The journalists’ own church in the heart of London
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.