Category: geography

Top Ten Most Common Pub Names in England

By , November 28, 2010 1:46 am


Public houses, better known as pubs, are a ubiquitous and important feature in England’s community life. And each pub has a name.

Roaming around the country, the same pub names crop up again and again, along with the unusual and unique.

Many pub names are centuries old.

This article tells you what the ten most popular pub names are in England, and the origins of each name.


1. Crown

The Crown is, perhaps not surprisingly in a Kingdom, the most popular name for a pub in England. There are 704 pubs in England called The Crown, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

The origin is, as might be supposed, a demonstration of loyalty to the Crown, The name became particularly popular for public house owners after the Restoration in the 17th century, when King Charles II returned to his throne following the Commonwealth lead by Oliver Cromwell.

There are other variations on the same theme which are common, such as the popular pub names Rose and Crown and Three Crowns. When I was a teenager, I used to visit the Crown and Anchor, in London Bridge, with my mates.

John of Gaunt's Coat-of-Arms, featuring red lions

John of Gaunt's Coat-of-Arms, featuring red lions


2. Red Lion

Lions are common animals in heraldic symbols, and many pubs were named after a local noble’s coat-of-arms.

It never hurt to keep the local powers-that-were happy, so naming the local inn or tavern after Lord Such-and-Such’s arms or heraldry was a common practice.

The 668 Red Lion pubs in England therefore probably have several origins, including John of Gaunt’s coat of arms, and King James I’s liking of the symbol.

Once again there are variations on the name – a pub near where I live is called Old Red Lion, for example.

The Old Red Lion pub stored Oliver Cromwell’s body overnight, when King Charles II had it dug up from Westminster Abbey so he could stick it on a spike on London Bridge.

Son of Royal Oak

Son of Royal Oak

3. Royal Oak

This is another popular pub name with strong links to the Restoration of the Monarchy.

In 1649, Charles I was executed. His son, the future King Charles II, carried on the fight against the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell.

Two years later, Charles lost the battle of Worcester, and his army was thrashed by the Puritan New Model Army.

In the course of his escape, Charles II spent 24 hours hiding in the branches of an oak tree in Boscobel Wood, while the nearby Boscobel House was searched by Commonwealth troops.

The Royal Oak itself is no more, but Son of Royal Oak and Grandson of Royal Oak continue in the family tradition, growing cheerfully in Boscobel Wood.  The picture to the right of this text is of Son of Royal Oak.

As well as pubs, the Royal Navy has had 8 different ships called HMS Royal Oak since the Restoration.

There are, CAMRA claims, 541 Royal Oak pubs in England.

To read more about the Battle of Worcester, which preceeded Charles II hiding up the Royal Oak, see the Battle of Worcester Society’s website.

The Standard of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, featuring a white swan

The Standard of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, featuring a white swan

4. Swan

The Swan is both a royal bird, and a common feature on heraldic symbols.

King Henry IV’s mother, Mary de Bohun, had a swan on her coat-of-arms, and the Lancastrian Kings adopted the swan as one of their symbols.

The Swan was also used by the Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of Buckingham, among others.

There are 451 Swan pubs in England, and others with the word in their names, such as Black Swan and Swan With Two Necks

5. White Hart

The White Hart was part of the heraldic symbols of Richard II. King Richard II was not a particularly popular King.

King Richard II's Coat-of-Arms, with two white harts

King Richard II's Coat-of-Arms, with two white harts

He came to the throne in 1377, on the death of his grandfather, King Edward III, when he was aged 10.

In 1399, he was deposed by his first cousin, King Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt.

It might therefore appear surprising that White Hart pubs are the fifth most common – there are 431 of them in England.

However, it was during the reign of Richard II that a statute was passed saying that all public houses and taverns had to have a sign outside. As a result, many of the inns, pubs and taverns of the time put up a sign showing the White Hart.

6. Railway

Number six on the list is the Railway pub. The origins of this are, I hope, entirely obvious! There are 420 pubs in England called the Railway.

7. Plough

The 413 pubs in England called the Plough are named after the farming implement, or after the constellation of stars known as the Plough. Pub signs, therefore, can have either the farming tool, or 7 stars, painted on them.

There are also pubs with other agricultural names, such as the Harrow pub, and the Seven Stars pub at the back of the Royal Courts of Justice in London is named after the same constellation.

the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire, seen from above

the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire, seen from above

8. White Horse

The 379 pubs in England called the White Horse are named after one of three things. Firstly, the name is particularly common in the county of Kent, south-east of London. Kent’s symbol is a rearing white horse.

Others are named after the hill drawings across southern England which feature horses.

From the Iron Age onwards, people have carved giant white horses in the chalk downs and hills, by removing the grass and top soil to reveal the white chalk underneath.

Coat-of-Arms of the House of Hanover, featuring a white horse

Coat-of-Arms of the House of Hanover, featuring a white horse

The Uffington Horse is a famous example, and there are about 14 white chalk horses in Wiltshire.

When Queen Anne died, the House of Hanover came to the throne in the person of King George I.

The Hanoverian coat-of-arms included a white horse, and some pubs were named after it, to demonstrate how overjoyed the public house’s landlord was with the new regime.

If you want to read more about Queen Anne and why the Stuarts gave way to the House of Hanover, read this article:

Queen Anne’s Tragedy: 18 Pregnancies, no Children & Hanover Kings

9. Bell

The 378 pubs in England named the Bell are named after the country’s ubiquitous church bells.

Variations are also common, such as the Smarden Bell, or the Bell and Clapper.

New Inn, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

New Inn, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

10. New Inn

There are many places or buildings called “New” in England which are anything but. Some of the 372 New Inn pubs are among them.

New College Oxford, for example, where my brother-in-law studies medicine, is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University, founded in 1379. But it’s not the oldest college, hence the name.

The picture to the right is of New Inn on Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly, 30-odd miles to the west of Land’s End in Cornwall.

Note on the Most Common Pub Names

Exactly what is a pub, as opposed to a restaurant, hotel, or B & B, is open to debate. So different organisations vary as to their views on which are the most common pub names in England.

The list, and figures above for the number of each name, are taken from the Campaign for Real Ale’s figures. You can find CAMRA’s website by clicking here.

The Inn Sign Society has a different top ten list, namely:
1 Red Lion
2 Crown
3 Royal Oak
4 Rose & Crown
5 Kings Head
6 White Hart
7 Queens Head
8 Railway
9 Bell
10 Swan



The Year Without a Summer: 1816

By , April 17, 2010 1:19 am

1815 represented a pretty good year for the United Kingdom. The “damn close run thing” at Waterloo had seen, finally, Napolean’s defeat. Peace had come, and the UK was on the winning side of it. Life looked good, the future looked bright.

But the next year, disaster came, and 1816 came to be known as “The Year Without a Summer”.

There were serious consequences all over the world, particularly for Northern Europe and North America. This post looks at the disaster and the consequences in this country.

Why no summer?

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

In April 1815, however, there had been a massive explosion. Mount Tambora volcano, in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), has been erupting since 1812, went bang.

38 cubic miles of pyroclastic material was ejected into the atmosphere. The ash column rose to about 140,000 feet. It was probably the largest ash explosion since the last Ice Age.

This followed four other serious volcanic events, which had taken place over the previous 4 years, so there was already a fair amount of volcanic dust and ash in the atmosphere.

In addition, solar activity had hit a periodic low point. So there was a confluence of damaging events.

The ash and dust in the atmosphere took a while to circulate, therefore there was a “summer” in 1815 (although it had been cold and wet for a few years, because of the other eruptions and the solar minima).

The vast quantities of volcanic debris in the atmosphere restricted the amount of sunlight which reached the earth’s surface, and there was a huge quantity of sulphur floating around the earth.

There is an article here, from History Magazine, about the effects of various volcanic eruptions.

The weather in England in the summer of 1816

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

It was cold, wet, and miserable. It snowed near London at Easter, in May and at the end of July, for example – a long way from typical weather in the south of England.It rained most days from May to September – 142 out of 153 days in the Lake District.  There were snow drifts in the Lake District in July, and ice on London ponds in September.

World-wide temperatures dropped significantly, and it was one of the coldest summers in English records (from the 16th century onwards).

Agriculture and crop failures

Crops were damaged by cold rainfall, and didn’t grow properly because of a lack of sun. Many crops rotted in the fields before they could be harvested, and more rotted after harvesting, because it was so damp.

In western England, Wales and Ireland, there were near-total crop failures in some areas.  Farm labourers found themselves out of work in large numbers, and added to the soldiers who had been demobbed after the end of the Napleonic Wars.

Social consequences of the year without a summer

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

All hell broke loose, not surprisingly.  Unemployment rose sharply, and famine threatened. The price of basic food stuffs soared, and many people went very hungry. Disease and infection rose, because of malnutrition and the wet conditions.

Riots and disturbances occurred all over the country. In one riot, over 100 food shops were broken into and ransacked, and the Luddite movement, which had been suppressed by 1813, re-gained power – in one attack on a factory in Loughbrough, over £6,000 worth of machinery was broken.

Mary Shelley, on holiday with friends in Switzerland, took advantage of the foul weather to write Frankenstein.  And the wonderful sunsets inspired artists, including Turner.

The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.

It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.

The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.

The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON  During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.

The Frozen Thames in the 16th century

The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.

In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608.  It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.

A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water

The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.

It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.

It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.

A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last River Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.

The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.

Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.

The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.

It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!

Cressing Temple: Visiting Knights Templar property in England Today

By , January 5, 2010 3:37 am

Introduction to the Knights Templar

Plan from excavations in the late 1990s at Cressing Temple

Plan from excavations in the late 1990s at Cressing Temple

The Knights Templar, the fabled, fantastically rich, and powerful organisation that rose spectacularly in the Middle Ages, fell as dramatically.

The “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” order,  known  more commonly as “The Knights Templar”, was founded in Jerusalem in 1119 AD to protect pilgrims bound for the Holy Land, and dissolved by the French King and the Pope in 1312.

In just under two centuries, the Templars became  powerful, important, and famous as an order of fighting monks. They were far from the only military knights who were also subject to a monastic rule, but they became (and remain to this day) the best known.

Everyone loved them, from the Pope, Kings and Princes to the peasants and labourers, and their success and visibility was unparalleled.

Their fall 200 years later was equally dramatic, and the Papacy was forced by the French King (who was, in effect, in control of the Pope) into eliminating them.

Many of the Templars were burned alive, particularly in France. In other countries, such as England, most were allowed to go quietly on their way, many joining other orders of monks.

The cellar at Cressing Temple, from the Templars' time, uncovered during excavation works

The cellar at Cressing Temple, from the Templars' time, uncovered during excavation works

Visiting Knights Templar sites in England today

Many of the biggest and best-known Templar properties can be indentified and visited, but the extent of the remains of Templar buildings varies significantly.
There are a number which have substantial and significant sites still, and others where only the name survives today.
This is the first in a series of posts about visiting Knights Templar property in England, and starts with the Essex site of Cressing Temple.

Cressing Temple – significant remains and buildings survive

Cressing Temple is in Essex, England. It’s a scheduled ancient monument, owned by Essex County Council, and open to the public.   A lot is left, and it’s a great place to visit to get a sense of the Knights Templar organisation and property.

It was the largest and most significant of the properties the Knights Templar owned in Essex, and was in the charge of a “Preceptor”.

This was the title of the Knight who had charge of an area and a number of monks under him; he was answerable only to the Grand Master of the Order.

Cressing Temple was given to the Templars in 1137 by Matilda, wife of King Stephen, not the rival claimant to the throne, the Empress Matilda.

The astonishing buildings at Cressing Temple, standing today

Plan showing the timber structure of the Wheat Barn at Cressing Temple.

Plan showing the timber structure of the Wheat Barn at Cressing Temple.

Two great barns were built by the Templars at Cressing. The first is now called the Barley Barn, and is thought to have been built some time around 1210 A.D.

The Wheat Barn was built in about 1260 to 1270 A.D. It is built directly on top of a Bronze Age settlement.

The Barley Barn is an immense structure built from oak, and was made from an estimated 480 oak trees. Tree science, dendrochronology, has dated the felling of these trees from between 1205 and 1235.

The Barn was originally larger even than it is today, but it seems to have been repaired later and made smaller at that time. It now measures about 36 metres long by 13½ metres wide.

Although it’s been repaired over the years, the original structure of the Barn still holds it up today. The arcade posts and main ties are the ones built by theTemplars.

The Barley Barn at Cressing is the oldest timber framed barn still in existence in the world.

The Wheat Barn is larger, 40 metres long and 12½ metres wide. It was built from 472 different oak trees, and there are identical trusses with braces meeting at a scissor above the collars.

Records and research into Cressing Temple

The Templar-built well at Cressing Temple

The Templar-built well at Cressing Temple

More is known about Cressing Temple than many Templar foundations because inventories made by both the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller have survived.

There has also been extensive archaeological research, with Essex County Council excavating the site between 1987 and 1996.

The archaeological excavations have shown that when the Templars took over the land they cleared it, and set up drainage systems, and started to build.

Evidence has been found of post holes, timber slots, gravelled surfaces outside, and latrine pits. The foundations of an original timber chapel built in about 1145 was discovered. This was replaced by a stone chapel a few years later.

The Templars also dug a very deep well, about 45 feet deep. It was lined with Reigate stone. There is also evidence that they filled in some existing ditches, and dug new ones to drain the land more efficiently.

The Well House was only built at the end of Victorian times, but the well itself is undoubtedly a Templar structure.

There is evidence from Carbon 14 dating to show that trees were cut down partly in order to make room for the buildings, and partly in order to provide the timber to build them.

There is also what appears to be a clay quarry which may have been used for tiles for the floors of the barns and other buildings.

The Wheat Barn, at Cressing Temple

The Wheat Barn, at Cressing Temple

The quarry appears to have been used as a rubbish dump and filled up by the Templars in the years after it was opened.

Three large ponds were also dug and presumably stocked with fish. The Knights Templar, like other monastic orders, did not eat meat many days of the year and ate fish instead. It was common for large houses or organisations to have their own fish ponds.

A very complete inventory from 1313 mentions a church, two chambers (almost certainly used as bedrooms) a great hall, a pantry, a kitchen, a buttery, a larder, bakehouse, brewhouse, dairy, granary, smithy, a well, and two barns.

The Templar holding at Cressing Temple was originally about 14,000 acres. It was very fertile land, good for agriculture, and the produce could be easily moved by river.

The Templars employed over 160 tenant farmers on the Cressing Temple site, and also established a market.

In 1309, before the estate was handed to the Knights Hospitaller the Cressing Temple was recorded as having a mansion house, bakehouse, brewery, dairy, granary, smithy, gardens, a dovecote, chapel, cemetery, watermill and a windmill.

After the suppression of the Order, the Cressing Temple passed to the Knights Hospitaller in 1313.

Visiting Cressing Temple

The Barley Barn at Cressing Temple

The Barley Barn at Cressing Temple

Cressing Temple’s address is Witham Road, Cressing, Braintree, Essex, CM77  8PD.

It’s about 50 miles from central London, and 4 miles from the nearest railway station, Witham (trains take about 45 minutes from London Liverpool Street station).

From April to September Cressing Temple is open from 10am – 5pm Sunday to Friday, in March and October  from 10am -  4pm Sunday to Friday, and from November to February,  10am and 3pm Monday to Friday.

The site’s details, opening hours, and travel directions can be found here.

The River Fleet – London’s second tidal waterway

By , June 20, 2009 2:58 pm

London’s tidal river? Easy one, it’s the River Thames.

But the Thames isn’t the only one. The River Fleet, now mostly running underground, was a navigable, tidal river, which joins the Thames next to Blackfriars Bridge, and marks the historic boundary between the cities of London and Westminster.

The Fleet’s course isn’t a long one; it rises as  springs in Hampstead, a posh, hilly and leafy area of north London. After about half a mile, it goes underground, and is buried the rest of the way.

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

Historically, pirates operated on the River Fleet, barges went up and down, watermills were powered by it, and sewage gases exploded.

Visitors to the Royal Courts of Justice or the Temple are likely to walk along Fleet Street, and the newspaper industry as a whole is still known as “Fleet Street”, although the papers mostly moved east out of central London towards Wapping and Canary Wharf in the 1980s.

This article is about the course, history and current state of the River Fleet.

The Course and Geography of the River Fleet

The River Fleet starts life as a  number of springs on Hampstead Heath, an impressive 800-acre area of common land north of central London.  There are two main sources, one on either side of Parliament Hill, both about 350 feet above sea level.

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

The streams are dammed into a series of ponds, the Highgate Ponds and the Hampstead Ponds. Three are run as year-round swimming pools, one for men, one for women, and one mixed-sex (warning, it’s not that warm on Hampstead Heath in the winter….) The City of London Corporation runs the bathing ponds, and the relevant page on its website can be found here.

From Hampstead, the two streams run downhill, mostly underground in culverts and pipes, through Kentish Town and Camden, joining together south of Camden Town. There are memories of the Fleet River before it went underground, including Fleet Road and Fleet Primary School.

The River Fleet continues south, going under King’s Cross Station in a sewer / pipe, and southwards towards St. Pancras and Bloomsbury. A tributary of the Fleet enters from the west, having started life near Tottenham Court Road, and come past University College, London, and University College Hospital.

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

South of Camden, the first St. Pancras Church was built on the banks of the River Fleet in about 380 AD, and Old St. Pancras Church is still above the current course of the Fleet today.

The Fleet then wriggles its way south, west of Clerkenwell, and along the Farringdon Road.  Another tributary runs underground from near the Barbican, through Smithfield Market (meat and butchery) to join the Fleet at the south of Farringdon Road.

The Fleet’s river valley is quite deep here, a real descent from Snow Hill in the east and Holborn in the west. The Victorian Holborn Viaduct crosses the river valley.  At  the bottom of the valley, over the now-buried river, is the main road going south to Blackfriars.

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Fleet Street, originally a road from Westminster to the City of London via Aldwych, is just to the west of the Fleet, near the River Thames. Until the first bridge was built over the River Fleet here in about 1180 AD, the Fleet could be forded at the easterly end of Fleet Street.

The River Fleet emerges today, as it has done for centuries, near Blackfriars.

There is a great website featuring photographs from all along the River Fleet’s course (overground) which can be found here.

History of the River Fleet

The Roman River Fleet

In Roman times, the River Fleet marked the westerly edge of City of London, and was outside the city walls. It was a navigable, strongly-running river, and powerful enough to run a tidal mill on one of the two small islands on the east side of the Fleet estuary. For a detailed academic article on the archaeological remains of the Roman Fleet, see here.

The Anglo-Saxon River Fleet

In 900 AD, the estuary of the River Fleet, where it joined the River Thames, was approximately 100 yards wide, and shallow and marshy at the edges. It was possible to ford the Fleet here, with care, and at low tide only. The name “Fleet” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fl?ot, meaning  “tidal inlet”.

The Medieval Fleet

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

As London grew after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, the River Fleet became very useful for boats and barges.  During the reign of King John, the Knights Hospitaller and St. Batholomew’s Hospital shared a wharf on Fleet Lane, allowing goods and people to be ferried up the Fleet from the Thames.

Further up the Fleet, near Farringdon Road today, there are road names which recall the Fleet’s barges unloading coal from Newcastle, such as Newcastle Lane, Newcastle Close, and Old Seacoal Lane.

Stone for building Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was also ferried up the Fleet.

By the 12th century, people were already complaining that the River Fleet was smelly and polluted. Several tanneries were next to the Fleet, and discharging a nasty cocktail of offal, skin scraps and dog faeces into the river.  Butchers threw unwanted and rotten animal parts in the Fleet, and human sewage and other industry by-products joined them.

In the early 13th century, the Whitefriars (Camelites) who had their base next to the mouth of the Fleet, were complaining that the stench overpowered their incense, even during Mass when there was a lot of incense being burned.

Edward I was attacked by pirates who sailed up the River Fleet – the pirates came second in the fight which followed.

The River Fleet got ever nastier, and became a slum area over time.

The River Fleet in Tudor and Stuart times

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

In 1598, John Stow wrote in his Survey of London that there were five bridges over the Fleet, and said it was, “impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it” (A “house of office” was a toilet or lavatory, here emptying directly into the river).

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren turned the River Fleet into the wider, straighter New Canal, with docks on both side of the river; it was about 30 feet wide. But it stayed horribly smelly, contaminated still with rubbish and sewage, and was pretty unpopular.

Higher up the Fleet, a number of fashionable wells and spas were established, as the water here was clean and uncontaminated. The most popular were Clerk’s Well, Bagnigge Well, and St. Bride’s Well. Although the wells have long-gone, Clerkenwell and Brideswell are places in London to this day.

The Covering of the River Fleet

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

Unloved, smelly, and in the way, the Fleet started to be covered over.  In 1733, the part from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge was covered over, and in 1739, the stretch from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was covered over, and the Fleet Market and the Mansion House built over it.

When the Regent’s Canal was constructed in 1810 – 1815, the Fleet was buried northwards, to Camden Town, and by 1880 the whole river, apart from the few hundred yards from the source springs, was underground in pipes, conduits and the New Canal bed.

In 1846, a build up of sewage and associated gasses caused a massive explosion, and the pipes near King’s Cross blew up, sending a tidal wave of sewage through the streets, demolishing buildings, flooding houses, and ramming a boat on the Thames, near the mouth of the Fleet, into Blackfriars Bridge.

The River Fleet today

Most of the Fleet remains underground. The mouth can be seen near Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide, and the streams and ponds are popular spots on Hampstead Heath.

The truly intrepid (I am not among their number) can, if the proper arrangements are made, explore the pipes and conduits underground through which the River Fleet now flows. An article about people doing just that, underground, can be found here.

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