The capital city's waterways

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon

New Bridge Road and Farringdon Road are the main throroughfare here and the Fleet River was arched over with substantial stone blocks. Later it was strengthened with several courses of brickwork. The evidence for this can be seen in this picture from Thames water’s archives.

There are a number of photographs from urban explorers showing what a twin tunnel section of the Fleet sewer. Previoulsy it had been thought this was actually further north however plans seen recently shows that this section actually passes under the District lines at the west end of Blackfriars station. A comparable situation can be seen in reverse where the District Line itself splits into two tunnels as it passes under the Regent’s Canal at Mile End. Clearly such situations were once neccessary to avoid the massive engineering issues that would come with building a single tunnel at these critical points.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon

From Ludgate Circus there are a number of short throroughfares or cul-de-sacs on the east side of Farringdon Road. These are (going north); Old Seacoal Lane (Seacollane), Old Fleet Lane, Newcastle Close and Turnagain Lane. All these names are associated with the Fleet Canal. Turnagain is adjacent to Holborn Viaduct and is said to be referring to the barges turning to return downstream to the Thames. Turngain was originally known as Windagain Lane. Newcastle and Seacoal refer to the fact that coal was delivered from Newcastle by sea, to this part of London. This coal was used in limeburning kilns at what is now Limeburner Lane.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
View looking along route of the Fleet River from Ludgate Circus/Fleet St to Holborn Viaduct (in distance)

For an underground view of the Fleet at this location see here (reputedly the remains of the old Fleet Bridge!)

The Fleet Market and Holbourne Bridge/Holborn Viaduct

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon

Above: View from the top of Holborn Viaduct looking south along the Fleet Valley towards Ludgate Circus and Blackfriars. The red line shows the approx original alignment of the Fleet River as it reachs the present day Holborn Viaduct. There seem to be some inconsistencies in the alignments depicted. On some maps the Fleet is shown as heading straight up through the middle of Holborn Viaduct, whilst others show it slightly to the west of Holborn Viaduct. The nearby bridge that crosses Shoe Lane indicates that the river’s valley is wider than it seems and so more likely that it followed this western alignment. Further evidence exists in the different levels along which Saffron Hill and Farringdon Road run.

By the 1830’s the course of the Fleet had been straightened in many places and it subsequently went through the centre of what is now Holborn Viaduct. At this same location was the entrance to the celebrated Fleet market. The view (below) is a drawing by T.H.Shepherd of the market entrance at Holbourne Bridge around 1850. I cant find any copyright to the picture and its used on a number of websites so assume it is copyright free.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
Fleet market, Holbourne Bridge 1850 looking towards Ludgate Circus

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
Alterations to the river’s course saw it flow directly beneath what is now the present day Holborn Viaduct

There is an access manhole into the Fleet sewer just to the south of Holborn Viaduct and pictures of this and the Fleet sewer can be seen at Londonist.

More pictures of this twin tunnel section and of the Fleet Sewer can be seen in the excellent article by the Daily Mail – Going underground.

Visitors may notice that Farringdon Road climbs quite steeply (as evident in the view above looking beyond Holborn Viaduct) however this is a man made incline which was built to ease the junctions with Snow Hill and Charterhouse Street, and does not in any way indicate the Fleet River’s thalweg. This word is a important one when considering the route of a river. The thalweg is the lowest point, or its nadir, in a valley, at which a river runs (or ran.) In the case of the Fleet, many roads despite following roughly the course of the old river, do not follow it’s thalweg. Take for example Holborn Viaduct – the Fleet flowed through the site of the viaduct bridge but this was not its original route, which was slightly to the west as evidenced on old maps and by the alignment of local roads such as Saffron Hill.

A letter from JM Rodwell to Charles Darwin dated 31st October 1860, tells us that around 1843 a portion of the Fleet by St Peter’s Church in Saffron Hill, was uncovered and enormous blind rats were found! Rodwell also asserts that there are three arches of an old Roman bridge at Holborn, some sixteen feet below the present surface.

Holborn Viaduct marks the furthest point which the Fleet Canal reached. Northwards it was just known as the Fleet River, most of which was open waterway until the 1820’s.

The image shown below I believe depicts the Fleet sewer in the vicinity just to the north of Holborn Viaduct. The reasoning behind this is that the tides can only reach this far, and the Fleet clearly has to drop from a height equal to that of the adjacent sewer at Clerkenwell Road/Vine Street in order to attaining the level at which the tidal section runs. The fall from Clerkenwell Road to the Thames is between 40 and 50 feet. Click on image to see full size at another site.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon

Saffron Hill, Farringdon and Clerkenwell

Beyond Holborn, the Fleet then ran along an alignment between the east side of Saffron Hill and Farringdon Road. It then veered to the east at what is now Farringdon Station, before heading back west towards Saffrom Hill. The river itself is diverted in culverts nowadays underneath Farringdon Road.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
A view looking south from Charterhouse Street down Shoe Lane towards the smaller of the Holborn Viaduct bridges. The Fleet river ran to hereabouts before returning to an alignment nearer Farringdon Road

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
On the north side of Charterhouse Street these lengthy steps descend to Saffron Hill. It is clear from this that the Fleet ran at a much lower level than the present Farringdon Road, which rises in both directions to it’s junction with Charterhouse Street. The southern end of Saffrom Hill shows evidence that the Fleet originally ran to the west of Farringdon Road. This is backed up by boundary markings on the Roque map of London, Westminster, Southwark 1746 and the Greenwood London map of 1830. It is absolutely clear the bottom end of Saffron Hill is either very close to, or even upon, the Fleet River’s ‘thalweg.’ For an explanation of this word see Wikipedia

Until the early 18th Century the Fleet meandered northwards, but by 1736 it had been considerably straightened from Holborn Viaduct towards Mount Pleasant although some of the more gentle meanders were left. Some of this later alignment clearly followed what is now Farringdon Road itself. When looking for the Fleet River’s route it must be remembered that the original river course lay to the west of Farringdon Road.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
This is Farringdon Road at the junction with Cowcross St. The Fleet would have been found at this location in both original and modifed forms. However the original veers slightly eastwards from this point to run roughly at mid point between Farringdon Road and the Farringdon Station environs, before veering westwards again to what is now Onslow Street at the rear of Clerkenwell Road. The 46 bus service doesnt run along Farringdon Road, the bus depicted is actually an out of service working from the 46’s Farringdon Street terminus to Holloway Bus Garage

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
Dereliction at the rear of Farringdon Road. This ‘jungle’ area is well below street level and clearly consistent with the Fleet’s thalweg in this view looking south from St Cross Street

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
Onlsow Street, to the west of the junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads. The marked difference in ground levels is yet more evidence of the Fleet River’s route. Investigations have shown that the Fleet’s former route ran near this point

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
This bus stop on Farringdon Road just south of the Clerkenwell Rd is where the Fleet River would have ran in full view of Clerkenwell Church

The Fleet Sewer in brief towards Kings Cross

The present Fleet River/Ditch, known now as the Fleet Sewer, passes under Farringdon Road in its culvert, as far as the junction with Ray Street, where it then turns left underneath Ray Street, past the bottom of Herbal and Back Street Hills. There are two drain covers, one through which the Fleet can be heard cascading down a stepped weir, and the other through which the Fleet can be spotted flowing about 20 feet below street level.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
The Fleet flowing beneath the streets of London

The section along Ray Street is the only part there which the Fleet Sewer follows the alignment of its former river course. From the Coach and Horses in Ray Street, the Fleet Sewer turns to runs underneath Warner Street, Phoenix Place, Pakenham Street, Cubitt Street. Here it derivates from its original sewer course and passes underneath Fleet Square and Ampton Street to reach Grays Inn Road, just over half a mile to the north west.

The Fleet then follows Grays Inn Road as far as Kings Cross Bridge where it takes up its original sewer alignment. Originally the Fleet was planned to run alongside the Metropolitan Railway, but this was relegated because of fears of capacity problems. A minor drain was provided instead. The Fleet passes underneath Kings Cross Bridge and over the Metropolitan/Circle/Hammersmith lines, before running in front of Kings Cross station and along what is known as the Hotel Curve towards St. Pancras.

The old river route towards Kings Cross

From Clerkenwell Road the river turned to head east, and along the approximate route of Farringdon Lane. It then turned to parallel Ray Street, heading in a north west direction along the south side of what is Warner Road. Beyond here the river passed the western boundary of Clerkenwell New Prison (which was the first to have female ward) and the House of Correction. These are now where the Mount Plesant Sorting Office is sited.

Just before the 1830’s the course of the river was diverted and straightened onto an alignment which is where Phoenix Place and Pakenham Street now run. Its old meandering course was slightly to the east. The river continued past Baggnige Wells, and along the west side of Black Mary’s Hole, another noted well. The curving aspect of Kings Cross Road is such because it follows the old alignment of the Fleet. Around 1854, the Fleet was culverted to run under Warner Street past the back of the Clerkenwell Workhouse, just to the north of Ray Street.

The Fleet originally passed along the bottom of what are now Acton, Swinton, Wicklow, Britannia, Leeke, Fields and St Chad’s Streets, still on an alignment along the west side of Kings Cross Road. St Chad’s was the site of yet another well sited on the Fleet River. During the building of the Metropolitan Railway in the 1860’s, the entire meandering river was removed and sent through a culvert known as the Fleet Sewer. At Farringdon this new culvert burst into the new railway works, flooding them to a depth of 10 feet in the Kings Cross area. A news report of 20 June 1862 from by the Guardian tells us what happened.

The Fleet's former route from Blackfriars to Farringdon
Drawing of the damage when the Fleet flooded the railway. Image downloaded from Flickr under Creative Commons License

Although Kings Cross Bridge is often cited as being the furthest that boats could navigate the river, there is some evidence that boats actually ventured as far as Kentish Town. It is recorded that during repairs to the river’s banks at Castle Street in Kentish Town, some time in the late 18th century, an anchor and part of a barge were discovered. Kings Cross Bridge was known as Battle Bridge very early on. The name still lives on in the nearby canal basin, sometimes also known as Horsfall Basin.

The Fleet River’s route can be followed in more detail towards Mount Pleasant, Kings Cross, St Pancras and Camden Town in parts three, four, five, six and seven.

The Fleet River Part Three

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