The St Bride Foundation was in danger of becoming a forgotten cache of print's gilded history, but a new initiative is set to revive its influence
Rows and rows of shelves, stacks of documents and gently humming fluorescent lighting: standing in room 19 of the St Bride Foundation building, you could be in any library-cum-office at any point in the past 50 years. There’s that instantly recognisable atmosphere of old-school hush. There’s purpose to this room, but the grey metal shelves stretching silently off in all directions seem reluctant to give away just what that might be.
"Ah, here’s a nice one," says our tour guide, events organiser and workshop manager Gill Clayton, striding purposefully among the shelves and pulling down a large folder for the PrintWeek team to look at. And suddenly the room’s no longer stuffy or drab. Laid out before us is a 350-year-old broadsheet, perfectly preserved and recounting the tale – through fascinatingly arcane language – of 17th-century homicide. In our hands is a thrillingly real slice of history.
And this is by no means the most exciting treasure tucked away here. The St Bride Foundation was established just off Fleet Street in 1891 as a cultural, recreational and educational centre for local people, particularly those associated with print, and central to this aim has been the gathering of historical print artefacts over the years.
This is the sort of place where you could open a drawer to stumble across, as Clayton did last year, an original, initialled Eric Gill type block. It’s the kind of place where you might get around to investigating the contents of an Ilford film box, and discover a papyrus from the Book of the Dead, dating from 1400BC.
And there are no doubt many other priceless and fascinating gems yet to be uncovered in room 19, and throughout The St Bride building’s labyrinth of 41 rooms.
"We used to say it was almost certainly the largest print library in Europe, definitely England, but that’s when we thought we had 50,000 books and documents," says Glynn Farrow, chief executive at the foundation since 2009, and the man tasked with its reorganisation and with injecting it with a new lease of life. "We now find we’ve got about another 40,000 that haven’t yet been catalogued so it’s really quite possible that we’re the biggest printing library in the world – and that there’ll be more exciting finds to come."
The question that will be springing to most people’s minds is: how on earth did I not know this existed? It is a question that presents itself again and again as the PrintWeek team explore – at the foundation’s January relaunch event – the newly revamped, grand events spaces of the downstairs Bridewell Hall and Farringdon Room, the pleasant, modern space of the library working area, and the still fully functioning historic presses of the print workshops, now used for a whole array of letterpress, linocut and engraving courses.
It is probably a question that gets asked most often in the William Blades Library. "The light and temperature are carefully controlled," says Bob Richardson, library assistant at the foundation and our guide for this part of the tour, as he lets us into this purpose-built, fire-proof room. "There are only two of us who have keys to this."
There is good reason for this. Lying proudly within this small room’s glass cabinets is one of the finest collections of printing history in the world, including many works worth at least £80,000; original Caxton prints, a 14th-century translation of Boethius and an ornate 19th-century copy of Chaucer – it’s all here.
But even this collection, the jewel in the crown of the foundation’s many-pronged activities, is often unheard of even among printing circles, confirms Farrow. "The number of people who have never heard anything about us is amazing," he says. "We never used to show people these things, but now, thanks to upping our profile, we get people coming along – students, academics, retired printers or just passers by, and we do tell them, and they go ‘wow’."
Also astounding those discovering the foundation and its historic building for the first time, is its colourful and indeed long history. The St Bride building does not proudly announce itself. Built to fit, as Farrow describes it, "a curious space" between St Bride’s church and other older buildings, and entered through an unassuming alleyway and stone staircase, the foundation is all but hidden, with the result that even those who’ve walked past it every day for decades might still not know it’s there.
And yet the foundation has been located at Bride Lane for its entire 120-year history. And for the first half of the last century, the building played an important role in local community life. It was here that the first swimming pool for London workers – now transformed into the highly successful Bridewell Theatre – opened. And it was here that a whole range of community activities, from table tennis tournaments to debating, took place.
Of course, the hive of activity going on inside the foundation was often more than matched by those activities taking place just outside the building’s red brick walls. "It’s a real survivor," says Farrow. "It was here through the First World War, kept going by the women who were left behind when the men went off to fight. It survived the depression of the 1920s, the general strike of 1926, then there’s the demise of Fleet Street in the 1980s."
The most perilous time for the building and its collection was undoubtedly the Second World War. Here, its tucked-away, secretive nature in fact came into its own. While most neighbouring buildings were seriously damaged at some point in the raids of 1940, the St Bride building remained remarkably intact.
"We’ve got pictures from the time and you can just see a pile of rubble with the foundation standing up in it. It seems to be the only thing not damaged," says Farrow.
He puts the building’s survival down not only to its "curious" structure, but also to the tireless commitment and bravery of the staff at the time, particularly librarian W Turner Berry. "He was responsible for saving the library and the building," says Farrow. "He went on the roof each night with buckets and sand to put out incendiaries. That was very risky for him. It must have been absolutely terrifying."
Though less dramatic, just as perilous for the St Bride Foundation was a period around 2000 when it looked as if the library might have to be closed due to lack of funds. The foundation often struggles to attract grants and funding, says Farrow, explaining that his strategy in protecting its community activities and in properly cataloguing its collection, has therefore involved cutting back on unnecessary costs and concentrating on core, money-raising activities.
But this doesn’t mean the foundation is now entering a phase more austere and secretive than the last. In fact, quite the reverse, explains Farrow. "The culture in the old days was ‘let’s not tell people about what we’ve got, because then they’ll want to see it and that will make life difficult’," he says. "But my philosophy is, if we’ve got it, let’s show people, let’s make it open for use."
"So, last January, we started a big housekeeping process, so we’ve actually been through the whole building and cleaned everything, and put everything in the right order so we know what we’ve got," he continues. "Now we can really show the building to potential funders. And we seem to be attracting a lot more support than we are used to."
Such support has come most recently in the form of a grant from the Foyle Foundation, which will pay for cataloguing those priceless relics yet to be unearthed from storage. "We used to catalogue around 25 books a month, but now we’re hopefully going to do something like 25 a day," reports Farrow.
The foundation will then continue to generate funds through hiring out the building’s impressive events and conference spaces and through the Bridewell Theatre’s productions. Then, it’s hoped, it will be able to make room 19 more accessible, and to renovate the ground floor’s Layton Room ready for exhibiting works created by fine binding collective Designer Book Binders.
A smaller but no less exciting aim is to get the workshop’s 1870 Ingle press back in action. "I believe it’s the last newspaper press in Fleet Street," enthuses Farrow. "It’s not in use now, but we’re going to get it up and running, so we’ll be able to print broadsheets in Fleet Street, which will be fabulous."
So the next chapter in the (historic, ornate) book of the St Bride Foundation story looks set to be an exciting, and most importantly, inclusive one. As Farrow enthuses, it should be one that returns the foundation to how it was 50 or so years ago, as the sort of place where London workers could go swimming, and wartime printers might shelter their archives when their own buildings were demolished.
"Somehow we’re still here, fulfilling our original charitable aim, which is supporting people in printing and the associated trades, and supporting local residents," says Farrow.
"There isn’t anything like our collection in terms of all those things being together in one place," he adds of the William Blades Library and room 19 collections. "And that’s why we’re determined to throw open the whole building and get as many people in as possible."
Upcoming events at the St Bride Foundation
The Voysey Inheritance
5-9 March; 7.45pm (Saturday matinee: 3pm); £12
Something Old, Something New
13-16 March; 7.30pm (Saturday matinee: 3pm); £15
Judgement at Nuremberg
20-23 March; 7.15pm (Saturday matinee: 2.15pm); £55 (including wine and buffet), £33 for matinee
The Deep Blue Sea
26-30 March; 7.45pm (Saturday matinee: 3pm); £14
Godspell 3-13 April; 7.30pm (Saturday matinees: 2.30pm); £15
Peace, Hellfire and Tits Talk by Seb Lester, typeface creator for the likes of Apple, Nike, Intel and The New York Times; 26 March; 7pm; £15
Getting started with the Adana (day course)
Letterpress short course (evening courses)
Two-day intensive letterpress course
Exploring letterpress and linocut (weekend course)
Introduction to wood engraving
Introduction to colour lino
For dates, times and prices visit www.sbf.org.uk or call 020 7353 3331