Lifestyle, Ludotheque

History and chronicles of ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’

An ancient house in Fleet Street where Murdoch is a ghost and the words of journalism have not forgotten the heritage of Johnson and Dickens.


Text and Photos: Emanuela Muzzi

What does Samuel Johnson have to do with Rupert Murdoch? Nothing, no doubt, but an ancient tavern in Fleet Street named Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

English literature and tradition is crowded with ghosts and if anyone enters the old, shadowed, ancient pub, he would feel the ghost is there, uncatchable up to now.

It is easy to find a trace of the literary art of Johnson, as he lived in a house in Bolt Court right near the ancient pub previously named ‘The Horn Tavern’ where he was a regular customer. Some of the first journalists of our history like Charles Dickens lived a step away from the Cheshire as well.

In his 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, Sydney Carton takes Charles Dernay “down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street and so up a covered way into a tavern”.

This tavern was the ‘Cheshire’ – a place whose name has always been surrounded by mystery and uncertainty. Maybe it was derived from the name of a pudding or from a land that once belonged to the Abbey of Vale Royal, Cheshire, a provincial religious order; others have suggested that it derives from a tavern’s keeper who owned it in 1543.

The narrow entrance and a maze of corridors bring us back to the present day in the newest room: “Here we are, built in 1999” says Darren, one of the managers: young, in the black uniform of the pub, and, first of all, Australian, from Perth.

He is a live-in pub worker, he is a traveller and knows the history of the place by heart and talks about Dickens and Johnson as if they were a couple of regular customers he had a chat with just one hour before.

This ‘Chop House’, one of the few remaining from the 17th century, preserves the atmosphere of the intervening centuries through sixteen reigns from Charles II (1660) to the present day. Each of the ten rooms of this three-story building belongs to a different period and has its particular style. But the historical heritage of the Cheshire is well known; contemporary times paradoxically are more difficult to catch.

We are in Fleet Street, the heart of the newspaper trade: where are journalists? Do they attend this place anymore? “When Murdoch moved the printing and publishing works from here to Wapping, in the Canary Wharf area, in the late 80’s, many say life changed here and the customers too”; Unwillingly Darren wakes up the Australian tycoon’s phantom…after all it’s almost midnight and the lights inside are very dim.

Even if there are no traces of journalists, life in this dark wooden castle smelling of ales and wine is vibrant: downstairs in the cellars of the ancient 13th century Carmelite Monastery in the basement sit groups of friends and tourists checking maps of the City: a mosaic of people and faces which in that place lose the vulgarity of daily life and take on the look of a subject of a 19th century painting.

Ground floor dining room: tables for four; a few men wearing pinstripe shirts talk in low voices.

It’s the historical one where Samuel Johnson used to dine by the fireplace where now we find a big portrait of him.

But it’s in the upper floor that we find the most important legacy of the British writer: the 7th edition of his Dictionary lays protected by glass, opened at the page of the scary word ‘LAW’, maybe to keep the phantom of Murdoch far away…but despite that he stays around…we feel his ambiguous character like the Shakespearian Roman ‘Coriolanus’, the Roman soldier who disdains plebeians but begs their votes to be elected consul: the Bard of Avon was writing the tragedy around 1608 when he no doubt dined at the Cheshire while The King’s Men began playing at the Blackfriars Theatre, which he was manager of at that time.

The Pompeian red of the painted walls in the second floor dining room enriched by romantic style stamps and paintings seems right for the ghost of an 80-year-old press baron; his name is heard again; this time it is Polly a woman in her late 20’s who mentions him; she is an actual Londoner “This is one of the few cheap places in this posh area…I like the City, by the way. You see outside here? A modern style building from almost 10 years ago right near a Victorian age one; lots of history mixed with the present time; the environment has changed here; people have changed.

Journalists? Murdoch moved all them outside the City area…I used to work for the Sunday Times’ website, it was boring…, now I work for a charity”, she tells us, drinking a beer with her two friends: Ben “Where’s the actual London? Well, if you want to show a person what a pub is you have to come here” but after a while he adds “what remains of British society? Working and drinking”, and Jen: “Actually the financial part has replaced the editorial one.

Two different cultures and ways of life”, she says but right behind her there’s a big old Barclays Bank cheque on the wall in a golden frame like a fine arts masterpiece; at that point the Murdoch ghost which perfectly embodies both the ‘parts’ would have laughed out loud just like the parrot named Polly used to more than a century ago in the same place; they say she had lived there for almost 30 years until 1926 and used to talk to the customers too.

Now the exotic black and red bird is stuffed and exhibited at the entrance just behind the bar; she is now a silent witness of an era. The news of Polly´s death was broadcast by the BBC and obituary notices were published in many newspapers all over the world; some of them are displayed in the entrance: more than a historic document it is a demonstration of what journalists are able to write about.

The Cheshire was visited by Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Tennyson, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Princess Margaret, Winston Churchill and many more great personages. It has survived through centuries (the tavern had been rebuilt soon after the great fire in 1666 and survived the WWII Nazi bombings), but in the end it didn’t survive the “Battle of Wapping” which started in 1986 with the move of journalists and printers from Fleet Street to cheaper premises in East London and ended after a strike that lasted one year with the print unions left near bankruptcy.

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