Today’s walk was split into two very distinctive halves: grotty and grim vs. bright and inspiring. They seemed worlds apart but interestingly these two halves were united by one game-changing invention: the printing press.
For the first half of my walk, the streets were pretty dull. Some of them were boring and grey and others were dingy, dirty and just plain ugly. I got the impression it was an area that London kind of forgot about. There were no decorations, no plants, no pieces of outdoor art.
As it turns out though, apparently it’s always been pretty drab. In fact, considering this historical description I found on an oddly informative placard down a dark alley, I’d say it’s actually much improved: The Fleet Street was regarded as having unwanted amounts of filth, smells and a noisy clatter of, amongst other things, many churches, street traders and brawls.
I had several moments of panic wondering if I would find anything of interest to share with you. It didn’t look promising. A couple of important blue plaques maybe, but not a whole lot more than that.
Then a theme started to emerge and bits and pieces of earlier walks started to creep into my mind. Remember back on Day 5 when we meet Wynkyn de Worde, the “Father of Fleet Street”? If you recall (or reread) he was the first to set up a printing press on this famous road back in 1500, and in doing so he changed the future of the neighbourhood.
Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m really interested in the ideas around emergence, where one location becomes the centre of a specialised industry. So, why did Wynkyn (or Winkie, for his close friends) choose this particular area to start the presses and how did the personality of the neighbourhood itself contribute to the success of the industry?
De Worde realised that to build a book business, he would need a literate consumer base. At that time, Fleet Street just so happened to be home to a large population of religious leaders who, conveniently, loved to read. To meet the printing needs of this group, presses grew bigger, more and more companies opened and some began to specialise to meet niche demands.
London’s newspaper industry was the byproduct of this literary frenzy and Fleet Street was the natural birthplace of the first papers (see the blue plaque on the right at the top). Soon the whole area was synonymous with printing, publishing and bookselling. (NB: if you are interested in the history of typography and printing, you should definitely check out the St. Bride Foundation and its special collections).
But if any one group contributed to the growth and stability of the Fleet Street printing industry, it was the one I met on the second half of my walk.
Before we get into the ties that bind printing and law, I have to pause to show you some pretty pictures. In contrast to the dirty, fairly uninteresting first half of the walk, the grounds of Inner and Middle Temple on the second half might be amongst London’s most beautiful places: intricate architecture, stunning gardens, a view of the Southbank, hidden courtyards and endless pedestrian bliss. Please visit this part of London if you find yourself in the area.
A sure sign I am not destined to be a lawyer is that, were I to apply to an Inn for consideration, I would choose the one with the best grounds and gardens. I have only seen three of the four Inns now, but I can say with a fairly high certainty that Inner Temple would be where my application would land.
Not only are the green spaces stunning, this riverside campus is an absolute maze of pedestrian passageways opening up into intimate courtyards (that are just now beginning to show signs of spring colour). Funnily, a description of the printing offices just around the corner seems an apt depiction of this place too, “Its interior, in consequence was a beehive of little flats and narrow stairs on half a dozen different levels on the same floor. The lane, court or close in which the printing office was situated had a special character of its own.”
If I was awarded membership to Inner Temple, I would spend my days listening to the birds in the garden, people-watching on a bench by the Thames, photographing flowers, and reading and writing in the courtyards. I would be a useless student of law (though a very happy student indeed) because, as it turns out, to succeed in this profession you need to skip out most of the people-watching, flowers, and birds and spend a whole lot of time reading and writing.
If you’ve ever met a lawyer, you’ll know they are very fond of words. They just adore writing long documents and thick full of rambling text. But, as it turns out, they are also very busy and important people. They can’t waste their precious billable hours writing out every legally binding contract in triplicate. Legal assistants ease the burden, but even they get hand cramps after five or six copies. Printing presses were lifesavers for this profession, and it just so happens that the four Inns of Court are all a stone’s throw from Fleet Street.
Wynkyn de Worde (isn’t a great name for a typographer?) was either incredibly lucky or incredibly smart when he nestled his nascent printing industry into a perpetual motion machine. Printers created less work for lawyers who could then devote more time to writing documents that needed printing. Brilliant. Whether it was luck or planning, it’s safe to say that while the dirty, grimy working world of printing and the crisp, pristine, academic world of lawyers seem disparate on first glance, they are really just two sides of the same page.
See you next time!
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