Sunday, 19 July 2015

Fleet Street: Prisons, Printers, and Off With Your Head

Fleet Street begins at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, a street atop which sits St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fleet Street got its name from the nearby River Fleet, which now runs underground. 

Just north of Fleet Street along the River Fleet, lay the Fleet Prison  which incarcerated people for debt from medieval times until the 19th century.

Just south of Fleet Street Henry VIII erected a royal residence, Bridewell Palace. After his death his heir Edward VI gave it to the City of London. The City Fathers used it for a house for punishing “disorderly women” and a school for young lads. Interesting juxtaposition. One can only wonder about the curriculum. Later, the palace was used as a general house of correction, and soon all such establishments became known as “bridewells.” All that is left of the palace is the gatehouse, which boasts a relief portrait of Edward VI, a king whose main claim to fame was dying young and giving way to Bloody Mary.

One of the most popular spots on Fleet Street is just a short walk down a lane on the north side of the street: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The pub, as its sign tells you, was “Restored in 1667” after the Great Fire. Apparently, it has been untouched since. Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame lived nearby on Gough Square, and used to pop in here with friends. It’s dark, with all sorts of little nooks and crannies for drinking, plotting, and whatever. Gough Square contains Johnson’s house and a statue of his cat, Hodge. One of the surprises in the house is a portrait of Johnson’s black servant, a former slave, Francis Barber. Johnson basically adopted Barber, educated him, and left him a large sum of money.

To the west of are many buildings related to the law, as the ancient law schools and courts are nearby.  At the end of Fleet Street, where it becomes The Strand, stands the massive neo-Gothic pile of the Royal Courts of Justice

On an island in the street here lies St. Clement Danes church, made famous by the nursery rhyme, “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements.” 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!” 

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