'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
London has many lost rivers – the Wandle, the Effra, the Tyburn – but the greatest of all is the mighty Fleet. From its origins as a tributary of the prehistoric Thames, the Fleet has been a Roman trade route, a medieval moat, an eighteenth-century eyesore and a Victorian storm drain. In its lower, urban reaches, the Fleet was little more than an open sewer. But in its higher reaches – the farms and fields around the parish of St Pancras – it ran through the gardens of fashionable medicinal spas.
The mineral spring of Pancras Wells was first mentioned in 1697, in the garden of a pub named the Horns. Its water was described as ‘a powerful antidote against rising of the vapours, also against stone and gravel, and as a general and sovereign help to nature.’ By 1700 the spring was at the centre of a large estate, which featured not only a pump room but also a theatre, a bowling green, and avenues of trees by the river. And Pancras Wells was not an isolated oddity. For almost two centuries this stretch of the Fleet was thronged with spas and wells, which enjoyed a golden age between the Restoration and the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign.
The medicinal qualities of these waters was based on the Classical notion of disease as an imbalance. A chalybeate spring, like Pancras, heavy with iron, would cool a fevered, choleric constitution. But a sulphurous spring, like those at Bath, would warm a languid, melancholy mind. Drinking from a local spring also helped the body acclimatise to the environment, and protected newcomers against the characteristic diseases of London.
But the wells of the Fleet valley were never just medicinal. Bagnigge Wells was one of the largest and most fashionable eighteenth-century spas, and like Pancras Wells, it was not just about healing. This was a place to see and be seen, to participate in genteel culture and watch the demi-monde at play. An advert printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1759 included a ‘Ballad of Bagnigge’:
Ye gouty old souls and rheumaticks crawl on,
Here taste these blest springs, and your tortures are gone;
Ye wretches asthmatic, who pant for your breath,
Come drink your relief, and think not of death.
Obey the glad summons, to Bagnigge repair,
Drink deep of its streams, and forget all your care.
It doesn’t take long to realise that there are no healing spas and wells in the twenty-first century Fleet valley. All closed down within a few decades in the early nineteenth century, for a number of reasons. Fashions began to change, and the Regency smart set preferred sea-bathing at resorts like Brighton. Long economic depressions after the Napoleonic Wars made public ‘conspicuous consumption’ less appealing. And the area fell victim to industrial sprawl – no longer a rural retreat from the city, it was surrounded by factories, rubbish heaps and slums.
But the most important factor in the death of London’s spas was cholera. Arriving in 1831, it swept through the country in four epidemics between the 1830s and the 1860s. Cholera killed tens of thousands, and it killed them quickly and in a painful, humiliating manner. Though there were many arguments over the cause and transmission of cholera, it threw the filthy state of London and its water supply into ghastly focus. So the notion of drinking a polluted and potentially fatal glass of the City’s groundwater, for pleasure or medicine, quickly became deeply unappealing.
One of the most impressive physical remnants of the Fleet now stands behind a Travelodge on the King’s Cross Road. Riceyman Steps is best known as the title of a novel by Arnold Bennett, but the original Riceyman Steps date back to the early eighteenth century. They led down to a landing-stage on the Fleet – a kind of riverside taxi rank, where you could wait for a ferryman to take you downriver to the city.