In the weeks since Cradle of English completed its first “immerzeo” – an Augmented Reality tour of a historic setting in Fleet Street – the reactions that have been the most rewarding have been those responding to the differences between modern life and what transpired “back in the day”. Not just back in the day before mobile phones or space flight, or back in the day before horseless carriages or flush toilets, but back in the day when your journey to work in the morning took you past a man swinging from a rope. So it would have been for lawyers working around the junction of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, where a gallows stood for over 130 years from 1590.
Ah, the 1590s: those were certainly some days to be reckoned with. First decade of the Fetter Lane gallows, erected in Queen Elizabeth’s reign — Catholics, for the execution of: shudder. But also Shakespeare’s first decade, the construction of the first Globe Theatre, and the year of the founding of Gresham College, the nearest London came to having a university for another two hundred years.
It was to be almost another century of tumult and chaos: Civil War, Dutch invasion, death of one monarch and restoration of another, then plague, then fire . . . before London was to see an informal community of polymath geniuses get together to form the Royal Society. It was half a century later when they set up their first permanent home a few paces away from Fetter Lane. And in 1710, those gallows were still there, but now scientists joined the lawyers in the passing traffic.
It is one of the endless fascinations of history to reflect on what might have been had the one thing not happened, or the other thing had: and it can be left to another time to tease out the competing claims of coincidence, correlation, and causation in explaining how London could bubble and delve its way to the epicentre of by far the largest commercial Empire the world has ever known without so much as a university or even a business school to track its intellectual journey to Enlightenment.
In fact, and while continental Europe and North America were filling up with business schools, the UK didn’t get its first one until 1902 and London waited until 1964. It is more than an interesting thought experiment to wonder what differences might be noted by modern time travellers going back to a London Business School established in 1764. Before they had time to fret over their loss of mobile signal and the lack of indoor plumbing, they would have the little matters of plague and fire to contend with. But then what? Would they have noted any difference in the teaching?
Given all those polymath geniuses referred to earlier, and their propensity for sharing their thoughts in the lively coffee houses and taverns of Fleet Street, the atmosphere would have concentrated their minds wonderfully even without, as Dr Johnson phrased it, the prospect of hanging.