Over two hundred years ago, the author Jonathan Swift mentioned the filth in the Fleet river during a storm in a poem:
‘Sweepings from butchers stalls, dung, guts and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood’.
There is probably no time in history when London’s waterways were not transformed by human activity. The Domesday book of 1086 records over 6,000 mills and freshwater fisheries on the capital’s rivers, streams and brooks.
One of the most significant offshoots of the Thames was the Fleet river. It once had a broad tidal basin, several hundred feet wide when it reached the Thames, but like many of London’s rivers, it significantly reduced its flow as the city’s population grew. They covered the Fleet during the reconstruction of the city by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire in 1666 and after the Great Stink of 1858. In Ray Street, Farringdon, there is a point where you can hear the waters of the enclosed Fleet. In 1862 the river exploded and burst through, flooding the half-built Metropolitan line.
The river Walbrook in the city of London now runs completely underground and feeds a sewer. Where Walbrook meets Cannon Street, it’s possible to see a small hump in the road. It’s one spot where the long-buried past almost breaks through the skin of modern London. The Walbrook still dribbles onto the foreshore from a pipe just upstream of Cannon Street station.
For centuries London’s lost rivers have been used as open drains, covered in concrete, hidden behind walls and built over. The list includes some of London’s most famous place names, such as the Strand and the Tyburn. Others include the Effra, which rises in Crystal Palace and flows north to the Thames at Vauxhall, the Ravensbourne in south-east London, the Wandle in Croydon, and two tributaries of the Lee near the 2012 Olympic site in east London.
Today the Environment Agency estimates that 70% of London’s 600km river network is covered over. We can only glimpse some in odd places, such as the high-level tunnel that runs above the platform at Sloane Square tube station carrying the Westbourne.
The Tyburn still runs under Buckingham Palace, once so close to its floors, sewage frequently flooded the Georgian kitchens. The Westbourne surfaces to feed the Serpentine in Hyde Park. We can see the hidden rivers in the humps and bumps of alleys following medieval lanes, street names from Knightsbridge in the west to Shoreditch in the east.
Wherever developers have dug, the finds have poured out. Some of these objects were undoubtedly accidental losses, but many were deliberately deposited. The range of objects coming out of the mud over the centuries is astonishing: from Neolithic flint tools, Roman debris, pottery, glassware, animal bones, human teeth, religious curios, relics of war, children’s toys, pins, jewels, buckles, buttons, leather and cloth.
Other finds include Bronze age and mediaeval swords, spearheads and battle-axes. Experts say they were deposited in the ancient rivers as personal offerings or attempting to control the river by divine intervention. Many of the weapons found are usually in good condition, suggesting they were high-value items placed in the rivers, especially for this purpose.
Above is a ‘triple toilet seat’ from the 12th century that allowed locals to defecate directly into a cesspit near Fleet Street. The carved plank of oak was once placed behind a mixed commercial and residential building on Ludgate Hill. The toilet would probably have been shared by shopkeepers and families living and working in the area.
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I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.
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Family is everything to the Carters’. Alf Carter runs his criminal empire with the help of his two sons, Kenny and Billy. But when family is everything, the ties that bind might be the deadliest of all. When Billy Carter should feel everything is before him, including the love of his life, it’s taken away when terrifying gangland violence threatens his life.
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Billy Pearce is a well-respected heavyweight boxer from London. After his one and only love is taken, his life is thrown into the menace and treachery of London’s criminal underworld. Love You Till I Die is a novel about loyalty and reliability, about people that love and care for each other but who, when push comes to shove, will do whatever to protect their own.