Fleet Street in History

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Above: The decorative sandstone sign on a Victorian building in Fleet Street.

The line of Fleet Street has been established for almost two thousand years. It started as part of a Roman road that led from the west side of Londinium, via what was lated called Ludgate. The route ran via today’s streets now called: Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street and the Strand. At the western end of the Strand the road no doubt continued further west but its line has been lost.

The earliest mention of the street by name was as ‘In vico de Fletebrigge’ in the 12th year of the reign of Henry III (1228). The street’s origins go back to when it was a track leading west from a crossing over the River Fleet at Fleet Bridge – where Ludgate Circus is now situated. The earliest mention by the street by anything like its present name was 1274 as ‘Fletestrete’.

In 1315 Fleet Street was referred to as ‘a dangerously muddy track’. The first time we have any visual record of the whole street is not for over two centuries when it is shown on the so-called Agas map, first published about 1561.

The history of Fleet Street is intimately connected with the world of printing. It was not until 1440 that the printing press was invented the German Johannes Gutenberg. It was based on existing screw presses. An early pioneer of printing presses in England was a man called Wynkyn de Worde who had a press in a house near Westminster Abbey. He could not have realised at the time what a historic moment was happening when he moved his press about 1500 from Westminster to a new site in Fleet Street and set up the press beside the church of St Bride. The reason for the move was because churchmen, who lived nearby, were literate and therefore the best customers. Remember that he was trying to print books at a time when hardly anyone could read or write.

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Above: A plaque on the Stationers’ Hall, nearby in Ludgate Hill.

If you have not heard of Wynken de Worde you may have heard of William Caxton. The two men worked together for 15 year until Caxton died in 1492. It was then that Wynken de Worde took over Caxton’s press and a few years later moved it to Fleet Street. It was a strange coincidence that Fleet Street should eventually be associated with the newspaper industry. Similarly, nearby Ludgate Hill and Paternoster Row were associated with book publishers. The famous publishing house called Cassell’s had their offices in Ludgate Hill.

On a similar theme, John Ogilby the famous mapmaker had a shop in Fleet Street in 1649. He lived near the original site of the Whitefriars’ monastery until his death, apart from the plague year of 1665. Ogilby and Morgan’s map of London, published in 1676, showing the layout of London 10 years after the Great Fire of London, is one of the most detailed maps ever produced.

During the Great Fire of London, in 1666, reached the western end of Fleet Street by 5.00 pm on Tuesday 4 September. It worked from the eastern end destroying most of the buildings up to Fetter Lane on the north side and the Temple Church on the south side. John Ogilby’s house near the Whitefriars was also destroyed in the conflagration.

There were times when walking along Fleet Street could be a grisly experience. William Davis, the highwayman, was captured and eventually executed in Fleet Street on 20 December 1689. He had reached the remarkable age (for those times) of 64 and carried out robbery for 42 years.

Since the 19th century Fleet Street has been called the ‘river of ink’ or ‘street of ink’ due to its associations with the newspaper industry which began around the 1820s. Notably, ‘The Times’ had its premises nearby in Queen Victoria Street but nearly all the other newspapers had their offices and adjacent printing presses in Fleet Street. The offices of the ‘Daily Telegraph’, ‘Daily Express’ and ‘Reuters’ were just some of the ‘big names’ and their old premises are now all listed buildings, in use for other purposes.

A little known fact is that Britain’s first men’s public flushing toilets opened on 2 February 1852 in Fleet Street. They are no longer in existence.

From about 1985 newspaper offices began to move from ‘The Street’ to other parts of London. The term ‘Fleet Street’, meaning the newspaper industry, still continues in use even though none of the newspapers have offices there any more. St Bride’s church became associated with the newspaper industry and a special service is still held in the church each year, attended by top newspaper chiefs.

Fleet Street runs west from Ludgate Circus to join with the Strand where Temple Bar once stood. Running off the street are still a remarkable number of alleyways or courts. Because of its association with hard-drinking newspaper men, Fleet Street is still lined with more pubs than most streets in the City.

-ENDS-

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