Last week, on a visit to London, I got off a bus on Ludgate Hill, walked down to Ludgate Circus and turned left down New Bridge Street towards the Thames, ignoring Fleet Street rising up straight ahead. It is something that workers and tourists do in their thousands every day of the week, but I wonder how many of us think about why there is such a steep hill and dip in the street just there. The clue is in Fleet Street and the valley was, of course, caused by the River Fleet, now flowing under New Bridge Street in the guise of a sewer to its virtually invisible outfall in the Thames.
The map below is a section of Cary’s New Plan of London (1784)
Travelling about London one tends not to notice its dips and hills. I have posted in the past about taking the 23 bus and experiencing the dip not only of the Fleet but also the Tyburn Brook in Oxford Street. On the map above the streets with ‘hill’ names help us map the course of the Fleet. At the top of Fleet Market, formed when the river was covered over in 1733, Holborn Hill and Snow Hill dip down from west and east and the course of the river continues northwards under Saffron Hill.
The image above is from Ackermann’s Repository May 1812, “from a drawing by that eminent artist in water-colour painting, Mr Frederick Nash.” The artist shows the scene as though he is standing in the middle of Ludgate Circus (although the maps of the time do not give the junction a specific name). The bump of Blackfriars Bridge is just visible in the far distance, Fleet Street is to the right and Ludgate Hill to the left.
“The obelisk at the north end of this street, as shewn in the view, was erected to give safety to the public crossing, in the year 1775, during the mayoralty of the celebrated John Wilkes.” (Wilkes (1725 – 1797) was a radical, journalist, libertine and Member of Parliament. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of American independence although he grew increasingly conservative with age.) The obelisk has long gone, unfortunately.
The Fleet rises on Hampstead Heath, as does the Tyburn, but there is no trace these days other than the three swimming ponds on the Heath. In the Middle Ages it was still navigable by barges as far as Holborn Bridge, to the north of the section in this map of 1563. Fleet Bridge is named and below it was the Bridewell Bridge , “said to resemble to Rialto at Venice” according to Ackermann’s – it certainly seems to be covered. Before the Great Fire it was made of wood, but was replaced in stone with two arches.
Bridewell, which has now vanished, began as a palace and rapidly deteriorated into a prison. I traced its history here.
In 1733 the length between the Holborn and Ludgate bridges was covered and became Fleet Market – the double row of stalls can be seen in Roque’s map of 1738/47 (below). The Fleet Prison shows clearly, middle top, – the curve of the wall is still reflected in the building line today.
Below Fleet Bridge the Bridewell Bridge has disappeared and the Fleet itself is labelled ‘Fleet Ditch’, an apt name by then – it was a stinking mass of refuse. Pope in his Dunciad writes of it:
Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames;
The King of Dykes! than whom no sluice of mud,
With deeper sable blots the silver flow.
Or, to quote Ackermann’s rather more prosaic description, “…in the state of a muddy and loathsome ditch, until the building of Blackfriars-Bridge in the year 1768. In the place of this ditch, which had become a serious public nuisance, has sprung up the noble street, exhibited in this view [ie the print above], called New Bridge-street.”
The original Blackfriars Bridge was begun in 1760 and was finally completed in 1769, although it was open to pedestrians in 1766 and to riders in 1768. It was intended to name it for the Prime Minister, William Pitt, as the remaining inscription still confusingly explains, but popular usage soon had it named for the area, the site of the old Black Friars’ monastery. Repairs took place in 1832, but the bridge deteriorated to such an extent that a new one was proposed. It took years, the building of the Thames Embankment and the demands of the railways, but in 1869 and new bridge was opened. (The parallel railway bridge, just downstream, opened in 1864).
After exploring the area, the marvellous Art Nouveau Blackfriar pub just before the bridge is an excellent place to have lunch and to admire the depiction of the monks who once inhabited the area. (Get there early – it is very popular!)