This arti­cle is about the tra­di­tion­al type-found­ing activ­i­ties of Stephen­son, Blake. In late 2005 Thomas Blake sold the orig­i­nal site and a new firm, Stephen­son and Blake Lim­it­ed, con­tin­ue the brass rule and oth­er brass prod­ucts from Eff­in­g­ham Road, Sheffield

Stephenson, Blake Card Fount Catalogue
Stephen­son, Blake Card Fount Cat­a­logue

The now defunct, but still famous name of Stephen­son, Blake (SB) was cre­at­ed when James Blake and John Stephen­son signed a part­ner­ship agree­ment on 25 Sep­tem­ber 1830 to last until 1840. The agree­ment was renewed, and the name per­sist­ed, absorb­ing many oth­er type foundries in the inter­ven­ing years. The foundry had always been based around Upper Allen Street in Sheffield

The foundry had been in Sheffield in one form or anoth­er since around 1797 when a local book­seller (John Slater) and a book­seller-print­er (William Bow­er) joined forces with a print­er (Clay Bacon) to cast type, issu­ing their first spec­i­men in 1809. That found­ing work had per­sist­ed under many names until tak­en on by Gar­nett and Blake, and then becom­ing Stephen­son, Blake.

Since the ear­li­est times SB had worked to 1/5000th of an inch as a mat­ter of course: the type they found­ed was con­sid­ered the most pre­cise in the UK.

A Lon­don ware­house was opened in 1865 to sup­ply the demands of Fleet Street news­pa­pers. Busi­ness was so good that they removed to larg­er Lon­don premis­es on Alder­s­gate Street in 1871.

The next major change was the move to the Amer­i­can Point sys­tem which had been adopt­ed by Amer­i­ca in 1886. Some firms in the UK were quick to adopt this change-like Cax­ton in 1895-it was a fur­ther four years before SB renewed their moulds and matri­ces to work on the point sys­tem. A key advan­tage for cus­tomers was that type and spac­ing was now inter­change­able between sup­pli­ers: print­ers hav­ing a uni­form sys­tem to mea­sure size.

A rival founder, Lon­don-based Charles Reed and Sons hit finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and was sold in 1905 to Stephen­son, Blake who offered £5,000 for the foundry, matri­ces and the 82 tons of stock. The pur­chase was effec­tive from 1 Jan­u­ary 1906 and the firm was known for a time as ‘Stephen­son, Blake and Com­pa­ny and Sir Charles Reed and Sons’. The work of the Reed foundry and some equip­ment was shipped to Sheffield where an almost self-con­tained foundry exist­ed along­side the SB equip­ment.

In Jan­u­ary 1907 a Wood­work­ing Depart­ment was estab­lished over the road from the foundry to make fur­ni­ture for com­pos­ing rooms and type cas­es. A year lat­er the pro­duc­tion of wood let­ter was brought in-house and exam­ples first appeared in the spec­i­men books of 1910.

All type founders were affect­ed by the Great War of 1914 – 1918 and this led to fur­ther ratio­nal­i­sa­tion in the indus­try. Dis­cus­sions began with H W Caslon about an amal­ga­ma­tion, but this did not reach a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion at this time. Caslon’s fac­to­ry had been used to man­u­fac­ture items need­ed for war, and this pro­vid­ed finan­cial help to take them out of the finan­cial prob­lems. Build­ing on this, Caslon issued a book­let called Two Cen­turies of Type Found­ing which the wider indus­try admired.

Stephen­son, Blake react­ed by engag­ing Robert Fishen­den to pro­duce the most ambi­tious spec­i­men book ever devised. Sev­en hun­dred pages were hand-set in Lon­don, shipped to Stephen­son Blake and then to West Street where the print­er-J W Northend Ltd-had the task of tak­ing proofs. These were inspect­ed by H K Stephen­son and R G Blake before being com­mit­ted to print on two hand fed quad-demy Miehle machines. The qual­i­ty of the result was high­light­ed when the book was reviewed by the Times Edu­ca­tion­al Sup­ple­ment. J W Northend was told that SB would take their busi­ness else­where if they moved to mechan­i­cal com­po­si­tion, and Northend resist­ed this until the 1970s.

In 1936 SBs main com­peti­tor-H W Caslon-had again met finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and went in to vol­un­tary liq­ui­da­tion. Stephen­son, Blake bought the good­will, assets and punch­es of Caslon, and retained the name by call­ing their Sheffield premis­es The Caslon Let­ter Foundry.

World War II had a great effect on the foundry: not only because many men were called up, but air raids dis­rupt­ed the busi­ness. In Decem­ber 1940 air raids meant that gas, elec­tric­i­ty and water were lost to the foundry in Sheffield. R G Blake had ensured that cast­ing machines were ready for work at his home, and these were used for cast­ing until mains ser­vices returned in Jan­u­ary 1942.

Post 1950 the Wood­work­ing Depart­ment had expand­ed to pro­vide a full ser­vice to com­pos­ing rooms and many pres­ti­gious orders were exe­cut­ed includ­ing the Sun­day Times’ com­pos­ing room in 1973.

Fol­low­ing the trends of the indus­try Stephen­son, Blake found it dif­fi­cult to remain a let­ter­press busi­ness in face of com­pe­ti­tion from litho machines. They diver­si­fied by offer­ing the ‘Let­ter­phot’ sys­tem of pho­to type­set­ting; and turn­ing the wood oper­a­tions to the man­u­fac­ture of pre­ci­sion instru­ment cas­es. The firm’s pre­ci­sion engi­neer­ing team was used by Rolls-Royce Olym­pus to pro­duce moulds for parts for Con­corde.

The firm found it dif­fi­cult to pay busi­ness rates on the sprawl­ing col­lec­tion of build­ings around Upper Allen street and began to divest them­selves of them, includ­ing knock­ing some down. Re-loca­tion was con­sid­ered to Der­byshire to avoid this over­head.

Just before 2000 the firm sold its non-print­ing busi­ness­es and Thomas James Blake looked to re-launch the firm. For a time the firm remained pro­duc­ing relat­ed items for the non-print­ing mar­ket: brass rule for plas­tics firms; Mazak type for hot-foil­ing and cab­i­net mak­ing for muse­ums. The col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal matri­ces and punch­es went to the Type Muse­um in Lon­don with assis­tance from the Sci­ence Muse­um.

By Decem­ber 2004 this final ele­ment of the busi­ness had ceased, although the firm’s web­site ran until March 2005. The site is cur­rent­ly being re-devel­oped with the his­tor­i­cal build­ing being turned to flats. The scheme will be called Impact after SBs 1965 face designed by Geof­frey Lee.

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