As a centre of the British national press, Fleet Street is now all but dead. From the inception of the first true modern newspaper, the Daily Courant in 1702 to the mid-eighties when the press barons of the modern age moved their empires a few miles downriver, almost every national daily title had its home in this rather unremarkable road in London EC4. But what caused Fleet Street’s meteoric rise as a newspaper printing mecca, and why did it fade just as quickly?
As with so many quirks of historical accident, Fleet Street was the right place at the right time. During the last decade of the 17th century, England’s strict pre-publication censorship laws disappeared from the statute list – largely because neither of the main political parties could agree on a non-partisan arrangement which either trusted the other to uphold. Despite a half-hearted attempt by the government in 1712 to re-impose press controls, which garnered very little cross-party support, the much lauded freedom of the press was enshrined. At the same time, Fleet Street was already a centre of the printing trade, and the roads around St Pauls in the eastern part of central London were already thronged with book printers and sellers. Finally, lying as it did on the main thoroughfare between Westminster, the City and the port, Fleet Street’s abundance of taverns and coffee houses made it an excellent spot for the newshounds of the day to gather their stories for the next edition.
The high rate of adult literacy in London – around 55% of the adult population – meant that there was a ready and avid market for the newly enfranchised free press. The fact that the establishment of the day could be discussed, lampooned, even vilified by the press was not only a novelty, and unheard of anywhere else in Europe, it was hugely popular across the class divide.
Fleet Street continued to prosper, with every UK daily and Sunday title having at least a presence until the mid 1980s. Suddenly, almost overnight, it died. In part, it was the need to modernise that did for Fleet Street. The old, manually operated printing presses were expensive and made more so by the archaic working practices which had grown up around the newspaper printing industry. In part, the newspaper barons were determined to use the opportunity to drive through changes to these working practices which, they judged could only succeed by a clean sweep and a root and branch change. So the UK newspaper industry found a new home on the site of London’s former docklands. Fleet Street’s taverns remain but no national titles are printed there now. A few low circulation journals are all that remains of an illustrious publishing past.