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At The Caslon Letter Foundry

August 23, 2014
by the gentle author

While researching the work of William Caslon, the first British type founder, whose Doric & Brunel typefaces, newly digitised by Paul Barnes, were used by David Pearson in The Gentle Author’s London Album, I came upon this wonderful collection of photographs of the Caslon Letter Foundry in the St Bride Printing Library.

22/23 Chiswell St with Caslon’s delivery van outside the foundry

William Caslon set up his type foundry in Chiswell St in 1737, where it operated without any significant change in the methods of production until 1937. These historic photographs taken in 1902, upon the occasion of the opening of the new Caslon factory in Hackney Wick, record both the final decades of the unchanged work of traditional type-founding, as well as the mechanisation of the process that would eventually lead to the industry being swept away by the end of the century.

The Directors’ Room with portraits of William Caslon and Elizabeth Caslon.

Sydney Caslon Smith in his office

Clerks’ office, 15th November 1902. A woman sits at her typewriter in the centre of the office.

Type store with fonts being made up in packets by women and boys working by candlelight.

Another view of the type store with women making up packets of fonts.

Another view of the type store.

Another part of the type store.

In the type store.

A boy makes up a packet of fonts in the type store.

Room of printers’ supplies including type cases, forme trolleys and electro cabinets.

Another view of the printers’ supplies store.

Printing office on an upper floor with pages of type specimens being set and printed on Albion and Imperial handpresses.

Packing department with crates labelled GER, GWR, LNWR, CALCUTTA, BOMBAY, and SYDNEY.

New Caslon Letter Foundry at Rothbury Rd, Hackney Wick, 1902.

Harold Arthur Caslon Smith at his rolltop desk in Hackney Wick with type specimens from 1780 on the wall, Friday 7th November, 1902.

Machine shop with plane, lathes and overhead belting.

Gas engines and man with oil can.

Lathes in the Machine Shop.

Hand forging in the Machine Shop.

Another view of lathes in the Machine Shop.

Type store with fonts being made up into packets.

Type matrix and mould store.

Metal store with boy hauling pigs upon a trolley.

Casting Shop, with women breaking off excess metal and rubbing the type at the window.

Another view of the Casting Shop.

Another view of the Casting Shop.

Founting Shop, with women breaking up the type and a man dressing the type.

Casting metal furniture.

Boys at work in the Brass Rule Shop.

Boys making packets of fonts in the Despatch Shop, with delivery van waiting outside the door.

Machine shop on the top floor with a fly-press in the bottom left.

Woodwork Shop.

Brass Rule Shop, hand-planing the rules.

Caretaker’s cottage with caretaker’s wife and the factory cat.

Photographs courtesy St Bride Printing Library

You may also like to read about

William Caslon, Letter Founder

David Pearson, Designer

Roger Pertwee, Manufacturing Stationer

Gary Arber, Printer

Justin Knopp, Printer & Typographer

21 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    August 23, 2014

    I must have walked along this road literally thousands of times, and yet until now had no idea that this place ever existed, thank goodness someone took these wonderful photos, everything look’s so orderly, including the workers, and so many people working and making things, and today, this is now a blank and very boring stretch of road, with nothing at all of any interest, progress ? ?

  2. Penny Johnstone permalink
    August 23, 2014

    Fantastic historical record, but also a testament to the power of the black and white image in defining its subject without the distraction of colour. Such a contrast between the calm of the office and crowded shop floors.

  3. August 23, 2014

    What an outstanding historical record. I spent most of a recent Sunday taking pictures around Hackney Wick (which never ceases to amaze me) and didn’t even know Rothbury Road had been the home of the Caslon Letter Foundry. On Tuesday, I have to photograph a modern factory on on a north-east London industrial estate and doubt it will be as beautiful.

  4. Peter Holford permalink
    August 23, 2014

    A remarkable view of a dead industry. What strikes me is the amount of space that that technology required. I first realised this when I took a school party to visit the local paper (the Oldham Chronicle) in the 1990s. We entered the compositors room. It was absolutely empty – a huge vacant space – apart from a few word processors in one corner and just one of the old ‘hot metal’ machines. The guys on the word processors bemoaned the passing of the old machines and predicted that they would have to be brought back eventually because they thought the new technology was unreliable. I wasn’t going to argue against them – they were hanging on to a dream.

  5. Brian permalink
    August 23, 2014

    You only have to look at this enterprise and all its complexity to see why modern society will never again be able to duplicate the need for employment on this scale, and the possibility of security for workers. The result is that we lurch from crisis to crisis with periodic shedding of labour, each time blaming those who lose their trade, rather than understanding why capital is illogical. We increasingly turn to fly-by-night service industries for our ‘solutions, but these are low-paid, seasonal, subject to the rise and fall of the market, with unsociable hours and hardly what people with families to support want to get committed to. We wonder why there is dissatisfaction with the ‘modern world’ and limited engagement with ‘democracy’.

  6. August 23, 2014

    What an interesting effort it was at those times when you consider that today a single keystroke is enough…

    Love & Peace

  7. Ann Ridler permalink
    August 23, 2014

    What a marvellous collection of photographs – just as fascinating to non-printers! No unemployment problems then!

  8. Gary Arber permalink
    August 23, 2014

    I have handled many founts of new type in my time. The founts pictured in these photo’s are larger than the ones that I handled, Founts of type were very heavy so the women in those pictures must have been very strong.
    The gas engines powering the shafting are interesting. An engineering works in Medway Road, Bow, had one driving shafting for the lathes. You could hear the steady booming sound in my workshop which was 5 minutes walk away, no health and safety in those days.

  9. August 23, 2014

    Amazing photos, thanks for bringing them to light.


  10. August 23, 2014

    Wonderful photos. I haven’t heard “furniture” and “pig” used in this old familiar context since my work at a printing company in 1972. I am fascinated by today’s technology but I mourn the passing of the print industry I loved.

  11. Jane B permalink
    August 24, 2014

    ‘Pigs’?? Just in case anyone was staring into the world of the workshop (specifically photo 24 β€œMetal Store…”) and expecting to see squealing animals with a little double-serif of a tail… it’s ‘pigs’ as in pig iron (ingots of) – as used in foundry casting to produce, in this instance, the actual metal type πŸ™‚

    From the furnace – up there in picture no.20 β€œHand Forging…” – the iron ore (having been initially smelted with coke and limestone to create an ‘intermediate product’ intended for remelting) was poured into sand molds configured as a ‘branch’ of individual ingots sprouting at right-angles from a central channel.

    ‘Sprouting’ or should I say ‘snouting’ — the mold ‘family’ resembling a sow being suckled by her piglets πŸ™‚

    And so it is that, once the metal has cooled and hardened, it’s plump little ‘pigs’, oddly sized and dirtied with a little sand (but no matter!), that are broken off by their brittle snouts ready to be loaded onto those trolleys, so that, 112 years ago, these pigs could ‘fly’ to where they were needed, elsewhere on the Caslon foundry floor.

    That was 1902.

    But never did the metal run so ‘hot’ (and trotter-less!) as when 18-year old Roy Hamilton, a young compositor at William Heinmann/Windmill Press – just out of his apprenticeship in 1959 – was helping to typeset, letter by letter, the first unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A 200,000 print-run at 3 shillings 6d a copy that would sell out on the first day of publication.

    The typefaces were from Monotype, the west London-Manchester font foundry that during the first half of the 20th century was responsible for the revival of several Caslon ‘classics’.

    But is was ‘as a whole’ that these hand-set pages where to make history and make every word count. [scroll on if you know the story beyond the headlines already!]

    Pages bound — saddle-stitched even πŸ™‚ — 12 copies of the unabridged ‘Lady C’ were delivered to the Director of Public Prosecution by publisher Penguin Books, who within months, in late 1960, would be standing trial at the Old Bailey, charged under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 as a test of Britain’s new obscenity law.

    Still recalling those days when E.M Forster, as an expert witness, helped assert a defence of “redeeming social merit” that led to a landmark β€œNot Guilty” verdict – as well as the more personal everyday business of every hour ‘creaming up’ all exposed parts of his body simply to prevent poisoning from contact with the lead type – Roy has nothing more ‘to proof’ and is nowadays at home in Bethnal Green.

    But in exactly a month Roy Hamilton, compositor, has a lunchtime visit to Spitalfields planned…

    *** 12.30-1.30pm on 23 September at Spitalfield’s Artizan Street Library (E1 7AF – behind the Travelodge, just off Middlesex Street) – when, for a leisurely hour, Roy will share a story or two about ‘Life as a Compositor’ *** …if any of ‘us’ would like to talk typefaces and type-setting with a man who started age 15 in 1956.

  12. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    August 24, 2014

    lovely articel about a truly lost world !

  13. Nina Archer permalink
    August 25, 2014

    …… such wonderful pictures, thank you for bringing them to light Gentle Author, I have spent a happy time looking at them in detail – so much to see, handsome Sydney Caslon Smith at his substantial desk laden with paperwork – and inkwells (always popular on tv antique shows these days), the ladies’ clothes, the busy clerks and workers throughout the factory – all of it a treat to savour, I wonder what thoughts were going through their heads, and what their home lives were like ….. I think I’ll just go through them again while I drink my tea! ……

  14. Derek Yates permalink
    August 26, 2014

    Having spent 24 years in the industry starting as a compositor it brings back a lot of memories. Great photographs.

  15. August 26, 2014

    Lovely photos, all neat and tidy and long way removed from a workaday letterpress printshop. Regarding Jane B comment above – you can’t get lead poisoning from type, unless you get lead in your bloodstream. So long as you don’t eat the type, you’ll be fine. Dirty fingers from handling the stuff is from the ink residue, not from the lead that is in the typemetal.

    And a general point – the word font that is used in these captions has suffered some recent changes. The UK spelling was fount, and founts of metal type are the packages, each containing a set quantity (usually about 7lbs in weight) of one design or face, in one size. The computer word font has a quite different meaning, connected to the design itself.

    I’m still at it, and yes, everything changes if you are around long enough, and seems to get romanticised eventually. It’s a lovely job if you like it though, and metal type still makes the best impression!

  16. August 26, 2014

    Although unacknowledged, the captions for the photos were written by James Mosley, former Librarian of St Bride’s.

  17. August 26, 2014

    James Mosley’s own blog is found at

  18. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    August 28, 2014

    All that work in the type store looks particularly back-breaking. Fascinating work, for the benefit of all readers. I used an Albion press for a little while in 1977, at Kingsway-Princeton College for Further Education in Sidmouth St, near King’s Cross. We were making linoleum art prints.

  19. Celeste Regal permalink
    August 30, 2014

    It is glorious to look back at a past we (certain of us) wish still existed but I would very much like to know, pride of handwork notwithstanding, what sorts of lives the workers lead. Must have been grand for the Caslons but how did they bodies feel as they left each long, long work day? What kind of home did they go to? Those machines with their size and rate they roared on at must have tampered with the ears and the nerves. People were made of stronger stuff because they had to be but what was it really like?

    Long before Bernard Middleton’s day there was this. Should we muse so fondly over it. I understand ton-loads of paychecks were to be had, but what were the pros & cons, what was the price to be paid. There is a fantastic story to be had here. Has anyone written it? If not who’s for a prolonged stay at St. Brides Library?

  20. April 26, 2015

    Thank you so much for putting this pictures together, much appreciated!

  21. May 15, 2022

    So many people had jobs!! And now all that is lost to pictures only.

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