Earlier this year that last journalists left Fleet Street. The street has had a close and essential relationship with my career. Before Twitter and Facebook and SnapChat and Instagram and YouTube, Fleet Street was the filter through which everything I did passed (or didn’t). For the last couple of years I’ve commuted along it to our offices in Somerset House. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned…
Every morning, on my way to work, I walk from Ludgate Circus along Fleet Street to our offices at Somerset House. In the evening the journey is reversed, with St Pauls looming like a helmet-headed monster brandishing an impatient knife and fork.
Strolling along is a rewarding walk that always provides something new. I alternate sides of the street and try to look up as often as I can. So much of London’s history is above or below street level. On the street I’ve seen the world’s most opulent cashpoint, intriguing plaques, statuettes, a fox, Mark Rylance waiting for a lift, beautiful stained glass, odd books, a green elephant and much more. Here’s the world’s most opulent cashpoint:
Fleet Street is now sort of bookended by newsagents: WH Smith at one end and BH News at the other. If I want a Private Eye, I know to go to BH News first. I don’t know why. It’s a small newsagent that probably makes most of its money on sales of Twirls and Mars Bars. But I’m telling you, if you want an Eye and you’re in Fleet Street, go to BH News.
At number 1, Fleet Street, there was once a coffee shop called Nando’s. It was first recorded as being on the site in 1696. Nando’s was popular in the 18th century, especially with the legal profession in the nearby courts and chambers. I have no idea whether there was a wider menu featuring chicken, nor whether there was any ‘cheekiness’.
In the bowels of the street in the heyday of print, reams of paper sailed across presses. Here’s a tractor delivering paper:
The air in the street was heavy with the odour of ink on hot iron. Today, nothing is printed in the street, except passport photos and holiday pictures on cushions at Snappy Snaps and presentation boards and legal documents at Kall Kwik. An advertising poster in the window of Kall Kwik has a pastiche Clark Kent transforming into a thinly-veiled Superman (with a Kall Kwik Logo on his chest), making the case for high speed document delivery. The poster is irony and the future and nostalgia in a single bound.
On the way in to work this morning a flock of pigeons rising off one of the old buildings momentarily formed an unlikely murmuration in the shape of a perfect arrow that pointed one way and then another and then dissolved to airborne messiness before I could point my iPhone at them. A similar thing happened in the dark of November last year when a fox casually assessed the rubbish bags outside a Japanese noodle place before parting traffic and disappearing with its pantomime legs up a lane. Again, the camera was too late. We need the camera to be running all the times these days if we’re going to catch the moment that we all demand. Smartphones killed the newspaper star.
Fleet Street is where what happened in Britain and the world was gathered and assessed and filtered and described for hundreds of years. The first draft of history. Now it’s a palimpsest. The building where the Daily Courant, Britain’s first paper, was published, is now a Leon restaurant. The Express building, an art deco masterpiece, belongs to banking. The Telegraph building, the ghost of its logo still just visible at the summit, now occupies something else.
Last Friday, the last two journalists based at Fleet Street, left the road that curves upward from the High Court, tilts to the east, then drops toward the approach to St Pauls, beyond which is the City. A road that connects law, religion and money.
At the Ludgate Circus end is the site of the London Wall and the River Fleet from which the street was named. The river is now buried beneath the streets. It starts, nicely enough, at the Hampstead Ponds and ends on a sourer note four miles later, especially on a wet London day, when it pours brown through a hole in the embankment near Blackfriars into the Thames. There is a vent in Farringdon Road where you can hear the sound of the river.
Fleet Street has been a through route since Roman times and businesses began to cluster along the road in the Middle Ages. The street became known for printing and publishing at the start of the 16th century and by the 20th century most British national newspapers operated there. Most moved out in the 1980s after News International set up in Wapping, but some former newspaper buildings are listed and have been preserved. You can see the Express signage on the stunning black and chrome Art Deco building.
Fleet Street, of course, remains a metonym for the British national press. But I guess the idea of a press evokes an image of something that is not ‘fleet’ enough. On the way home, the Standard, once paid for and now a free sheet, stands in piles beside the entrance to City Thameslink, like a disconsolate bar chart.
Pubs on the street, once filled with journalists, remain popular. St Bride’s Church is an amazing and respectful temple to an industry, the pews all bearing the names of individuals and mastheads. The history of ideas is everywhere. I visited the crypt this morning. There’s a cutting from an old paper, reporting on the arrest of a man for snoring. There are tombstones that could do with a subedit. There are etchings of the fire of London and a beauty from the dome of St Paul’s looking westward towards Westminster along Fleet Street. The street forms a line from the nation’s temple of politics to a temple that we might conventionally associate with the truth and morality.
Fleet Street hasn’t always been about news, though it is the thing for which it will be eternally famous. Tanning of animal hides was established on Fleet Street because of the river, which filled with the waste and all manner of rubbish. Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) mentions the filth in the Fleet during a storm in a poem of 1710:
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.
Tanning declined sharply after the River Fleet was routed underground in 1766. The street was widened a bit during the late-19th century, when Temple Bar was demolished and Ludgate Circus was constructed. Temple Bar was bought and rebuilt on a Hertfordshire estate, fell into disrepair and was then acquired to form the entrance to Paternoster Square.
An important landmark in Fleet Street during the late Middle Ages was a conduit that was the main water supply for the area. When Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen following her marriage to Henry VIII in 1533, the conduit flowed wine instead of water.
Mrs Salmon’s Waxworks, another local attraction, was established at Prince Henry’s Room, a beautiful Tudor building at the old Temple Bar end, in 1711. The Tussaud’s of its day, the Waxworks featured the most incredible exhibits, including the execution of Charles I; a Roman lady, Hermione, whose father survived a sentence of starvation by sucking her breast; and a woman who gave birth to 365 children simultaneously. The waxworks were a favourite of William Hogarth, and survived into the 19th century.
Publishing first started in Fleet Street around 1500 when William Caxton’s apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde (a great name), set up a printing shop near Shoe Lane, while at around the same time Richard Pynson set up as publisher and printer next to St Dunstan’s Church. This was the street’s Berners-Lee moment.
More printers and publishers followed, mainly supplying the legal trade in the four Inns of Court around the area, but also publishing books and plays. Today there’s the Snappy Snaps and Kall Kwik on the street, but no other printers as far as I know.
In March 1702 the first edition of London’s very first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published in Fleet Street. It was followed by the Morning Chronicle. The publisher John Murray was founded at No. 32 Fleet Street in 1762 and remained there until 1812, when it moved to Albemarle Street.
Fleet Street in the 1800s was the connecting route between the twin centres of London. It has been referred to as ‘a double street’ because there was as much activity in its alleys and passageways as on Fleet Street itself. Protruding signboards were above every doorway. One fell down in 1718 and killed four people, including the King’s jeweller.
Newspaper popularity was stifled by various taxes in the early 19th century, particularly paper duty. Peele’s Coffee-House at No. 177–8 Fleet Street became popular and was the main committee room for the Society for Repealing the Paper Duty, starting in 1858. The society was successful and the duty was abolished in 1861. This, combined with the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855, inflated demand and led to a dramatic expansion of newspaper production in Fleet Street. The “penny press” (newspapers costing one penny) became popular during the 1880s. Eventually most consolidated into a few nationally important ones. Titles that are lost, like second division social networks of their day, include the New Times, the confusingly-named Mirror of the Times, the Statesman, the British Mercury, the Dispatch, the Englishman and the Neptune.
By the 20th century Fleet Street and the area surrounding it were dominated by national press and related industries. The Daily Express relocated to No. 121–8 Fleet Street in 1931, into a glorious building designed by Sir Owen Williams. It has survived the departure of the newspaper in 1989 and was restored in 2001. The Daily Telegraph was based at No. 135–142. Both premises are Grade II Listed. In the 1930s, No. 67 housed 25 separate publications; by this time the majority of British households bought a daily paper produced from Fleet Street. It was the street’s Detroit heyday moment.
Some publishers have remained on Fleet Street, though fiction dominates. The London office of D.C. Thomson & Co., creator of The Beano, is at No. 185, a beautiful building with glazed brickwork.
Several writers and politicians are closely associated with Fleet Street, either as residents or regulars to the various taverns, including Ben Jonson, John Milton, Izaak Walton, John Dryden, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Lamb. The lexicographer Samuel Johnson lived at Gough Square off Fleet Street between 1748 and 1759; the building has survived into the 21st century. The cartographer John Senex owned a map store, The Sign of the Globe, on Fleet Street between 1725 and his death in 1736. Wynkyn de Worde was buried in St. Bride’s Church in 1535, as was poet Richard Lovelace in 1657, while Samuel Pepys was baptised there in 1633. Rupert Murdoch, who changed the face of the street when he (controversially) moved his presses to Wapping in the 80s, married Jerry Hall at St Bride’s in 2016.
The street is mentioned in the fiction of Charles Dickens and is where the fictitious murderous barber Sweeney Todd lived. He would murder customers and serve their remains as pie fillings. There is now a barber in a basement on the south side of Fleet Street. I’ve never been there. In the high summer, there’s a stench at that spot, which I guess is either one of London’s infamous fatbergs or the aroma of the River Fleet. I’m sure it can’t be pies, can it?
Fleet Street is mentioned in several of Charles Dickens’ works. The eponymous club in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers, is set in the street, as is Tellson’s Bank In A Tale of Two Cities. The poet John Davidson wrote two works in the late 19th century titled the Fleet Street Eclogues. Arthur Ransome has a chapter in his Bohemia in London (1907) about earlier inhabitants of the street: Ben Jonson, the Doctor (Samuel Johnson), Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb; and about Temple Bar and the Press Club. But the fiction is easily matched by fact. I have been reading Charles Rae’s excellent book about his time on Fleet Street and the stories confirm what I’ve long believed which is that magical realism wasn’t the invention of Nobel Prizewinning Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was invented by Fleet Street hacks. Compare Marquez’s famous tale about the circus swept into the sea in South America and the fisherman catching giraffes and leopards in their nets with Charlie’s story about Lew Foley, the Lion Man of Cradley Heath who used to take his pet lion, Laddo, on shopping trips to Birmingham in his Cortina and you’ll see what I mean.
The street’s cultural resonances are everywhere.
Fleet Street is also a square on the British Monopoly board, in a group with the Strand and Trafalgar Square. One of the Chance cards in the game, “You Have Won A Crossword Competition, collect £100” was inspired by rival competitions and promotions between Fleet Street-based newspapers in 1930s, particularly the Daily Mail and Daily Express.
The River Fleet starts its run from the Hampstead Ponds and the Highgate Ponds. The two tributaries go underground, under Kentish Town, connect in Camden Town and flow onwards to King’s Cross. King’s Cross was originally named Battle Bridge, referring to an ancient bridge over The Fleet where Boudica’s army is said to have fought an important battle against the Romans. The river then flows down Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street, clipping the end of Fleet Street, and joins the Thames in a brown gush on a wet day beneath Blackfriars Bridge.
Nearby Fleet Prison accommodated at various times a Solicitor General and Speaker of the House of Commons, a cartographer, a metaphysical poet, a Baron, a New York landowner, an antiquary and a King of Corsica. Fictional residents included Pickwick and Falstaff.
At 69 metres, St Bride’s spire is the second highest of Wren’s. It was firebombed by the Luftwaffe and repairs were funded by newspaper proprietors and journalists. St Bride’s association with the newspaper business began in 1500, when Wynkyn de Worde set up a printing press next door. Until 1695, London was the only city in Britain where printing was permitted by law. St Bride’s has had a number of notable parishioners, including John Milton, John Dryden, and Samuel Pepys, who was baptised in the church. Pepys buried his brother Tom in the church in 1664, but by this stage the vaults were so overcrowded that Pepys had to bribe the gravedigger to “justle together” the corpses in order to make room. In the crypt, there’s a small iron coffin. For a time, coffins were designed to be as impregnable as possible to put off grave robbers who would sell the corpses for medical research.
The street isn’t the riot of ideas it once was. It’s full of references to its past and feels like a place that might at some stage experience one of those amalgamating rebirths. London is good at condensing utility and purpose. Cecil Court at Charing Cross Road for books, Hatton Garden for diamonds, Harley Street for, er, ‘having work done’, Savile Row for suits, Brick Lane for food, Bond Street for indulgence. It’s what Fleet Street feels like it needs: a renewed purpose. There’s just the small matter of the rent and getting rid of the internet. Right now, tree books are no match for e books.