Stephenson, Blake

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.

Further Information

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