Prior to the seventeenth century the River Fleet was a navigable waterway. It fed into the River Thames and thus served as an inlet to the City of London for commercial ships and cargo. The headwaters of the Fleet surface in Hampstead Heath to the north of the City. The two streams from which the river flows were dammed in the eighteenth century to create Hampstead Ponds and Highgate Ponds.
The Fleet was still a vital waterway in the early 1500s when King Henry VIII built Bridewell Palace at its junction with the Thames. But it was increasingly polluted with sewage and industrial run-off. By the eighteenth century it was little more than a shallow cesspit, referred to as Fleet ditch. In 1728 Alexander Pope wrote in The Dunciad, “To where 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 flood.”
Beginning in 1737 various portions of the Fleet were bricked over with culverts and buried. The remaining portion was covered during the construction of the Farringdon Road between the 1840s and the 1860s. The Fleet became part of the present-day London sewer system. The river still flows beneath Farringdon Road, draining into the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. Fleet Street is named for the former Fleet Bridge that crossed the river at Ludgate, the westernmost entrance to the City. The bridge stood at what is now Ludgate Circus where Fleet Street intersects Farringdon Road.
There are places one can still hear, or catch a glimpse of, the now-subterranean river running by underground. I was told by a friend that the Fleet could be seen and heard through a grate in the street on Saffron Hill in Smithfield. So one Sunday, after church service at Great St Bart’s and a good lunch at Fergus Henderson’s St JOHN, I set out in search of it.
Walking southwest on Charterhouse Street, past the impressive cast-iron Victorian buildings of Smithfield Market, I reached Farringdon Road. On the other side of the street is the entrance to Saffron Hill, hidden in the wall of a massive contemporary office building occupied by Anglia Ruskin University. Here I descended a flight of stairs to a narrow old street flanked by the walls of the modern building. Dickens placed Fagin’s den here in Oliver Twist. We follow the Artful Dodger and Oliver through a maze of streets, many of which no longer exist:
They crossed from the Angel into St- John’s-road, struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells theatre, through Exmouth-street and Coppice-row, down the little court by the side of the workhouse, across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-hole, thence into Little Saffron-hill, and so into Saffron-hill the Great, along which, the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.
At the time the Fleet ditch was still open in this area. An 1851 engraving by John Wykeham Archer depicts “Old Houses, with the Open Part of the Fleet Ditch, near Field Lane.” Dickens describes this street in lurid detail:
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the city, a narrow and dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns,—for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows, or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself, the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours, and go as strangely as they came.
In Sir Carol Reed’s musical film adaptation, Oliver!, in 1968, the Fleet ditch (recreated on a soundstage) is shown beneath Fagin’s den.
Saffron Hill rises sharply from Charterhouse Street. It is empty now. But there is something about the dimness of the light even on a bright day and the press of the high walls on either side that gives a vague impression of what it must have felt like to walk the narrow old street.
At the first intersection, with Greville Street, I could see the drainage grate in the road. It is just off the sidewalk, on the near left corner, diagonal to the Sir John Oldcastle pub. I looked down, listened, and Lo!—there was the River Fleet running by. The River Fleet!