This London history site is a wiki of early London streets.
Only a little tributary to the Thames, the River Fleet, generally, and
ignominiously, called the Fleet _Ditch_, yet it is historically interesting, not
only on account of the different places through which its murmuring stream
meandered, almost all of which have some story of their own to tell, but the
reminiscences of its Prison stand
by themselves--pages of history, not to be blotted out, but to be recorded as valuable in illustration of the habits, and customs, of our forefathers.
The City of London, in its early days, was well supplied with water, not only by the wells dug near houses, or by the public springs, some of which still exist, as Aldgate Pump, &c., and the River Thames; but, when its borders increased, the Walbrook was utilized, as well as the Fleet, and, later on, the Tye-bourne, or twin brook, which fell into the Thames at Westminster. In the course of time these rivulets became polluted, land was valuable; they were covered over, and are now sewers. The course of the Fleet being clearly traceable in the depression of Farringdon Street, and the windings of the Tye-bourne in the somewhat tortuous Marylebone Lane (so called from the Chapel of St. Mary, which was on the banks of "le bourne," or the brook). Its further course is kept in our memory by Brook Street, Hanover Square.
The name of this little river has exercised many minds, and has been the cause of spoiling much good paper. My own opinion, backed by many antiquaries, is that a _Fleet_ means a brook, or tributary to a larger river, which is so wide, and deep, at its junction with the greater stream as to be navigable for the small craft then in use, for some little distance. Thus, we have the names on the Thames of Purfleet, Northfleet, and Southfleet, and the same obtains in other places. Its derivation seems to be Saxon--at least, for our language. Thus, in Bosworth's "Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language," we find, "Flede-Fledu: part. _Flooded_; _overflowed_: tumidus: Tiber fleduweareth--the Tiber was flooded (Ors. 4. 7)."
Again, the same author gives: "Fleot (_Plat_ fleet, m. _a small river_; _Ger._ flethe. f. _a channel_). _A place where vessels float_, _a bay_, _gulf_, _an arm of the sea_, _the mouth of a river_, _a river_; hence the names of places, as _Northfleet_, _Southfleet_, _Kent_; and in London, _Fleet ditch_; _sinus_. Soes Fleot, _a bay of the sea_.
_Bd._ 1. 34."
Another great Anglo-Saxon scholar--Professor Skeat, in "An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language": "Fleet, a creek, bay. In the names _North-fleet_, _Fleet_ Street, &c. Fleet Street was so named from the Fleet Ditch; and _fleet_ was given to any shallow creek, or stream, or channel of water. See Halliwell. M.E. _fleet_ (Promptorium Parvulorum, &c., p. 166). A.S. _fleot_, a bay of the sea, as in Soes Fleot, bay of the sea. Aelfred's tr. of Beda, i. 34. Afterwards applied to any channel or stream, especially if shallow. The original sense was 'a place where vessels float,' and the derivation is from the old verb _fleet_, to float, &c."
The French, too, have a cognate term, especially in Norman towns, as Barfleur, Honfleur, Harfleur, &c., which were originally written Barbe_flot_, Hune_flot_, and Hare_flot_: and these were sometimes written Hareflou, Huneflou, and Barfleu, which latter comes very near to the Latin _flevus_, called by Ptolemy _fleus_, and by Mela _fletio_. Again, in Brittany many names end in _pleu_, or _plou_, which seems to be very much like the Greek [Greek: pleo]: _full_, _swollen_, which corresponds to our Anglo-Saxon Flede; Dutch Vliet.
But it has another, and a very pretty name, "THE RIVER OF WELLS," from the number of small tributaries that helped to swell its stream, and from the wells which bordered its course; such as Sadler's Wells, Bagnigge Wells, White Conduit, Coldbath, Lamb's Conduit, Clerkenwell--all of which (although all were not known by those names in Stow's times) were in existence.
Stow, in his "SURVEY OF LONDON" (ed. 1603, his last edition, and which consequently has his best corrections), says--
That the riuer of Wels in the west parte of the Citty, was of olde so called of the Wels, it may be proued thus, William the Conqueror in his Charter to the Colledge of S. Marten le Grand in London, hath these wordes: I doe giue and graunt to the same Church all the land and the Moore, without the Posterne, which is called Cripplegate, on eyther part of the Postern, that is to say, from the North corner of the Wall, as the riuer of the Wels, there neare running, departeth the same More from the Wall, vnto the running water which entereth the Cittie; this water hath beene long since called the riuer of the Wels, which name of riuer continued, and it was so called in the raigne of Edward the first; as shall bee shewed, with also the decay of the saide riuer. In a fayre Booke of Parliament recordes, now lately restored to the Tower, it appeareth that a Parliament being holden at Carlile in the yeare 1307, the 35 of Edward the I. Henry Lacy Earle of Lincolne, complayned that whereas, in times past the course of water, running at _London_ vnder _Olde bourne_ bridge, and _Fleete_ bridge into the Thames, had beene of such bredth and depth, that 10 or 12 ships, Nauies at once with marchadises, were wot to come to the foresaid bridge of Fleete, and some of them to Oldborne bridge: now the same course by filth of the Tanners & such others, was sore decaied; also by raising of wharfes, but specially by a diversio of the waters made by them of the new _Temple_, for their milles standing without _Baynardes Castle_, in the first yeare of King _John_, and diuers other impediments, so as the said ships could not enter as they were wont, & as they ought, wherefore he desired that the Maior of London, with the shiriffs, and other discrete Aldermen, might be appointed to view the course of the saide water, and that by the othes of good men, all the aforesaide hinderances might be remoued, and it to bee made as it was wont of old: wherupon _Roger le Brabazon_, the Constable of the Tower, with the Maior and Shiriffes, were assigned to take with them honest and discrete men, and to make diligent search and enquirie, how the said riuer was in old time, and that they leaue nothing that may hurt or stop it, but keepe it in the same estate that it was wont to be. So far the record. Wherupon it folowed that the said riuer was at that time cleansed, these mils remoued, and other things done for the preseruation of the course thereof, not withstanding neuer brought to the olde depth and breadth, whereupon the name of riuer ceased, and was since called a Brooke, namely Turnmill or Tremill Brooke, for that diuers Mils were erected vpon it, as appeareth by a fayre Register booke, conteyning the foundation of the Priorie at Clarkenwell, and donation of the landes thereunto belonging, a s also by diuers other records.
"This brooke hath beene diuers times since clensed, namely, and last of all to any effect, in the yeare 1502 the 17th of Henrie the 7. the whole course of Fleete dike, then so called, was scowred (I say) downe to the Thames, so that boats with fish and fewel were rowed to Fleete bridge, and to Oldburne bridge,
as they of olde time had beene accustomed, which was a great commoditie to all the inhabitants in that part of the Citie.
"In the yeare 1589, was granted a fifteene, by a common Councell of the citie, for the cleansing of this Brooke or dike: the money amounting to a thousand marks collected, and it was undertaken, that, by drawing diuerse springes about Hampsted heath, into one head and Course, both the citie should be serued of fresh water in all places of want, and also that by such a follower, as men call it, the channell of this brooke should be scowred into the riuer of Thames; but much mony being therein spent, y^e effect fayled, so that the Brooke by meanes of continuall incrochments vpon the banks getting ouer the water, and casting of soylage into the streame, is now become woorse cloyed and that euer it was before."
From this account of Stow's we find that the stream of the Fleet, although at one time navigable, had ceased to be so in his time, but we see, by the frontispiece, which is taken from a painting (in the Guildhall Art Gallery) by Samuel Scot, 1770 (?) that the mouth of the Fleet river, or ditch, call it which you like, was still, not only navigable, but a place of great resort for light craft.
The name "River of Wells" is easily to be understood, if we draw again upon Stow, who, in treating of "Auncient and present Riuers, Brookes, Boorns, Pooles, Wels, and Conduits of fresh water seruing the Citie," &c., says--
"Aunciently, vntill the Conquerors time, and 200 yeres after, the Citie of London was watered besides the famous Riuer of Thames on the South part; with the riuer of the WELS, as it was then called, on the west; with water called WALBROOKE running through the midst of the citie into the riuer of Thames, seruing the heart thereof. And with a fourth water or Boorne, which ran within the Citie through LANGBOORNE ward, watering that part in the East. In the west suburbs was also another great water, called OLDBORNE, which had his fall into the riuer of Wels: then was there 3 principall Fountaines or wels in the other Suburbs, to wit, Holy Well, Clements Well, and Clarkes Well. Neare vnto this last named fountaine were diuers other wels, to wit, Skinners Wel, Fags Wel, Loders Wel, and Rad Well; All
which sayde Wels, hauing the fall of their ouerflowing in the foresayde Riuer, much encreased the streame, and in that place gaue it the name of Wel. In west Smithfield, there was a Poole in Recordes called HORSEPOOLE, and one other Poole neare vnto the parish Church of Saint GILES without CRIPPLEGATE. Besides all which they had in euerie streete and Lane of the citie diuerse fayre Welles and fresh Springs; and, after this manner was this citie then serued with sweete and fresh waters, which being since decaid, other means haue beene sought to supplie the want."
Here, then, we have a list of Wells, which are, together with those I have already mentioned, quite sufficient to account for the prettier name of the "River of Wells." Of these wells Stow writes in his deliciously-quaint phraseology:--
There are (saith _Fitzstephen_) neare London, on the North side special wels in the Suburbs, sweete, wholesome, and cleare, amongst which _Holy well_, Clarkes wel, and Clements wel are most famous, and frequented by Scholers, and youthes of the Cittie in sommer evenings, when they walke forthe to take the aire.
"The first, to wit, Holy well, is much decayed, and marred with filthinesse laide there, for the heightening of the ground for garden plots.
"The fountaine called S. Clements well, North from the Parish Church of S. Clements, and neare vnto an Inne of _Chancerie_, called _Clements_ Inne, is faire curbed square with hard stone, kept cleane for common vse, and is alwayes full.
"The third is called Clarkes well, or Clarkenwell, and is curbed about square with hard stone, not farre from the west ende of Clarkenwell Church, but close without the wall that incloseth it; the sayd Church tooke the name of the Well, and the Well tooke the name of the Parish Clarkes in London, who of old time were accustomed there yearely to assemble, and to play some large hystorie of holy Scripture. And, for example, of later time, to wit, in the yeare 1390, the 14 of Richard the Second, I read the Parish Clarks of London, on the 18 of July, playd Enterludes at _Skinners well_, neare vnto _Clarkes well_, which play continued three dayes togither, the King, Queene, and Nobles being present. Also the yeare 1409, the 10 of Henrie the 4. they played a play at the _Skinners well_, which lasted eight
dayes, and was of matter from the creation of the worlde. There were to see the same, the most part of the Nobles and Gentiles in England, &c.
"Other smaller welles were many neare vnto Clarkes well, namely _Skinners well_, so called for that the Skinners of London held there certaine playes yearely playd of holy Scripture, &c. In place whereof the wrestlings haue of later yeares beene kept, and is in part continued at _Bartholomew tide_.
"Then was there Fagges well, neare vnto _Smithfield_ by the _Charterhouse_, now lately dammed vp, _Tod well_, _Loders well_, and _Rad well_, all decayed, and so filled vp, that there places are hardly now discerned.
"Somewhat North from _Holy well_ is one other well curbed square with stone, and is called _Dame Annis the Cleare_, and not farre from it, but somewhat west, is also one other cleare water called _Perillous pond_, because diuerse youthes by swimming therein haue beene drowned; and thus much bee said for Fountaines and Wels.
"_Horse poole_ in _Westsmithfield_, was sometime a great water, and because the inhabitants in that part of the Citie did there water their Horses, the same was, in olde Recordes, called _Horspoole_, it is now much decayed, the springs being stopped vp, and the land waters falling into the small bottome, remayning inclosed, with Bricke, is called _Smithfield pond_.
"By S. Giles Churchyard was a large water, called a _Poole_. I read in the year 1244 that Anne of Lodburie was drowned therein; this poole is now for the most part stopped vp, but the spring is preserued, and was cooped about with stone by the Executors of _Richard Wittington_."