If you look up on the side of a building on Fleet Street you’ll see what looks like a mural of old newspapers – but it’s actually a sundial.
Added a couple of months ago, the design is by Piers Nicholson, a maker of sundials who happened to move into the building next door a decade ago and was curious about what could be done to improve an otherwise blank wall.
It’s taken a decade to persuade successive owners of the building to put something on the wall, and it’s to their credit that the current owners have finally agreed that a newspaper-style sundial would be a good thing to have, and the City of London who decided in April to cover the outstanding costs of installing it.
The way it works is that the sundial face is marked out with the lines where the shadow falls for every hour between 6 and 10 with additional lines at 10.30, 10.45 and 11. Between the six lowest of these lines appear the mastheads of 5 newspapers. A gnomon sits at the top, and it casts the shadow that on a sunny day will help to mark the time on the wall.
Five old newspapers were chosen to fill in the lines, The Republican, Pall Mall Gazette, The Morning Post, News Chronicle, and The Daily Herald.
The newspaper at the top, The Republican was based at this location, in a building that was demolished in the 1880s to widen the side street, and this newspaper was the only London paper to publish a report Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
The campaigning owner, Richard Carlile was prosecuted for blasphemy, blasphemous libel and sedition for “publishing material that might encourage people to hate the government in his newspaper”, and sentenced to three years in jail.
This was an age of severe restrictions on newspapers and the notion of the freedom of the press was only starting to emerge as one of the checks and balances needed for a liberal democracy to exist.
While Richard was in jail, his wife kept up publishing the newspaper, even as the government kept raising taxes on newspapers to make them unaffordable to the masses. Over the next couple of years, Richard’s wife was imprisoned, then her sister, then eight of the staff, and eventually around 150 people were sent to jail for selling The Republican. A couple of decades of harassment by the government resulted in Richard Carlile dying in poverty, and he was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in 1843.
There are three plaques below the new sundial: One of them is devoted to The Republican and its fight for the freedom of the press, one tells the story of this Fleet Street sundial, and one about sundials in general.
Overall, it’s a delightful addition to an otherwise blank wall on the side of Fleet Street, and while most people walking past will assume it’s just a mural of newspaper names, you will know that it’s actually a sundial. And all because a sundial maker happened to live next door, and spent a decade campaigning to have it built.
And finally, a quirk of history – the wall you’re looking at used to be an internal wall between 61 and 62 Fleet Street. The side street, Bouverie Street was quite narrow, so in the 1880s, 62 Fleet Street was demolished leaving the current 61 Fleet Street as the corner building.
That demolition is why what is today the corner building doesn’t have any windows in the side wall as any other building would have, as no one ever bothered knocking new windows into the newly created external wall. Leaving space, over a century later for the sundial.
However, the road widening still left about 2 feet of the legal title of 62 Fleet Street running down the pavement, and later, a new building was constructed behind 61 Fleet Street, and is still known as 62 Fleet Street, despite not being on Fleet Street — and all thanks to the legacy of an invisible line of legal title running along the edge of the pavement.