King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The printed page

The beggar's opera

Title page of The beggar’s operaTitle page of The beggar’s operaFleet Street and its many surrounding lanes and alleyways are renowned as key sites in the history of British printing and the London book trade. This area has been associated with printing since the 16th century, when early printers such as Wynkyn de Worde (d1534/5) and Richard Pynson (c1449–1529/30) set up their premises in the vicinity of Fleet Street.

The number of printers, publishers and booksellers plying their trade around Fleet Street grew over the following centuries. The Great Fire of London of 1666 resulted in the loss of many print shops and booksellers’ premises in the City of London, which led to a significant shift westwards of the book trade. The number of print offices and publishing establishments in the area increased further still throughout the 18th century, due to the density and range of property available throughout the maze of alleys and courts off Fleet Street.

This part of the online exhibition showcases a variety of texts printed and published in and around the local area from the early 18th to the mid-19th centuries. The items featured bear the imprints of many local addresses, from Chancery Lane itself to nearby Shoe Lane and Bolt Court. These reproductions offer a snapshot of the range of works produced in the local area during this period, from ephemeral chapbooks to works featuring fine presswork and illustrations.

The beggar’s opera, by the playwright John Gay (1685-1732), was first performed in 1728 at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. The copy of the play reproduced here was printed that same year at the office of John Watts (c1700-1763), which was based in close proximity to the playhouse. Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre was situated on Portugal Street from 1661 until 1848. The beggar’s opera was a great success, running for 62 nights from its opening, and then being continuously performed on the London stage throughout the 18th century.

The imprint identifies the play as having been printed at Watts’s office in Wild Court (which is situated in the area that is now Kingsway, next to Lincoln's Inn Fields). Watts’s office was one of most important printing houses of the period where many printers learnt their trade. One of the office’s most famous employees was Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), who worked temporarily as a type compositor during his time in London. Watts was also an early patron of the famous type founder William Caslon (1692–1766), a book of whose type specimens features in the next section of the online exhibition.

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