In and Out of London Or, the Half-holidays of a Town Clerk

Loftie, W. J.





THE natural features of the eastern parts of Middlesex are covered by an impenetrable veil. Rivers and ravines are masked, hills are levelled, marshes are hidden. A flood of brick fills up the hollows. The brooks run far underground. The flats are elevated, and the heights depressed. The tide of buildings surges on, swallowing up in its course fields and gardens, parks and woods; uprooting trees, blasting flowers; shutting out even the air and the winds of heaven. There is something appalling in the resistless growth of London. Middlesex is nearly eaten up. Surrey and Kent and Essex have been largely contaminated. It spreads like moths fretting a garment. The old form of the country, as it lay bare to the sky, is wholly lost. It is overwhelmed and obliterated. Even when the houses fall and London becomes ruinous heaps, the old geography will not be restored. The rivers will never flow again. The valleys and the hills will alike have disappeared, and men shall some day talk of the plains of London as we talk of the plains of Babylon. If we could look on the land


we live in as it was before our city was made, we should not know it. We may still identify the seven hills of Rome, but who will find for us the seven streams which traverse London ? We can neither find the Langbourne on the east nor the Kilbourne on the west. Who can define the extent and the boundaries of the fields of St. Martin and St. Giles, or tell us where the mount stood in Mount Street, or the conduit in Conduit Street ? We have all a vague idea that there is a stream running under Buckingham Palace, to account for the fog which never rises from off those dreary gardens. We are in the habit of taking strangers to Panyer Alley, as to the and we do not yet forget the steep ascent of Holborn Hill. But our information seldom extends much further. We are unacquainted with the soil in our own street. We have no notion how many feet it is above or below the level of the Thames. We have never remarked whether Park Lane slopes to the north or to the south. We have not the slightest idea over what river Battle Bridge was built, nor why we should have to go down steps from Threadneedle Street to Broad Street. All these things depend more or less directly on the physical geography of the region which we have covered over and disguised with pavements and rows of houses.

The London district, at least the more thickly inhabited portion of it, consists of a series of low hills rising from the sloping bank of the Thames.


These hills are divided from one another by brooks or bournes of varying importance, which flow into, the river between Milbank and the Tower. The line of hills is not uniformly parallel with the river's edge, as it stands east and west, while the Thames, which flows from west to east when it passes London, flows from south to north when it passes Westminster. There is thus a long tract of level ground- south of Notting Hill and west of the river Thames, where the elevation is very slight, and where in places there is even a depression. On this tract an enormous population is now gathered. The villages of Kensington and Brompton were formerly separated from the water's edge by an unwholesome morass, but even this has been built upon, and Pimlico, which contains some of the worst, contains also some of the best, streets in London. We are surprised to notice the great differences of level and also of soil which occur. While north of the Park, in places, the ground rises to nearly a hundred feet above the sea, at Milbank it only stands twelve feet above the river. The highest ground in the City is in Cannon Street, where it reaches sixty feet, and not in Newgate Street, where it is only fifty-eight; for the old rhyme in Panyer Alley is untrue, like so many other things we have believed in from our youth up. The slope falls rapidly towards the east. Stepney is only thirty-five feet above the river, and a short distance beyond we are again at the level of Brompton. But if we look further into the matter


we find that the slope from the Thames and its adjacent morass is not uniform, that it is broken into a number of different eminences, and that each ridge is separated from the next by a running stream. If we could divest Oxford Street, for instance, of its houses, we might see that the whole line of thoroughfare from Newgate to Notting Hill goes up and down hill alternately not less than three times. Instead of a long piece of almost level road, bordered on either side by houses, we should see a steep hill when we had crossed the Fleet, round which the river would run on the north and east, and arriving at the summit should find ourselves on a ridge elevated perhaps as much as eighty feet above the Thames, towards which, on the left, there would be a continuous slope, while on the right a valley of slight depth, but considerable steepness, would mark the north-westward winding of the Fleet. This valley, of which the head would be at Euston Square, would correspond with a similar depression on the west of a large tract of the most dense clay known to geologists. This tract is now the Regent's Park, and from it the principal streams of which we speak take their source. The Fleet and the Old Bourne on the east, the Marybourne on the south, the Tybourne on the west, all either flow directly from it, or are largely fed by the waters gathered in its tenacious grasp. We wonder to find the Zoological Gardens damp even on a fine day, and cold on a warm day, but a


more unfortunate situation in which to place an acclimatising establishment could hardly have been found elsewhere in Middlesex. What suits flowers and trees does not suit Bengal tigers and birds.

The ridge which begins at reaches its highest point near the Regent's Circus. Thence to Bird Street we find a slope which, if we could strip off the granite and bricks, would be seen to be part of a long ravine extending from the Church of St. Mary southward to Westminster, the little brook which marks its course being still acknowledged in the right name of the parish, and in that of Brook Street and of Engine Street, , where probably a waterwheel or was turned by the stream. It is not very easy to trace the depression caused by the bourne. The windings of Marylebone Lane perhaps represent the earlier windings of the stream along whose banks it ran. At Stratford Place, a few centuries ago, there was a conduit connected with the stream, and standing on its left bank, and this is still the boundary between the territories of the Corporation and the Duke of Westminster. The brook turns to the left on crossing Oxford Street; then, winding round the base of a mount, and feeding another conduit, it turns almost at right angles past Hay Hill, and thence under Lansdowne House by Engine Street into the Green Park, across which its path is marked, especially at


sunset, by a line of mist. Emerging very near, if not actually under the spot on which Buckingham Palace stands, it turns again to the right, and finally falls into the Thames at Westminster, forming in the last few hundred yards the delta of Thorney. In all probability this brook was the original : and the place of Mortimer's execution in cannot have been far distant from Stratford Place. So lonely was the neighbourhood, that St. Mary's Church having been repeatedly robbed, Bishop Braybrook removed it from the foot of Marylebone Lane to the High Street early in the fifteenth century, though, with characteristic immobility, the vestry remained, where it still stands, close to the original site. From this point again there is a considerable ascent, the highest ridge being just opposite the Marble Arch; and here the traditional , the bourne in particular from which so many travellers never returned, has usually been placed. The sandy and gravelly soil must have been found unsuitable for gardens. The hill was probably little more than a bare heath, favourable, no doubt, except under peculiar circumstances, to human life; for, standing as it does almost a hundred feet above the Thames, surrounded on all sides by valleys, more or less depressed, and bounded on the east and west by the Tybourne and the Marybourne, the hill, although without a name of its own, has always been remarkable in later times for its low death-rate, a blessing


duly acknowledged by the inhabitants, who built St. Luke's Church in Nutford Place to commemorate the absence of cholera from the district during the visitation of . Though the Tybourne or has as many aliases as some of the heroes who passed their last moments upon its banks, we can trace its course more easily than that of the companion stream. Rising originally in the clay north of the Regent's Park, it takes a southwesterly course, and, having been augmented by the Westbourne, it reaches the boundary of Hyde Park, where the old burial-ground of St. George's, Hanover Square, was placed to be well away from the houses. Traversing the Park by a winding but well-marked course, it is now lost in the Serpentine; but time was, no doubt, when the junction of the two bournes gave its name to the abbey manor of Ey or Ait, now, by the Middlesex pronunciation, corrupted into Hyde.

If, instead of turning west at the Fleet below Holborn Hill, we try to examine the geographical features of the City itself, the difficulties in our way are even greater. The hill of which St. Paul's is the crown never rises much more than half the height of that on which the gallows stood at . And some or feet of even this moderate elevation must be accounted for by the successive destructions of a series of cities which have stood on the same site, and which have contributed to the salubrity of their modern representative


by raising it on a deep layer of ashes and adventitious soil of all kinds. We are not concerned here with the exact place occupied by Roman London. Recent discoveries have added to the proofs adduced by Mr. W. H. Black, in , to show that it stood west of the Wallbrook. If the masonry just uncovered at Newgate be in reality Roman, it reached just as far north-west as he would have had us believe. His view, notwithstanding certain discoveries of Roman remains on Tower Hill, would have finally disposed of a theory seldom now held as to the origin of the Tower. Two streams crossed the site of the City. Both have disappeared, like the Fleet itself. The Langbourne only survives in the name of the ward through which it ran, and Sherbourne Lane marks its later course before it fell into the Thames at Swan Wharf. The Wallbrook also had at least two names, whether as the Dour it gave a name to Dowgate, and whether as the Wallbrook it really marked the eastern boundary of the ancient city. Barges at one time sailed up it at high water as far as Bucklersbury, and a boat-hook of Roman make has been found in Coleman Street. Bridges crossed it at the same period and later, one of them connecting the two streets which are now the two ends of Cannon Street. The ship which formed the vane of St. Mildred's in the Poultry has been referred to the stream which flowed under the church; St. Mary Bothaw has been explained as St. Mary Boat-haw, and the course of the brook


may be traced across Princes Street, behind the Bank, along Broad Street, until, like the Langbourne, it reaches Finsbury. The marshy ground in Moorfields is to the City what the Regent's Park clay is to the west end; and though Threadneedle Street is thirteen and Broad Street six feet above the ancient level of the land, they preserve in a remarkable manner evidences of their respective positions when suburban villas lined the banks of the Wallbrook, and corn grew upon Cornhill.