Fleet Street: Last journalists leave former home of national papers

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

image captionGavin Sherriff and Darryl Smith worked in the Sunday Post building seen in the background

The last two journalists working in Fleet Street are leaving what was once seen as the centre of UK journalism.

Reporters Gavin Sherriff and Darryl Smith worked for the Dundee-based Sunday Post, which closes its London office on Friday.

For decades Fleet Street was synonymous with the nation's biggest newspapers.

Ex-Sunday Express editor Robin Esser said it was once a "very, very important place" through which most of the public received its information.

The first British daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published in Fleet Street on 11 March 1702.

At its height, "the Street of Shame" - as it was dubbed by some - was the pinnacle of a journalist's career, with nearly every national paper and several provincial newspapers having offices within a half-mile radius.

media captionA brief history of Fleet Street

Mr Smith, 43, worked as a feature writer for the Sunday Post and was based in the street for 25 years.

He is quick to point out that the paper's London address is the same as Sweeney Todd's barber shop, where the fictional character took a razor to his clients' throats.

Although the death of journalism has finally arrived here, he says it was announced too soon by some of London's tour guides.

"I was standing by the window once a few years ago, and a tour bus had stopped outside. I heard the guide tell the passengers that Fleet Street no longer had any journalists working here.

"I stuck my head out and shouted: 'We are still here'."

image captionBoth reporters say the street's culture has changed significantly over the past few decades

The street was famous for its many bars and pubs, constantly occupied by journalists both socialising and seeking stories, and Mr Smith tells a tale of once needing to speak to a colleague in the notorious El Vino wine bar - which for many years refused to serve women.

He says he was not allowed in until he squeezed into an ill-fitting jacket, provided by the staff.

"There is so much history here, and to be one of the last ones, I feel unworthy of the torch that I'm carrying."

Mr Sherriff, 54, has worked on Fleet Street for 32 years, and rose to become the Post's London chief reporter. He says on his first ever day he walked into a smoke-filled newsroom to the sound of typewriters being bashed about.

"The phones didn't even work properly, I'd be amazed if I called someone and it connected the first time."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCopies of the Daily Express in August 1935 are seen rolling off the presses in Fleet Street
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThese large plate cameras from 1936 were used to prepare artwork for reproduction in the paper

His memories of the street in its heyday are of "watching lorries with large rolls of paper struggling to get down side-streets to printing presses and lots of pubs, filled with journalists and printers".

"Now it's an endless number of sandwich bars out there. Unthinkable 30 years ago."

Mr Sherriff describes the atmosphere back then of "certainly living up to the image you had before you came, but you wouldn't be able to produce newspapers now the way it was done back then".

Following their redundancy, Mr Smith is becoming a freelance journalist, while Mr Sherriff is taking time out to write his memoirs.

Robin Esser's Fleet Street career spanned some 60 years, during which time he also became executive managing editor of the Daily Mail.

"At its height, Fleet Street was very, very important because television was in its early childhood, and there was no social media. So 85% of information to the public came through the newspapers," he says.

"The departure of its last two journalists should be marked, but you have to look forward, not backwards."

Fleet Street memories: 'Alcohol flowed like water'

image copyrightAndrew Crowley
image captionLiz Hodgkinson entered Fleet Street as a young reporter, and stayed for several decades

Liz Hodgkinson worked in Fleet Street in the 1970s and 80s and her book, Ladies Of The Street, covers the story of women working there.

"Fleet Street was always more of a concept than an actual street, with papers like the Sunday People, the Sun and the Mail, all in little streets actually off Fleet Street.

"But they were all within walking distance and part of what collectively was known as Fleet Street.

"When I was at the People we'd have a conference at 11am till about noon. Then the editor would open his drinks cabinet - all Fleet Street editors had one.

"Then we'd take a taxi to the Savoy or Claridges for more drinks. We'd come back about 4pm, and then go out drinking again around 5pm.

"The alcohol flowed like water in Fleet Street.

image copyrightDaily Mail
image captionShe is seen here at her desk while working at the Daily Mail in the early 1980s

"At the People there were four women in editorial, and 150 men. At the Sun in the late 70s and early 80s, there were about a dozen female reporters and we all sat together in a little room, which was known as the Piranha Pool.

"I was working on an undercover job once for a paper, and rang an editor from a payphone, to check in with him.

"He asked 'Are you in danger, pet?' I replied 'Yes, I am'. To which he replied 'Oh, good.'"

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe 1953 newsroom at the now-closed News of the World was typically male-dominated
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThis Daily Express ticker-tape machine, circa 1935, is how news was filed to the paper

Fleet Street's pubs

  • Pubs were seen as places for reporters to seek out news, gossip about politics and even find jobs on other newspapers
  • Every paper was said to have its own favourite pub
  • The Daily Telegraph favoured the King and Keys, while the Express used the Red Lion - based in Poppins Court, it became known as Poppins
  • Mirror reporters used the White Hart, known as the "Stab in the Back", shortened to "The Stab", because of its reputation of hosting dark office politics
  • Other notable premises were the Cheshire Cheese and Mac's Cafe, the printers' and journalists' cafe which never closed
  • Perhaps the best-known was El Vino wine bar, which did not serve women until 1982, until a court case was brought by a female journalist

But, like so many empires before it, Fleet Street's grip on power began to crumble.

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch moved his papers - consisting of the Sun, the now-closed News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times - off to a purpose-built complex at Wapping in east London in 1986. This led to a bitter, year-long dispute which sometimes turned violent, but ended in defeat for the unions.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCrowds gathered at the Daily Express building in December 1932 to see English aviator Amy Johnson after her record solo flight to Cape Town

By 1988, most national newspapers had moved away from Fleet Street to other parts of London, adopting new - and cheaper - computerised printing technology, swapping the merciless screeching of hot metal print for the gossipy whispers of keyboards.

As a result, the buildings they left behind gradually morphed into other uses. The site of Mirror Group Newspapers now houses the headquarters of Sainsbury's supermarkets, for example, and the "Stab in the Back" is a Pizza Express.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe print unions' anger over Rupert Murdoch's 1986 move to Wapping led to clashes with police

Now a part of Fleet Street's own story has come to an end, and this infamous era of British history has reached its final deadline.

"As someone who always wanted to be a journalist, and with a keen sense of history as well, just looking at the buildings even now still excites me," says Mr Smith.

"It makes me smile, when I think of how I now have that place in history."

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