Stephenson, Blake

The fam­ous Shef­field-based type founder

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