Kill all the lawyers? Shakespeare was kidding

Although a generation has passed since Fleet Street was a vibrant and still active metonym for the UK’s newspaper industry, the spirit of innovation and creative energy are still there. In fact, those qualities were there long before the newspapers arrived.

It is a wonder just how many global headquarters there are within one quadrant of the Fleet Street area. Not just the law firms you would expect in this corner of London but a host of publishing, creative and financial services companies, technology and business consultancies, and yes: lots and lots of barristers chambers and solicitors firms. Taken all together: far more than might be expected in so small a stretch of urban pavement. Why so many?

Well, perhaps it’s to be expected after the sparking and exploding of all that creative fire over two centuries of newspaper and magazine publishing. The collective energy and vast community of support industries that kicked off with the founding of Fleet Street’s first daily newspaper, the London Courant, in 1702: was it to vanish when the newspapers left? Clearly it did not.

So what made the newspaper industry take root there in the first place? Did that innovative spirit pre-date the London Courant? One of the fascinations of the Cradle of English project is our layering of discoverings and revelations about the centuries of printing presses clickety-clacking in Fleet Street long before the newspaper industry got going. Hundreds of presses and publishing houses turned out the first novels, coffee-house newssheets, dictionaries, bibles, as well as serving the publishing needs of all those ever-present lawyers.

The question is begged: why did the first printing presses set up around there? Fleet Street’s first printing entrepreneur, Wynken deWorde had been happy enough working for William Caxton and his print works to the west at Westminster Abbey but, when he wanted to set up on his own, he decamped to the east and set down roots at the intersection of Fleet Street and Shoe Lane.

Presumably the relaxation of oversight mattered to him, away from the political anxieties of Westminster but stopping short of the commercial regulation of the City of London aldermen. Given that such questions are usually resolved by “following the money”, it may be that his larger inspiration was in the healthy readership in that part of the capital: all those lawyers, again. Together with the large population of clergy long associated with the churches and monasteries in the area, they constituted a considerable clerisy: paying readers among the City’s movers and shakers.

Just think of all that has transpired since the legal profession in England found its modern world footing in the Inns of Court back in the 14th century, way before the advent of the presses. Without all those lawyers, would we have all those printing presses? And all that was printed on them? Would we mark today the global primacy of the English language, and see Shakespeare despatched to posterity as the world’s greatest author?