Running between the Strand and Ludgate Circus in London, Fleet Street is synonymous with the national newspaper industry of the United Kingdom. Though from the mid-1980s all the major newspaper offices were relocated, the name was still used to denote this type of newspaper and journalism. The most common explanation for this synergy was that since its development in the fourteenth century Fleet Street has connected the City of London with the City of Westminster, and thus governmental, financial, and commercial activities – traditionally staple sources of news.
When the first printing press was installed in Fleet Street by Wynkyn de Worde in 1500, the area was already a religious and legal center, settled from the twelfth century by the Knights Templar. In the 1340s, the royal courts moved permanently to London. Both the church and the law increasingly relied on documentation, and the streets, courts, and alleys in the area were populated by scriveners and clerks. Books, pamphlets, tracts, treatises, official records, and plays provided the impetus for a printing industry, and an area extending east–west from St Paul’s Cathedral to Whitehall was the location for publishers, booksellers, printers, binders, and other related traders. Much of this printing was conducted under royal license and noble patronage. The King’s Printing House was near Blackfriars Bridge, and the Stationers’ Company controlled the book trade. Another, more popular print culture, producing cheap handbills, pamphlets, and chapbooks, and more focused on the goings-on at the Old Bailey assizes and Newgate prison, emerged, too. Although sold in Fleet Street, these artifacts were produced elsewhere, including Cripplegate, where the term Grub Street evolved to describe the kind of “hack” writing associated with them.
Serial print publications, corantos, published in continental Europe, appeared in English translations in the early seventeenth century. They contained gossip, rumor, and sensation, as well as commercial intelligence. The English Civil War encouraged the production of political propaganda, often spiced with scandal. At the same time, administrative control over Fleet Street, which lay outside the City walls, practically collapsed, and the area became a prime location for the publication of salacious and subversive, as well as conformist and respectable, material.
If print production fostered a supportive material infrastructure, writing required a set of intellectual relations. The inns and taverns of the Fleet Street area provided the basis for these, attracting the likes of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and later the diarist Samuel Pepys and Dr Samuel Johnson. Coffee houses, too, began opening in Fleet Street in the 1650s. As well as facilitating the verbal exchange of ideas, news, and gossip, they published their own newsletters.
State control of all print publication under the 1662 Licensing Act lapsed in 1695, and attempts to close coffee houses failed. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, the rebuilt Fleet Street area was characterized by its inns, taverns, coffee houses, and burgeoning serial print publications. By the 1720s there were 12 London newspapers in circulation, including the Daily Courant (1702). At mid-century, Fleet Street was both the main distribution center for most London newspapers and “the central meeting-place for newsmen,” as well as “a gossip factory” (Boston 1990, 41).
The period of the long nineteenth century (the establishment of The Times in 1785; the development of popular Sunday newspapers in the 1840s; the repeal of taxes on newspapers in the 1850s; the emergence of a popular cheap press, particularly between 1896 and 1910; the industrialization of newspaper production) is popularly connected with the final cementing of Fleet Street with newspapers and the ideology of a “free press”.
The enormous expansion in newspaper publishing in the second half of the nineteenth century attracted distributors, advertising agencies, and telegraph offices to the Fleet Street area. Between 1868 and 1900 purpose-built offices were erected for a number of papers. Railway access was improved and Fleet Street was widened and realigned several times. The embanking of the River Thames and the demolition of existing buildings opened up a freehold estate south of Fleet Street in the 1880s, where many of the new cheap newspapers (notably the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror) were located. This second rebuilding of Fleet Street continued into the 1930s.
In the twentieth century, most of the major national newspaper offices were located in these streets south of Fleet Street (Bouverie, Carmelite, Whitefriars, and Tudor). To the north of the street, a myriad of alleyways and courts, such as Bell Yard, Cliffords Inn Passage, and Wine Office Court, housed radio broadcasters, magazines, news agencies, book publishers, and related organizations and bodies. After 1945 the only major national newspaper offices actually in Fleet Street itself were those of the Telegraph and Express. After the exodus began with NewsCorp removing its titles in 1986, it was completed within four years. Ancillary premises well away from Fleet Street had been used for more than 70 years. The last remaining news organizations in Fleet Street were not national papers, but Reuters (which relocated in 2005), Agence France Presse, and the provincial press and comic book publisher DC Thompson.
The use of Fleet Street as a synecdoche for newspapers was largely a post-1900 practice, as the concentration of activities fostering shared interests developed into a collective identity. Fleet Street was, as the editor Henry Massingham said, more “a habitation of the mind,” cultivated by a persistent informal culture, centered on its many public houses, and more formal institutions, such as the Press Club (founded in 1875). One origin of Fleet Street as cultural reference was Philip Gibbs’s 1909 novel, The street of adventure, although other journalist-novelists, such as Evelyn Waugh and Michael Frayn, have since taken a more sardonic view of what the satirical magazine Private Eye called “the street of shame.”
- Boston, R. (1990). The essential Fleet Street: Its history and influence. London: Blandford.
- Frayn, M. (1967). Towards the end of the morning. London: Collins.
- Gibbs, P. (1909). The street of adventure. London: Heinemann.
- Harris, M. (1997). Farewell to Fleet Street? In M. Bromley & O. O’Malley (eds.), A journalism reader. London: Routledge, pp. 283 –295.
- Melvern, L. (1986). The end of the street. London: Methuen.
- Skelton-Foord, C. (ed.) (n.d.). Concise history of the British newspaper since 1620. British Library Board. At www.bl.uk/collections/britnews.html
- Waugh, E. (1938). Scoop: A novel about journalists. London: Chapman and Hall.