From The Betsey To The Black Friar

A more-than-slightly idealised view of the mouth of the Fleet as it joined the Thames; painting after Scott, 1750 (detail).

Beneath the unlovely Farringdon Road runs the greatest of all the lost rivers of London, the Fleet. The Fleet rises from its headwaters in Hampstead, runs through Kentish Town, Camden Town, King’s Cross and beneath this churning highway before debouching into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Just north of the junction with Clerkenwell Road is the Betsey Trotwood, formerly The Butcher’s Arms, a charming Victorian pub which I will take today as the northern marker for the Fleet Valley. (I have already written about the Fleet in relation to Hockley Hole, a depression a few yards west of the Betsey, which marks the final turn in the river’s course downstream; and have also referenced the open sewer that it became in connection with various nasty episodes in Georgian times. See the list of links below.) I suggest you order a stiff one at the Betsey before proceeding downhill.

Once, a very long time ago, the Fleet was navigable from the Thames to Kentish Town, and there were gardens along the Fleet Valley; but even in the medieval period they were building prisons in the vicinity, which lent a distinctly penitential character to an increasingly forbidding area. Furthermore, the meat industry centred on Smithfield market threw all its detritus into the Fleet so the river became a great open sewer, carrying human, animal and vegetable waste towards the Thames. The surrounding slums and general ghastliness became a grim London joke. Ben Jonson’s poem On the Famous Voyage describes the Fleet as more hellish than all the rivers of Hades, and mordantly observes the smells, filth and offal assailing two boatmen as they row through the shit-caked creek. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad contains the lines:

“To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls its large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”

The Fleet Prison was actually in the river itself, being constructed on one of the two islands in the middle of its lower reaches. This jail was already in operation by the 12th century and by the 18th century the Fleet was a debtors’ prison – and like all penitential institutions of the day, it charged inmates for their imprisonment: food, water, and the ‘services’ of warders and turnkeys were all billed at exorbitant prices. Those who could afford to took lodgings outside prison walls, in surrounding streets known as the ‘Liberty of the Fleet’ (but they had to compensate the warder for loss of income). Thus the surrounding area became a sort of extension of the prison itself.

Fleet Ditch blows itself up, 1862.

Bit by bit, the Fleet was forced underground. In 1732 the section between Holborn Bridge and Fleet St. was covered and a market was constructed on top of it, just north of where Ludgate Circus is now. But it took the Victorians to properly tame it. The engineering of the river chimed with the clearing of slums, the creation of new roads and the vaulted arches of Holborn Viaduct, along with the development of the railways. But even the Victorians had a hard time burying the Fleet: it exploded once in the 1840s, the product of a build-up of noxious gas, and burst its culvert in 1862, when it broke through railway diggings and spewed sewage into homes. It also washed corpses from St Peter’s churchyard into the streets. This is from a letter written to Charles Darwin in 1860 by one John Rodwell, who had been intrigued by Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species:

‘ … about 1843 when I was Incumbent of S. Peter’s Saffron Hill, a large portion of the old Fleet Sewer, said never to have been before opened since the days of Queen Elizabeth, was exposed to view. I then saw several enormous rats which had been taken thence by the workmen, and upon examination they all proved to be blind and almost entirely devoid of hair, and so ferocious were they that the workmen assured me they were deterred from entering the old parts of the sewer as the rats would unquestionably fly at them. The rats which I saw were taken out at Holborn Bridge, and as there are three arches still remaining there of an old roman Bridge some sixteen or more feet below the present surface, it is possible that those rats may have been breeding there for ages, and if like the blind cave animals you mention in chapter 5 of the Origin of Species —their progenitors lost the power of sight a 1000 years since, and lost as they would, I suppose, at the same time any great ability for migration, this would be a curious illustration of a part of your theory.

(It seems likely that the Roman bridge mentioned was, in fact, a 17th century one designed by Christopher Wren. After the Great Fire Wren tried to rehabilitate the Fleet by trying to refashion it in the style of a Venetian canal. Worth a go, I suppose.)

The 1983 Calvi inquest jury inspecting the spot beneath Blackfriars Bridge where the banker’s body was found.

The lower reaches of the Fleet are always yielding up weird artifacts, like the dismembered 11th century skeletons that were found near the Thames outlet twenty-something years ago (alongside three seats from a medieval latrine), as well as more contemporary unpleasantness. In the morning of 18 June 1982 the body of Roberto Calvi, a prominent Italian banker, was discovered hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge. There were bricks in his clothes, along with about $15,000 of cash in several currencies. Calvi was dubbed ‘God’s banker’ because of his ties to the Vatican, and the church’s investments in Banco Ambrosiano, the bank of which he had been chairman. But he’d been sacked following allegations of malpractice, and his secretary had already killed himself by jumping out of a window. Calvi belonged to a Masonic lodge known as the ‘frati neri’ or ‘black friars’, which has led some to assume that it was no coincidence that his body was discovered under Blackfriars Bridge. His body was found a week after he he’d left Italy on a false passport. After two inquests in British courts, the cause of his death was left open. A court in New York later agreed with his family’s assertions that he had been murdered. An informer later claimed that Calvi’s death was a professional hit in retaliation for the demise of Banco Ambrosiano, as the Mafia had taken a shower on the bank’s collapse. (Perhaps also worth mentioning that a small-time drug dealer that later occupied the same London flat as Calvi – up river, in Chelsea – was later found dead in not-dissimilar circumstances.) As late as 2007, trials of suspects were held in Rome but no convictions were secured. So to mark the grisly fate of Calvi, and indeed anyone else who perished in or around Fleet Ditch, I suggest going for a quick one at The Black Friar, a miraculous Arts and Crafts pub tottering anomalously at the bottom of Farringdon Rd., its glittering décor and façade a reminder that it wasn’t only Christopher Wren who tried to bring civilization to Fleet Valley.

London’s own little Flatiron Building … The Black Friar, built in the 1870s.

Whilst you are enjoying your drink, it’s perhaps worth considering the impact that 21st century climate is having on the brooding Fleet. Recent flooding in London has shown the extent to which the city’s infrastructure is being stretched by the monsoon-type downpours we are having to adjust to. The Fleet is biding its time, waiting for its chance. I’ll leave you with the last lines of A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift:

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

See also:
Jonathan Wild’s House,Chick Lane
Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole
The First Gin Palace
Some Fleet Street Killers
One More Before Doomsday

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