Curator Kate Sumnall with a selection of objects from Secret Rivers
From Bronze Age swords to medieval battle-axes.
Secret Rivers is filled with archaeological objects rescued from the forgotten waterways of London. There are nearly fifty smaller rivers that emptied into the Thames, and for thousands of years Londoners relied on them to provide drinking water and carry away effluent — unfortunately, often at the same time.
Most are now hidden from view, paved over and turned into drains, or dug out into canals. But these phantom tributaries shape the streets of London today — like the River Fleet, which gives its name to Fleet Street, and is the source of our medieval toilet seat.
Kate Sumnall, one of the curators of the Secret Rivers exhibition, explained what we know about the site: "Before the Roman settlement of London, the lower Fleet was a wide, open river with two eyots, or small islands. During the 11th century, the land around the southern eyot was reclaimed and the channel was infilled. This was also the site of a bridge over the Fleet which connected with an east-west road. The archaeological excavations which discovered the toilet seat also revealed a row of buildings that fronted onto this road.
"These buildings were a mix of commercial and residential, in what is now Ludgate Hill. Historic records from the 13th century show that one of the buildings was known as ‘Helle’ and was owned by John de Flete, a cap-maker, and his wife, Cassandra. The three-seater wooden toilet belonged to this building, meaning that we probably know the names of the people whose bottoms would have sat on it.