this area of the Walbrook to be used for international exports. The Walbrook also thrived in medieval London because it provided power to drive mills, making it essential to the industrial development of the city. Millers, tanners, and leatherworkers used this natural source of power, and as a result these craftspeople set up their shops directly along the river. Even though the Walbrook was an important river in medieval London, by 1598 the Walbrook had already began to be covered. The streets and lanes through which the Walbrook passed were vaulted and houses were built over it, covering any remnants of the river.
Although the Walbrook River remains covered, it is still possible to follow the path of the river following some key landmarks. The one surviving landmark from medieval London is is St. Stephen’s Walbrook Church. This church was originally located on the west side of the Walbrook and moved to the east side in the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, the original church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, thus the current church on Walbrook is not the same one that was once attended by people in medieval London. Although the church is not physically the same, its location remains the same since the fifteenth century.
Walbrook is now a small street located near the River Thames and Cannon Street Station in the City of London, hidden between the St. Stephen’s Walbrook Church and tall, modern, glass buildings. Although the river does not remain, its route through the center of London demonstrates that it was essential source of water, power, and waste management for medieval Londoners.
- Anisha Mirchanandi