'St Bride’s is a living, breathing thing that pulls you in’

By Darryl Danielli, Monday 09 November 2015

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As chief executive of the St Bride Foundation, Glyn Farrow is in many respects the de facto trustee of print’s proud heritage.

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The foundation boasts a collection of well over 100,000 print artefacts ranging from Egyptian papyrus pages of the ‘Book of the Dead’ dating back to 1400BC and a first edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary from 1755, to examples of Caslon type and not one, but two Columbian presses.

But while it may be steeped in history and have charitable status, that doesn’t mean it’s immune from the same fiscal challenges facing modern businesses.

Over the summer, in response to a funding shortfall, the Foundation had to restructure its library and print workshop, make the two staff that ran them redundant, and effectively restrict their use to activities that paid for themselves. So far, so understandable.

What followed was a social media backlash that accused the foundation of mismanagement, of secret plans to close the entire organisation and, worst of all, of planning to sell some or even all of the collection, much of it gifted, to raise funds.

Which meant that at a time when Farrow wanted to focus on initiatives, such as the recently launched 125 campaign, he had to spend valuable time reassuring its loyal band of supporters, staff and trustees that none of the above was true.

Darryl Danielli Have things calmed down after the fuss of the summer?

Glyn Farrow It’s been bloody difficult, but I suppose if you had to try and take something positive from the experience – then it certainly proves that people are passionate about what we do here [laughs]. 

And for those that don’t know, what is it you do? What’s the purpose of the St Bride Foundation, its remit?

How long have you got? It was set up in 1891 to look after people in the printing and associated trades in Fleet Street and Farringdon. There was also a genuine charitable remit, which was the relief of the local poor, in particular young boys and girls in the poorer classes. But we don’t really have many of those in Fleet Street any more.

Was it originally similar to the Printing Charity then, offering pensions and support?

No, it was completely different. In 1883 there was a review of all the charitable funds held in the City and basically most of that got scooped up and given to the City Parochial Foundation, which is now known as Trust for London. Anyway, they got most of the money and they dished that out to people in London with needs. We are slightly different in that we were given a small pot of money in the shake-down to set up this institution, as St Bride’s was one of the five parishes that opted out of the City Parochial Foundation.

Was it part of St Bride’s Church back in those days?

We’ve never been anything to do with the church, although we did buy the land from it and we’ve always had representation from the church on the governing body.

Fair enough, so back to the Foundation…

The idea was that we would create a place of education, so we had the printing school where you could learn your trade, and also to have a first-class technical library relating to printing that had examples of fine printing, typography, etc. The Foundation also had to be a place of culture and relaxation. So they designed this mad building to do all of that and as a result we had 16 staircases, 41 rooms, over five floors, three mezzanines and a swimming pool and a gymnasium, because in Victorian philanthropy you had to look after body as well as the mind.

And today?

In the grand scheme of things we still do all that, but instead of going to the swimming pool or the gym to feel good, they now go to the theatre.

And what happened to the printing school?

It migrated to the Southbank and morphed in to the London College of Communications eventually. 

But the library obviously stayed?

Absolutely. And just grew and grew as we just kept being given things. We also had some interesting, and brilliant, librarians who collected things. In fact, believe it or not we’ve only had four librarians since we started in 1891.

Really, wow.

Mr Peddie was the first, then Mr Turner-Berry, Mr Mosley and Mr Roach – so they all stayed forever. And librarians being librarians, they each had their own views on things – and more often than not that view was that if you’re an academic you can come in, if you’re not, you can’t. In fact it wasn’t until Nigel Roach left in 2012 that I really started to find out what was in the library, because before that I was just told, in no uncertain terms, not to get involved, just focus on the rest of it. I didn’t know we had any Caxton here, I didn’t know that we had any papyrus, or a piece of Wynkyn de Worde that was found in a loo in Brighton – there was just so much amazing stuff that no one knew about.

But wasn’t it all catalogued?

It was, but there was also a huge backlog of cataloguing. We had 50,000 items on our catalogue, and we managed to get a grant from the Foyle Foundation to get up to date, which means that the collection is actually a hell of a lot bigger than we thought.

How big?

We’re getting on for 100,000 items that we know of and I think it’s actually a lot more. There are still lots of boxes that haven’t been catalogued. We went to agency Splash Worldwide the other week and we just grabbed a random box to show them the kind of things we had. It was just labelled ‘uncatalogued Victorian memorabilia’ and it was full of the most magical stuff, but we didn’t know what it was until we opened it there. 

Do you think there are many more surprises to be found in the archive?

That would be nice. We had some fantastic volunteers on their hands and knees, Marigolds at the ready, sifting though tonnes and tonnes of uncatalogued, dusty artefacts ranging from a butcher’s invoice from 1973 to a letter from a 15-century journeyman printer – it took two years to clear the floor. Most of it is sorted and we at least know where the unsorted stuff is now. 

And are the financial problems you we’re facing sorted too?

As you know we’ve had a really difficult time financially, and the model we had for working in the library and workshop just wasn’t sustainable as it was. So what we’ve done is spruce up the workshop and we’re doing things in partnership with people.

How do you mean?

Well for the next few months we’re going to be focusing on bookbinding [training] with Shepherds, including City & Guilds qualifications, because that’s something new and fresh for us. And once that is an established revenue stream we’ll then be putting other tiers in, so we’ll be going back to offering letterpress printing. The problem we had in the past was that we ran some good courses, but we ran the same courses over and over again, we marketed them to the same people over and over again – so we need to take a little break. So we’re going to build up levels of activity, but the key is that all of these activities must make a contribution to the ‘core’ and if they don’t, we can’t underwrite them any more.

And it’s the same for the library?

Libraries always lose money, everyone knows that, and we just didn’t have enough money to staff it the way we were. It’s still there, and people can still use it, but we just had to find alternative mechanisms to fund it. 

By getting people to pay for access?

Well, someone has to unfortunately, because we can’t simply provide it as a free service as things stand. I’ve also said for a long time that we need to better use the collections we’ve got to engage with communities beyond purely print. The collections we have are just so broad, and how do you encapsulate that? It’s more than print, more than typography, it’s almost anything to do with the written word. It’s about communication. That’s one of the challenges I have, we all have, because to make sure the Foundation continues to live and breathe we need to broaden our horizons.

People will always associate the Foundation with print though?

They will, and that’s great. Printers come here and say that they wish they could bring their clients here to better understand the industry, but they can, they just don’t. We want to run some classes for print buyers, to show them what’s possible with print and touch on some of the history.

So you’re focusing on making the Foundation better known or more visible, rather than trying to make it more relevant?

It’s both. We want to work with printers and their customers, the agencies, the designers, the marketers. We’re told that there are fewer specialist print buyers than there used to be. A lot of designers and marketers coming out of university know very little about print, so we could host a workshop day teaching the basics of the technology, right through to digital, and add some of the colourful history that we have here and that would be great for the printers, great for the buyers and great for us. We all need to inspire the next generation of buyers and printers, using the archive and grounded theory if you like, so we’ll constantly evolve to meet the challenges facing us and those facing the industry.

What are the challenges today?

Well, not making enough money last year to keep the print workshop and library open in the existing format was the big one. But the challenges will be completely different in three year’s time, they will probably be something to do with the redevelopment of the building next door or the fact that we’re having discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund on putting disabled access right through the building. Or how we can expand or contract the different sides of the business, because we know that our strength seems to stem from keeping everything we’ve got under one roof, because there’s a real synergy, and we need to continue to do that.

After everything that happened recently – the funding constraints that forced you to restructure the library and printing workshop – was the Foundation ever at risk?

You can never say never, it could all burn down tomorrow and be lost for ever, but there has never been any notion of closing down. At the governing body’s meetings the intention has always been to keep the collection whole, in its entirety. The only caveat to that is, say, we have a couple of Columbians, do we really need two, or could we have one and some extra money in the bank? We might get rid of things that we have duplicates or triplicates of in the collection, but we’ll always keep the best example.

But there was the piece in the Bookseller reporting on the open letter from the Historic Libraries Forum?

That was complete bollocks. I wrote to him immediately [author of the letter, chairman Liam Simms] asking him to come and see what we did here and then he cancelled on the day and I haven’t heard anything since. 

But there was a serious backlash on social media too wasn’t there?

We tried to engage with everyone who tweeted negative comments to explain that we weren’t closing the workshop or closing and breaking up the library, but the interesting thing was that the most vitriolic comments were from people that hadn’t used the library and had no plans to. The flipside was that we also had people offering to help us, there is one group of young creatives who want to help us better engage with the design community, for example.

Is the focus on making the Foundation fit for purpose first and foremost, though?

Of course, it has to be. We’ve made losses for years and years. In fact we’re at the lowest point we have been for a long time, because we had a tough trading year last year and our plans for the future aren’t sufficiently developed to show people and we can’t fully develop them until we know what’s happening with the building next door. We’re not trying to raise funds to pay salaries, that was why we made the changes to library and workshop, so that we can live within our means. But we need money to enable us to develop our plans and evolve. We want to raise funds to ensure that we can continue to stand on our own two feet.

So it’s not like you have this great big investment portfolio you can draw down on.

We have a small endowment that we’re supposed to live off the income from, but it’s just not enough. If we don’t have staff in the library and the workshop then we just trundle on, we break even, just about. It’s not an ideal model for the future and it’s not terribly exciting, and this place should be exciting. We’ve got some fantastic supporters, we just need more of them and from different areas, like the design crew.

So the plan is to right the ship, and then chart your course for the future?

Exactly, but the people we made redundant were absolutely brilliant, it was a really shitty thing to have to do. But I had to protect the business.

How many visitors do you get a year?

We used to quote a figure of 80,000, but that was predominantly people using the theatre, bar and events. The figure for the library was always quite low. When I started the library was open Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday afternoon and evening and Thursday afternoon. We took that down to just Wednesday and any other time by appointment. Now it’s all by appointment and people have to pay us to supply a librarian.

You keep talking about the charity as a business, what are the priorities?

We have to run it as a business to ensure it survives, but in terms of priorities it’s all about care and conservation, protecting what we have: the collection, the building, the history and everything we offer here like the library and the workshop. The wonderful people from NADFAS [the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies] are doing things like protecting books, cleaning materials, making protective boxes and slipcovers. In some ways we’re just stopping the rot until we can have a really exciting conservation campaign, but in other ways even what is happening now is brilliant because it’s protecting what we have.

What’s the state of play with the Heritage Lottery funding?

The Heritage Lottery will only provide funding if we can prove that we will be able to wash our own faces after we’ve done the work, so there’s a huge amount of work to be done on planning and developing what our services are going to be in the future. That’s why we launched the 125 Campaign.

What’s that?

Basically it’s a fund-raising campaign to raise £125,000 in 125 days, in time for our 125th anniversary on 23 February next year. The idea is that we raise £1,000 each from 125 corporate sponsors ideally, or any amount that an individual can afford. We can then use that money to fund the various reports and surveys we need to complete to unlock Heritage Lottery Funding. It loves what we do, they love the building, but what they need us to do is come up with a plan to share the heritage of the Foundation with more people by having things like disabled access.” 

You mentioned the impact of the building work next door, is there any more news on that?

Nothing, it’s just gone quiet. We know they have planning permission to knock down the building next door, which in effect surrounds us on three sides, and replace it with a new, taller building. But it will be a better building and increase our visibility from New Bridge Street, but it will be mayhem because the old building is physically attached to us and the whole east side of the building will come under physical attack.

Which must be a concern. Back to you though, I haven’t asked how you got involved with the Foundation? 

I was working for myself, writing stuff on how to give children bad news like ‘your dad’s a junkie, your mum’s a prostitute – no, you can’t live with them’. That sort of stuff.

Your background is in social care?

Sort of, it was actually youth and family justice. And before that it was mental health.

But always in the charity sector?

Yes, well since 1990 or something anyway. At the time I was working for myself and while I enjoyed that part, it wasn’t what you could call a regular income. So I got a call from the Foundation and was invited in for an interview. It was a slightly strange interview – at the start I couldn’t understand why it was charity because it seemed be more of a conference venue. But I was invited back for a second interview and was given the full tour. Well, I fell in love with it and thought I had to do something here. But they offered the job to someone else. He, however, pulled out at the last minute, or said something rude, or his criminal convictions came to the fore...

…whereas yours never came out?

Precisely. But something happened and I got the call and was offered the job subject to the librarian’s approval, who I was going to line manage. Which was a little odd. But he approved and I got the job and started on 1 May 2009 and it’s been an absolute rollercoaster, brilliant. And we actually broke even one year [laughs]. But it’s been fantastic fun, and the more you get involved, the more people you meet, the more events you attend the more you realise how important this place is, not just the bricks, or the collections but everything it represents. It’s a living, breathing thing that just pulls you in.

And that’s why you do it despite the challenges?

I do it because I love it and I think it’s really important. This is a magical building that’s part of the history and culture of just about everywhere. The printed word changed the world. We wouldn’t have politics or religion without the printed word – and it’s done some good things too [laughs]. Also we’re right in the heart of it [print] here. We’ve got Caxton in Westminster, Wynkyn de Worde across the road, before St Paul’s you still had people chugging up and down here like Chaucer, this is all where it happened. We’ve got Dickens, Dr Johnson, and Samuel Richardson [18th-century English writer and printer] lived on Salisbury Square. We’re obsessed with Richardson, we have two busts and a large portrait. He’s buried in the [St Bride’s] Church too, with an upright gravestone to stop the prostitutes screwing on it, at least that’s the story.

That’s good to know, I think. And probably a good place to end this story too. 

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