You've got to have the printer on the team

You've got to have the printer on the team

(from The Printers Trade by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger)

When the St Bride's Parochial Charities came together in the 1880s and established the St Bride Foundation to cater for the needs of the parish, they did not need to look far to see how important the printing industry was to their community, and the need for it to inform their mission.

It was architect Robert Cunnginhame Murray, whose studio was close by on Fleet Place, who won the limited competition to design the Foundation's building which was to be five storeys in height with an Anglo-Dutch style exterior of red brickwork and terracotta dressings, the whole constructed by Brass and Son builders for the sum of £17,973 plus £2,000 for plant.

The building lies on an irregular shaped plot, tucked away behind St Bride's Church, its handsome gabled façade now largely hidden by the modern commercial buildings that sit shoulder to shoulder all around it, as a result of the City of London's high land values.

The Foundation's building was to provide a place of learning and development: primarily a printing school and technical library, but also a place to give lessons to the children of the poor, and spaces for public exhibitions, lectures, music and society meetings.

Supporting the printing school, its ancillary areas included a laundry and baths which, like the swimming pool, thought to be the first public pool in the area, were also open for general use by those who lived locally, many in nearby tenements.

1905 saw the incorporation of the neighbouring building into the original structure, but other significant alterations to this Grade II listed building have been few, granted that internally the spaces have been rearranged and updated.

A library remains at the heart of the building. The private collections of Victorian printer and Caxton expert William Blades, type founder, author and historian Talbot Baines Reed, and technical print journalist and author of printing text books John Southward, sit alongside technical publications, academic works, periodicals, comics and printing ephemera which go back over the decades.

The present-day printing workshop stands where there was originally a ladies gymnasium; although it is spotlessly clean, it reeks of ink and alongside the newer presses, the old machinery, scarred worktops and posters invoke a bygone era.

In 1922, the Printing School relocated but the St Bride Foundation, now a charity, continues to provide a cultural, social and educational facility for its community, albeit that the community has changed a great deal since HRH the Prince of Wales laid the memorial stone in 1893.

John explains "This carries on as an educational space—courses in bookbinding, woodblock printing, letterpress printing.

"We have a facsimile of a Dürer press, a Columbia press from 1822—and it still works—a star wheel press, Albion presses, and we have a Heidelberg which when it's switched on vibrates the whole building—you get a sense of what it must have been like walking down Fleet Street in the 1960s when there were hundreds of these all working away."

The public reading room, now housed in the old lithographic school, provides mod-cons to today's researchers, typographers, graphic designers and members of the public interested in the library's unique resource.

As you stand there, little do you imagine that the reading room floor can take a ton of weight per square metre, an engineering necessity to support the heavy printing machinery it once housed.

But it's been a long time since the days when the London Society of Compositors had the monopoly in the capital's printing trade, Virginia and Leonard Woolf notably having their applications to study at the Foundation's printing school rejected because they were not union apprentices.

Nowadays, the Foundation's courses are open to all-comers and their smart meeting rooms are available for private hire for conferences, elegant weddings and social events.

In the basement, the towel laundry has been transformed into a bar, but its old machinery is there for all to see. "In Victorian times," John tells me, "it would have been very unusual if you'd had a swimming costume yourself, so the price of entry would have included the hire of a towel and a swimming costume.

"You can see the spin dryer there and the washing machine. And here are the drying racks". No ordinary racks these, but steam-heated drying racks designed by the improbable duo of Coutts Bank heiress and famous philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and her almoner, novelist Charles Dickens!

John goes on to explain that the swimming pool was used only over the summer:

"A lot of people came here to learn to swim and one day [a week] was exclusively ladies' day.

"Being a Victorian swimming pool, it had a vast range of different prices depending on class and whether you were a member of the printing college or not. So for instance, the working class would come in in the afternoon so that the first class people who would come in early morning to midday didn’t have to swim in the same water as the second class would swim in later in the day."

Each winter, the pool would be boarded over and the space would be used for sports events or as a theatre with the printing school students and local opera society putting on amateur shows.

Being naturally dark, the glazed roof would not have needed to be blacked out as it is now for year-round performances, but you can still get a sense of how impressive the space must have seemed to the Victorians floating on their backs looking up at the central skylight.

I get the chance to see the pool first-hand when John opens an access door in the floor behind the auditorium seating, and escorts me down a small wooden staircase.

The pool is remarkably clean and undamaged—and shallow, as John explains: "this is the deep end of the pool but as you can see it's not especially deep, it's only about seven feet. They used to have a diving board at this end but I wouldn’t like to dive into this. I know the Victorians were supposed to be smaller but all the same…"

Once out of the pool, I also get a chance to see the viewing gallery which is no longer open to the public for safety reasons but sometimes gets used to house the band for musicals.

With a bird's eye view across the space, I get a clearer idea of its size and how it could have been used for ladies' cricket matches or as a table tennis hall where a young Fred Perry trained before going on to win the world table tennis singles title at Budapest in 1929.

The spiral staircase that takes us up there is a later addition but the changing cubicles I see are amongst the many original features which remain around the building—the tiling in the dressing rooms, for instance, gives away that the space was originally the public baths, slipper baths as the Victorians called them, segregated by class like the swimming pool.