There are other rivers of London which lie concealed, encased in tunnels or in pipes, occasionally to be heard but generally running silently and invisibly beneath the surface of the city. To name them in order, west to east—Stamford Brook, the Wandle, Counter’s Creek, the Falcoln, the Westbourne, the Tyburn, the Effra, the Fleet, the Walbrook, Neckinger and the Earl’s Sluice, the Peck and the Ravensbourne.
It has always been said that enchantment is bought in the burying alive of great waters, yet the purchase may be a perilous one. The “lost rivers” can still create stench and dampness. The Fleet River, at times of storm, can still reach beyond its artificial containment and flood basements along its route; at its source in Hampstead it was the expediter of agues and fevers. The valleys of these rivers, many now converted into roads or train-lines, were subject to fog as well as damp. According to the author of The Lost Rivers of London, Nicholas Barton, rheumatism “was unusually common both sides of Counter’s Creek from Shepherd’s Bush to Chelsea,” while the London “ague” of the seventeenth century has been suggestively associated with streams and rivulets now sunk beneath the earth.
The lost rivers may provoke allergies also. One recent investigation of patients in London hospitals revealed that “38 out of the 49 allergic patients (i.e. 77.5 per cent) lived within 180 yards of a known watercourse” while among asthmatics “17 out of the 19 [were] living within 180 yards of a watercourse,” in most cases the “buried tributaries of the Thames.” The reasons for this strange correlation are still unknown, although those who understand the various powers of London places may have their own theories. But the enchantment, white or black, does not end there. A study published in 1960, The Geography of London Ghosts by G.W. Lambert, has found that approximately 75 per cent of these disturbances occurred “in houses significantly close to watercourses,” where perhaps the spirit as well as the sound of buried waters may be asserting themselves.
We may take the fate of the Fleet River as characteristic. As befits an ancient river, it has gone by many names. It was christened the Fleet in its lower reaches, from the Anglo-Saxon term for a tidal inlet; in its upper reaches it was known as the Holebourne, and in its middle section as Turnmill Brook. It has in a sense been the guardian of London, marking the boundary between Westminster and the City from ancient times. It has always been used as part of London’s defences; during the Civil War, for example, great earthworks were built on either bank. Of all the city’s lost rivers, therefore, it is the one which is best documented and most often depicted. It has shared in the defilement of London, as a repository of its discarded and forgotten objects. An anchor was discovered as far north as Kentish Town, which may provide some indication of its width and depth at this far point, but more generally it has been the last resting place for the more local and immediate items of urban existence—keys, daggers, coins, medals, pins, brooches and the detritus of such riverine industries as tanning. It needed continually to be cleansed of its mud and general filth, so the scouring of the river took place every twenty or thirty years. Those who wished to rail against London, and all its squalor, inevitably chose the Fleet River as their example; it epitomised the way in which the city fouled water once sweet and clear. It carried the savour of each street, readily identifiable; it was full of dung and dead things. It was London in essence. “The greatest good that I ever heard it did was to the undertaker,” Ned Ward wrote, “who is bound to acknowledge he has found better fishing in that muddy stream than ever he did in clear water.” The Fleet, like the Thames its father, was a river of death.
It has always been an unlucky river. Once it moved through the regions of Kentish Town and St. Pancras, melancholy still with the touch of the water; then at Battle Bridge it entered “the pleasure grounds of Giant Despair,” according to William Hone, where “trees stand as if not made to vegetate; clipped hedges seem willing to decline, and weeds struggle weakly upon unlimited borders.” It then moved around Clerkenwell Hill and touched the stones of the Coldbath Prison; passed Saffron Hill, whose fragrant name concealed some of the worst rookeries in London; and entered the path of Turnmill Street, the vicious reputation of which has already been chronicled. Then it flowed down into Chick Lane, later known as West Street, which was for many centuries the haven of felons and murderers; the river here became the dumping ground of bodies slain or robbed when dead drunk. Once more it became the river of death before flowing in front of the noxious Fleet Prison.
Prisoners died of its stench, and of the diseases which it carried with it. In the valley of the Fleet, wrote a doctor in 1560, and “in its stinking lanes, there died most in London and were soonest inflicted, and were longest continued, as twice since I have known London I have marked it to be true.” In later testimony quoted in The Lost Rivers of London, it was revealed that “In every parish along the Fleet, the Plague stayed and destroyed.” It might be asked why the area was always so fully populated, therefore, were it not for the fact that the river seemed to draw certain people towards its banks by some form of silent contagion. It attracted those who were already dirty, and silent, and evil-smelling, as if it were their natural habitat. It was treacherous, too, in its natural state. In stormy weather it was liable to sudden increase of volume, causing inundation of its surrounding areas. At times of thaw, or in periods of heavy rain, it became a dangerous torrent tearing down streets and buildings. The deluge of 1317 carried away many citizens as well as their houses and sheds; in the fifteenth century the parishioners of St. Pancras were moved to plead that they could not reach their church “when foul ways is and great water.”
Every attempt to render it clean or noble failed. After the Great Fire, when the wharves along the Thames were utterly destroyed with all their merchandise within them, its banks were raised upon brick and stone while four new bridges were constructed to maintain its formal harmony. But the refurbishment of the New Canal, as it was then called, was not successful; the waters once more became sluggish and noxious, while the neighbouring streets and banks continued their notorious lives as harbours for thieves, pimps and malingerers. So, within fifty years of the grand development, the river itself was bricked over. It is almost as if it represented a flow of guilt which had to be concealed from public view; the city literally buried it. In 1732 it was bricked in from Fleet Street to Holborn Bridge and then, thirty-three years later, it was bricked in from Fleet Street to the Thames. At the beginning of the next century its northern reaches were buried underground so that no trace of this once great guardian of London remained.
Yet its spirit did not die. In 1846 it blew up, “its rancid and foetid gas,” trapped within brick tunnels, “bursting out into the streets above”; three posthouses were swept away by “a tidal wave of sewage” and a steamboat was crushed against Blackfriars Bridge. The waters of the Fleet Ditch then actively hampered the efforts to construct an underground railway beneath it: its waters filled the tunnels with dark and fetid liquid, and for a while all work was abandoned. It is now employed only as a storm sewer, with its outfall into the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, but it still manifests its presence. In storms it may still flood the roadway, while building works upon its old course have regularly to be pumped out. So the waters from ancient streams and wells collect themselves in their old courses and run along the familiar beds of the now enclosed main rivers.
The rivers themselves are not wholly dead, then, and occasionally emerge into the light. The course of the Westbourne River can be observed rushing through a great iron pipe above the platform of Sloane Square Underground Station; the Tyburn is also carried in great pipes at the tube stations of Baker Street and Victoria. In February 1941 the Tyburn was observed flowing at the bottom of a bomb crater. The Westbourne was not covered until 1856. The Lost Rivers of London reveals that in Meard Street, Soho, is “a grate in the basement beneath which waters can be seen running in a southward direction”; the phenomenon is mysterious but it has been suggested that this water is pursuing the course of a seventeenth-century sewer and has created an unknown stream. As Nicholas Barton has put it, “once a channel has been made they cling to it with great persistence.” It raises the possibility of other streams and tributaries, still flowing beneath the streets of the city, replete with their own underground ghosts and nymphs.