Thursday, 18 May 2017

As Harmless As Doves?

This is Hammersmith Bridge in London. If you've ever watched the Oxford&Cambridge Boat Race on TV, this is the one halfway round the course, just past the Harrods Depository. The current bridge - the first suspension bridge over the Thames - opened in 1887. 
But I've just come across a fascinating story involving the bridge, which happened in 1917, a hundred years ago. 
If you have been following Tracing Rainbows for a while, you will know that I am fond of William Morris, and his Arts and Crafts Movement [have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful]
We visited one of his homes, The Red House, three years ago
Morris had a great friend, Emery Walker, whose great skill was printmaking, engraving, and typography. He was, by all accounts, a generous, genial man, extremely gifted at designing beautiful lettering and developing ways of reproducing works of art to make them available to a wider audience. Thomas Cobden-Sanderson was another artist and printer, living in Hammersmith, close to the bridge. In 1893, TCS and Walker set up a business together - The Dove Press. They took their name from the nearby ancient Dove Tavern [ a favourite haunt of Charles II and Nell Gwynne, two hundred years earlier] Working with a calligrapher Edward Johnston [who designed the iconic London Transport typeface], these men produced a beautiful typeface which they called Doves Type. They produced a few books, in limited editions - in the days when every letter had to be set by hand in the printers frame, and the printing machine was hand operated too. Here's the first page of the Bible - Johnston wrote in the red capitals after the pages had been printed.
But after 15 years, EW and TCS fell out. The business was dissolved in 1908. They agreed that either could continue to use the metal type, and on the death of one, the other would have sole rights. But TCS was afraid that EW would put it to commercial use.
And here is where the bridge comes in...
In 1917, towards the end of WW1, the elderly TCS began to worry about his precious typeface. Around a ton of metal was involved here [you need an awful lot of letters if you plan to print chapters of Leviticus etc]
But Thomas was getting old - he was 77 - and he was determined to prevent Emery using the typeface. So he wrapped the letters, and printers' racks etc into small bundles. He took these, late at night, and dropped them over Hammersmith Bridge into the river. He made over one hundred of these secret nocturnal excursions. Oh just imagine this elderly man creeping out onto the bridge, leaning on the rail, always standing at the same spot, waiting for the right moment...and...splash! [please, somebody make a film about this!] The Doves Type was lost forever, people forgot about it.
The bridge remained, despite attempts by the IRA in 1939 and again in 2000 to blow it up. In recent years, tons of concrete have strengthened its foundations, and it has been repainted - now it is a Grade 2 listed structure.
And that might have been the end, except for an art student called Robert Green. He developed a fascination for the typeface, and sought out all the copies of books and tried to recreate it for himself. Then he got really obsessed - he got a Mudlark Permit from the Port of London Authority, and went searching along the shore. He found a handful of pieces of type.
Then he employed four professional divers [because the currents are dangerous round there] and in all, 150 pieces of type have been retrieved. Not much of the ton of metal TCS originally discarded, but enough. Robert believes the rest is entombed in the post IRA bomb concrete 
Robert has painstakingly recreated the typeface, with all the serifs and swashes, and made it available to purchase as a font for the computer generation. Do follow the link to see more pictures and examples. 
TCS would be very annoyed if he knew - but I think that if you have something which is a beautiful work of art, then you should be prepared to share it . Well done Mr Green for turning your obsession into something both beautiful and useful. I suspect William Morris and Emery Walker would have been pleased with your commitment. 


  1. That is a fascinating story. I used to take my daughter to ballet classes in Chiswick and to kill several hours I walked down to the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge. Right by the bridge, along Upper Mall, is the house and workshop Morris owned before he needed larger premises. It is the base for the William Morris Society now.

    1. Thank you for adding an extra dimension to the story- I think it's great when people do that!

  2. What a fascinating story, thank you. I too love William Morris and arts and crafts, but I did not know this story. Regards Sue H

  3. That is a truly fascinating story! I can't believe he did that with all the metal!! I adore different fonts and the history of the printed and written word. If you ever get the chance, visit the Papermill in Basel as it has a fascinating history of the above. There's loads exhibits and the suchlike!

  4. Sorry, Paper Museum not Mill!!

  5. A long way from Dorset and Norfolk but may I recommend a visit to Blackwell, an Arts & Crafts house near Bowness on Windermere. It is a Lakeland-Arts property, details

    I can recommend self catering accommodation nearby here in Elterwater near Ambleside although this isn't Arts & Crafts.

    1. Thanks for mentioning this. A bit far from Dorset, but I know some readers are further north than I am


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