In the shadow of St Bride’s Church lies a gem of London’s printing history – the St Bride Foundation. The Foundation started life as an educational, social and cultural centre for local printers and students – and it would be hard to imagine a more fitting location given its proximity to Fleet Street. The 1894 red-brick Victorian building tucked away down St Bride Lane – no stranger to transformations while still retaining its print-based heritage, as we shall see – now contains a print workshop, library and theatre.
As the door to today’s print workshop opens, you are swiftly transported back to the days of the dominance of the printing presses via the strong smell of ink that permeates the space. This is a most atmospheric place – once the Foundation’s gymnasium – with its old presses lining the room. The oldest is a Common Press machine, whose frame possibly dates back as far as the 16th century. A compositor’s case from Oxford University Press in the corner dates from 1668, the extensions attached to its legs a testament to the ever-growing height of the human race.
Classes in traditional printing techniques are held regularly in this room, including in letterpress (Monday nights), wood engraving (Thursday nights) and the Adana platen press. The Saint Bride Foundation Institute Printing School later evolved into the London College of Printing, now the London College of Communication – today its students return to St Bride to learn the traditional forms.
Upstairs, the St Bride Library’s storage area is a treasure trove of printing goodness. Surprisingly beautiful wood blocks and the Caslon Collection of type punches share shelf space with broadsheets, books and journals. The Library holds over 50,000 books, and specialises in printing, graphic arts and related fields. They also have a strong events programme. The Library’s small reading room, once the lithographic printing room, is open to the public each Wednesday, and individual appointments can be arranged on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A number of other rooms – including the lovely old Printing Library – are now available for events and conferences. Bridewell Theatre was built over the swimming pool – believed to be the first public pool in the area – which remains in situ today underneath the wooden flooring. Its towel laundry was converted into the bar. Other such transformations continue apace today, with a new book binding workshop and exhibition space currently being created near the print workshop.
Guided tours of the Print Workshop and other parts of the Foundation are run on request on weekdays from 9am-5pm and cost £5; please book in advance for groups. Contact 020 7353 3331 or firstname.lastname@example.org