Tuesday, 19 June 2018

London's Fascinating Fleet Street: Printers, Prisons, Publishers and Pubs

London's Fleet Street starts at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, a street atop which sits St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fleet Street derived its name from the nearby River Fleet, which today runs underground beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Road. Fleet was once the center of England's printing trade and later became a metonym for its newspaper industry. 

Just north of Fleet Street beside the River Fleet, lay the Fleet Prison  which incarcerated people for debt from medieval times until the 19th century. Alas, it is no longer there.

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, an interesting juxtaposition. One can only wonder about the curriculum. 

The boys moved out later and Bridewell became a general house of correction. Eventually 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 being replaced by 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,” the year after the Great Fire of London. It seems to have been untouched since. It’s dark, with all sorts of little nooks and crannies for drinking, plotting, and whatever. And lots of history.

Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Tennyson, and other literary figures are among those claimed as "regulars." Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame lived at nearby Gough Square, and is said to have popped in here occasionally with friends, such as James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith, who buried next to nearby 12th century Temple Church, built as the spiritual home of England's Knights Templar. Another nearby church, St.Bride's, has a fascinating history as well. It inspired the layered wedding cake!

Gough Square contains Johnson’s house, which is open to the public, and a statue of his cat, Hodge. It is well worth a visit, because Johnson was a fascinating, idiosyncratic fellow.

One of the surprises in the house is a portrait that some believe to be of Johnson’s black servant. Francis Barber was a former slave who Johnson basically adopted and educated at his own expense. At his death, Johnson left Barber 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 at the end of Fleet Street 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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