London's street of shame

Ian Collins In the wake of the Sweeney Todd movie Ian Collins wanders down memory lane in Fleet Street - and recalls a recent era of hacks rather than slashers.

Ian Collins

A river of blood runs through Tim Burton's new film of the Stephen Sondheim Gothic opera Sweeney Todd - with Johnny Depp as the butcher-barber and Helen Bonham Carter as a baker of devilishly tasty meat pies both marvellously macabre.

But the gory movie's true star is the studio rendition of a vile Victorian London - a nightmare version of an area I know only too well via hacks rather than slashers. For barbers who make too literal use of cut-throat razors have not, of course, been the most demonic denizens of Fleet Street.

Walk today down the thoroughfare from Temple Bar to Ludgate Circus and you'll see a typical City mixture of financial firms and café chains. But there are little outposts of antiquity (not to say iniquity).

Looming over the 21st century assembly is Sir Christopher Wren's sublime church of St Bride - still the journalists' church, even though its congregation was scattered in the 1980s under one of the most far-reaching industrial conflicts of Thatcherism.

Wynkyn de Worde - the sort of name that might have been invented even recently for a gossip columnist - was buried here in 1535. Caxton's apprentice had brought the printing press from Westminster to Fleet Street, launching centuries of triumphs and troubles.

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Parishioners included the parents of the splendidly-named Virginia Dare - the first English child to be born in colonial America in 1587

Writers and poets came to the neighbourhood in the wake of the printers, among them Dryden, Milton and Dr Johnson - whose house, where a team of harmless drudges compiled his celebrated dictionary, is now a museum. Samuel Pepys and his eight siblings were baptised here, and good old Sam paid a grave-digger sixpence in 1664 to “justle together” the corpses in the crammed burial ground to make space for his brother, Tom.

We all know St Bride's thanks to the Great Fire clearance which allowed Wren to top his replacement church with that famously tiered steeple. It became the model for wedding cakes the world over.

All very amusing - because, just when that spire was ascending heavenwards, Fleet Marriages were popular clandestine ceremonies performed without licences, having lately spilled from the chapel of the Fleet Prison to nearby taverns and houses.

The weddings, finally outlawed in 1753, were mostly conducted by clergymen imprisoned in the Fleet for debt but allowed the Liberties of the Fleet.

The Fleet Prison stood from Norman times on the east bank of the Fleet River - that now-subterranean stream rising in Kenwood and Hampstead Ponds, and running through Camden, King's Cross and beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street to the Thames.

Polluted with butchers' offal rather than the victims of demonic barbers, the river became an open sewer. To this day it remains an enclosed sewer.

With prisoners required to pay for food, lodging and privileges, the Fleet Prison became a byword for barbarity. Those who could pay were allowed amazing liberties as long as the money lasted, while paupers died from starvation or disease.

In 1691 a debtor called Moses Pitt revealed in his Cry of the Oppressed - printed locally no doubt - details of his detention in a dungeon with 27 others “so lowsie that as they either walked or sat down, you might have pick'd lice off from their outward garments”.

Numerous reform acts were ignored and the early 19th century prison was savaged by Dickens in Pickwick Papers. Closed in the 1840s, it was demolished to make way for the railways.

When I arrived in London, at the start of the tumultuous 1980s, Fleet Street and the surrounding area was still dominated by the offices of daily national and provincial newspapers, magazines and journals and all their related associations and agencies. All now gone.

The Eastern Daily Press had a seven-strong team of advertising, secretarial and editorial staff in the Aldwych, as well as two desks in the Lobby of the House of Commons.

By the end of the decade the minority of surviving staff had been relocated to what I thought was a brilliant cubbyhole above an entrance to Temple Chambers and among a fleet of barristers.

Here, with kettle, mugs and milk cartons amid teetering piles of newspapers, we worked on hugely cumbersome typewriters whose keys seemed to defy the laws of gravity. Pressing down with amazing force, and aiming for Australia, what a feat of labour ended with a little bell ringing to signal the manual shift of heavy carriage so another line could begin.

Each evening our scripts would be read over crackling phone lines to copytakers, and each morning parcels would be despatched and delivered via Big Sam - a Cockney legend who had begun as a Steptoe-style rag and bone man with a horse and cart, before becoming a costermonger, boxer and extra in Ealing comedies.

His send-off brought the East End to a stand-still, with a beadle leading a long procession of black hearses and taxis. In our cab, as the whisky flowed, one merry mourner observed: “Bethnal Green hasn't seen anything like this since Dolly Kray died.

“Sam loved Dolly. He had the time of his life at her funeral.”

From my office window I could see the unloading bays of the Daily Mail building and ponder the rumour that print unions had won not only jobs for life for their members, but for the sons and grandsons of members, too.

At the time I observed a rather romantic picture - just as I was thrilled that porters were still handling fish at nearby Thames-side Billingsgate Market. But the distance of decades has lent a broader perspective.

The press and printing hub of Fleet Street wasn't so much done in by a demon Prime Minister of Downing Street. In the end it committed suicide.

The Street of Shame was a place to glimpse legends - the splendid Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail, the absurd Jean Rook of the Daily Express - but I was amazed to see national press luminaries shuffling into El Vino at 47 Fleet Street late of a morning and staggering out in the early evening to file copy which would appear word perfect in the next morning's papers.

Did they have heroic sub-editors, or was their genius able to withstand daily pickling?

I remember when, in November 1982, the Court of Appeal ruled that the wine bar was breaking the law by refusing to serve women standing at the counter. (There was a joke here about barristers not being called to the Bar.)

When I occasionally return for a glass, walking home to my Barbican flat from Westminster, I toast a faintly stale victory. It's almost as dull as the Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, that historic tourist trap almost opposite.

Then I pause outside No 85, the lofty edifice designed by Lutyens for Reuter's and the Press Association in 1935, before stopping to look across at Nos 121-128 - the most striking building on Fleet Street.

This Art Deco masterpiece in black glass and chrome - London's first curtain wall building - was designed for the Daily Express by Ellis, Clarke and Williams in the Great Depression year of 1931.

In a certain light it now appears as a monumental folly.