Paul Webb: Fleet Street's love affair with the printed word

Taken from a talk given by the playwright and lecturer, at the National Portrait Gallery in central London
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The Independent Online

"Fleet Street" refers both to a physical area, a historic route between the City and Westminster, around which bishops' palaces, monasteries, lawyers' Inns of Court and eventually the publishing industry ­ first books, then newspapers ­ developed, and as the generic term for the newspaper industry, one still used despite the diaspora to docklands and elsewhere.

Both the area and the industry have been influenced by a roll call of larger than life characters like the news barons Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, Camrose and Rothermere, and writers, particularly Edgar Wallace, whose devotion to Fleet Street is commemorated in a plaque at Ludgate Circus, the street's easternmost point.

Fleet Street's love affair with the printed word began on 27 May 1501 when Wynkyn de Worde ­ a pupil of Caxton, publisher and prototype Fleet Street proprietor ­ published The Hylle of Perfeccyon, a mass market book that made his fortune. De Worde based himself at premises in Fleet Street near St Bride's Church, because the area was then, as now, near the centre of London's financial, legal and clerical worlds.

The area also attracted the attention of Henry VIII whose Bridewell Palace, located on today's New Bridge Street, under whose pavements the Fleet River still runs down to the Thames ­ was his base during the early stages of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

The Reformation unleashed a huge demand for the written word ­ first for scriptural then secular reasons. Jumping ahead a couple of centuries Salisbury Court, just off Fleet Street, was where Samuel Richardson, author of the first English novel, Pamela ­ and the better-known Clarissa ­ lived and printed/published as well as wrote his books. Dr Johnson created his English dictionary in a house just to the north of Fleet Street, in a warren of courts that still exist today.

The first Fleet Street newspaper, the Daily Courant, was produced in 1702, at the start of the 18th century, while in the 19th the proliferation of magazines and periodicals led to the creation of the comical magazine Punch, commemorated in the Punch Tavern near St Bride's. In the 1970s the magazine was located in Tudor Street, where it took the old Punch table, at which long lunches ­ in the best traditions of Fleet Street journalism ­ were held, and on which successive generations of writers and wits carved their initials for posterity. This failed to impress Prince Charles's detective when he was proudly shown the table during a routine security sweep prior to Charles's arrival for lunch: "Do you get a lot of vandalism round here, then?", he asked.

The late 1970s saw the most momentous changes to befall British newspapers since the period when mass circulation papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express revolutionised the style and content of what, until then, been a relatively staid industry. After decades of costly industrial disputes Rupert Murdoch (following the example of Eddie Shah's Today) broke the power of the various newspaper unions with the move to "fortress Wapping", opening the way for The Independent to flourish along with its older competitors.

The change may have freed the industry from restrictive working methods, but it ripped the heart out of Fleet Street, and saw the end of the thrusting but curiously old-fashioned way of life that Evelyn Waugh satirised in his 1938 comic novel, Scoop. Yet the area's theatrical connections ­ including the Salisbury Court theatre and the Dorset Garden theatre ­ have been restored with the creation of the Bridewell theatre in 1993. El Vino and the Cheshire Cheese may no longer be packed with journalists but they remain, as do the lawyers.

With the City's uncanny ability to absorb change while seeming to cling to the past, the area will continue to move with the flow, like the hidden river after which it was named.