The Bridewell Theatre

Reporter: Sandra Giorgetti

Dateline: 11th February, 2018

Time itself does not matter...

Time itself does not matter in the presence of the lost river

London Under by Peter Ackroyd

The Bridewell Theatre takes its name from St Bride's Well, one of the many springs that hundreds of years ago rose out of the City of London's gravel beds.

The Well also gave its name to the Theatre's close neighbour, St Bride's Church, one of many that occupied that site, the present building designed by Christopher Wren still standing over its sixth century foundations despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe in 1940.

Historian Peter Ackroyd conjectures a general link between sites of holy water and theatre and ritual evolving from pagan ceremonies, and we know the Mystery Plays were performed in the area of the Clerk's Well (Clerkenwell), so perhaps I can briefly allow myself the romantic notion that the Bridewell Theatre is somehow on a continuum, fulfilling some olden predestination.

The Theatre is in the original St Bride's Foundation Institute building, a stone's throw from London's Fleet Street, a thoroughfare of ancient origin and named after the River Fleet (still flowing underground), the road now running from Ludgate Circus to the Strand.

The Foundation's proximity to Fleet Street is no accident as it was this famous street, whose name became synonymous with the newspaper business, which was to give the Institute its purpose.

Fleet Street gained iconic status when the nation's newspapers established a presence for themselves there, becoming the Holy Grail for journalists who walked in centuries-old footsteps.

It was here that printing pioneer Wynkyn de Worde, journeyman to William Caxton, set up the City's first printing press business in 1500. He too had followed others—the scribes, text writers, illuminators, bookbinders and booksellers who worked in the shadow of nearby St Paul's Cathedral and who had set up the Guild of Stationers in 1403.

In turn, other printing businesses followed de Worde and settled in the area—not by coincidence but because by law printing was permitted to take place only in London until 1695—and, by the time London's first daily newspaper was being published in Fleet Street in 1702, this part of the City had long been established as a centre of printing.

On the other side of the coin were the writers who fed this burgeoning industry. Many were associated with the area and a list of their names reads like a who's who of literary accomplishment: Geoffrey Chaucer (whose The Canterbury Tales were printed by de Worde) studied at the Inns of Court; playwrights Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare frequented Fleet Street's infamous taverns. John Milton was born just off Cheapside and like fellow poet John Dryden was a parishioner of St Bride's Church.

Essayist, literary critic and author Samuel Johnson lived close by Gough Square, whilst one of his Literary Club co-founders, the "inspired idiot", the poet Oliver Goldsmith, did lowly hackwork on Grub Street (now Milton Street) as well as writing for a more sophisticated market.

Charles Dickens studied law at Middle Temple, later working as a court reporter and journalist in the area. As a novelist he set The Pickwick Papers in Fleet Street and he uses it again in A Tale of Two Cities.

Bride Lane, where the Bridewell Theatre can be found, is itself name-checked by diarist Samuel Pepys. The surrounding area was known for its brothels and he would come to 'see the whores'.

This nugget of Pepysiana is given to me by John Rankin, the Theatre's Front of House Supervisor, who gives me a tour of the building.

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