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The Fleet River and Shoe Lane

This page began as simply ‘Holborn’ but as I started to look into it, and as I reflected on which ancestors were connected to this area, I came to realise that more accurately I wanted to talk about that part of London that is centred on the, now underground, part of the Fleet River from St. Pancras to the River Thames.  At this point I decided to ignore High Holborn and Holborn Circus, which are just out of the area of relevance to my ancestors and concentrate on the line followed by the ancient Fleet River and its immediate surrounds, which includes the now defunct Skinner Street, home of Robert and John Mollett, and Shoe Lane where Joseph Beckwith lived in his later life.  Then, as usal it started to grow like Topsy and so I have split it into two.  This page deals with the Fleet and Shoe Lane.  Holborn, Skinner Street and Snow Hill can be found on another page.  Click here.


The Fleet River

London has several underground rivers, but the largest and most well-known is the Fleet River.  It rises on Hampstead Heath and runs south down to the River Thames, where it emerges at Blackfriars Bridge.  It’s course is shown superimposed on the modern map at left.  Nowadays, it is an underground sewer basically, although it can be heard in a couple of spots through grills, and its exit can be seen at Blackfriars Bridge.  (I imagine that the sewage part must be diverted elsewhere nowadays.)

The name Fleet comes from the old English - fleot meaning tidal inlet - for this is what it was.  It was used extensively by the Romans as a dock, and continued in this way through medieval times.  It was wide and marshy and lined by springs, such as Clerkenwell and Bridewell, most probably treasured for healing properties.  But gradually, over time, of course, it became more and more polluted.  After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren proposed widening it and no doubt, prettifying it, but his plan was rejected in favour of constructing a canal over its course.  This too fell into disuse and disrepair and was eventually little more than an open sewer - at which point it was covered over by the Fleet Market.  This also did not last though, and eventually it was made into a ‘proper’ sewer and the current Farringdon Street was constructed over the top.  What is now the Jubilee Line of the London Underground, caused further works on the river.   Discoveries still continue to be made about its historic past, and it rates highly on the lists of sewer enthusiasts.

Bagnigge Wells - one of the springs that lined the river

The New Canal in 1728

Links


The Fleet River - Wikipedia - There are a few sites about the Fleet River, but the Wikipedia article is a good summary of the history of them all.

Mapping London - This site has a very impressive animation of all the lost rivers of London, which, of course, includes the River Fleet.

British History Online - Shoe Lane - A very detailed account of Shoe Lane taken from Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London published in 1878.


The Fleet River at St. Pancras 1825

The Fleet River 1844

Repairing the Fleet sewer

Works on the London Underground near the Fleet Ditch

Shoe Lane

Shoe Lane runs parallel to what is now Farringdon Street (previously the Fleet Market).  At no. 77 our ancestor Joseph Beckwith lived and kept a coffee shop for many years.  I can find no engravings or paintings of Shoe Lane itself, but the picture at right is of Field Lane, which apparently later became part of Shoe Lane, and so I imagine gives a pretty good impression of what the street was like in the late 18th, early 19th centuries when Joseph lived there.

The name has apparently got nothing to do with shoes.  In ancient times it was known as Scolane, but later it was known as Shew Well (one of those Fleet River wells) Lane.  There was also an ancient tenement building called the Shewe - so it is also possible that it was called after this.  They all seem to be connected to the name of the well though.

The page from Walter Thornbury’s 1878 Old and New London, describes several of the colourful characters who inhabited the street over time.  It seems that prior to the seventeenth century the bishops of Bangor in Wales had a fairly grand residence there, which was later divided up into shonky dwellings.  The engraving below is dated 1818, when it looks to be in pretty fair condition.  There was also a very active 17th and 18th century debating society that used to meet in what was known as the Cogers’ Hall - coger being for cogent, not codger.

Oldbourne House, Shoe Lane

Bangor House ancient home of the bishops of Bangor in Wales, in 1818.

When the Holborn Viaduct was built, a secondary bridge was built over Shoe Lane as this too was well below the level of Holborn itself.  It is not quite as decorative as the Holborn Viaduct itself but contains some nice ironwork nonetheless.  

The Shoe Lane bridge then and now

Today Shoe Lane is mostly lined by modern buildings and has recently been honoured with a sculpture by Anthony Gormley - the British sculptor of the moment.  Very little that is old remains due to the devastation of the Blitz.  The painting at right shows a house collapsing on two firemen in the blitz and the modern photograph beside it shows the same spot now.  Indeed large chunks of this part of central London are filled with interesting, sometimes startling modern office blocks.  It’s a really interesting area to walk around.

Shoe Lane in the blitz and now - pedestrianised in parts like lots of this section of the City of London.