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At The Aldgate Press

July 1, 2013
by the gentle author

We are proud that the first title published by Spitalfields Life Books was printed here in Brick Lane by The Aldgate Press and, on the day we collect the copies in advance of publication on Wednesday, we want to introduce you to our friends who were responsible for producing it so magnificently.

Andrew Holmes – “I left to go to Australia but I came back because I like it here!”

Well hidden in a shambolic old shed among the warren of dingy narrow lanes between Whitechapel and Spitalfields, The Aldgate Press is a worker’s co-operative created thirty years ago as an offshoot of the The Freedom Press, founded by Charlotte Wilson and Peter Kroptkin in 1886. No wonder front man Steve Sorba introduces himself as “one of a long line of Italian Anarchists in the East End.”

“Vernon Richards’ father, who was implicated in an assassination attempt upon Mussolini, sued the Daily Telegraph and Vernon used the money to set up The Aldgate Press, ” Steve explained with alacrity, as if it were an obvious path to seek funding for a new business.“We were editing Freedom, the Anarchist newspaper, which was being printed in Margate because there was no longer a printing press here, so we decided to set up a printing company to print the newspaper and all the anarchist classics.”

“He raised £20,000, and helped us acquire the equipment and get training in how to to use it,” Steve continued, “We always took on jobs from outside and we printed for lots of like-minded organisations including Friends of the Earth, Shelter, Human Rights Watch, as well as the Whitechapel Gallery, the V&A, Serpentine Gallery and the ICA.”

“We wanted to work as a co-operative to prove that it was possible, and do work that we cared about for people who cared about what they were doing. Everybody gets paid the same here and we decide among ourselves what we should do.”

Thirty years later, The Aldgate Press is the cultural focus of publishing in the East End. Everyone that wants to get publications printed eventually climbs the rickety old metal stairs on the side of the building to talk with Steve Sorba. Characteristically to be seen sporting cycling gear and demonstrating admirable self-control, Steve retains a saintly calm while holding everything together at the print works – whatever unlikely deadlines or ambitious expectations are presented to him.

In the case of “Travellers’ Children in London Fields,’ Colin O’Brien wanted the pictures in his book to resemble his own photographic prints. So it was to the credit of The Aldgate Press that Colin was able to be there in the print shop with Ken the printer, adjusting the first runs of his pictures to his satisfaction and then checking every single page as it came off the press. The flexibility of the printing staff allowed us to create a photography book that is both true to Colin’s vision and an entirely distinctive publication.

When Colin and I returned to do portraits of the staff last week, we were surprised to discover that most people had been working there for twenty years or more and I asked Steve why this was. “People don’t leave because they’re having so much fun,” he admitted with a sly grin, “or maybe it’s because they realise that anywhere else would be worse?”

Steve Sorba, Frontman -“So many printers have left London but a lot of people like to deal with someone local.”

Kevin Fernandes, Pre-Press – “I am responsible for everything that goes on before the job goes to print, including artwork checking. It’s an interesting job and because it’s a co-operative we get a wide range of customers.”

Jem Kathrens, Platemaker – “It’s a computer-based job these days, I get pdfs and impose them on the plates. I’ve stayed here since 1990 because it’s a nice working environment, with no bosses!”

Suhel Uhmed, Printer, who printed the jacket for “Travellers’ Children in London Fields.”

Jill Rolfe, Printing and Accounts – “I do accounts and I do printing but I’ve been here longer as a printer. Twenty-three years is way too long this is what happens, you get here and you never leave…”

Book designer Friederike Huber & Photographer Colin O’Brien with the jacket of Colin’s book.

Aldgate press photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Friederike Huber & Colin O’Brien photograph © Alex Pink

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The Gentle Author Turns Publisher

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    July 1, 2013

    Idea of book purchase getting better and better!

  2. July 3, 2013

    The information given at the beginning is incorrect: it was Vernon Richards’ father who was implicated in a plot against Mussolini, Vernon being a child at the time. The Daily Telegraph published the information, putting lives at risk as the Italian fascists had a wide web of assassins who were sent abroad to deal with opponents of the regime. They were taken to court to try and obtain a retraction, but the judge decided that the article was in fact true, so there was no defamation. This all happened in the late 1920s.

    The money to set up Aldgate Press came from supporters of Freedom Press over 60 years later. The previous incarnation, Express Printers, was a letterpress printshop operating out of the basement of an old school built across Angel Alley from Freedom Press, then moved into the Freedom Press building to enable the Whitechapel Gallery to buy the old school from Vernon Richards who had purchased both as bomb-damaged property. Express Printers was closed when it was no longer possible to get the type cast in linotype slugs and the paper had to go to off-set printing, roughly the mid-1970s.

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