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The Fleet, known as Fleet River, Fleet Ditch, Fleet Dike, and the River of Wells, due to the numerous wells along its banks, was London’s largest subterranean river (Stow 1598, sig. C4r). It flowed down from Hampstead and Kenwood ponds in the north, bisecting the Ward of Farringdon Without, as it wended southward into the Thames (Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay, and Keay 298). The river is spanned by Holborn Bridge and Fleet Bridge, and gives its name to Fleet Street.
It derives its own name from the adjective fleeting, as well as the Anglo Saxon fleotan, which means to flow (Fleeting 359) or tidal inlet (Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay, and Keay 298). In John Ashton’s The Fleet: Its River, Prison, and Marriages, the author provides yet another etymology: My own opinion, backed by many antiquaries, is that a Fleet means a brook, or tributary to a large river, which is so wide and deep, at its junction with the greater stream as to be navigable for the small craft then in use, for some little distance (Ashton 2).
It is often speculated that the River Fleet served as a route of transportation during the time of the Romans, as evidenced in 1676, following the Great Fire, when the ditch was widened in one of many attempts to cleanse the waters. Workers discovered the stray rubbish, bones, and refuse of Roman London (Thornbury 416). The earliest recorded documentation of the river’s use was in the early twelfth century when stones for old St. Paul’s were brought upstream (Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay, and Keay 298). In the interval between the Roman occupation and Stow’s composition of the Survey of London, the river doubled as a means of transportation and a source of sustenance. In his Survey, Stow explained how Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, commented that the river had beene of such bredth and depth, that 10. or 12. Shippes, Nauies, at once with Marchandizes could pass through without difficulty (Stow 1598, sig. B6r). Since then, however, the river narrowed and grew foul by pollution, and in 1290 the monks of Whitefriars complained to the King that the smell of the river was so bad that even their incense could not mask it (Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay, and Keay 298). Later, in 1502, the river was scowred into the Thames and cleansed for the first time (Stow 1598, sig. B6v). A second attempt was performed in 1589 by drawing from various unpolluted sources and channeling them into the Fleet. The attempt was ultimately a failure and, as Stow remarks, the effect fayled, so that the brookes by meanes of continuall incrochments vpon the banks gyttying ouer the water, and casting of soilage into the streame, is now become worse cloyed and choken then euer it was before (Stow 1598, sig. B6v).
The Fleet River features prominently in Ben Jonson’s satirical poem On the Famous Voyage, which recounts a mock Homeric journey of two scoundrels, Shelton and Heyden, through the squalid, putrescence-ridden ditch, as they seek out prostitutes.
Today, the Fleet River is largely hidden underground, but can be heard rushing beneath the grates lining the streets, as it continues to serve as a sewer system.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Vidito, Brendan. Fleet. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/FLEE1.htm. INP.

Chicago citation

Vidito, Brendan. Fleet. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/FLEE1.htm. INP.

APA citation

Vidito, B. 2022. Fleet. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/7.0/FLEE1.htm. INP.

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  - Vidito, Brendan
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Fleet
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/FLEE1.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/xml/standalone/FLEE1.xml
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#VIDI1"><surname>Vidito</surname>, <forename>Brendan</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Fleet</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target="https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/FLEE1.htm">mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/FLEE1.htm</ref>. INP.</bibl>



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