Stephenson, Blake Today

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

One thought on “Stephenson, Blake Today”

Comments are closed.