Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why Bear Alley?

"The only approach is by means of a fire-escape-like structure descending into a kind of man-made gorge between Farringdon Street and the railway line that runs from Ludgate Circus to Holborn Viaduct. At the bottom of the steps, you look up and see rearing above you a miniature cliff-face of blackened brick, as thick with soot as the inside of a railway tunnel. The next moment you are in a concrete fortress -- once housing the Daily Mirror -- printing presses, later an air-raid shelter -- as elaborate as a stretch of the Maginot Line; and five or six corridors later, there is actually a strong room door, a foot thick, to be negotiated before you are allowed into the dusty presence of Fleetway Houses's hallowed past" -- William Vivian Butler.

When Alfred Harmsworth had the Fleetway House built in 1912, it was to bring together all the various elements of his sprawling publishing empire. In the vaults underneath Fleetway House that had once housed printing presses were stored all the old records and file copies of magazines that were published by the Amalgamated Press; down in the vaults you could even find cheque stubs dating back to the earliest days of Harmsworth's publishing in the 1890s.

And the "man-made gorge" described by William Vivian Butler that led to this treasure trove was called Bear Alley.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the late Bill Lofts was researching old boys' story papers, these records still existed and many of the mysteries involving anonymous and pseudonymous stories solved by Bill and his good friend Derek Adley were resolved by L. P. Lawrence, the literary cashier of Fleetway Publications at the time, who was able to track down payment records from old ledgers and stock books hidden away at Bear Alley.

Fleetway House was built over part of the course of the old River Fleet which still ran underground into the Thames but which was occasionally swelled by high rains. When that happened, the vaults under Fleetway House were filled with noxious black water and much of what was stored there was damaged beyond repair. Moves, leaks and culls of items considered a fire hazard meant that invaluable records, artwork and correspondence was destroyed.

Thankfully, a few things survived, including many of the file copies of old Amalgamated Press publications. Collectors will be familiar with the red binding and gold lettering of old A.P. volumes. Originally, three file copies were bound of each title. Two were kept in storage, one to use as a file copy for anyone needing to find out something from a back issue and the other held in reserve should the file copy get lost, destroyed or damaged. The third copy was for the editor's own use and was kept in the office for reference. When the editorial offices moved out of the old Fleetway House, many editors simply chucked their file copies of old, defunct magazines. Bill Lofts once recalled, "They were simply dumped in dustbins. I can remember seeing huge piles of them in Bear Alley."

Some Bear Alley file copies—each with the large, blunt message that "This File Volume must not be mutilated, and should be returned at the earliest possible moment to STOCK ROOM, BEAR ALLEY"—have survived the years but Bear Alley itself no longer exists and, all ramblings aside, to me Bear Alley represents all the lost knowledge that we might have once had access to.

Having spent twenty-five years on and off trying to reconstruct some of the records that were once housed in Bear Alley, it seems an apt name for a blog in which I'll probably spend a lot of time talking about old comics and old story papers.

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