Once upon a time, the Whitefriar monks walked the – presumably – shady courtyard in the centre of the Whitefriar monastery site. Judging by the name, the trees planted in the court were ashes, but that is just an assumption. In 1708, Edward Hatton called the Ashentree Court “a pleasant Court on the E. side of White Friars, about the middle”.(1) Apparently, houses had been built in the court after the monks had left, as in 1763, three “old houses” are reported to have fallen down, killing a boy.(2)
These days, there is not a tree or house in sight, but plenty of shade from all the office buildings around the court. Ashentree Court can be found off Whitefriars Street leading to Magpie Alley which runs to Bouverie Street. The section of the Google Map below shows where the tiles depicting the history of the association of Fleet Street with printing can be found (green line), where the Whitefriars Crypt is (red cross), and where the panels that are the subject of this post (blue line) are.
The metal panels in Ashentree Court depict the history of the newspaper presses at Northcliffe House, situated on the corner of Whitefriars and Tudor Street, just south of Ashentree Court. I apologise for the quality of the photographs; my camera is only a small one and the panels were rather dirty, combined with the poor light conditions … well, what can I say. At least it will give you some idea of what there is to see. More and better photos – with transcriptions of the panels – can be found on Ian’s blog.
The plates not only show the working of the printing presses inside the building, but also the building of Northcliffe House itself in the 1920s. Harold Harmsworth (Viscount Rothermere), the then owner of the Associated Newspapers, had Northcliffe House built and named after his brother Alfred Harmsworth who had become Lord Northcliffe in 1904 and who had started his career as the owner of the Evening News, later also founding the Daily Mail with his brother. Alfred died in 1922. The Times of 20 January 1927 reports on a General Meeting of the Associated Newspapers Ltd. in which the chairman reported the following on the building progress,
As the directors explained in the last annual report, unexpected delays were met with in the construction of the new building […] which, with its new devices and new inventions, will provide the Daily Mail and Weekly Dispatch with the last word in equipment for newspaper production. However, I am glad to be able to say now that the rate of progress has been such that it is hoped to make a start with the printing of part of the Weekly Dispatch at Northcliffe House within the next few weeks. You will be glad to hear also that the greater part of this magnificent building with it wonderful up-to-date machinery had already been paid for out of profits. (hear, hear).
Northcliffe House was designed by Ellis and Clarke, the architects who were a few years later also to design the Daily Express building in Fleet Street. Northcliffe House has been a Grade II listed building since 1988 and the description on the English Heritage site says,
Stone clad steel framed structure. Roof not visible. 4 storeys. Plus attic storey. 7 bays to Tudor Street and 6 bays to Whitefriars St.Corner entrance, square headed, with prominent keystone. First, second and third floors unified by giant order Ionic pilasters with lion head masks to capitals. Almost fully glazed between,the first and second floors linked by continuous mullions to long 3-light windows; metal glazing bars in margin glazing pattern, sub-divided into very small panes. Fluted coved cornice of neo-Egyptian character above third floor. Recessed attic storey. Short polygonal corner tower.(3)
The Associated Newspapers moved to Kensington High Street in 1989 while the actual printing was by then done at their plant at Surrey Docks, but Northcliffe House, although no longer in use for publishing newspapers, remained as yet another reminder of the newspaper history of the Fleet Street area.4 The façade of the building, because of its Grade II listed status, had to be retained when the site was redeveloped in 1999-2001 and still shows the Egyptian-style and lion head details.
(1) Edward Hatton, A New View of London, Or: An Ample Account of that City(1708) p. 3.
(2) “The Monthly Chronologer” in The London Magazine, Or: Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, volume 32 (1763), p. 275.
(3) English Heritage.
(4) Hugh Pearman, “The New Fleet Street”, Sunday Times, 2 July 1989; and Brian MacArthur, “Fleet Street’s last farewell”, Sunday Times, 6 Aug. 1989.