Giving the Walbrook the Elbow….


from Walbrook Discovery which deals in the main with the hydrology of the river.

In this article I wrote the following:-

“….The Walbrook flowed quite swiftly [south] from its source, but on nearing the Thames the land flattened considerably, and the river seems to have indulged in a curve….”

This curve or meander, when filled in and “improved” in the 15th century, for the river to flow more directly to the Thames, became the aptly named Elbow Lane. One side-effect of this fiddling with nature meant that when the Walbrook, which flowed downhill, was in spate the torrent of water was frightening, and cost lives, property and any vessels able to navigate the channel. Better to have left the meander as it was, except that the flattened land meant that at that point the Walbrook was generally sluggish, and became clogged and smelly. Peg-on-the-nose stuff. So providing the water with a nice, straight, sloping channel that amounted to a flume, meant that bingo, the speed increased. And when a lot of rain led to floods upstream, and a spate ensued, everything swept pell-mell toward the Thames.

These days the Walbrook has been tamed, and the poor thing looks like this:-

Built in the 1830s, this is one of London’s oldest still-working sewer lines. This tunnel is also the remnant of the Walbrook Stream or River, so called because it was once the only significant watercourse to flow through London’s fortified walls. The river began to disappear as early as the Roman era, and it was already used as an open sewer long before that. The groundwater in the area– possibly the same springs that once fed the Walbrook– has worked its way through the brick of the tunnel, and small streams of water spray into the tunnel from every direction. London Bridge Sewer, London, England, 2007

The above illustration is from Spital Fieldslife

Here is the description of Elbow Lane from Stow’s 1598 Survey of London, (extract taken from this map :-

“….Down lower [in the street called Dowgate, which followed the course of the Walbrook] haue ye Elbow lane,  and at the corner therof was one great stone house, called Olde hall, it is now taken downe, and diuers fayre houses of Timber placed there, this as sometime pertayning to VVilliam de pont le arch, and by him giuen to the Priorie of S. Mary Ouery in Southwarke, in the raigne of Henry the first. In this Elbow lane is the Inholders hall, and other fayre houses: this lane runneth west, and suddenly turneth south into Thames street, and therefore of that bending is called Elbow lane. On the east side of this Downgate streete, is the great olde house, before spokn of, called the Erber,  neare to the Church of S. Mary BothawGeffery Scroope held it, by the gift of Edward the third, in the fourteenth of his raigne, it belonged since to Iohn Neuell Lord of Raby, then to Richard Neuell Earle of Warwicke, Neuell, Earle of Salisbery was lodged there, 1457. then it came to George Duke of Clarence, by the gift of Edwarde the fourth, in the fourteenth of his raigne….”

This seems plain enough to me. Elbow Lane led west out of Dowgate and then performed a right-angled bend (to the left) to finish south in Thames Street, thus roughly following the original course of the Walbrook. But the Map of Early Modern London site  moves Elbow Lane entirely from Dowgate and has it leading east from the parallel street to the west, labelled Whytyngton College (College Hill), and then making a right-angled bend (to the right) to go south into Thames Street. As follows:

From the Map of Early Modern London site

The above plan doesn’t follow what seems to have been the course of the Walbrook. Elbow Lane led from Dowgate, not College Hill, and at some point descended to Thames Street. Well, maybe Elbow Lane descended to Thames Street, but if the Walbrook did that, it would have had to then flow east along Thames Street to rejoin Dowgate. It clearly never did this, but it did flow east behind the houses of Thames Street. If Elbow Lane was later continued west all the way from Dowgate to College Hill that was simply to do with Elbow Lane itself, not the old river.

Evolution of Elbow Lane isn’t of prime concerned to me as a writer, because my book is set in the time of Chaucer when the old river course was definitely still in existence. It wasn’t filled in until the following century.

This meander in the Walbrook’s course is disputed as to whether or not it existed immediately north of the Chaucer residence in Thames Street. This is because in 1873, F.J. Furnivall discovered an important document that had a bearing on the Chaucer property. It was a quitclaim deed, dated 19th June 1381, in which [one] Geoffrey Chaucer named himself as the son of John Chaucer, vintner of London, and released his interest in a tenement once owned by his father, located in Thames Street in the City of London.

Above is an extract from this document, which indicates the situation of the property (tenement) and suggests very strongly that the river did indeed pass to the east of it, but also to the north because of the all-important meander. The property is indicated to have been on the Thames Street frontage from College Hill (aka Whytington Colledge, Royal Street, Le Riall, La Riole and, it seems, Paternosterstrete) in the west, to Dowgate, and then bounded by the Walbrook on the north.

I believe the old Walbrook course was as indicated in yellow in the map below, in which the approximate position of the Chaucer house is marked with a red X. I can’t claim this is accurate, but it must have been something like this, and when the meander was cut off and filled in, the Walbrook went in a straight line, north-south.

Whatever man’s interference with nature, the Walbrook flowed its merry way downhill to the Thames. It still does to this day.

The Map of Early Modern London site, which I first recommended here, is brilliant, and I often resort to it. There are bound to be glitches here and there, but this is the only one I’ve happened upon that is (to me) clearly wrong. And then only because the old course of the Walbrook is important in my wip!

But I STILL thoroughly recommend the map site. It’s sheer genius. And I’m sure even Einstein got a few little things wrong. Unless, of course, I’m the one who’s wrong! No, no, perish the thought…. But I’m sure someone will tell me soon enough.

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