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Fleet Street

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Imagine you are a flaneur walking down early modern Fleetstreet, which climbs from the London Wall’s eastern end to Temple Bar: perhaps you are on your way to St Bride’s Church, St Dunstan’s in the West, or the Temple Church; or you might be seeking out a man of law in any of the four Inns of Court within easy distance (Bucholz and Ward 54). In any case, you would be aware that it is an important access route linking the jostling world of London commerce to the seat of power in Westminster.
The street takes its name from one of the largest lost rivers in London, the Fleet, which is today entirely underground. The common assumption that fleet alluded to the swiftness of the river has been challenged, and most scholars now trace it back to the Anglo-Saxon word fléot for a tidal inlet (Wheatley 52). As an early modern flaneur, you would have no illusions: the street was essentially an open sewer oozing along at the eastern end of the street by the city wall. The Fleet Privies, latrines that had overhung Fleet Ditch since the Middle Ages, were not removed until 1652. As a consequence of this, the river carried endemic diseases and attracted squalor and crime. Peter Ackroyd suggests that if you were a local you might have been able to pick out specific smells associated with different trades and localities in its confluence: by the time it reached Fleet Street, [the river] carried the savour of each [London] street, readily identifiable; it was full of dung and dead things Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] the dumping ground of bodies slain or robbed when dead (Ackroyd 567). Ackroyd echoes an idea found in Jonathan Swift’s poem Describing a City Shower, which reflects on how a downpour of rain could bring out the particular colours and smells of the river:
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 cofluent 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 drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood
(Swift 257)
In The Dunciad, Alexander Pope suggests that Fleet Ditch could sometimes seem so clogged with animal carcasses that they might as well be hecatombs of animals sacrificed to Father Thames:
This labour paſt, by Bridewell all deſcend
(As morning prayer and flagellation end)
To where Fleet Ditch with diſemboguing ſtreams,
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.
(Pope 28)
As a traveller in this early modern street, you may be offered oysters gathered from the waters as a cheap and popular snack (Wheatley 52). But you might also feel a presence of death in the air. In 1560, one Dr. Jones commented that in its stinking lanes, there died most in London (Barton 107). Infection and contamination were still a major problem in 1652, embodied by an order for the cleaning of the river which describes how it had been rendered impassable by the keeping of hogs and swine therein and elsewhere near it, the throwing in of offal and other garbage by butchers Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] and by reason of the many houses of office [privies] over and upon it (Wheatley 52).
Your walk through early modern Fleet Street might begin as you wander down from Ludgate onto Fleetbridge, one of the four bridges over the Fleet. Here in the 1580s, you could have paused to watch the new motion, a puppet show you may have seen promoted in a picture or advertisement (Jonson 185). It would most likely have been a parody of a biblical or Roman play from one of the London playhouses (for example, Jonah and the Whale or the slapstick murder of Julius Caesar). You can purchase nuts, gingerbread, oranges or oysters from any one of the wheeled stalls often tended by disreputable-looking vendors (Chalfant 80). You might want to linger in this vibrant place or feel forced to press onwards from the noxious smell of Fleet Ditch. In 1589, Stow writes how a government initiative to clean Fleet Ditch made a collection of a thousand marks: but much mony being therein spent, ySUPERSCRIPT e effect fayled, so that the brooke by meanes of continuall incrochments upon the banks getting over the water, and casting of soylage into the streame, is now become woorse cloyed and choken then ever it was before (Stow 1:13).
On the south side of the street, through some iron gates, you might catch a glimpse of the mouldering towers and battlements of Bridewell. Here Henry VIII made his palace after the 1512 fire left Westminster uninhabitable. His son Edward VI later gave Bridewell to the city and it became a prison. The association of the Fleet with prisons goes back to Norman times, and the Fleet Prison, which was east of Fleet Ditch and North of Ludgate Hill, features in Henry IV, Part 2 when Shakespeare’s most profligate character is condemned to languish in its stinking cells: Go carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet (Shakespeare 5.5.92). This prison also held Henry Howard, Thomas Nashe, John Donne, and Thomas Dekker.
An early modern account of these prisons complains how miserably they handle thy bond-servants Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] the prisoners of the king’s bench, Marshalsea, Fleet, Newgate and many other places Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (CH)[…] doth presently to all the world cry out (Chalfant 80). The sounds of inmates would have been thick in the air around Bridewell too. Later it was to become the original workhouse, where the London indigent poor were allotted futile tasks and punishment for their perceived idleness. As you walk by this area in early modern London, you might notice that many of the wooden buildings are ancient, while some have been built more recently on land confiscated from the church during the dissolution of the monasteries. One such place is Whitefriars, close to Bridewell on the south side of the street. Once a Carmelite monastery, it was pulled down and transformed into the site of a playhouse for a company of boy actors. It is here that such plays as Jonson’s Epicoene were first performed (Munroe 117). You might have seen signs of a recent initiative to build houses for noblemen. These have been abandoned, neglected until the sky was entering in through the roofs, and finally claimed for more shadowy purposes. Bell writes that the larger houses, abandoned to decay, were divided each into as many as twenty and thirty tenements, fulfilling their part in the medley of dirty lodgings, dram-shops, brothels which made [this district] all that was evil (Bell 152–153).
You hurry by the dingy rookeries and dens of thieves, pass Hanging Sword Alley, Magpie Alley, and Primrose Hill—which was the site of a grisly murder seized upon by anti-Catholic fear-mongers in 1678. It might occur to you that state-endorsed acts of anti-Catholicism have also taken place near this spot. In 1588, the Jesuit Christopher Bales was imprisoned and tortured in Bridewell by Richard Topcliffe. On Ash Wednesday, Bales was hanged, drawn, and quartered before a crowd in Fleet Street, opposite Fetter Lane. The hanging stage bore the words, For treason and favouring foreign invasion. Typically, the placard was silent on the religious debate that would see the man hailed as a Catholic martyr after his death (Wheatley 8).
By now you are emerging into the thick of Fleet Street and are confronted with horses, carts, mud, pick-pockets, drunks, brawls, beggars, barrels being rolled into taverns, porters bearing heavy loads, craftsmen working at their benches, criers and urchins hawking everything from broadsides to brooms, and housewives standing arms akimbo on their doorsteps judging—and sometimes insulting—all who [dare] to enter their neighbourhood (Bucholz and Ward 53). Perhaps you might feel threatened by swarming gangs of youths. When Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg visited Fleet Street in 1592 he noted that the street-boys and apprentices collect together in immense crowds and strike to the right and left unmercilessly without regard to person; and because they are the strongest one is obliged to put up with the insult as well as the injury (Bucholz and Ward 53). Even if you manage to avoid the pickpockets you might, as Samuel Pepys notes in his diary entry on 7 February 1659, receive a great jostle from someone who might believe they have more right to take the wall (Pepys) than you. The channel of waste lying in the middle of the street is best avoided by keeping as close to the edge of the street as possible, and social hierarchies can be roughly negotiated to determine who has the right to avoid the contamination. A gentleman might expect to get the wall, but if it is night or he is obviously tipsy he might be shoved aside.
There were plenty of places to go for a drink or to dine. If you enter an early modern Fleet Street Tavern for a porringer of soup, a goodly capon or loin of pork, or cates and lavish cupfuls of canary wine, your nostrils might be intrigued by the whiff of tobacco recently introduced from Virginia (or else disgusted at the spitting of it onto the reed-lined floor). Jonson describes two characters experimenting with this weed at the Horn on the Hoop: they have hired a chamber and all private to practice in the making of the Petun (Jonson 281). Alternatively, you might talk of politics and find yourself in the middle of a heated argument. In his diary entry on 26 October 1663, Pepys describes a conversation that was interrupted in the Globe Tavern by an anti-monarchist who slandered the Emperor Leopold, calling him a sot. Pepys’s companions were quick to take the royalist view: It is not a thing to be said of any Soveraigne Prince, be his weaknesses what they will, to be called a sot. (Pepys).
If you do not venture into the taverns, you might still be struck by their colourful signs creaking above the street. There are fabulous monsters, a green dragon and a phoenix, metonymic headwear like the mitre and the crown, and things celestial, a rainbow and a sun. At this last sign, close to St. Dunstan’s Church and opposite the conduit, the first printing press was established in 1500 by Wynkyn de Worde. This gave Fleet Street its lasting reputation as a publishing centre. Caxton had published courtly books like Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, but when Wynkyn moved the business to Fleet Street, he adapted his publishing policy to the taste of the neighbourhood, publishing sermons for pious merchants and law books, grammars, and poetry for law students. Another publisher who was to make Fleet Street his base was Richard Tottell. He spent the whole of his publishing career at the Hand and Star between the two temple gates at Temple Bar, specializing in printing law books. Perhaps you bump into a bookseller under one of the inn signs and decide to rifle through his wares. As you suspected, they are all law books: Plowden, Dyer, Brooke and Fitzherbert (Jonson 187). Suddenly, you might be distracted by the doleful tapping of a hammer as people nail up the plague bills detailing those who have been claimed by the distemper. These are anxious times, but by the time you reach St. Dunstan’s, the noise of singing might bring you comfort: Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness (King James Bible, Ps. 91.5–91.6).
St. Dunstan’s was lucky to survive the fire of London. According to Bucholz and Ward, the Dean of Westminster drafted the boys of Westminster school to form a bucket brigade (Bucholz and Ward 344). Most of Fleet Street was not so lucky. It had survived large fires before in the 1650s but the Great Fire of London left it utterly devastated as far as Fetter Lane. Bell points out that one of the reasons that the fire was able to claim so much of the street is because from Fleet Ditch to Middle Temple Gate there was not a single wide side street (Bell 177). Another reason was that since the season was over at London, the lodgings of law students were empty, and many noblemen could only wait helplessly in the country for news of their losses. Those who were there did not fare any better: the poet James Shirley and his wife escaped from their house in Fleet Street, near Sergeant’s Inn, only to die of cold at St-Giles’s-in-the-Fields (Bell 177). Much of the Inner Temple was gutted by fire, as were the buildings along Fleet Street, to within a few houses of St. Dunstan’s Church on the north side (Porter 38). After the fire, Fleet Street was considerably broadened, and Fleet Bridge was entirely rebuilt so that, as you were crossing over it, you could pause to marvel at the stone-lanterns in the shape of pineapples (Porter 216; Stow 1:46).


Cite this page

MLA citation

Ford, Harry. Fleet Street. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 30 Jun. 2021,

Chicago citation

Ford, Harry. Fleet Street. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 30, 2021.

APA citation

Ford, H. 2021. Fleet Street. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 6.6). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Ford, Harry
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Fleet Street
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 6.6
PY  - 2021
DA  - 2021/06/30
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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