Today (March 11) in London History – The British Press Explained

   The British press is 320 years old today. This podcast explores that fascinating “country.”                    


When they woke him up with the news of his accession, William IV returned to bed, “to enjoy the novelty of sleeping with a Queen.”

And that’s by way of saying, if you haven’t done so, we hope that you will vote for the London Walks team in the Tourism Superstar 2022 Olympics and that your vote will help carry Team London Walks across the Finish Line ahead of that other lot and that you will, in consequence, enjoy the novelty of having had a hand in the making of five Superstars. We’re now on the home stretch – that consummation devoutly to be wished – is just ahead of us, so if you haven’t voted for us, please do so. A few good men and women coming to the aid of this beleaguered little walking tour company – that’s what it will come down to.  The link that will take you to the polling booth is right there at the top of this website, It’s pain-free – only takes about five seconds to vote. Thanks and fingers crossed – it’ll do us a power of good if we can win it. 

And on that note, yes, this is the London Walks podcast.

Today’s Today in London recommendation, have a drink at that art nouveau masterpiece, The Blackfriar. Even better, maybe go there to listen to this podcast. Listening to this podcast in that pub – that’s like hitting the jackpot in your first try at Wordle. 

And on that note, here’s Today in London History.

 And who do you suppose is our mystery guest today? Here are some clues.

Three centuries and more. That’s how long the pregnancy lasted. Herod was on the prowl the whole time. During the pregnancy and after. Above all others, this was the infant he was determined to destroy – kill it in the womb if he could. And if not in the womb then in its infancy; failing that, in its childhood; failing that in its youth; failing that, in its adulthood. Over the centuries Herod came in many guises: the Pope, the Crown, the Government, the sloth of mail and machinery, the dearth of paper, the despotism of merchants and financiers; the determined opposition of Labour. Beset by censorship, tyranny, punitive taxation, corruption, it made for a fitful, furtive and persecuted life. 

A continuously hard and uphill fight for the bare right to exist.

Yes, you got it. Our mystery guest is the press.

One representative quote – from the Restoration, well over 300 years ago – gives a pretty good idea of what the Press was up against from the get-go. It’s pretty ugly this – it’s a sneer that’s full of hatred. Here’s what was said: “it makes the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors, and gives them not only an itch, but a kind of colourable right and license to be meddling with the government.”

And why is the Press our mystery guest on this day, March 11? Easy. March 11, 1702 was the publication – the birth – of Fleet Street’s first newspaper, the Daily Courant. Well, Fleet Street’s first daily newspaper. 

It had some forerunners in the shape of weekly and thrice-weekly  news-sheets but the Daily Courant was the real deal.

Well, sort of the real deal. Fact of the matter is, the infant was tiny, frail, weak.

It was a single sheet. Was printed on one side of the page only. It was printed by a hand-press. The printers could ink and pull 250 sheets an hour. A snail’s pace, a drop in the bucket compared to the 80,000 sheets an hour a modern off-set press can roll out today.

That first Fleet Street paper was just two columns with 104 lines in ten paragraphs. There was no British news in it.  Its contents were stories translated from foreign newspapers: the Harlem Courant, the Amsterdam Courant and the Paris Gazette. 

It cost a penny a copy – that was a small fortune in those days. Tiny, and weak and sickly the infant may have been, but it grew. To a four-page newspaper and occasionally six pages. In due course it carried ten advertisements. Twenty years later the Government was paying for 900 Courants to be sent to the Post Office every post day. It survived until 1735 when it was merged with two other newspapers to become the Daily Gazetteer.

Three other takeaways and then we’ll widen the scope big time. 1. It was published from a house near Fleet Bridge. 2. We’re not absolutely certain whether the first proprietor was Edward Mallet or his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth gets my vote. Love it that Fleet Street – using the phrase here as the accepted synonym for the British Press – love it that Fleet Street – “the street of ink, the street of shame” – may well have been ushered into existence by a woman.

3. We marvel that our daily press dates back to 1702 – 322 years ago. 

But surely no harm in reminding ourselves that the first Chinese newspaper was printed in the year 618 and has continued publication ever since. 

Now while that’s sinking in, let’s go big picture, go wide-angle – get to the supremely interesting matter.

Answer the question: why did Fleet Street become Fleet Street? Why did newspapers take root there?

To answer that question you’ve got to drill down much deeper into London history. You’ve got to drill down to the 1270s when the Mendicant Friars came to England. The friars in contrast to their brethren, the monks, were urban. You break the word monastery down you get the word mono which means single or one or alone. The monks wanted the contemplative life. So they put their monasteries in out of the way places, on the tops of remote hills, that sort of thing. The friars were a different cup of tea. Remember, they were called mendicant friars. Mendicant means “given to begging.” If you’re going to earn a living by begging you have to be where there are people to beg from. You have to be in urban areas, in cities. So the friars established themselves in towns and cities. Notably in London. But as it happened – and this is completely understandable – it was on the edge of town. Why? Because the most desirable, the most valuable land and property in a city was in the middle. 

If you were a rich man, a wealthy merchant, you wanted the convenience of being in the centre. 

You also wanted the protection the city walls afforded. The friars had taken vows of poverty. They didn’t have wealth. They didn’t have goods and chattels to protection. They didn’t need the protection the walls afforded. And in any case they couldn’t afford the best property. So they settled in the poorer parts, on the edge of town. In London’s case the Blackfriars set up shop right in the southwestern corner of London. The London wall ran along the eastern bank of the Fleet River. Those two features – the wall and the river – 

jointly formed the western boundary of the original London. 

The Whitefriars established themselves outside the wall, directly on the other side of the Fleet River. And then north of them, the Greyfriars took root. Those patches of ground were insalubrious. The Fleet River was an open sewer. The tidal Thames would back it up, make it overflow its banks, deposit turds and the guts of slaughtered animals and other effluents on the ground there. Pretty yucky.

Now what’s this have to do with printing? Most people couldn’t read. Churchmen could. At some point in school we all had a history teacher who said to us, “in the dark ages, the lamp of learning was kept alight by the church.” So you had the friars there for economic reasons. And St. Paul’s was just up at the top of Ludgate hill. 

Amen Court, where lots of St. Paul’s churchmen lived, was there. So this was the end of town where you had people who could read. And in fact, at the other end of Fleet Street you had lawyers. And occasionally you’ll come across a literate lawyer. So that compounded the literacy quotient of the neighbourhood.

Now we jump forward to the 1470s. The first printer in this country is William Caxton. He encounters and learns printing on the continent. In Cologne. He set up his own printing operation in Bruges. Then in 1476 he comes home to England. Brings a printing press with him. It’s the first printing press in this country. He sets up his little printing operation near Westminster Abbey. But Caxton as a printer is really a gentleman amateur. He printed about 100 books before he died in 1491. When he died the business was taken over by his assistant, a man who must have rejoiced in the name Wynkyn de Word. So, yes, if I can slip into Broolynese for a minute, when Caxton died de Word took over de Words. De Word is the first proper professional in this country. He says to himself, I’m going to try to earn a living out of this new-fangled contraption, this printing press, how best do that? Well, clearly I have to be where there’s demand for the product. Clearly I have to be where there are literate people. It was like people 20 years ago trying to figure out how to monetise the Internet. Anyway, to ask that question – where’s the greatest concentration of literate people in London – to ask that question was to answer it. De Word knew immediately that the western edge of London – Fleet Street – was the sweet spot for London literacy. So he moves the press from the shadows of Westminster Abbey over into the Fleet Street district. And that set the ball rolling. The roots go down first to the 1270s when those literate mendicant friars come to London and settle on the western edge of town where the property’s affordable. And then to 1500 when Wynkyn to Word moves the press from Westminster to the Fleet Street neighbourhood.

We still use the term Fleet Street as a synonym for the British press. But that’s all history now. The newspaper world has upped stakes and relocated. The exodus started in 1996 when Rupert Murdoch moved the Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World and the Sun to Wapping. Nine other newspapers decamped shortly thereafter. It was all over in four years. 

And now, getting close to the end of this podcast, maybe a word about the British press generally. It’s a very different cup of tea from, say, the American press. Britain has national newspapers. The United States. The form the British has taken is a function of geography – and of this country’s urbanisation, industrialisation and transport infrastructure. Great Britain is not very big. The population was concentrated in cities located in the lower third of this island. There were good railway links. All of that meant it was possible to edit and produce newspapers in London that could be pushed out the length and breadth of the country on the day of publication. I well remember going down to Fleet Street late at night back in the 1970s. There’d be great long queues of white vans lined up outside newspaper print plants. There’d be a metal chute running from the plant floor down to the van whose turn it was to take on its load of papers. The bundles of newspapers would come sliding down that chute and into the van. When the van was fully loaded it would take off and the next van would move into positions. Those vans would head off to London’s railway stations. Some of them would go to King’s Cross, for example. From the vans the newspapers would be loaded on to the late night train bound for Scotland. When the train arrived in Edinburgh or Glasgow or points further north, there’d be vans awaiting the newspapers. Loaded up they’d start delivering the papers. What that in effect meant was that the businessman in Scotland would be reading, over breakfast, the same issue of The Times, say, that the businessman in London was reading. Culturally, that had a knitting together effect that just wasn’t the case in the United States. National newspapers, they just don’t exist in the U.S. Some people might say, “no, that’s not right, the New York Times is the American national newspaper.” That’s not the case. The New York Times may be the newspaper of record, but it’s not a national newspaper. A businessman in Denver did not read the New York Times, he read the Denver Post. In Chicago it was the Chicago Tribune. In DC it was the Washington Post. In San Francisco it was the San Francisco Chronicle. And so on. The United States developed strong regional and local newspaper. It was a function of geography. The United States is in effect a continent. Great Britain’s a small island. I think back to my undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. A lot of my classmates were New York kids. They read the New York Times but it was always 24 hours out. It had to be flown into the midwest. Wasn’t available at Rennie’s or the University Book Shop until the next day. 

The other huge differentiating factor was how big and thriving London’s newspaper industry was. Most American cities would have at the most two newspapers. London had a dozen or so daily newspapers. Undreamt of in comparable American cities. Though that’s a misnomer, there is no such thing as a comparable American city.

But that’s another podcast. 

Let’s end with a fun gag.

There used to be a saying that you could tell a great deal about a Brit by the newspaper he was reading. 

You’ll need a preliminary note or two before I take you through this. To wit; the Morning Star was the communist newspaper, and Murdoch’s Sun newspaper was of course infamous for its topless Page 3 girl.

Saying goes like this:

The Times is read by the people who run the country. 

The Financial Times is read by the people who own the country.

The Telegraph is read by the people who used to run the country.

The Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country.

The Mirror is read by the people who work for the people who run the country.

The Express is read by the people who want the Queen to run the country.

The Morning Star is read by the people who want another country to run the country.

The Guardian is read by the Liberals who think they should run the country. 

And the Sun is read by the people who don’t give a damn who runs the country as long as she has big boobs.  

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