06 August 2023
The journalists are gone,
but poets and writers
live on in Fleet Street in
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
‘Sir,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this great City, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts.’
Earlier this week, two of us found ourselves exploring and getting lost on the labyrinthine courts and confusing crooked alleyways along Fleet Street.
Johnson lived at 17 Gough Square, while Oliver Goldsmith lived nearby in Wine Office Court, which connects Shoe Lane and Fleet Street, and wrote part of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ in his lodgings at No 6.
Wine Office Court takes its name from the Excise Office that was there up to 1665, granting licences to sell wine. The alley is first documented in a map in 1676 by John Ogilby, the cartographer who owned a shop on this passage.
Today, at first, the alley appears largely unremarkable, apart from some of its past residents and – of course – Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Charlotte introduced me to this celebrated pub at the south end of Wine Office Court, close to the Fleet Street entrance.
The valted cellars are thought to have been part of the Carmelite monastery on the site in the 13th century. There has been a pub at the site since 1538, previously named ‘The Horn.’ It was rebuilt immediately after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Several older pubs which have survived because they were beyond the reach of the fire, or like the Tipperary on the opposite side of Fleet Street because they were made of stone.
The Tipperary on the south side of Fleet Street is now boarded up, dilapidated, and falling into decay. I knew it well when I frequently visited the London offices of The Irish Times in the PA Building on Fleet Street.
The newspapers and journalists have all left Fleet Street: the last journalists left seven years ago when the Sunday Post moved its editorial staff out. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese continues to thrive, however, and attracts interest because of its celebrated literary connections and because there is no natural lighting inside.
The entrance in the narrow alleyway is unassuming. Once inside, however, I realise how the pub occupies a lot of floor space and has numerous bars and gloomy rooms. Some of the interior wood panelling dates back to the 19th century, and charred beams left from the Great Fire are still visible in the basement.
As you step into Wine Office Court, a plaque on the ground beneath the arch is a reminder that Charles Dickens, pen-name ‘Boz’, operated out of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub while producing his journal All the Year Round.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a grade II listed building and is known for its literary associations, and it claims its regular patrons in the past have included Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and GK Chesterton.
Voltaire visited, and, says tradition, so did Congreve and Pope. Samuel Johnson lived in Gough Square, at the end of the court on the left, and finished his Dictionary there in 1755. He saved Goldsmith from eviction by selling The Vicar of Wakefield for him.
There is no evidence that Samuel Johnson ever visited Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, although he it is said to have been frequented by Johnson’s friends, including Reynolds, Gibbon, Garrick, Dr Burney, Boswell and others.
Visitors in the 19th century included Carlyle, Macaulay, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dickens – who mentions Wine Office Court in A Tale of Two Cities – Forster, Hood, Thackeray, Cruikshank, Leech and Wilkie Collins.
The Cheshire Cheese pub appears in Anthony Trollope’s novel Ralph the Heir, where one of the characters, Ontario Moggs, speaks ‘with vigour at the debating club at the Cheshire Cheese in support of unions and the rights of man …’
More recent visitors have included Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Beerbohm, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse, Dowson, Le Galeiene, Symons, WB Yeats – and many others in search of Dr Johnson, or in search of ‘The Cheese.’
The Rhymers’ Club was a group of London-based poets, founded in 1890 by WB Yeats and Ernest Rhys, who met at the Cheshire Cheese and in the Domino Room of the Café Royal. Yeats refers to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in the opening lines of his poem ‘The Grey Rock’ (1914):
Poets with whom I learned my trade,
Companions of the Cheshire Cheese,
Here’s an old story I’ve re-made,
Imagining ’twould better please
Your ears than stories now in fashion,
Though you may think I waste my breath
Pretending that there can be passion
That has more life in it than death,
And though at bottling of your wine
Old wholesome Goban had no say;
The moral’s yours because it’s mine.