London’s secret rivers

Beneath the streets of London lie countless hidden waterways

Although they are now buried under London’s streets, the rivers, springs and waterways that shaped the city are not silenced. Place your ear to the manhole cover at the foot of Angler’s Lane in Kentish Town or outside the Coach and Horses in Clerkenwell and you will hear running water. It is the sound of water in a culvert, but that voice is also the River Fleet, still flowing, although long since lost.

More poetically, the chatter of London’s waterways echoes into the present through the city’s place names. Along the course of the Fleet, we find a warren of streets christened by water: Watergate, Bridewell Place, Turnagain Lane (because the River Fleet made it a cul-de-sac), Cowcross Street (because livestock crossed the river there) and Turnmill Street (because the Fleet turned so many mills).

And if we listen carefully, we start to hear these rivers in names so absorbed into the geography of the city that their re-association with those forgotten waterways is endlessly surprising: the Tyburn Brook gave us Brook Street of course although how many remember the lost stream when they arrange to meet for tea at Claridge’s? The entire district of Holborn takes its name from the deep valley of the River Fleet it means the bourne in the hollow. Marylebone is named after a church that stood on the banks of a brook: St Mary-by-the-bourne.

Here and there, it’s also possible to remember our lost rivers with a meandering walk. Take a look at Marylebone Lane in your A to Z. The street curves in a long, lazy S because it was once the left bank of the Tyburn Brook. But if, most of the time, we have to hear them in place names or in the ghostly babble of gutter-flows, once in a while, these buried waterways force their way more physically to the surface of our landscape and attention: a map of floods in Camden in 1975 and 2002 follows perfectly the underground courses of the Fleet and Tyburn. Ask site workers and you’ll find that these rivers still flood building sites, cellars and the Underground. Or ask an old doctor and you’ll discover that, not so long ago, it was possible to trace the passage of London’s old rivers in a map of diseases such as bronchitis.

An engraving of Fleet Ditch, London in 1749

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These are all gentle or not so gentle reminders of how our city’s history was written by water. An obvious thought if you look at the River Thames. Not so obvious for these lost rivers. But the site of early London, the thumbprint of winding streets planted between Blackfriars and the Tower, was determined as much by the Rivers Fleet and Walbrook, which defended the city west and east, as by the Thames.

Rivers had strategic value, but, even more vitally, they supplied water. The history reflected in our capital city’s street patterns and architecture was determined by where clean water came from and how. Because, although our city’s origins were determined by water, its citizens have always corrupted the supply.

The Walbrook and Fleet were notorious. Various Royal inquisitions from the time of Edward I and on down the centuries describe how the Walbrook and Fleet are full of ‘dung and other nuisances’. Ben Jonson described in verse the assault on his senses (particularly olfactory) of a journey up the Fleet: How dare Your daintie nostrils (in so hot a season, When every clerke eates artichokes and peason,
Laxative lettus, and such windie meat) Tempt such a passage? When each privies seat Is filled with buttock? And the walls doe sweat Urine and plaisters? Only the foolhardy would drink from such a stream.

Nor did the city’s wells St Bride’s or Clerkenwell for example escape the filth of its inhabitants. And so in the reign of Edward I, with the Walbrook and Fleet bunged up and stinking, work began on a wholly different type of waterway to bring water to a thirsty city.

The Tyburn stream (which flows into the Thames) in the basement of Gray's Antiques in Davies Street, W1. London.

The Tyburn stream (which flows into the Thames) in the basement of Gray’s Antiques in Davies Street, W1. London.

In 1237, the City bought Tyburn springs from Gilbert de Sandford and built a reservoir there, more or less where the old river crossed the present Oxford Street. In 1245, having negotiated the permissions needed for land and access, they began work on the Great Conduit: a ribbon of hollowed out tree-trunks threaded south towards what is now Buckingham Palace and then east into the City via Ludgate to end in a lockable conduit house at Cheapside.

As can easily be imagined, a supply of clean water was a valuable thing. Many tried to exploit it, siphoning the flow with straws made from swans’ quills. Brewers became a particular menace. Soon, the people of London had to queue and pay for their water. The cost and the wait pushed the poor or impatient back to the tender mercies of the Fleet, Walbrook or Thames and the queues became jammed with brewers and their vast tuns, which took ages to fill.

Lamb’s Conduit Street owes its name to a similar scheme. In 1577, William Lambe funded the construction of a reservoir filled by springs on a tributary of the Fleet and 2,000 yards of lead pipe that took the clean water to Snow Hill down beside the turgid City stream. It’s hard now to conceive of how a brook under the Ormond Street Hospital could have once supplied fresh water to the City, but Bloomsbury was open country then, all wet meadows, wild orchids and snipe.

Entrance to the Fleet Ditch, London

Entrance to the Fleet Ditch, London


Both these conduits were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, by which time a third, more ambitious, scheme had been constructed. Edmund Colthurst conceived the New River—a channel to carry clean water 40 miles from chalk springs in Hertfordshire to Islington in 1602. Vastly expensive and a technical nightmare to build, Colthurst sold out after he’d dug only two miles and the gold merchant and adventurer Hugh Myddleton took over. Myddleton in turn went cap-in-hand to James I to help finish the scheme.

The New River opened in 1613. By 1615, there were only 384 subscribers and a disappointed James I sold his shares. He was too impatient as, by 1619, the New River Company was turning a profit and, by 1695, it stood alongside the East India Company and the Bank as one of the three richest institutions in the capital. More remarkably, the New River still serves London some 403 years after it was first opened.

More than anything, the basic human need to drink has been the shaping hand of our capital city. Trace the rings of growth and, allowing for the impact of the Great Fire and the Blitz, it’s clear that, over its entire history, London has evolved as if it were a living organism, seeking water. That is as much the case now, as the city’s thirsty tendrils and suburbs reach out towards the Chilterns or North Downs and beyond, as it has ever been.