Fleet Street and About
Fleet Street begins at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, a street at the top of which sits St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fleet Street got its name from the Fleet River, which once ran pure and freely down the valley now occupied by New Bridge St., Farringdon St, and Farringdon Rd. The Fleet was once called the River of Wells because there were so many wells along its course. Some of them were even holy. The river gradually became an open sewer, clogged with animal carcasses from nearby Smithfield Market, refuse from tanneries, and the wastes and castoffs of untold numbers of Londoners. The noxious miasmas that Fleet Ditch — as it was renamed — exhaled may be the reason why it was surrounded by hospitals, prisons, workhouses, and cheap housing. Good place for thinning out the poor and undesirable. The river/ditch/sewer was gradually covered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Water still flows there underground, and it empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
Fleet Street is where the London newspaper and printing trades were concentrated from the sixteenth century until fairly recently. Today, Brits use “Fleet Street” as shorthand in much the same way as Americans use “Wall Street.” The former means “where the biggest liars are” – the latter, “where the biggest thieves are.” Ok, I am exaggerating a bit – about Fleet St. A similar usage is evident London’s Grub Street a bit to the northeast, where journalists long congregated, often eking out a precarious existence. “Grub Street” – once in joyously named Cripplegate but now buried under Barbican — came to symbolize the despised trade of “hack” writing, or writing to order for profit. Much of this work was for politicians trying to convince a gullible public that they were angels and their opponents were satanic — sound familiar? “Hack” itself is short for “hackney,” a horse that is easy to ride and available for hire — not to be confused with “Hackney,” a borough in northeast London.
Enough about Grub Street and hacks, back to Fleet Street. Walking west from New Bridge Street, you will quickly find Bride Lane going off to your left. Just down the lane you can see the marvelous wedding-cake tower of St. Bride’s Church (or you could if it weren’t currently covered up by a shroud put in place while the tower is being renovated to prevent its collapse). Legend has it that the wedding cake we eat today owes its origin to a baker who modeled one after the church tower. St. Bride’s is an ancient place. A church has been here since Anglo-Saxon times and part of a Roman street can be found in its crypt. The current structure was built after the Great Fire of London (1666) to a design of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed or redesigned most of the churches in the old city after the fire, St. Paul’s being the biggest and most famous. St. Bride’s is known as the printers’ and journalists’ church. The church contains a memorial to Wynken de Worde, the first man to set up a printing press on Fleet St.
Just south of St. Bride’s is the former location of Bridewell, a place with a fascinating history, named of course for a holy well. A royal palace was erected here for Henry VIII. Shortly after his death his heir Edward VI (or the nobles who kindly told the young boy what to do) gave it to the City of London (perhaps the smell of the Fleet was becoming too much for royal noses). The City Fathers used it for a house for punishing “disorderly women” and a school for young lads. Interesting juxtaposition that. One can only wonder about the curriculum. To confuse everybody, or at least people today, the school was called Bridewell Royal Hospital. Later, the old palace was used as a general house of correction, and soon all such establishments became known as “bridewells.” The original Bridewell buildings were demolished in the 1860s. All that is left is the gatehouse, incorporated into an office block at 14 New Bridge St., which also includes a relief portrait of Edward VI, who made the mistake of dying at sixteen and leaving the throne to his older sister, Bloody Mary.
By this time, you will no doubt be relieved yourself to return to Fleet Street and continue your westward progress from St. Bride’s. Between Salisbury Court and Whitefriars Street, you will see a small lane on the north side of the street. A short walk down it brings you to the Cheshire Cheese, a pub whose sign tells you was “Restored in 1667.” Apparently, it has been untouched since. Dr. Samuel Johnson, he of dictionary fame, lived nearby and used to pop in here with friends. Pop in yourself and have a pint. It’s dark, with all sorts of little nooks and crannies for drinking, plotting, and whatever.
Leaving the Cheese, continue west on the north side of Fleet St. Several small lanes or courts branch off to you right. After passing Hind Ct. and Bolt Ct, turn into Dunstan’s Court. It winds around a bit before bringing you to Gough Square, where you will find on the left, the house where Dr. Johnson compiled his famous dictionary, published in 1755. A statue of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, stands in the square. The house is open to the public and well worth a visit. One of the surprises inside is a portrait by Joshua Reynolds of Johnson’s black servant, Francis Barber, who he educated and to whom he left the bulk of his estate.
Returning to Fleet St., as you continue west, you will pass many buildings related to the law. Many lawyers have their chambers around here and up Chancery Lane. You are close to the three ancient law schools. The Temple is just to the south of Fleet St. and Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn are a little ways to the north. You might enjoy a stroll through any of these. The Temple Church, from which the school draws its name, is well worth a visit. It was once the church of the crusading order of Knights Templars.
Fleet Street ends shortly past Chancery Lane at the Royal Courts of Justice, a massive neo-gothic pile, and magically transforms into The Strand, which deserves a post of its own. Lincoln’s Inn and its fields are just behind the courts. Close by are (part of) King’s College and LSE (that’s London School of Economics for the not-so-cognoscenti). As you stand by the courts and look west you will see in an island in the street the church of St. Clement Danes, famous in the nursery rhyme, “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement’s.” It sounds nice until you get to the last couplet: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” According to one legend the church was founded by Vikings of the Danish persuasion in the ninth century. The current church dates from the early 1680s, and like most around here was designed by Wren.