'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
The Fleet has always been a working river. From Roman times until the early eighteenth century it served as one of London’s major trade routes. Fairly large vessels could venture upstream as far as Clerkenwell, and the mouth of the river served as a harbour for sea-going boats moving up the Thames.
But there have been many ways of making a living from the Fleet. The name of Turnmills Street in Clerkenwell reminds us that medieval river was lined with water-wheels powering grain and cloth mills. For centuries it was alive with ferry-men, and the hospital of St Bartholomew’s had a special landing-stage for its patients.
Further down the river, by Sea-Coal Lane, stood a wharf for unloading coal brought by sea from the Weald of Kent and Newcastle. After the Great Fire of London a tax on sea-coal paid for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the new cathedral’s stones were brought into the Fleet to be unloaded. So in two senses – physical and financial – St Paul’s arrived in London via the Fleet.
Even today the Fleet valley is still used for transport. In the 1860s the Metropolitan Railway Company built a track north from Farringdon, now part of the tube network. If you’ve ever travelled on the Circle Line from King’s Cross to Farringdon, you’ve followed the route of medieval ferrymen down the Fleet.
As the last sections of the urban Fleet were being covered over, a Victorian journalist began to examine the lives of those who lived on its banks. In 1851 Henry Mayhew – one of the founders of Punch magazine – published London Labour and the London Poor. In this rich and remarkable book Mayhew recorded the stories of trades on the point of disappearance – amongst them, the ‘toshers’.
Toshers, or ‘shore-men’, combed the banks of the Thames and the Fleet, looking for coins, jewellery or scrap metal. As London’s sewerage system was rebuilt, they also began to venture (illegally) into the city’s sewers. Toshing was a dangerous living, and the toshers had a lore and language all of their own. Some claimed that pigs had swam up the Fleet and bred in the sewers of Hampstead, where they formed ‘a monstrous breed of black swine, which have propagated and run wild among the slimy feculence, and whose ferocious snouts will one day uproot Highgate Archway.’
Others told the story of ‘Queen Rat’. This supernatural ruler of the sewers took the form of a rat with glowing eyes, and she kept an eye on the toshers to make sure they behaved themselves. But if she saw a particularly handsome tosher, she would turn herself into an attractive woman and seduce him. The price of this encounter was a bite on the back of the neck, but this scar would give the tosher luck in his discoveries, and protect him from drowning or suffocation.