Engraving of the Stephenson, Blake Foundry

Stephenson, Blake Today

Engraving of the Stephenson, Blake Foundry
Engrav­ing of the Steph­en­son, Blake Foundry

The foundry bell rings no more at Steph­en­son, Blake in Shef­field but at least part of the build­ing where Britain’s last great typefoundry oper­ated lives on.

Flats are being cre­ated in a devel­op­ment called Impact, named after the sans-serif typeface designed by Geof­frey Lee for Steph­en­son, Blake in 1965. The com­pany, which in its hey­day was unmatched in the world of typefound­ing, left its Upper Allen Street home of nearly 200 years in 2006.

The his­toric build­ing, in the St Vincent’s con­ser­va­tion area with con­nec­tions stretch­ing back to Wil­liam Cax­ton, Wynkyn de Worde and Wil­liam Caslon, became a fol­orn sight. But today, as the con­ver­sion pro­ject moves on apace, the exter­ior is begin­ning to give off the swag­ger and con­fid­ence that it must have dis­played when nearly 600 work­ers toiled to pro­duce metal type as the firm, over five gen­er­a­tions, quashed its com­pet­it­ors to become dom­in­ant in Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth. A sales office has opened on the largely 19th cen­tury site offer­ing flats ran­ging in price from £115,000 to £228,000. When the scheme is fin­ished there will be a total of 152 private apart­ments, 36 within the old foundry, oth­ers newly-built on the site and with 50 neigh­bour­ing stu­dent flats already built. Mat­thew Hay­man, who is the lead­ing Shef­field city coun­cil regen­er­a­tion officer for the area, told Small Printer: “The Steph­en­son Blake devel­op­ment is very much wel­comed in con­trib­ut­ing to the suc­cess of a con­ser­va­tion area by retain­ing the char­ac­ter of the build­ing. With new devel­op­ments and those in the pipeline with plan­ning approval we could see up to 6,000 new res­id­ents in the next 10 years.” There are plans for the old foundry build­ing to be on a her­it­age trail link­ing with other indus­trial con­ser­va­tion areas in that part of the city.

The younger people who will be the most likely inhab­it­ants of the Impact city centre devel­op­ment may well appre­ci­ate the building’s his­tory as the Impact typeface is a stand­ard fount on nearly every per­sonal com­puter in the world.

The Steph­en­son, Blake build­ing, though less than half the size of the ori­ginal as a res­ult of demoli­tion to save crip­pling busi­ness rates when the let­ter­press trade was strug­gling, is still impress­ive. Though not a lis­ted build­ing, Shef­field city coun­cil recog­nised its his­tor­ical import­ance and asked for an archae­olo­gical sur­vey to be under­taken by the Uni­ver­sity of Shef­field before any con­ver­sion work went ahead. The sur­vey team pro­duced a pho­to­graphic record of the foundry, includ­ing pic­tures of cast­ing machines and the foundry’s then still-intact bell in the court­yard. The com­pany was steeped in tra­di­tion and when it acquired HW Caslon in 1937, the Shef­field site was renamed the Caslon Let­ter Foundry to pre­serve the pres­ti­gi­ous Caslon name.

It is remark­able that the com­pany was still found­ing type for hand com­pos­i­tion into the 1990s given that Ottmar Mer­genthaler developed the first line-casting machine, the “Merg”, or Lino­type, in 1886 in the United States. The more ver­sat­ile Mono­type machine fol­lowed. By 1915 33,000 Lino­type machines had been man­u­fac­tured. Nev­er­the­less, Steph­en­son, Blake sur­vived a cen­tury of strong com­pet­i­tion with its old adversar­ies Lino­type, Mono­type and Inter­type but all were finally beaten by the new print­ing technology.

Steph­en­son, Blake had become the last sur­viv­ing big foundry in Bri­tain after a series of takeovers and had diver­si­fied, know­ing that demand for foundry type would fall. In the 1950s it expan­ded its wood­work­ing depart­ment to provide a bespoke com­pos­ing room ser­vice, win­ning big Fleet Street con­tracts which included the relo­ca­tion and re-equipping of the Fin­an­cial Times in 1959 and in 1973 the company’s last big com­mis­sion: a new com­pos­ing room for the Sunday Times and Times in Gray’s Inn Road. The com­pany also joined a photo-setting con­sor­tium in Lon­don which served the advert­ising industry and type­set the Daily Telegraph’s then weekly col­our supplement.

By the 1970s there had been a huge drop in demand for foundry type but there were still sub­stan­tial orders com­ing in from national news­pa­pers into the 1980s where hot metal sur­vived as uni­ons res­isted the new tech­no­logy. Steph­en­son, Blake sup­plied type for the fin­an­cial prices pages of national news­pa­pers in Lon­don and Manchester where com­pos­it­ors with tweez­ers would nightly change the share prices with foundry type, an oper­a­tion deemed more effi­cient for chan­ging the share prices than using mech­an­ical set­ting. But by the 1990s, as com­pu­ter­ised digital com­pos­i­tion dom­in­ated, let­ter­press was all but dead. It was time for the major­ity of the two found­ing Steph­en­son, Blake fam­il­ies to quit. The his­toric punches, matrices, spe­ci­men books and other records were sold to the Type Museum in Lon­don in 1996. But the ven­er­able firm was still not fin­ished. In 2000 Tom Blake, of the fifth gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily, relaunched the com­pany, cast­ing the hard zinc-alloyed Mazak type for hot foil block­ing and pro­du­cing brass rule and asso­ci­ated mater­i­als for the soft plastics industry. The wood work­ing depart­ment con­tin­ued, mak­ing museum cab­in­ets and humidors.

When Tom Blake retired in 2004 the busi­ness serving the plastics industry was sold to busi­ness part­ners Terry Lee and Steven Bond and Neville Buckle, who had been with Steph­en­son, Blake for more than 50 years, was their man­ager until his retire­ment two years ago. The wood­work­ing depart­ment was sold to Shef­field cab­inet maker Harry Spur and in 2006 the new own­ers moved the plastics industry sup­ply oper­a­tion to another part of the city, Atter­cliffe, keep­ing the com­pany name with a slight change: Steph­en­son & Blake. Thus nearly two cen­tur­ies of Upper Allen Street his­tory came to an end. The com­pany had been foun­ded in 1818 by John Steph­en­son, James Blake join­ing later in the year to invest his £600 invest­ment from a leg­acy in his mother’s will.

Now the name of Impact will keep the foundry’s leg­acy to the print­ing world alive. And Geof­frey Lee’s cre­ation is still seen to have impact: the typeface has been adop­ted for the logo of St Pan­cras Inter­na­tional, the new Eurostar ter­minal in London.

Geof­frey Lee star­ted work on Impact, Steph­en­son, Blake’s pen­ul­tim­ate new typeface, in the sum­mer of 1963 when he was a design exec­ut­ive with the Pem­ber­ton advert­ising agency in Lon­don. The first appear­ance of the type, which has been likened to Hel­vetica Inserat, was in the Letra­set trans­fer format from black ink draw­ings about 4cms deep. For the foundry, char­ac­ters were pro­jec­ted up to 7 inches deep from which tra­cings were made on card and for the first few batches of the new fount, cut-out pat­terns were sent to Upper Allen Street . Later on the card cut­ting was done at the foundry from Mr Lee’s draw­ings in 6H pen­cil. The card pat­terns were pan­to­graphed to pro­duce a mas­ter metal pat­tern which pro­duced mas­ter type. Mr Lee said in a post­ing on the Typo­phile web­site only months before his death in 2005: “Although Impact size range was not large, this still required the grow­ing, jus­ti­fy­ing, and pre­par­ing for the cast­ing box of 616 sep­ar­ate matrices. The final stage was the cast­ing, dress­ing and sort­ing into founts for sale and pre­par­ing sales lit­er­at­ure. For a foundry busy with every­day busi­ness the pro­duc­tion time was very good. Incid­ent­ally, the price in 1965 of a 60 point 3A 6a fount was £11.16s.11d.

So I have had the lux­ury of metal type pro­duc­tion by draw­ing, pho­to­graphy, and pan­to­graph, and digital typefaces through the com­puter. It leaves me with intense respect and admir­a­tion for earlier gen­er­a­tions of type-makers’ skill and ded­ic­a­tion. Hope­fully many of today’s type design­ers are aware that many of their their pre­de­cessors had to carve, in steel, a punch for every char­ac­ter in every size of type. Sub­sequently these punches were struck into brass blocks to make the matrix.”

Whether Steph­en­son Blake’s his­toric matrices like Caslon Old Face, Bask­erville, Bell, Fry’s Orna­men­ted and Mole Foli­ate, will sur­vive is in ques­tion. The Type Museum, where they are kept, closed two years ago for lack of funds and its future, if any, is still not known. There are hopes that the Sci­ence Museum will save the day. The Sci­ence Museum owns the Mono­type col­lec­tion which is “on loan” to the Type Museum while the Steph­en­son, Blake col­lec­tion has a slightly dif­fer­ent status in that the terms of acquis­i­tion by the Type Museum say that should the Type Museum cease to exist the col­lec­tion would pass to the V&A. Before the Type Museum bought the Steph­en­son, Blake col­lec­tion there had been hopes in Shef­field that the col­lec­tion would go to the city’s university.

Tim Mar­tin, of the Type Museum Soci­ety, which is cam­paign­ing for the museum to be saved, told Small Printer: “The museum is still poten­tially one of the best edu­ca­tional resources for under­stand­ing the his­tory and evol­u­tion of type pro­duc­tion, design and devel­op­ment any­where in the world. That it has now been inac­cess­ible to stu­dents for two whole years with no strategy or state­ment of intent, to return it even to its pre­vi­ous lim­ited access, has cre­ated a numbed frus­tra­tion amongst its hun­dreds of act­ive sup­port­ers who three years ago were see­ing real pro­gress, in the volume of vis­it­ors, the organ­isa­tion and dis­play of the col­lec­tions and the devel­op­ment of a strategy which held out excit­ing pro­spects for those inter­ested in type communication.”

Any­one wish­ing to learn more about Steph­en­son, Blake can do so by read­ing Roy Millington’s excel­lent book, Steph­en­son Blake, the Last of the Old Eng­lish Typefounders (Oak Knoll Press/the Brit­ish Lib­rary, 2002).

Writ­ten by Rob Firth, this art­icle first appeared in the Brit­ish Print­ing Society’s Small Printer magazine

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