The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Fleet Street

Category: Brief History of

There is nothing else on earth quite like Fleet Street. This thoroughfare, which runs like a crooked spine through east central London has been the home of the British press for 300 years. Here are published almost all of Britain’s national newspapers. Here also are the headquarters of many magazines, foreign and provincial press bureaus, international news agencies, trade papers, and the attic offices of freelance journalists.

It was in a Fleet Street tavern that the British press was born. Three centuries ago the Great Fire gutted the City of London, driving writers from their lodging houses, and with quill and ink-horn they resumed scribbling their newsletters and pamphlets in the taverns of Fleet Street. There they were strategically located, for their news came from travelers who alighted from coaches at nearby Temple Bar and from the skippers of vessels anchored below in the Thames.

In March 1702 Elizabeth Mallet, living in The King’s Arms at the foot of the Street, produced Britain’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant. A half century later 17 newspapers were being published in the area and the archetype of-the British journalist had emerged: jocose and belligerent, sentimental and cynical, raffish at times, clannish and proud of his craft.

The link between pen and tankard is still strong. The Newspapermen have turned the Street’s numberless pubs into a many-roomed club, using them for work as much as for pleasure. Perhaps the most characteristic pub is the Old Bell, built by Sir Christopher Wren. Its interior, its wooden bars and high stools have changed little since the day when Dickens sat in a room nearby planning the Daily News. It is dusty, brown, and rich with the smell of cheese and beer.

History lies under the steel and brick of modern Fleet Street. John Milton lived there, and Samuel Pepys, the greatest of the Street’s gossip writers, is said to have been born in Salisbury Court. Samuel Johnson’s house still stands in Gough Square, close to the black beamed Cheshire Cheese restaurant, which likes to believe that he supped at its tables. But nothing is left of the tavern wall to which a notice was once pinned offering 50 pounds for the apprehension of a “scurrilous’’ journalist named Daniel Defoe.

Too many men have come and gone for the Street to remember them all. It is too busy keeping its daily assignation with what Kipling called “the old Black Art’’.

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