A torrent of ink

The Levenson inquiry is due to be published this week into the conduct of Britain’s free press and to make recommendations of curbs, if any, that should be placed upon the newspapers.

Nothing new then. In 1495 Sir Roger L’Estrange, the booming, bewigged licensor of the press, tried to ban pamphlets “throbbing with sedition” that were in circulation at that time.

At that time it was Caxton’s apprentice, the appropriately named Wynkyn der Worde, who first set up shop in the area of Fleet Street. William Caxton (the first Englishman to print books in London) had worked in Westminister working for rich patrons. Wynkyn after a little legal wrangling inherited the business upon Caxton’s death and in 1500 decided to build up business producing relatively inexpensive books for a mass market, declaring:

“I am going to make a torrent of ink run through ze streets of London. I will drown out all ignorance . . . I will be ze father of Fleet Street!”

And so he did.

By the time of his death in 1534/5, Wynkyn had published more than 400 books in over 800 editions, though some are extant only in single copies and many others are extremely rare.

Fleet Street was to become synonymous with print and publishing, but broadsheets as we know them were still a long way off. Politics and religion were a no-no for the presses, so ‘execution prints’ (gory details of hangings, drawings and quarterings) and quasi-scientific pamphlets thrived.

After 1695, journalists were free to criticise government policy or satirise the Church without ending up pilloried, gaoled, or having various body parts chopped off.

The Daily Courant was first published on 11th March 1702 by Edward Mallet from his premises “against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge”. This is now Ludgate Circus beneath which lie the buried waters of the Fleet, once clogged up with dead dogs, raw sewage and suicide victims. This is the primordial ooze out of which the Gutter Press arose, an irony probably not lost on Levenson witnesses seeking newspaper restrictions.

Fleet Street was an ideal location for the London press. Ever since Tudor times the street was renowned for its profusion of ale-houses and taverns and by 1700 there were 26 coffeehouses. Little changed for over 250 years and a contemporary account by Bill Hagerty a former Fleet Street editor can be found here.

Because Fleet Street was one of London’s main arteries transporting people and mail between Westminster and the City, these became lightning rods for political, financial, and overseas news. Journalists capitalised upon this and would mingle and eavesdrop in local establishments, returning to their offices with fresh gossip.

In 1862 Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book of London described a visit to The Times as:

“A visit to the office during the time the huge machine is at work, casting off its impressions at the rate of 170 copies a minute, will present a sight not easily to be forgotten. From five till nine in the morning this stupendous establishment, employing nearly 300 people daily on its premises is to be seen in active operation.”

By 1900 most of the national newspapers were located in or near Fleet Street, alas today Fleet Street is a pale imitation of its former self. The printing offices have been replaced by blue plaques, including one for the Courant.

It’s a testament to the impact of what was started by Wynkyn der Worde over 500 years ago and evolved into an uncensored press that ‘Fleet Street’ endures in the British lexicon as a metaphor for the newspaper industry – even though one of the few publishers still left on Fleet Street is the London office of D.C. Thomson & Co., creator of the Beano.

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