The jour­nal­ists’ own church in the heart of Lon­don

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Joe C. Cor­dina

Jut­ting out among the renowned build­ings that once housed most of the British press and news agen­cies in Fleet Street Lon­don is the steeple of St Bride’s, the jour­nal­ists’ own church. A short lane in Fleet Street, leads to the church where jour­nal­ists find peace and so­lace away from the bus­tle of the sur­round­ings. Ad­ja­cent to the church is St Bride’s In­sti­tute, an­ces­tral home of the Lon­don Press Club.

Fleet Street it­self in Cen­tral Lon­don, which came to be known as the Street of the British press be­cause of the sev­eral of­fices hous­ing British papers and news agen­cies as well as print­ing presses and shops linked to the trade, knows its be­gin­ning to the fact that the first known print­ers had clus­tered around the area of St Bride’s, since 1500. At that time this area had be­come pop­u­lar with the clergy who were in­volved in na­tional life, had town houses and had al­most a mo­nop­oly of lit­er­acy. As such they were the best cus­tomers for the print­ers. The trans­for­ma­tion of the me­dieval art of the scribe to the art of print­ing, which then took place in the area, gave Fleet Street its modern im­age. Eng­land’s first print­ing press with move­able type was brought along­side St Bride’s by Wynkyn de Worde, ap­pren­tice to the fa­mous printer Cax­ton. Wynkyn was buried in St Bride’s in 1535 and in his will left one English pound a year for the poor of the parish. Other well-known print­ers, who also put this in­struc­tion in their will, were Richard Pyn­son, Richard Red­man and Thomas Berthelet.

Through­out the years sev­eral per­son­al­i­ties linked to the art of writ­ing and pub­lish­ing lived within a hun­dred yards or so of St Bride’s. To men­tion some ex­am­ples, th­ese in­cluded Dry­den, Mil­ton, Izakk Wal­ton, Lovelace the poet (who was buried in St Bride’s), Waller, Aubrey, Ash­mole, Thomas Spratt, Samuel Pepys (who, as well as his eight broth­ers and sis­ters, was chris­tened in St Bride’s), John Ogilby the King’s cos­mo­g­ra­pher and ge­o­graph­i­cal painter, Thomas Tomp­ton “fa­ther of the English clock and watch-mak­ing”, Flat­man, poet and painter. Other gen­er­a­tions in­cluded John­son, Boswell, Gar­rick, Joshua Reynolds, Gold­smith, Burke, Ad­di­son, Pope, Hog­a­rth, Mrs Sid­dons and Samuel Richardson, “fa­ther of the English novel”, whose cof­fin al­though much crushed can still be seen in the crypts. Then there were Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats, Hood, Leigh Hunt and Wil­liam Ha­zlitt and Charles Dick­ens, whose jour­nal­is­tic ob­ser­va­tions here were im­mor­talised in his nov­els.

To­day many of the British papers and oth­ers have set up of­fices at the ren­o­vated Dock­lands in East Lon­don but jour­nal­ists still con­gre­gate to St Brides for com­mu­nal meet­ings and spir­i­tual aid as well as for ac­tiv­i­ties or­gan­ised by the Lon­don Press Club.

Founded on 28 Oc­to­ber 1882, the Lon­don Press Club was in­au­gu­rated at An­der­ton’s Ho­tel in Fleet Street and the Club’s first ad­dress was at 63 Fleet Street. Later the Club moved to rooms near Ludgate Cir­cus and in 1890, the Lon­don Press Club made use of a house va­cated by the Press As­so­ci­a­tion at Wine Court near Dr John­son’s House. Then in 1914 a fire caused the Press Club to move to St Bride’s in Fleet Street where it stayed for a num­ber of years. When in 1970 an of­fer came of two floors in the newly built In­ter­na­tional Press Cen­tre in Shoe Lane, the Press Club moved again and it was here that it cel­e­brated its cen­te­nary in 1982. But in 1986, the Press Club had to move again, set­ting up house in a sec­tion of Duf­fers Club un­der the rail­way arches by Ludgate Cir­cus. De­vel­op­ment by British Rail, which had de­cided to run its trains through in­stead of over the Club Bar, caused the Press Club to look for other premises again. And for the next few years the Club had to move from one place to an­other with spells at the Wig and Pen, Fleet Street, Dock­mas­ter’s House, Ca­nary Wharf and three years as guests of the Free­dom Fo­rum, near Mar­ble Arch. Then in March 2000 Canon John Oates, the Press Club’s chap­lain and rec­tor of St Bride’s, ar­ranged for the Press Club to move back to St Bride’s In­sti­tute at Bride Lane, Fleet Street where it is still housed. Ad­ja­cent to the In­sti­tute is the Print­ing Mu­seum and the famed Print­ing Li­brary, all dom­i­nated by the bel­fry of St Bride’s church.

This steeple is the same one built by British-famed ar­chi­tect Sir Christo­pher Wren who had built the whole church which is steeped in his­tory while the site on which it had been erected spans two thou­sand years’ de­vel­op­ment of Eng­land’s own his­tory. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains at­test the im­print of Ro­mans, Celts, An­gles, Sax­ons, Nor­mans and to the fact that seven suc­ces­sive churches had oc­cu­pied the site. It is ac­knowl­edged that the Ro­mans dug a ditch on the site big­ger than the one they even­tu­ally put around the city of Lon­don, and this is ev­i­denced by a line marked on the floor of the church’s crypt. It is also known that not much later they build a Ro­man struc­ture, un­doubt­edly the only Ro­man build­ing be­tween the City and West­min­ster, but what the build­ing ac­tu­ally was has eluded schol­ars. The fact that it was built “out­side” the walls of the city may point to a place of wor­ship as “out­side the city wall” has al­ways been an evoca­tive phrase for Chris­tians who in days of pos­si­ble per­se­cu­tion ex­er­cise dis­cre­tion. Per­haps this was the first place in Lon­don that God in Christ was wor­shipped. One can see the re­mains of the pave­ment and some of the ma­sonry of this build­ing, in the crypt.

His­to­ri­ans place the first ac­tual church to have been built on the site in the sixth cen­tury. At some later date it was ded­i­cated to Bride, the in­de­fati­ga­ble St Bridge of Kil­dare, Ire­land, born in 453 al­most con­tem­po­rary with St Pa­trick and sec­ond only to him in Ir­ish es­teem. Re­mains of this first stone church show a nar­row en­try to the chapel rem­i­nis­cent of the rood screen in the church of Kil­dare. The name of St Bride has stuck to the present day. Af­ter a life-span of three hun­dred years, this church was re­placed by a big­ger one un­til it also was de­stroyed, prob­a­bly by the fire of 1135 which dam­aged the whole city. It was re­placed by an­other church built in the 12th cen­tury. This ed­i­fice was noted for a very im­pres­sive tower from which there rang one of what were then known as Lon­don’s four cur­few bells. The

Curia Regis, the prin­ci­pal court of the realm was held in this third St Bride’s church in 1205 and five years later King John also held his Par­lia­ment there.

It was in the 15th cen­tury that the next St Bride’s church was erected and in­stantly be­came con­nected with the world of print which trade had than su­per­seded that of the scribes. This church was known by Chaucer and Shake­speare and Thomas Becket, who was born nearby. This was also the church which Wolsey (who once held St Bride’s par­son­age) and Cam­peg­gio went past on the way to dis­cuss with Henry VIII whether Cather­ine of Aragon was his le­gal wife. It was also the one that first used the Book of Com­mon Prayers and it was from this church that Angli­can clergy were ejected when the Long Par­lia­ment came. This St Bride’s was the venue where peo­ple came to weep and pray dur­ing the Great Plague of 1665 when over 2,000 died in this parish alone. This St Bride’s church was it­self de­stroyed in the Great Fire of Lon­don of 1666.

When it was de­cided to re­built the church again, the church war­dens’ choice of ar­chi­tect fell on Christo­pher Wren. They took him out to din­ner at the Globe tav­ern at a cost of 12 English pounds and 17 shillings. He got en­thused with the com­mis­sion and started work im­me­di­ately. The new St Bride’s Church, built by the King’s ma­son at a cost of eleven thou­sand, four hun­dred and thirty English pounds, five shillings and eleven pence, was one of the first post-fire churches to be ready for wor­ship, the re­open­ing ser­vice be­ing held on 19 De­cem­ber 1675. Fleet Street it­self was one of the first main thor­ough­fares to be re­stored. The steeple of the church, Wren’s tallest and per­haps his loveli­est, was com­pleted in 1703 and un­til it was struck by light­ning, when it lost eight feet, was 234 feet high. The bells, which in­cluded me­dieval metal saved af­ter the fire, were in­stalled eight years later.

Yet again this church was hit by dis­as­ter and dur­ing the great air raid on Sun­day, 29 De­cem­ber 1940 it was blasted and the steeple was the only stand­ing rem­nant of the church. And again peo­pled ral­lied in re­build­ing the church which had now be­come syn­ony­mous with jour­nal­ists and all those en­gaged in the print­ing and pub­lish­ing trade, who en­sured that Fleet Street should have a 20th cen­tury church, wor­thy of its long his­tory and tra­di­tion. Con­trib­u­tors to­wards the restora­tion in­cluded most of the well-known names of modern Fleet Street and their col­leagues abroad. By 1957 on 19 De­cem­ber, the Queen and the Duke of Ed­in­burgh came for the reded­i­ca­tion of the present church, the eighth on this spot and ex­actly 282 years af­ter the re­open­ing ser­vices of the new church that had been built af­ter the great fire. The ar­chi­tect cho­sen Go­drey Allen, who was not only the suc­ces­sor of Wren in the Of­fice of Sur­veyor of the Fab­ric of St Paul’s Cathe­dral but also had ac­cess to Wren’s own draw­ings and records and as­sisted by John R. Stam­mers, man­aged to re­built a faith­ful re­birth of Wren’s ge­nius.

Links be­tween the jour­nal­is­tic and print­ing world are ev­i­denced through­out the build­ing of St Bride’s. In 1968 the Press As­so­ci­a­tion when mark­ing its cen­te­nary, pre­sented the church with the gift of glass doors at the west end. St Bride’s heat­ing came from the Press As­so­ci­a­tion build­ing and that of Reuters’s. The rec­tor at the time of my visit Rev. Canon David Meara showed me an­other staunch link be­tween the church and the jour­nal­is­tic world, an al­tar ex­hibit­ing pic­tures of jour­nal­ists who died and are still dy­ing in their field of du­ties. He told me that it is with sor­row and re­gret that he goes to the al­tar to add an­other pic­ture when the news comes out of an­other jour­nal­ist slain in the call of duty. But then it is with sat­is­fac­tion that he opens the door of St Brides to wel­come a jour­nal­ist who seeks his help and to of­fer the so­lace of the jour­nal­ists’ own church, St Brides of Fleet Street.

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