Dr Elizabeth Dearnley, a researcher at University College London and an artist specialising in audio installations, revisits the spiritual home of British journalism.
London’s Fleet Street has been associated with printers and bookbinders for hundreds of years, ever since Wynkyn de Worde built the capital’s first printing press next to St Bride’s Church in 1500, laying the foundations for Britain’s modern printing industry in the early 16th century.
It was once a vibrant journalistic community of news organisations before much of the industry moved out in the 1980s. These days, according to former Guardian journalist Michael Frayn in his 1967 novel, Towards the End of the Morning, the street is just a ‘dull, busy thoroughfare that connects the City to London’s West End.’ Yet the term Fleet Street remains a metonym for the British national press and its history of stories is as popular as ever.
Now, those curious to learn more about London’s historic printing district can explore it on foot using a new audio app, Journeys through print, and discover the area’s hidden histories as told by Wynkyn de Worde, Queen Elizabeth I, William Morris and several others.
Journeys through print was a collaboration between Dr Elizabeth Savage, a book historian at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of English Studies (IES), researcher and playwright Christopher Adams also at the IES, software engineer Dr Trevor Fountain, and myself. As I had previously worked on a number of immersive audio projects, including Sing London’s Talking Statues initiative and my own 1940s radio-inspired show Big Teeth, Christopher approached me to see if we could bring Fleet Street to life in a similar way.
We went to Fleet Street to work out a suitable walking route, and Elizabeth researched the lives of ten historic printers with links to the area. Christopher and I then transformed her research into ten two-minute monologues, blending the printers’ own words with our re-imaginings of these figures.
We wanted to create something that would encourage people to engage with their physical surroundings on a busy city thoroughfare, and mentally peel back the layers of steel and concrete to imagine the street’s past as a centre of the print trade. Beginning their journey at St Paul’s Underground station, app users follow a trail through a map of the area, and as they come to each stop, they can tap the screen to listen to the story of a printer associated with that location.
For instance, the cosy Cockpit Pub on St Andrew’s Hill is built on the former site of one of Shakespeare’s London properties. And standing in this spot, listeners can hear how Isaac Jaggard came to print Shakespeare’s first folio at the sign of the Half-Eagle and Key.
We designed the app for the School’s Being Human national humanities festival, and held a launch event at the St Bride Foundation, London’s treasure trove of print history. Participants were able to try it out, make keepsake prints on historic presses and find out more about the project.
The Journeys through print project proved an excellent fusion of our various research interests and skills. In addition to drawing on my experience in creating audio installations, it also taps into Dr Savage’s research into early modern print culture and the history of the book, and Christopher Adams’ work as a playwright (including his Finding Mr Hart promenade show created for the 2017 Being Human festival). Meanwhile, having already created an app version of Big Teeth with Dr Fountain it was wonderful to have the opportunity to collaborate with him once again.
Working with performers Timothy Allsop, Jon Millington, Sarah Sigal and Becky Wright, I directed and edited the monologues to create voices for a range of Fleet Street characters. They range from well-known figures, such as Samuel Johnson, to lesser-known printers such as Elizabeth Mallet, publisher of Britain’s first daily newspaper in 1702, and Beatrice Warde, who took the Monotype Corporation by storm in the 1920s.
Since its launch last month at St Bride, Journeys through print (available for iOS and Android) has proved a great way to share the stories of Fleet Street, clocking up more than 100 installs so far, and we are now keen to create similar apps, for other areas in London and beyond. Every street has its hidden histories waiting to be told. Apps such as this suggest how these might be revealed.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley (email@example.com) is an honorary research associate at the School of European Languages, Culture and Society, University College London.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the December newsletter of the Consortium of European Research Libraries.
Cover image: Wikimedia Commons