Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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THE FLEET RIVER AND FLEET DITCH.
Origin of the Name—Rise of the Fleet—Its Course—Early Impurity—The Holeburne—Antiquities found in the Fleet—How far Navigable for Ships—Early mention of it—Clearing of the Fleet Valley—A Deposit of Pins—The Old Bridges—Fleet Bridge—Holborn Bridge—Historical Associations—Discovery of the Arches of the Old Bridge—Thieves' Houses—Pope on the "Fleet"—The River arched over—Floods on the Fleet—Disaster in 1846—The Fleet under the Main Drainage System—Dangers of Exploring the Sewer—A Strange Denizen of the Ditch— Turnmill Street and the Thieves' Quarter—West Street—Chick Lane—The Old "Red Lion" known as "Jonathan Wild's House."
The name of this ill-used stream, once fresh and fleet, now a mere sluggish and plague-breeding sewer, is traced by some to the Anglo-Saxon fleotan, "to float;" and by others, to the Saxon fleot, or flod, "a flood." The sources of the river Fleet are on the high lands of Hampstead and Highgate, and the chief of them rise near Caen Wood. The Fleet was fed by the Oldborne, which rose, says Stow, "where now the Bars do stand," and ran down to Old Borne Bridge, and into the River of Wells or Turnmill Brook. The Fleet was also fed by all the springs of Clerkenwell, such as Clerkenwell itself, Skinner's Well, Fogg's Well, Tod's Well, Loder's Well, Rad Well (near the Charterhouse), and the Horse Pool, at Smithfield.
"The principal spring of the Fleet," says Mr. Pinks, "rises in a secluded lane at the rear of Caen Wood, the seat of Lord Mansfield; another is on the left of a footpath leading thence to Highgate; and the tiny brooklet formed by its waters communicates by a small arch with a reservoir, the first of seven storage-ponds, on different levels, belonging to the Hampstead Water Company. Another of the spring-heads rises in the midst of Caen Wood. All three springs are diverted so as to fill the reservoirs above mentioned, a small stream carrying off the redundant water, which is very trifling, except in wet seasons. A fourth spring flows from the Vale of Health, at Hampstead, in a narrow channel, to another of the reservoirs, which are connected by means of large pipes passing from one to another. At a lower level the main stream meanders through the fields between Haverstock Hill and Kentish Town, in a wide, deep, and rugged channel, indicating that a considerable body of water must have originally flowed through it with a rapid current. The name of Kentish Town, which was formerly a mere country village, is supplied by tradition, which ascribes its origin to the place being situated on the bank of a stream (the river Fleet) which rose among the hills about Caen or Ken Wood, and which was formerly called Ken or Caen Ditch, hence Ken Ditch Town, the Town of Ken Ditch, or Kentish Town. But the correctness of this etymology has been questioned by at least one historian. The Fleet passes on through Kentish Town, its course there being much hidden, and, flowing in a south-east direction, it passes under the Regent's Canal to St. Pancras, where, until the year 1766, when it was arched over, it bore the name of Pancras Wash. Running at the foot of the gardens in the rear of the houses in the Old St. Pancras Road, it arrives at Battle Bridge, and so makes its entrance into Clerkenwell. Following the line of the Bagnigge Wells Road, its covered course nearly coincides with the parochial boundary in this direction. Passing in an artificial channel alongside the western boundary wall of the House of Correction, its course lies beneath the valley between Turnmill Street and Saffron Hill; thence, under Farringdon Street and Bridge Street, emptying itself into the Thames on the western side of Blackfriars Bridge." It was called "the River of Wells" as early as the days of William the Conqueror.
The Fleet seems early to have become impure, and hardly fit to drink, for, in 1290 (Edward I.), the prior of a Carmelite house in Whitefriars complained of the noxious exhalations, the miasma of which had killed many of the hooded brethren, and the corruption of which overpowered the odours of the incense. The Black Friars and the Bishop of Salisbury, whose palace was in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, also signed the same doleful petition. Mr. Pinks, with whom we do not in this case altogether agree, thinks that the Fleet was called the Holeburne, or burne of the Hollow, above Holborn Bridge; and the Fleet, between Holborn Bridge and its embouchure. The Holeburne is distinctly mentioned in Domesday Book.
In the register of the Nunnery of St. Mary, Clerkenwell, of the time of Richard I. or John, the oldest cartulary extant, mention is made of a meadow near Holeburne, and of a ditch that led from Holeburne to the mill of the nuns. The garden of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem was also situated upon the Holeburne, thus perfectly proving, says an ingenious writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1856, that Holeburne was only another name for that venerable and injured stream, the Fleet, the southern part of it, the mere embouchure (between Holborn Bridge and the Thames), probably always maintaining the name of Fleet, or Flood. Stow is therefore incorrect in his description of the imaginary stream, the old Bourne.
The same acute writer, who signs himself "T. E. T.," shows, also, that the word "Flete," referring to a special limited place, is used in the ancient book of the Templars' lands (1185) now in the Record Office; and the word "Flete Hithe," in the ancient "Liber A, sive Pilosus;" while in the first of King John, the Templars received the grant of a place upon the Flete, near Castle Baynard, to enable them to construct a mill, which was removed in the reign of Edward I., on the complaint of Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, that it had lessened the breadth and depth of water under Holeburne Bridge and Fleet Bridge into the Thames. The holes that gave the Saxon name to the Holeburne are still marked by the sites of Hockley-in-theHole and Black Mary's Hole, Bagnigge Wells (both already described by us in previous chapters). The overflowing part of the Fleet, near its foul mouth, probably gave the name to the stream, as the same cause led to the naming the Fleets of the Trent; and the site of Paris Bear Garden, Southwark, now the parish of Christchurch, Surrey, was anciently called Widefleet, from the overflowing of the trenches at high tides, which formed a large stagnant backwater to a river that, from man's neglect and idleness, has probably caused the death of more Londoners than have been slain in English battles since the Conquest.
But turning back to earlier times, let us dive far below the deepest Stygian blackness of the Fleet Sewer. To see the antiquities found in the Fleet, which really deserves a daring discoverer's attention nearly as much as the Tiber, let us follow Mr. Pinks into the vast rag and bone shop of relics which his loving and patient industry has catalogued so carefully. During the digging and widening of the Fleet Ditch, in 1676, there, at a depth of fifteen feet, was found the stray rubbish, bones, and refuse of Roman London. The coins were of silver, copper, and brass, but none of gold. The silver was ring-money, of several sizes, the largest as big as a crown, the smallest about the size of a silver twopence, every one having a snip in the edge. At Holborn Bridge, thrown away by spoilers or dropped by thieves, were two brass Lares (about four inches high), one a Ceres, the other a Bacchus, both covered with a petrified crust, but the stream had washed much of the oxydizing matter from the coins, "thrown away on the approach of Boadicea," says the vivacious and imaginative Pennant, his mind, like a true antiquary, of course reverting to the one special crisis of interest in ancient London story. The excavators also discovered in the miserly river various British and Saxon antiquities of interest—arrowheads, broad spur rowels, keys, daggers, scales, seals, with Saxon names, ships' counters, with Saxon characters, and medals, crosses, and crucifixes, of a later date. In the bed of the Fleet, at Black Mary's Hole, near the end of Baker Street, a ship's anchor, it is said, was found some years ago; and a correspondent in the Gentleman's Magazine (1843) describes a small anchor, three feet ten inches long, found in the Fleet Ditch, as then in the collection of Mr. Walter Hawkins, F.S.A.
In 1856 there was exhibited at the British Archæological Association a globular iron padlock, so constructed that the whole shackle could be drawn out when the bolt was thrown back. This was found in the Fleet Ditch, near the bottom of Holborn Hill. In 1857 the same association exhibited a jug of hard-baked pottery (the upper part covered with mottled green glaze), of the sixteenth century, found in 1854, in the ditch, near Smithfield. In 1838 a beautiful hunting-knife, of the seventeenth century, was found in the same dirty repository of "unconsidered trifles." The ivory haft was wrought with a figure of Mercury, with winged petasus, hunting-horn and caduceus. The blade was of the time of George I. About 1862 two target bosses, of latten, of the time of Henry VIII., were dredged up. In 1862 Mr. Gunston exhibited, at the British Archæological meeting, a rude penknife of the fifteenth, and one of the sixteenth century, both Fleet relics; also the carved wooden haft of a dagger, and a little knife, the bone haft carved with a female bust that resembled Catherine de Medicis; also a knifeblade, with a motto, and a Roman sharpening steel.
Stow says that before 1307 ten or twelve ships used to go up the Fleet to Fleet Bridge, "with divers things and merchandizes, and some of these ships went under the bridge unto Holborn Bridge." A "Process of Recognition," in third folio of the ancient "Liber A, sive Pilosus," containing the ancient evidences of the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, mentions Fleet Hythe as in the possession of Henry the Woodmonger, a man, says Mr. Pinks, mentioned in the great "Roll of the Pipe" for the 31st of Henry I., and also in the "Registrum de Clerkenwell," as one of the earliest donors to the Clerkenwell nunnery. The process shows that ships and store-barges belonging to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's unshipped their lading at Fleet Hythe, and that the owners complained of a toll there exacted from them. The river was no doubt navigable, ages ago, much further than Holborn Bridge.
"In a parliament held at Carlisle, in the thirty-fifth year of Edward I. (1307), Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, complained that in former times the course of water running under 'Holeburne' Bridge and Fleet Bridge, into the Thames, had been of such breadth and depth, that ten or twelve 'naves' (ships) 'were wont to come to Flete Bridge, and some of them to 'Holeburne' Bridge, yet that 'by the filth of the tanners and others, and by the raising of wharfs, and especially by a diversion of the water in the first year of King John (1200), by them of the New Temple, for their mills without Baynard's Castle, and by other impediments, the course was decayed, and ships could not enter as they were used.' On the petition of the earl, the constable of the Tower, with the mayor and sheriffs of London, were directed by writ to take with them certain 'honest and discreet men to inquire into the former state of the river, to leave nothing that might hurt or stop it,' and restore it to its original condition. The creek was cleansed, the mills removed, and other means taken for the preservation of the course; but it was not brought to its old depth and breadth, and therefore it was no longer termed a river but a brook, called Turnmill or Tremill Brook, because mills were erected on it. 'But still, as if by nature intended for a common sewer of London, it was soon choked with filth again.' The scouring of this muddy stream, which seems to have silted up about every thirty or forty years, was a continual expense to the City of London."
Several years ago, on making a great sewer, some piles of oak, apparently portions of a mill-dam, were found in the Fleet Ditch, thirteen feet below the surface of Ray Street, near Little Saffron Hill.
"In 1855," says Mr. Timbs, "the valley of the Fleet, from Coppice Row to Farringdon Street, was cleared of many old and decaying dwellings, many of a date anterior to the Fire of London. From Coppice Row a fine view of St. Paul's Cathedral was opened by the removal of these buildings. 'In making the excavation,' says a writer in the Builder, 'for the great sewer which now conveys from view the Fleet Ditch, at a depth of about thirteen feet below the surface in Ray Street, near the corner of Little Saffron Hill, the workmen came upon the pavement of an old street, consisting of very large blocks of ragstone of irregular shape. An examination of the paving-stones showed that the street had been well used. They are worn quite smooth by the footsteps and traffic of a past generation. Below the old street was found another phase of Old London. Thickly covered with slime were piles of oak, hard and black, which had seemingly been portions of a mill-dam. A few feet below were very old wooden water-pipes, nothing but the rough trunks of trees. The course of time, and the weight of matter above the old pavement, had pressed the gravel, clay, granite, portions of tiles, &c., into a hard and almost solid mass, and it was curious to observe that near the old surface were great numbers of pins. Whither have the pins gone? is a query which has puzzled many. The now hard concrete, stuck with these useful articles, almost like a pincushion, is a partial reply to the query. The thirteen feet of newer deposit would seem to have accumulated in two or three centuries. It is not unlikely that a portion of the rubbish from the City, after the Great Fire, was shot here.'"
About the year 1502 (Henry VII.), Lambert, in his "London," says that the intolerable Fleet Ditch was cleared, from Holborn to the Thames, and it became once more navigable for large barges, laden with fuel and fish. In 1560 Aggas, in his curious Map of London, marks two bridges over the Fleet—Holborne and Fleet Bridge. Holborne Bridge was situated on a spot between Field Lane and Victoria Street; and the Fleet Bridge, says Mr. Pinks, an excellent authority, about the spot where the present Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill join (the circus between the two obelisks). Southward stood a dwelling-house, or warehouse, opposite the northern end of Bridewell, which reached to the Thames, and was situated on the western side of the Fleet. From the dwellinghouse above mentioned as far as the Thames, the Fleet was open, Bridewell Bridge (afterwards built on its mouth) not being yet erected.
In Stow's "Survey" Fleet Bridge, without Lud Gate, is described as a stone bridge, coped on both sides, with iron pikes, with stone lanthorns on the south side for winter evening travellers. Under this ran the River of Wells, alias Turnmill Brook, alias the Fleet Dyke, or Ditch. The bridge had been larger in old times, but was lessened as the water-course narrowed. It had either been built or repaired by John Wells, mayor in 1431 (Henry VI.), and on the coping Wells "imbraced by angels" is engraved, as on the Standard in Cheape, which he also built. This bridge melted away in the Great Fire, and its successor lasted till 1765, when it was removed, to widen Farringdon Street, and the Fleet was abandoned as incapable of improvement, and finally bricked over without any respectful funeral service. Strype, in 1720, describes Fleet Bridge as having sides breast high, and on them the City arms engraved. At Holborn Bridge the Canal, as it was then called, was fed by Turnmill Brook. The Bridewell and Fleet Bridges adjoining were ascended by steps. Between the six piers of Fleet Bridge were iron rails and banisters at both sides. The roadway was level with the street. There was a coffee-house (the "Rainbow") on the bridge in 1751. The older bridge was a stone bridge of one arch, with no stone parapet, but wooden rails and posts.
Prynne's "Records," folio, 1669, mention several old records referring to the nuisances of the river of Fleet, and efforts to make it navigable, "as formerly," to and under Holborn Bridge. He also quotes from the record itself the interesting petition of the Commons of London (Edward I.), quoted by Stow, complaining of the obstruction of the "Flete River," the corruption of the air it had engendered, and the hindrance of the former navigation as far as "Holeburne" Bridge. We have seen from the Earl of Lincoln's petition mentioned above that ten or twelve ships had been known to bring merchandise as far as the Fleet Bridge, and some of them to penetrate as far as Holeburne Bridge. The commission was issued to perfect the work, which was, however, stopped by the king's death. Prynne quietly urges the Government of Charles II., for the benefit of the health and trade of the City, to make the river navigable to Holborn Bridge or Clerkenwell.
In the celebrated "Liber Albus" or White Book of the City of London, compiled in 1419 (Henry V.), the street of "Flete Brigge" is mentioned, as is also the cleansing of "the Foss of the Flete." Amongst the City tolls the compiler notes: "Every cart that brings corn into the City for sale shall pay one halfpenny; if it enters by way of Holburne or by the Flete, it shall pay one penny, the franchise excepted. . . . . The cart that brings nuts or cheese shall pay twopence; and if it enters by the Flete, or by Holeburn, it shall pay twopence halfpenny."
In the "Calendar of State Papers" (Mary, 1553–1558), in connection with the reign of Queen Mary the Sanguinary, we find a note of certain conspirators against the queen meeting at Fleet Bridge, just as in the Rye House rebellion (1683) we meet with Monmouth, Sir Thomas Armstrong, and Lord Grey, going from the Fleet Ditch to Snow Hill, to arrange the Sunday-night rising, when at midnight, according to the traitor, Grey, the train-bands at the Royal Exchange were to be attacked, and the western City gates seized. At Fleet Bridge and Snow Hill the conspirators were to wait the onslaught of the king's guard. At Snow Hill there was to be a barricade thrown up, and mounted with three or four ships' cannon, while at Fleet Bridge there were to be several regular cannon, and a breastwork for musqueteers on each side of the bridge, while the houses on the east bank of the Fleet were to be lined with firelock-men, who were to fire from the windows as the royal troops approached the bridge. There were at least two taverns on Fleet Bridge at the Restoration. In Aggas' Map of London (1560, second year of Queen Elizabeth), Holborn Bridge had houses on the north side.
In 1670 (Charles II.), in rebuilding London, after the Great Fire, it was decreed that Holborn Bridge being too narrow for the traffic of London, the northern approach should be enlarged so that the "way and passage" might run in "a bevil line from a certain timber house on the north side thereof commonly called or known by the name or sign of the Cock," to the "Swan Inn." Wren, therefore, built the new bridge on the north side of Holborn Hill accordingly; and the name of William Hooker, Lord Mayor in 1673–74, was cut on the stone coping of the east approach. In March, 1840, Mr. Tite, F.S.A., during the opening of a sewer at Holborn Hill, was lucky enough to be passing, and saw the southern face of the old bridge disinterred. The arch was about twenty feet span. The road from the east intersected the bridge obliquely, and out of the angle thus formed a stone corbel arose, to carry the parapet. The worthy mayor's name and the date were still visible. The width of the bridge was eleven feet six inches, says Mr. Crosby, who had spent many years collecting memorabilia of the Fleet valley. It had probably originally been twelve feet six inches. According to this best authority on the subject, Holborn Bridge consisted of four different bridges joined together at the sides, and two of these had been added, to widen the passage. The entrance of the old Swan Inn, with premises that covered an acre and a half, faced what is now Farringdon Street.
A writer in the Times, August 22nd, 1838, states as follows:—"The rear of the houses on Holborn Bridge has for many years been a receptacle for characters of the most daring and desperate condition. It was here in a brick tenement, now called by the Peachums and Lockets of the day 'Cromwell's House,' that murderous consultations were held, by the result of one of which the assassination of the unfortunate Mr. Steel was accomplished."
In the "Dunciad," Pope, lashing the poorer of his enemies, drives them headlong past Bridewell to the mud-pools of the Fleet—
"To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The king of dykes! than whom no slnice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
'Here strip, my children! here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash thro' thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well.
Who flings most filth and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the Weekly Journals bound;
A pig of lead to him who dives the best;
A peck of coals a-piece shall glad the rest.'
In naked majesty, Oldmixon stands,
And, Milo-like, surveys his arms and hands;
Then sighing, thus, 'And am I now threescore?
Ah, why, ye gods! should two and two make four?'
He said, and climb'd a stranded lighter's height,
Shot to the black abyss, and plung'd downright.
The Senior's judgment all the crowd admire,
Who but to sink the deeper, rose the higher.
Next Smedley div'd; low circles dimpled o'er
The quaking mud, that clos'd, and op'd no more.
All look, all sigh, and call on Smedley lost;
Smedley, in vain, resounds thro' all the coast.
Then * * essayed; scarce vanish'd out of sight,
He buoys up instant, and returns to light,
He bears no tokens of the sabler streams,
And mounts far off among the swans of Thames."
Gay again, in his "Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London," in his pleasant way sketches the same noisome place:—
"If where Fleet Ditch with muddy current flows
You chance to roam; where oyster-tubs in rows
Are ranged beside the posts; there stay thy haste,
And with the savoury fish indulge thy taste:
The damsel's knife the gaping shell commands,
While the salt liquor streams between her hands."
Swift, too, with his coarse pen, giving a description of a city shower, revels in the congenial filth of the odorous locality:—
"Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go;
Filths of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sail'd from by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force,
From Smithfield to St. 'Pulchre's shape their course,
And in huge confluence join'd at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge;
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood."
The Fleet seems always to have been a sort of dirty and troublesome child to the Corporation of London. In 1589 (Elizabeth) the Common Council collected a thousand marks (£666 13s. 4d.) to draw the springs of Hampstead Heath into one head, for the service of the City, and to scour down the Fleet; but the constant encroachment on the Fleet banks, and the rubbish and dirt thrown into the narrow channel, soon, says Stow, clogged it worse than ever. In 1606 (James I.) flood-gates were erected, to dam the water back when required; and in Cromwell's time (1652) the sewer was thoroughly cleansed, and many encroachments checked. The ditch had now become impassable to boats, in consequence of the numerous pigsties on the banks, and the vast quantities of offal and garbage thrown in by the butchers.
"Fuller, writing in 1662," says Mr. Pinks, "remarks of the Fleet, that it was so called 'from its former fleetness, though now it creepeth slow enough, not so much for age as the injection of the City refuse wherewith it is obstructed.' In an early play, one of the characters says, 'I was just dead of a consumption, till the sweet smoke of Cheapside and the dear perfume of Fleet Ditch made me a man again.' In Sir Christopher Wren's design for the rebuilding of London, after the Great Fire of 1666, we find six bridges between the Thames and Clerkenwell, viz., Bridewell-dock Bridge, Wood-market, Bridge, Fleet Bridge—a bridge in the line of street, from the proposed piazza in Fleet Street to Pye Corner, Smithfield—Holborn Bridge, and Cock Lane Bridge. But this design was not carried out."
After the Fire, by cleansing and enlarging of Fleet Ditch, coal-barges, &c., were enabled to come up as far as Holborn Bridge, where Turnmill Brook fell into the wider and equally sable flood. Wharves and store-houses were built on the Fleet side, but they did not prove successful. The channel had five feet of water at the lowest tide. The wharves were thirty feet broad, and had oak rails, to prevent passers-by at night falling in. Sir Thomas Fitch, the bricklayer who built the ditch, made a fortune by it, the cost being, as Ned Ward says, in his "London Spy," £74,000.
The first Bridewell Bridge over the Fleet, according to Stow, was of timber, through a breach in the City wall, opposite Bridewell. Hatton, in his "New View of London," 1708, describes Bridewell Bridge as of stone, and right against the back gate of the prison. It was ascended by fourteen steps, and was pulled down in 1765.
The bridge at the end of Fleet Lane, called the Middle Bridge, was of stone, and was, like Bridewell, ascended by fourteen steps; the arch being high enough to admit of ships with merchandise to pass under it.
In 1733 (George II.) the Fleet, being so often tried and found guilty, underwent at last its final doom. The City of London petitioned the House of Commons for permission to cover it up out of sight, as all navigation had ceased, it had become impossible to cleanse it, and several persons had fallen in and been suffocated in the mud. A bill was accordingly passed, by virtue of which the fee-simple of the site of the premises on the line of the Fleet Ditch was vested in the Corporation for ever, on condition that proper drains were made, to receive the mud-choked stream. In 1735 two sewer-arches, ten feet high and six feet wide, were completed from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge, and covered over, and the new Fleet Market erected on the site, in 1737. The thing was only half done, after all, for the noisome part, from the corner of Bridge Street to the Thames, still remained open, and was not arched over till the approaches to Blackfriars Bridge were completed, between 1760 and 1768, and even then one stubborn conservative kept a small, filthy dock still uncovered. In 1763, a drunken barber, from Bromley, in Kent, was found in Fleet Ditch, standing upright and frozen to death.
Floods of the Fleet were not uncommon, before it was boxed up. In 1679, after heavy rains, it broke down the back of several wholesale butcherhouses at Cow Cross, and carried off cattle, dead and alive. At Hockley-in-the-Hole barrels of ale, beer, and brandy floated down the black stream, and were treated by the rabble as fair flotsam. In 1768 the Hampstead Ponds overflowing, after a severe storm, the Fleet channel grew into a torrent, and the roads and fields about Bagnigge Wells were overflowed. In the gardens of Bagnigge Wells the water was four feet deep. A man was nearly drowned, and several thousand pounds' damage was done in Coldbath Fields, Mutton Lane, and Peter Street and vicinity. Three oxen and several hogs were carried off and drowned. A Blackfriars boatman took his boat to Turnmill Street, and there plied, removing the inhabitants, who could not leave their houses for the rising flood. In 1809 a sudden thaw produced a flood, and the whole space between St. Pancras, Somers' Town, and the foot of the hill at Pentonville was soon under water; two cart-horses were drowned; and for several days persons received their provisions in at their windows, from carts sent round to convey them.
In 1846 a furious thunderstorm caused the Fleet Ditch to blow up. The rush from the drain at the second arch of Blackfriars Bridge drove a steamer against one of the piers, and damaged it. The overflow of the Fleet penetrated into the cellars on the west side of Farringdon Street, so that one draper alone had £3,000 worth of goods destroyed or damaged. In the lower part of Clerkenwell, where the sewer ran open, the effects of the flood were most severe, especially in the valley below Brook Hill and Vine Street. In Bull's Head Court, Peter Street, the water rose five feet, and swept away cattle and furniture. Three poor houses in Round Court, Brook Hill, were partly carried away. From Acton Place, Bagnigge Wells Road, to King's Cross the roads were impassable, and the kitchens inundated. One baker alone lost thirty-six sacks of flour. A few days after another storm produced a renewed flood, and two more houses fell in Round Court, Brook Hill. The introduction of the cholera into Clerkenwell Prison, in 1832, was attributed to the effluvia of the river Fleet, then opened.
In 1855, the Fleet, as one of the metropolitan main sewers then vested in the Commissioners of Sewers, became vested in the newly-created Metropolitan Board of Works. The gigantic maindrainage system began with the great subterranean roads, the high, the low, and the mid level, which, intercepting all lesser sewers, carry their united floods to Barking Creek and Crossness Point. The high level runs from Hampstead to Bow; the midlevel from Kensal Green to Bow; the low level, from Cremorne to Abbey Mills on the marshes near Stratford. The mid-level main-drainage works were commenced in Clerkenwell in March, 1863, in Wilderness Row. From Goswell Street to Wilderness Row it was an open cutting, with the exception of a short tunnel under the Charterhouse grounds. The distance from Old Ford, Bow, to Kensal Green is 9 miles 2,650 feet, exclusive of 2½ miles of junctions. The sewer through Clerkenwell is 8 feet 9 inches in diameter. There were generally 400 or 500 men at work, with eleven steam-engines to pump water and draw earth.
"The Fleet Sewer," says Mr. Pinks, "the 'Cloaca Maxima' of our metropolis, receives the drainage of parts of Hampstead and Highgate, all Kentish Town, Camden Town, and Somers' Town, parts of Islington, Clerkenwell, and St. Sepulchre, and nearly all that part of the Holborn division of sewers south of the New Road, the total surface draining into it in the Holborn and Finsbury division being about 4,220 acres. In 1746 about 400 acres of this district were covered with houses. At present there are nearly 2,000 acres built upon, of necessity requiring a sewer of large capacity to carry off the refuse waters. The dimensions of the Fleet vary according to the locality: at its northern portion it is 6 feet 6 inches high, and 6 feet 6 inches wide; at other parts it varies from 12 feet high and 12 in width, to 9 feet high by 10 feet wide; then 8 feet 6 inches wide by 8 feet 3 inches high; and before reaching the Thames the dimensions of this huge sewer are 14 feet wide by 10 feet 6 inches high, and at its mouth 18 feet by 12. The ordinary movement of the current from Bagnigge Wells is three miles an hour, but after heavy showers, when sometimes the water rises almost instantly five feet or more, the speed is greatly accelerated. The amount per day of sewage discharged by this monster sewer is on the average 1,741,775 cubic feet."
The dangers of exploring the Fleet Sewer have been described by Mr. Crosby, who made great collections for a history of the Fleet Valley:—"At near twelve o'clock on Tuesday night, the 28th July, 1840," says this gentleman, "the tide flowed in so fast from the Thames to Fleet Bridge, that myself and Bridgewater were obliged to fly. It reached the hip, and we got somewhat wet before arriving at Holborn Bridge, quite safe, but much exhausted in splashing through the water in our heavy boots.
"Fleet Bridge, Tuesday, July 28th, 1840.—As I could not depend upon the admeasurements, which at the beginning of the year I had taken in a hurried manner at Fleet Bridges, while bricklayers were placing in a brick bottom in place of the original one of alluvial soil, I determined to obtain them the first opportunity. This evening, therefore, at ten o'clock, I met Bridgewater (one of the workmen employed in constructing the new sewer from Holborn Bridge to Clerkenwell) by appointment at the hoard there. Water boots being in readiness, I lighted my lamps, and, assisted by the watchmen, King and Anon, we descended the ladder, and got into that branch of the sewer which joins Wren's Bridge at Holborn. We then walked carefully till we reached Fleet Bridge. I suspended my argand lamp on the breakwater of the sewer, and with my lanthorn light we proceeded towards the Thames. We got a considerable distance, during which the channel of the sewer twice turned to the right at a slight angle. The last portion we entered into was barrelled at the bottom, and the middle so full of holes, and the water so deep as we approached the Thames, that we thought it prudent to return to Fleet Bridge. Here I lighted up four candles, which, with my two lamps, enabled me to see the admeasurements I required. Bridgewater, who is a sober, steady, and good-tempered man, was of great use to me in so doing. I measured the heights with a fishing-rod, twelve feet in length, joined to my two measuring-rods, which, tied, gave me another rod of nine feet six inches. All went on well till about a quarter to twelve o'clock, when, to our surprise, we found the tide had suddenly come in to the depth of two feet and a half. No time was to be lost; but I had only one more admeasurement to make, viz., the width of the North Bridge. I managed this, and we then snatched up the basket, and, holding our lamps aloft, dashed up the sewer which we had to get up one half before out of danger. The air was close and made us faint. However, we got safe to Holborn Bridge with all our things, and the argand lamp did not blow out till we just reached it."
Mr. Archer, in his "Vestiges of Old London," 1851, says that by the opening at the Thames "many persons enter at low tide, armed with sticks to defend themselves from rats, as well as for the purpose 'of sounding on their perilous way' among the slimy shallows; and carrying a lanthern to light the dreary passage, they wander for miles under the crowded streets in search of such waifs as are carried there from above. A more dismal pursuit can scarcely be conceived; so near to the great concourse of London streets that the rolling of the numerous vehicles incessantly thundering overhead, and even the voices of wayfarers, are heard, where, here and there, a grating admits a glimmer of the light of day; yet so utterly cut off from all communion with the busy world above, so lonely in the very heart of the great and populous city, that of the thousands who pass along, not one is even conscious of the proximity of the wretched wanderer creeping in noisome darkness and peril beneath his very feet. A source of momentary destruction ever lurking in these gloomy regions exists in the gases, which generate in their confined and putrefying atmosphere, and sometimes explode with a force sufficient to dislodge the very masonry; or which, taking light from the contact of the lantern, might envelope the miserable intruder in sudden flame. Many venturers have been struck down in such a dismal pilgrimage, to be heard of no more; may have fallen suddenly choked, sunk bodily in the treacherous slime, become a prey to swarms of voracious rats, or have been overwhelmed by a sudden increase of the polluted stream."
The polite Lord Chesterfield was asked by an enthusiastic Parisian whether London could show a river like the Seine. "Yes," replied his lordship, "we call it Fleet Ditch."
The following serves to show what nourishing contributions of refuse were made to the Fleet:— "A fatter boar was hardly ever seen," says the Gentleman's Magazine for 1836, "than one taken up this day (24th August, 1736) coming out of Fleet Ditch into the Thames. It proved to be a butcher's, near Smithfield Bars, who had missed him five months, all which time he had been in the common sewer, and was improved in price from ten shillings to two guineas."
Turnmill Street, pulled down in the Clerkenwell improvements of 1856–7, was undoubtedly for several centuries one of the most disreputable streets in all London. It is mentioned as Trylmyl Streate as early as the reign of Henry IV. It is marked in Aggas's map, and is noticed in a letter from Recorder Fleetwood to Burleigh in 1585 as a place for thieves' houses. The name was sometimes corrupted into Turnbull and Trunball Street. It seems to have been the very sink of the vice of London, and to have been frequented by highwaymen and rogues of every description. It is mentioned as an infamous resort by some half-dozen of the Elizabethan dramatists, more especially by Beaumont and Fletcher, Lodowick Barry, Marston, Middleton, Ben Jonson, Randolph, Webster, &c. Nor must we forget that it was of his wild and youthful feats in Turnbull Street that Justice Shallow brags of to Falstaff. Here the Pistols and Bardolphs of the time swaggered and cheated, and here the Tybalts of the day occasionally received their quietus from a subtle thrust.
"At the close of the last century," says Mr. Pinks, "a reward of £300 was offered by proclamation for the apprehension of one Bunworth, the leader of a desperate gang of thieves; yet none dared to attempt his capture, such was the weak state of the law. Once, with daring effrontery, 'on the approach of evening (to quote the Newgate Calendar), he and his gang ventured towards London, and having got as far as Turnmill Street, the keeper of the Clerkenwell Bridewell happening to see Bunworth, called to him, and said he wanted to speak with him. Bunworth hesitated, but the other assuring him that he intended no injury, and the thief being confident that his associates would not desert him, swore he did not regard the keeper, whom he advanced to meet with a pistol in his hand, the other miscreants walking on the opposite side of the street, armed with cutlasses and pistols. This singular spectacle attracted the attention of the populace. A considerable crowd soon gathered round them, on which Bunworth joined his companions, who thought their safest plan would be to retreat towards the fields; wherefore they kept together, and, facing the people, retired in a body, presenting their pistols, and swearing they would fire on any who should molest them.'
"This same Bunworth gave another proof of his audacity. Sitting down at the door of a public-house in Holborn, where he was well known, he called for a pint of beer and drank it, holding a pistol in his hand by way of protection. He then went off with the greatest apparent unconcern.
"The 'White Hart,' in Turnmill Street, opposite Cock Court, was formerly a noted house of call for footpads and highwaymen. It was long since pulled down."
"In 1740, Cave, the printer," says Mr. Pinks, "purchased a machine to spin wool or cotton into thread yarn, or worsted, consisting of one hundred spindles, and he had a mill erected to work it, on the course of Turnmill Brook. The patentee, Paul of Birmingham, undertook its management, but it was never brought into profitable order."
In 1416, a parchment-maker of Turnmill Street, says Stow, was drawn, hanged, and beheaded, for harbouring Sir John Oldcastle, the good Lord Cobham, the leader of the insurgent Lollards. The parchment-maker's head was spiked upon London Bridge. Lollard books were found in the house of the unfortunate man. In 1624 Dr. Thomas Worthington, one of the translators of the Douay Bible, and author of "The Anker of Christian Doctrine," lived in Turnmill Street.
In Faithorne's Map of London, 1658, the houses on the west side of Turnmill Street are represented as having gardens leading down to the Fleet, which is fenced on both sides. At the sign of the "Swan," on the west side of Turnmill Street, lived, in 1661, Giles Russell, a brewer, who left an estate in Hertfordshire for the education of three poor children of Clerkenwell parish in Christ's Hospital.
"The stream north of Fleet Bridge," says Mr. Pinks, "justified the epithet of Turnmill Brook till a comparatively recent period, as even in the present century it gave motion to flour and flatting mills at the back of Field Lane." In 1741 an advertisement in the Daily Courant announces a house to let in Bowling Alley, Turnmill Street, with a common sewer, with a good stream and current, "that will turn a mill to grind hair-powder or liquorish, and other things."
Among other infamous lurking-places of thieves pulled down for the Clerkenwell improvements of 1857, was the notorious West Street, formerly known by the innocent name of Chick Lane. Stow mentions it, in 1633, as near a timber bridge that crossed Turnmill Brook (near the end of Field Lane). In a flood in 1661, when casks swam down the streets, several hogs were washed out of their sties in Castle Inn Yard, Smithfield, and were carried down to Chick Lane.
There was a cruel murder committed in Chick Lane in 1758. Two women named Metyard killed a woman named Naylor, and then cut up the body, intending to throw the pieces down the gulley-hole in Chick Lane, but eventually left them in the mud which had collected before the grate of the sewer. The two women were convicted of the murder ten years after, and were both hung at Tyburn in 1768. At an inquest, in 1834, at the "Horseshoe and Magpie," Saffron Hill, on a man found dead in a low lodging-house in West Street, the landlady deposed that in her house there were eight beds in one room, and two or three persons in each bed.
Near Chick Lane was Cow Bridge, mentioned by Stow as north of Oldbourn Bridge, over the River of Wells. In the time of Elizabeth the ground from Cow Cross towards the river Fleet, and towards Ely House, was either entirely vacant, or occupied with gardens.
"Among the houses in West Street," says Mr. Pinks, "was one which was, at the time when it was demolished, supposed to have been built about three hundred years. It was once known as the 'Red Lion Tavern,' but for the century preceding its destruction it was used as a lodging-house, and was the resort of thieves, and the lowest grade of the frail sisterhood. It was numbered 3 in West Street, and was situate on the north-west side of the Fleet Ditch, a few houses from Saffron Hill, and at the eastern corner of Brewhouse Yard. It was sometimes called Jonathan Wild's House, and 'the Old House in West street.' From its remarkable adaptation as a hiding-place, with its various means of escape, it was a curious habitation. Its dark closets, trapdoors, sliding panels, and secret recesses rendered it one of the most secure places for robbery and murder. It was here that a chimney- sweep named Jones, who escaped out of Newgate about three years before the destruction of the house, was so securely hidden for about six weeks, that, although it was repeatedly searched by the police, he was never discovered until his lair was divulged by one of its inmates, who, by incautiously observing that he knew whereabouts Jones was concealed, was taken up and remanded from time to time as an accessory to his escape, but who, at last, tired of prison fare and prison discipline, pointed out the place to obtain his own liberty. Jones was concealed by parting off a portion of a cellar with brickwork, well besmeared with soot and dirt, to prevent detection. This cell, or, more properly, den, was about four feet wide, by nine in depth; and during Jones's incarceration therein, he had food conveyed to him through a small aperture, by a brick or two being left out next the rafters. It was here that a sailor was robbed, and afterwards flung naked through one of the convenient apertures in the wall into the Fleet, for which crime two men and a woman were transported. A skull, and numerous human bones, were found in the cellars. Numerous parties daily visited the premises, among whom were many of the police and county magistrates. It was said to have been the rendezvous, and often the hiding-place, of Jack Sheppard and Jerry Abershaw; and the place looked as if many a foul deed had been there planned and decided on, the sewer or ditch receiving and floating away anything thrown into it. On one occasion the police had surrounded the house to take a thief, whom they knew to be there, but he made his escape in their actual presence. At another time an officer went into one of the rooms to apprehend a man, and saw him in bed. While at the door, calling to another to help him, he turned his head and saw the man getting under the bed. He did not take any notice of it, but when the other man came up, on looking under the bed, the man had vanished. After some search they discovered a trap-door through which one of them jumped, but he, breaking his leg in the fall, the fellow escaped. In this house was a place where a gang of coiners carried on their trade, and had also a private still. This place, like all the rest, had a communication with the sewer. In one of the garrets was a secret door, which led to the roof of the next house from which any offender could be in Saffron Hill in a few minutes. Amongst Mr. Crosby's drawings are a view of this old house, taken August 10, 1844; and an inner view of the cellar windows, taken August 19, 1844. The pulling down of this house was commenced on the first-mentioned date. It appears to have been left standing several years after some of the surrounding buildings had been removed." Three views of the old house taken shortly before its demolition are given on page 421.