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At The Caslon Foundry In Chiswell St

April 18, 2018
by the gentle author

22/23 Chiswell St

Chiswell St is a canyon lined with glass and steel buildings leading from Moorgate to the Barbican today, yet once this was the centre of printing in the City of London. The foundry established by William Caslon in 1737, Britain’s most celebrated type designer, stood here until 1937. For more than two centuries, Caslon was the default typeface for printing in the English language and when the Americans wanted to make their Declaration of Independence and publish their Constitution, they imported type from the Caslon Foundry in Chiswell St to do it.

These historic photographs from St Bride Printing Library, 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.

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

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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. April 18, 2018

    A priceless visit to a fascinating business. Am forwarding to a friend who works for Granta books. I know that she will enjoy it.

  2. April 18, 2018

    It is interesting that you use the word ‘Font’ rather than the earlier spelling ‘Fount’ which would have been used in Caslon’s time.
    Also in the casting shop the girls were employed for breaking off the tangs or jets if the type, they rubbed off any flashing on the sides on a stone and then put the type onto a dressing stick, this was then taken and clamped into a dressing table, where the break at the bottom of the type is planed off, thus leaving a small nick in the bottom of the type.

  3. Chris Webb permalink
    April 18, 2018

    These are fascinating, I could look at them for hours. Glimpses into the everyday lives of people at work from this era are extremely rare. It’s easy to forget that there was once a significant amount of light industry in central London, including the City.

    The brass rules are presumably the ones screwed to tables and counters to measure cloth, obviously a sideline from the main business.

    In the last photo you mention the factory cat. I went to the Docklands Museum a couple of weeks ago and on the label for the dead and mummified cat they say cats were allowed to run freely round warehouses to control rats and mice. Presumably this was the case in all industrial premises, possibly offices as well.

  4. rosemary Hoffman permalink
    April 18, 2018

    i remebr no 41 Chiswell street-Whitbreads Brewery where every Sunday night my dad would take his paerwork form the pub we lived in to the Brewery

  5. April 18, 2018

    Fascinating! I have been around the graphic arts long enough to wistfully recall a lot of now-arcane necessities. The inexact science of type-specing, getting several “repos” of typography since razor-cut “corrections” were inevitable, spraying the type with fixative, messengers coming and going for frantic deadlines, and more. Yes, that was back when dinosaurs walked the earth…
    the Seventies.
    For those of us who love typography, in all its fabulous variety, this posting reminds us of the
    “behind the scenes” drama and toil that has to happen before a beautiful letter makes an imprint.
    Just seeing the name “Caslon” made me sit up straight in my chair.
    Wonderful photos!

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    April 18, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, very interesting piece about Caslon’s Foundry. I enjoyed those pics of the offices – Sydney Caslon Smith’s that of Harold Arthur Caslon Smith sitting at his roll top desk. Interesting too to see so many women working at this trade. No doubt their manual dexterity and attention to detail was valued highly.

    And to think that changing a font is as easy today as moving a mouse! The downside is that so many millions of workers have been displaced by our technology in recent years. This charming photo-essay proves the point…

  7. Christina Mitchell permalink
    April 19, 2018

    Great photos! I believe the brass rules are composing rules used for setting type.

  8. April 20, 2018

    The brass rule is for creating lines in printing, these rules are the same height as the type, the rule came in various thicknesses, these rules were in point sizes that we still use today, i.e. 72 points to an inch, so the more points the thicker the line, the reason brass was used is that it was more durable than lead rule.

  9. April 21, 2018

    Wonderful photos! So much fun seeing the historic antecedents to the work I still do today in our little type foundry here in Arizona. I recognized so many of the tasks being done.

  10. April 22, 2018

    Thank you so much for these great photos! As Hugh already mentioned, the proper English word is ‘fount’, although nowadays ‘font’ is used, probably an American influence. The women and boys are thus ‘founting’… i.e. making packages containing the complete ‘founts’.

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