The recent murky goings-on at Wapping have seen the closure of one national newspaper and the unravelling of a newspaper empire that controversially moved to Tower Hamlets a quarter of a century ago. The overnight flit of News International to Wapping back in 1986 was just the start as half of ‘Fleet Street’ – liberated from living upstairs from the printing presses – moved to Tower Hamlets over the following years.
As ever, in the 300-year history of London’s national newspapers, the shift was as much about changing laws, changing technology and changing political alliances as anything else.
Walk along Fleet Street in the 1960s you would have passed the offices of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail in its Carmelite House office, the ‘Black Lubyanka’ of Sir Owen Williams’ magnificent Daily Express building, the Daily Telegraph. The Mirror had its offices in Fetter Lane and then on High Holborn just north of Fleet Street, while the Sun (reinvented from the wreckage of the Daily Herald) lay on Bouverie Street just to the south of the street. The Times was in Printing House Square just off the Grays Inn Road.
Throw in the associated Sunday papers, the London offices of dozens of regional papers, magazines and news agencies, and Fleet Street was – by the high point of newspaper circulations in the 1960s, abuzz with the clatter of typewriters, the thunder of the printing presses and the chinking of drained pint glasses as hundreds of journalists rubbed shoulders with lawyers in legendary hostelries around the street, such as the Cheshire Cheese and the Stab in the Back.
Today, with only the London offices of DC Thomson on Fleet Street (think the Sunday Post, the People’s Friend and the Beano) the road is almost exclusively associated with the law. The Inns of Court lie north and south of the street, the Royal Courts of Justice just west in the Strand. It’s an association that goes back many centuries, to long before newspapers and printing.
Fleet Street began as the road joining London’s two cities – the seat of government at Westminster and the home of commerce in the City of London. It thus became the perfect home for the law, drawing up documents for both Crown and the City livery companies, and in their turn an army of scribes grew up, drawing up papers for the lawyers. In 1476, a City liveryman, William Caxton returned from Bruges with a new invention, the printing press. Setting up business in Westminster, he produced the first printed editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (penned just up the road in Aldgate), as well as verses from the Bible, chivalric romances and histories of England and Rome.
His apprentice Wynkyn de Worde kicked off printing in Fleet Street in 1500, setting up a shop near Shoe Lane. The new process was fast and allowed multiple copies of documents. It suddenly became affordable to reproduce and distribute a book or pamphlet and – in a process that has been repeated down the centuries – hundreds of scribes suddenly found themselves made redundant by new technology, lumbered with superb skills that nobody required anymore.
But for many years the freedom of the press to print news was strictly curtailed. The Crown, and its select group of lawmakers and enforcers, the Star Chamber, looked at a medium that could quickly spread information and rumour and thus encourage dissent and organisation among the people, and shuddered. That’s why the first newspaper to be printed in England didn’t roll off the presses in London but in Amsterdam, around 1620. The laws were relaxed with the scrapping of the Star Chamber in 1641, just in time for one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. The Civil War fuelled a huge demand for news – previously, ordinary people might have waited weeks for an incomplete story of what had occurred at the Battles of Marston Moor or Newbury, to trickle down to them.
By the late 1600s, Fleet Street had the London Gazette and in 1702 its first newspaper – the Daily Courant. By the 1720s there were a dozen London papers and two dozen more in the provinces. and by the early 1800s 52 papers in London (and 100 or so other periodicals) among them The Daily Universal Register, launched in 1785 and quickly to be renamed as The Times. That the growth was still quite slow was down to economics. Paper was still expensive, but it was the Stamp Duty on papers that was really holding the industry back.
It didn’t stop John Browne Bell launching the first newspaper aimed directly at a newly literate working class – improvements in mass education had created a whole new market, eager for scandal and gossip. The News of the World hit the streets for the first time on 1 October 1843, priced at 3d (1.5p). In 1855 the last tax on papers was scrapped (taxes on advertisements had been abolished two years before). It opened the way for cheap, mass-produced papers, funded by a boom in advertising. In September that year, the Daily Telegraph launched as London’s first one penny morning paper. In 1861, duty on the newsprint itself was scrapped and – while Charles Dickens and his fellows enjoyed a boom time for authors and journalism – a whole new era of Fleet Street was about to be born.