A New Way to Set
Blog

A New Way to Set


14 Jan 2020

As part of our exhibition 24/7: A Wake-Up Call for our Non-Stop World, Somerset House Studios resident Eloise Hawser takes us on a tour of Fleet Street, exploring its historic association with the newspaper industry, whch worked around the clock to print the daily papers.

Right up until the late 1980s, 100,000 people worked on Fleet Street – as one printer put it, “it was a city within a city”. Many of these were printers, deep in the hot and noisy basements of newspaper HQs. What was the relation between the 24-hour activity of these printers to the temporalities and infrastructures making up this ‘city’? And how does newspaper printing continue to mark the area’s surrounding residents and structures?

The phrase ‘A new way to set’ comes from a ‘hot metal printing’ manual from the 1960s. Here, newspapers would be composited in metal typeface by hand, necessitating a 24-hour industry of printers, journalists, machinery, and couriers to produce and distribute each morning’s papers up and down the country. I was interested in how the stories making up ‘the news’ was dependent upon the labour of compositing, through the night. It was not uncommon for disputes between editors and printers to change the kinds of stories printed. In 1984, for instance, printers refused to ‘handle’ an image used to denigrate trade unions at The Sun.

Fleet Street seems like a ‘hard copy’ precursor to the digital-focused themes in the 24/7 exhibition, a kind of waypoint between two 24-hour regimes of production. In fact, many former newspaper HQs now house the 24/7, digital-dominated operations of companies like WeWork, Goldman Sachs, and Bloomberg.

THE TOUR

The tour begins at the Stamp Stair of Somerset House. In the early days of the newspaper industry, every paper had to be delivered to the government's stamp office at Somerset House to pay the stamp duty prior to its sale. It was only with the repeal of this tax in 1855 that the press industry could achieve mass production and distribution.

The Stamp Stair at Somerset House
The Stamp Stair at Somerset House

Leaving Somerset House, the route eastward takes you past several former newspaper buildings, such as The Sun and The News of The World at 30 Bouverie Street, which infamously saw printers taking a stand of solidarity with striking miners in 1984 by refusing to print a picture of union leader Arthur Scargill being compared to Adolf Hitler. Around the corner you'll find Northcliffe House, former HQ of the Daily Mail, and iconic architectural feats that once housed The Telegraph, The Daily Express, and Reuters on Fleet Street.

The next stop is St. Bride's Foundation, originally set up to provide a communal space for the printers of nearby Fleet Street. Now a library and printing workshop dedicated to this historic industry, where Library Manager Bob Richardson offers a vivid description of hot metal printing and the social life to which it gave rise around Fleet Street.

Bob Richardson, Library Manager of St. Bride's Foundation
Bob Richardson, Library Manager of St. Bride's Foundation

Leaving St. Bride and heading further east towards The City, Bloomberg’s European HQ stands as one of the most expensive ever built in London. The international media company's building, designed by Foster + Partners, houses around 4000 employees and is designed to facilitate workers mingling and co-working in and through a wide-open ‘pantry’ space, bring together work and social life under one single roof. If Fleet Street was once a city within a city, Bloomberg feels like a city within a single building.

A newsroom at Bloomberg's European HQ in the City of London
A newsroom at Bloomberg's European HQ in the City of London
Bloomberg European HQ
Bloomberg European HQ

The walk concludes at Bracken House, the home of the Financial Times. The site captures both the history and present moment of the news industry: after leaving this building in the late 1980s, the FT returned just this year, entirely refurbishing the premises to suit the new 24/7, digital world of news production.

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The famous zodiac clock on Bracken House with Winston Churchill's face at the centre
The famous zodiac clock on Bracken House with Winston Churchill's face at the centre, image Remko Van Dokkum CC

Follow the route yourself with our interactive Google Earth Tour, or download a printable map to trace Fleet Street's historic 24-hour industry in your own time.