Above: The northern pier of Hammersmith Bridge. It was from the walkway in the picture that the type was dropped into the Thames.
These days books, newspapers and pamphlets are all printed by creating the text on a computer which communicates with a printing machine that actually puts the ink onto sheets of paper. Until the 1970s, there were no computers and every character to be printed was printed using metal type. Each character was formed in metal, set onto the end of a metal bar about an inch long. The individual letters had to be laboriously set up to create a line of text and the lines combined to form a whole page. It was known as ‘typesetting’ because each character was referred to as ‘type’. The actual style of each character was known as a ‘typeface’.
In the late 1800s what was called the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ came into being. The term was first used by T J Cobden-Sanderson at a meeting of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887, although the principles and style on which it was based had been developing in England for at least twenty years. It was inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin, writer John Ruskin, and designer William Morris. From these ideas flowed architectural styles, wallpaper designs, pottery designs and also typefaces that were used with other printed artwork.
Many people have heard of William Morris – an English textile designer, skilled craftsman, poet, novelist, and socialist activist – who was associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Born in Walthamstow, he had studios in Central London and at other locations. He also had a house in Upper Mall, Hammersmith, called Kelmscott House, which now has a small museum to Morris beside it. In 1890 Morris set up the Kelmscott Press nearby, along with a colleague called Emery Walker. Morris died in 1896 and the Kelmscott Press ended in 1898.
Cobden-Sanderson was a printer and bookbinder who had founded the Doves Bindery in 1893, at 15 Upper Mall, Hammersmith and, being a friend of William Morris, he bound many of his books. When the Kelmscott Press ended, 1898, Cobden-Sanderson realised the opportunity to found a new press and established the Doves Press in 1900 at No 1 Hammersmith Terrace. The money had been provided by his wife, Anne. The partner at the new press was Emery Walker – who lived at No 7 Hammersmith Terrace. Walker’s house is now a museum but it can only be visited by prior arrangement.
Their press used a specially designed typeface, unique to their business, called ‘Doves typeface’. To Cobden-Sanderson, the mechanical process of typesetting was almost a religious experience and the thought that, one day, his type might be used by another company in ways that were not related to his artistic ideas became too much for him to bear. He feared technological change and wanted his ideas of design to continue without change.
The two men eventually fell out. Walker had other interests which meant that Cobden-Sanderson was left to run the press by himself. It has to be said that Cobden-Sanderson was so obsessed with his printing that even if Walker had taken an interest in the work, his efforts would not have been welcomed by Cobden-Sanderson. In 1906 he asked to sever their partnership but Walker refused the offer of cash, with all rights then passing to Cobden-Sanderson. A compromise was made that Cobden-Sanderson would continue with the press, retaining the sole rights to the type. On his death, the rights would pass to Walker. This was agreed in July 1909 and the partnership ended.
A few year later, unknown to his partner, Cobden-Sanderson – then aged 76 years – decided to carry out a plan to end the use of his Doves typeface for ever. The year was 1916. Every evening he went for a short walk onto Hammersmith Bridge and quietly scattered some of the type into the Thames, hoping that nobody would notice. He had to make many such visits and, over the course of six months – from August 1916 until January 1917 – he dropped over a tonne of metal printing type into the river. Once all the type had been disposed of, Cobden-Sanderson confessed to his friends and also to Walker what he had done. Cobden-Sanderson died in 1922. Walker then sued his widow, Anne, for both the cost of producing the type (£500) and for a portion of the money it might still have earned. The case was settled out of court and it is believed that about £700 was paid to settle the matter. Anne died shortly afterwards – in 1926.
As has already been mentioned, Emery Walker had previously worked with William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. When Walker set up the Doves Press with Cobden-Sanderson another designer worked with them. His name was Edward Johnson who went on to design the typeface that is still in use for signs on London Underground to this day.
This unusual story is not quite complete. In 2010 the designer Robert Green, who had first seen the Doves Press type when he was studying at art college, took up the cause of the lost metal type. Green attempted to assemble as much printed material showing the Doves type as possible and then recreated the typeface graphically using a computer. Having established a working design, it suddenly occurred to him that some of the metal type might still be on the bed of the Thames. He worked out the most likely place for the type to be lying and engaged divers from the Port of London Authority. After searching for two days, 150 pieces were recovered. Unfortunately, later repairs to the footings of Hammersmith Bridge probably cover much of the river bed where the type was originally scattered.