London’s Fleet Street is to the U.K. press as New York’s Wall Street is to the USA stock market. Just as the very name Wall Street conjures up images of TV screens flickering above a throng of wildly gesticulating and loudly shouting suits, so does the mere mention of Fleet Street prompt pictures of buzzing newsrooms and reams of papers rolling off the printer.
Wynken de Worde, an ex-apprentice of William Caxton, began the long tradition of Fleet Street publishing in 1500 when he established his printing press in this ideal location, halfway between Westminster and the city. Writers followed the printing industry into the area; among them were Samuel Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Boswell. Literary Clubs sprang up, like the Apollo Club, one of London’s first, founded by Ben Jonson in the mid 1600s. In March, 1702 Fleet Street’s first newspaper, The Daily Courant appeared. Scores of others followed. By the end of the 1800s most national newspapers were based in the area and for a century it was one of the most interesting corners of London. The clubs, pubs and restaurants and cafes that grew around the industry buzzed with stories, breaking news and gossip. Although Fleet Street had ceased to be the engine room of the British press by the end of the last century, its legacy remains and its presence still lingers.
Many of it old Fleet Street buildings still stand today. Ye Old Cock Tavern at 22 was frequented by Samuel Pepys, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Johnson, Dickens and Tennyson at its original site at 190. It later became a haunt of T.S. Eliot. El Vino wine bar, at 47, where GK Chesterton worked (and drank) prodigiously, was the favourite of the newspaper world during Fleet Street’s heyday. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, at Wine Office Court off Fleet Street was patronised by Dr Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith. It was home to the Rhymers Club which numbered W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde among its members, in the 1890s. Dylan Thomas later drank here.
With its long history, Fleet Street is now something of a Tourist mecca. Ghosted signs on buildings tell of the newspapers that were once housed here, like the Dundee Press next to St Dunstan’s church.
The press presence, too, is still strong in the area. With the Royal Courts of Justice at the Strand end of Fleet Street, journalists and photographers hover constantly for stories and shots. They congregate still in the pubs, the bars and the cafes. They are still part of the fabric of this place and even though their papers and their presses have moved away and their offices are housed elsewhere, their industry still goes by the name of the street where it all began – Fleet Street.