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Chapter 2. Water supply of London. - John Ashton 1888

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London, for its size, was indeed very well supplied with water, although, of course, it was not laid on to every house, as now, but, with the exception of those houses provided with wells, it had to be fetched from fixed public places, which were fairly numerous. When the waters of the Fleet, and Wallbrook, in the process of time, became contaminated, Henry III., in the 21st year of his reign (1236), granted to the Citizens of London the privilege of conveying the waters of the Tye-bourne through leaden pipes to the City, "for the poore to drinke, and the rich to dresse their meate." And it is only a few years since, that close by what is now called "Sedley Place," Oxford Street, but which used to be the old hunting lodge of bygone Lord Mayors, some of these very pipes were unearthed, a fine cistern being uncovered at the same time.

For public use there were the great Conduit in West Cheape: the Tonne or Tun in Cornhill, fountains at Billingsgate, at Paul's Wharf, and St. Giles', Cripplegate, and conduits at Aldermanbury, the Standard in Fleet Street, Gracechurch Street, Holborn Cross (afterwards Lamb's Conduit), at the Stocks Market (where the Mansion House now stands), Bishopsgate, London Wall, Aldgate, Lothbury--and this without reckoning the supply furnished from the Thames by the enterprising German, or Dutchman, Pieter Moritz, who in 1582 started the famous waterworks close to where Fishmongers' Hall now stands.

The Fleet river (I prefer that title to the other cognomen, "Ditch"),  flowing through London, naturally became somewhat befouled, and in Henry the VII.'s time, _circa_ 1502, it was cleansed, so that, as aforesaid, "boats with fish and fewel were rowed to Fleete bridge, and to Oldburne bridge." We also know, as Stow records, that more springs were introduced into the stream from Hampstead, without effect, either as to deepening or purifying the river, which had an evil reputation even in the time of Edward I., as we see in Ryley's "Placita Parliamentaria" (ed. 1661), p. 340--

"_Ad peticionem Com. Lincoln._ querentis quod cum cursus aque, que currit apud _London_ sub _Ponte_ de _Holeburn_, & _Ponte_ de _Fleete_ usque in _Thamisiam_ solebat ita largus & latus esse, ac profundus, quod decem Naves vel duodecim ad predictum Pontem de _Fleete_ cum diversis rebus & mercandisis solebant venire, & quedam illarum Navium sub illo Ponte transire, usque ad predictum Pontem de _Holeburn_ ad predictum cursum mundanmum & simos exinde cariand, nunc ille cursus per fordes & inundaciones Taunatorum & p varias perturbaciones in predicta aqua, factas & maxime per exaltationem Caye & diversionem aque quam ipsi de _Novo Templo_ fecerunt ad Molendina sua extra Castra _Baignard_, quod Naves predicte minime intrare possunt sicut solebant, & facere debeant &c. unde supplicat quod _Maior de London_ assumptis secum Vice com. & discretionibus Aldermannis cursum pre[=d]ce aque videat, & quod per visum & sacr[~m] proborum & legalium hominum faciat omnia nocumenta predicte aque que invinerit ammovere & reparare cursum predictum, & ipsum in tali statu manutenere in quo antiquitus esse solebat &c. _Ita responsum est, Assignentur Rogerus le Brabazon & Constabularius Turris, London Maior & Vice Com. London, quod ipsi assumptit secum discretionibus Aldermannis London, &c., inquirant per sacramentum &c., qualiter fieri consuevit & qualis cursus. Et necumenta que invenerint ammoveant & manueri faciant in eadem statu quo antiquitus esse solebat._"

Latin for which a modern schoolboy would get soundly rated, or birched, but which tells us that even as far back as Edward I. the Fleet river was a nuisance; and as the endorsement (Patent Roll 35 Edward I.) shows--"De cursu aquae de Fleta supervivendo et corrigendo," _i.e._, that the Fleet river should be looked after and amended. But the Commission issued to perfect this work was discontinued, owing to the death of the king. (Patent Roll 1 Edward II., pars 1. m. dorso.) "De Cursu Aquae Flete, &c., reducend et impedimenta removend."

And Prynne, in his edition of Cotton's "Records" (ed. 1669, p. 188), asks "whether such a commission and inquiry to make this river navigable to Holborn Bridge or Clerkenwell, would not now be seasonable, and a work worthy to be undertaken for the public benefit, trade, and health of the City and Suburbs, I humbly submit to the wisdom and judgment of those whom it most Concerns."

So that it would appear, although otherwise stated, that the Fleet was not navigable in May, 1669, the date of the publication of Prynne's book.

As a matter of fact it got to be neither more nor less than an open sewer, to which the lines in Coleridge's "Table Talk" would well apply--

"In Coeln, that town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang'd with murderous stones,
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches,
I counted two-and-seventy stenches;
All well-defined and genuine stinks!
Ye nymphs, that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash the City of Cologne;
But, tell me, nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the River Rhine?"

The smell of the Fleet river was notorious; so much so, that Farquhar, in his _Sir Harry Wildair_, act ii., says, "Dicky! Oh! I was just dead of a Consumption, till the sweet smoke of _Cheapside_, and the dear perfume of _Fleet Ditch_ made me a man again!" In Queen Anne's time, too, it bore an evil reputation: _vide The Tatler_ (No. 238, October 17, 1710) by Steele and Swift.[9]

"Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sail'd from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre's shape their course,
And in huge confluent join'd at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the Conduit, prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood."

We get a glimpse of prehistoric London, and the valley of the Fleet, in Gough's "British Topography," vol. i. p. 719 (ed. 1780). Speaking of John Conyers, "apothecary, one of the first Collectors of antiquities, especially those relating to London, when the City was rebuilding.... He inspected most of the gravel-pits near town for different sorts and shapes of stones. In one near the sign of Sir J. Oldcastle, about 1680, he discovered the skeleton of an elephant, which he supposed had lain there only since the time of the Romans, who, in the reign of Claudius, fought the Britons near this place, according to Selden's notes on the Polyolbion. In the same pit he found the head of a British spear of flint, afterwards in the hands of Dr. Charlett, and engraved in Bagford's letter." We, now-a-days, with our more accurate knowledge of Geology and Palaeontology, would have ascribed a far higher ancestry to the "elephant."

As a matter of course, a little river like the Fleet must have become the receptacle of many articles, which, once dropped in its waters, could not be recovered; so that it is not surprising to read in the _Mirror_ of March 22, 1834 (No. 653, p. 180), an account of antiquarian discoveries therein, which, if not archaeologically correct, is at least interesting.

"In digging this Canal between Fleet Prison and Holborn Bridge, several Roman utensils were lately discovered at the depth of 15 feet; and a little deeper, a great quantity of Roman Coins, in silver, brass, copper, and all other metals except gold. Those of silver were ring money, of several sizes, the largest about the bigness of a Crown, but gradually decreasing; the smallest were about the size of a silver Twopence, each having a snip at the edge. And at Holborn Bridge were dug up two brazen lares, or household gods, about four inches in length, which were almost incrusted with a petrified matter: one of these was Bacchus, and the other Ceres; but the coins lying at the bottom of the current, their lustre was in a great measure preserved, by the water incessantly washing off the oxydizing metal. Probably the great quantity of coin found in this ditch, was thrown in by the Roman inhabitants of this city for its preservation at the approach of Boadicaea at the head of her army: but the Roman Citizens, without distinction of age or sex, being barbarously murdered by the justly enraged Britons, it was not discovered till this time.

"Besides the above-mentioned antiquities, several articles of a more modern date were discovered, as arrow-heads, scales, seals with the proprietors' names upon them in Saxon characters; spur rowels of a hand's breadth, keys and daggers, covered over with livid rust; together with a considerable number of medals, with crosses, crucifixes, and Ave Marias engraven thereon."

A paper was read, on June 11, 1862, to the members of the British Archaeological Association, by Mr. Ganston, who exhibited various relics lately recovered from the bed of the river Fleet, but they were not even of archaeological importance--a few knives, the earliest dating from the fifteenth century, and a few knife handles.

Previously, at a meeting of the same Society, on December 9, 1857, Mr. C. H. Luxmore exhibited a green glazed earthenware jug of the sixteenth century, found in the Fleet.

And, before closing this antiquarian notice of the Fleet, I cannot but record some early mention of the river which occur in the archives of the Corporation of the City of London:--

(17 Edward III., A.D. 1343, Letter-book F, fol. 67.) "Be it remembered that at the Hustings of Common Pleas, holden on the Monday next before the Feast of Gregory the Pope, in the 17th year of the reign of King Edward, after the Conquest, the Third, Simon Traunceys, Mayor, the Aldermen and the Commonalty,
of the City of London, for the decency and cleanliness of the same city, granted upon lease to the butchers in the Parish of St. Nicholas Shambles, in London, a piece of land in the lane called 'Secollane' (sea coal), neare to the water of Flete, for the purpose of there, in such water, cleansing the entrails of beasts. And upon such piece of land the butchers aforesaid were to repair a certain quay at their charges, and to keep the same in repair; they paying yearly to the Mayor of London for the time being, at the Feast of our Lord's Nativity, one boar's head."

(31 Edward III., A.D. 1357, Letter-book G, fol. 72.) "Also, it is ordered, that no man shall take, or cause to be carried, any manner of rubbish, earth, gravel, or dung, from out of his stables or elsewhere, to throw, and put the same into the rivers of Thames and Flete, or into the Fosses around the walls of the City: and as to the dung that is found in the streets and lanes, the same shall be carried and taken elsewhere out of the City by carts, as heretofore; or else by the _raykers_ to certain spots, that the same may be put into the _dongebotes_, without throwing anything into the Thames; for saving the body of the river, and preserving the quays, such as Dowegate, Quenhethe, and Castle Baynards, (and) elsewhere, for lading and unlading; as also, for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water, and upon the banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people. And, if any one shall be found doing the Contrary hereof, let him have the prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and of the Aldermen."

(7 Henry V. A.D. 1419, Journal 1, fol. 61.) "It is granted that the _risshbotes_ at the Flete and elsewhere in London shall be taken into the hands of the Chamberlain; and the Chamberlain shall cause all the streets to be cleansed."

The northern heights of London, the "ultima Thule" of men like Keats, and Shelley, abound in springs, which form the bases of several little streams, which are fed on their journey to their bourne, the Thames (to which they act as tributaries), by numerous little brooklets and rivulets, which help to swell their volume. On the northern side of the ridge which runs from Hampstead to Highgate, birth is given to the Brent, which, springing from a pond in the grounds of Sir Spencer Wells, is pent up in a large reservoir at Hendon, and finally debouches into the Thames at Brentford, where, from a little spring, which it is at starting, it becomes so far a "fleet" as to allow barges to go up some distance.



On the southern side of the ridge rise the Tybourne, and the Westbourne. The former had its rise in a spring called Shepherd's Well, in Shepherd's Fields, Hampstead, which formed part of the district now known as Belsize Park and FitzJohn's Avenue, which is the finest road of private houses in London. Shepherd's Well is depicted in Hone's "Table Book," pp. 381, 2, and shows it as it was over fifty years since. Alas! it is a thing of the past; a railway tunnel drained the spring, and a mansion, now known as The Conduit Lodge, occupies its site. It meandered by Belsize House, through St. John's Wood, running into Regent's Park, where St. Dunstan's now is, and, close to the Ornamental Water, it was joined by a little rivulet which sprang from where now, is the Zoological Gardens. It went across Marylebone Road, and, as nearly as possible, Marylebone Lane shows its course; then down South Molton Street, passing Brook Street, and Conduit Street, by Mayfair, to Clarges Street, across Oxford Street and into a pond in the Green Park called the Ducking Pond, which was possibly used as a place of punishment for scolds, or may have been an ornamental pond for water-fowl. Thence it ran in front of Buckingham Palace, where it divided, which was the cause of its name. Twy, or Teo (double), and Bourne, Brook--one stream running into the Thames west of Millbank, doing duty by the way in turning the Abbey Mill (whence the name), and the other debouching east of Westminster Bridge, thus forming the Island of Thorns, or Thorney Isle, on which Edward the Confessor founded his abbey, and the City of Westminster.

The Westbourne took its rise in a small pond near "Telegraph Hill," at Hampstead; two or three brooklets joined it, and it ran its course across the Finchley Road, to the bottom of Alexandra Road, Kilburn, where it was met by another stream, which had its source at Frognal, Hampstead. It then became the West bourne, as being the most westerly of all the rivers near London, taking the Wallbrook, the Fleet, and the Tybourne.

Its course may be traced down Kilburn Park Road, and Shirland Road. Crossing the Harrow Road where now is Westbourne Park Station, _Eastbourne_ and _Westbourne_ Terraces mark the respective banks, and, after crossing the Uxbridge Road, it runs into the Serpentine at the Engine House. Feeding that sheet of water, it comes out again at the Albert Gate end, runs by Lowndes Square, Cadogan Place, &c., and, finally, falls into the river at Chelsea Hospital.