The nondescript modern building Five Fleet Place on Farringdon Street is sitting on a lot of history. It is worth viewing it from across the road to take in the fact that the block on which it now stands was for over 900 years the site of the notorious Fleet Prison, where debtors and others were incarcerated. Later, it was on this site that the Labour Party was founded. It is strange for us to imagine a prison on the main road whose inmates could beg from the windows or even walk around outside if they had bribed their (privatised) warders enough. The River Fleet – or Ditch as it was known because of all the sewage dumped in it – ran outside the prison under the road: indeed it still does, flowing down the route of Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street to the Thames at Blackfriars.
You could start a university with some of the inmates of Fleet prison. Alumni include: William Penn, the future founder of Pennsylvania (banged up for his unorthodox religious beliefs); John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill; John Donne, the poet (imprisoned for illegally marrying his wife); and Charles Hall, an early economist and socialist who would have been well pleased to know that the Labour Party would eventually be begin in the same place. In fiction, Samuel Pickwick was imprisoned in the Fleet in Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, and in Shakespeare’s Henry V Part II, the Chief Justice orders his men: “Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet; Take all his company along with him.”
The Fleet was a debtors prison as long ago as 1290 and existed even earlier than that. It was destroyed during the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, in 1381, burned down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and destroyed yet again during the Gordon Riots of 1780 (though the rioters gave advance warning to the prisoners in order to minimise casualties). It was finally demolished in 1846. In 1872 the Congregational Memorial Hall was constructed on the site and it was there, on February 27, 1900, that the Labour Party was created during a conference held by all the leading socialist groups and trade unions. All that remains of all this today is a rather dour plaque.