TitleStephenson Blake & Company Limited, Sheffield
AdminHistoryIn 1818, three young Sheffield craftsman, James Blake, a file manufacturer, William Garnett, a silversmith, and John Stephenson, a tool and file maker, formed a partnership in order to manufacture printers' types. The family firm they established would last for over 176 years and in its heyday became one of the most important typefounders and printers' equipment suppliers in Britain and the Commonwealth.

London had been the centre of printing and the book-trade in England since the 16th century, and the main typefounders were based in the capital. In the early 1800s, the publisher of a local news-sheet, H A Bacon, and two brothers, George William and Henry Bower, established a printers and typefounders in Sheffield, known as Bower and Bacon. The firm was based at White Rails, Bridgehouses.

One of Bower and Bacon's key craftsman was William Garnett, who had joined the firm around 1808, and quickly earned a reputation as a skilled engraver and typefounder. Garnett and his friend and working colleague, John Stephenson, secretly begun making and assembling typefounding equipment in an attic workshop at the Garnett family home at Bridgehouses. In 1818, Garnett and Stephenson took the decision to sever their ties with Bower and Bacon and set up their own typefounding company. They approached James Blake, a master file maker, of Allen Street, Sheffield, to help finance the business. On 1 July 1818 a partnership was formed to be known as Blake, Garnett and Co. (with John Stephenson regarded as a very junior partner). The business was installed in James Blake's Allen Street premises.

The fledging firm managed to acquire the foundry of one of London's most reputable typefounding companies, William Caslon and Sons, which had outgrown its operations there. On purchasing the London foundry, Blake, Garnett and Co. arranged for the equipment and stock to be transported up to Sheffield in horse-drawn wagons. In early 1819, the company began its typecasting operations in earnest and its reputation rapidly flourished.

After the initial agreed term of partnership ended in 1829, William Garnett decided to withdraw from the company, relocating to Norton, where he became a farmer. A new partnership was agreed between the two remaining founders and the company was reformed for a further 11 years as Messrs Blake and Stephenson. A further partnership was signed in 1841, with James Blake owning two thirds of the business and John Stephenson one third. However, on the sudden death of James Blake, a further partnership was formed, Stephenson and Blake, with John Stephenson appointed as managing partner together with the assistance of the heirs of James Blake (his brother Thomas and his brother-in-law, William Thompson).

John Stephenson died in 1864, the year after he handed control of the firm to his son Henry. Thomas Blake died in 1868 and his share in the firm was transferred to his son William Greaves Blake. William Thompson died in 1878 and from 1879 - 1887, the partnership consisted of Henry Stephenson and W G Blake. At the end of 1887, Henry's son H K Stephenson entered the firm. Sir Henry Stephenson and Major W G Blake both died in 1904, and their respective sons, Sir H K Stephenson and Mr Robert Greaves Blake assumed control. Stephenson, Blake and Co. became a limited company in 1914, but remained a family firm, with members of the Blake and Stephenson families remaining on the board throughout its existence.

During its lifetime, the firm absorbed other foundries, although its central foundry was always based around Upper Allen Street, Sheffield. Stephenson, Blake and Co. opened a London warehouse in 1865 at 90 Newgate Street to cater for Fleet Street newspapers and, as business demand increased, they moved to a larger London premises on 33 Aldersgate Street in 1871.

In 1890, Stephenson, Blake and Co. renewed their moulds and matrices to work on the American Point system, which was first adopted across the Atlantic in 1886 (this development provided printers with a uniform system for measuring size, allowing type and spacing to become interchangeable between suppliers).

In 1905, the company bought a rival London foundry which had fallen into financial difficulties, Charles Reed and Sons, of Fann Street. The purchase was effective from 1 January 1906 and for a time the firm was known as 'Stephenson, Blake and Company and Sir Charles Reed and Sons'. The operations of the Reed foundry were removed to Sheffield, forming a virtually self-contained foundry alongside the firm's existing work.

In January 1907, the firm established a Woodworking Department over the road from the Allen Street foundry to manufacture furniture for composing rooms and type cases. In 1908, the production of wood letter was made in-house, with examples first appearing in specimen books of 1910.

Stephenson, Blake and Company purchased Thomas Turton and Sons Limited, file, saw and spring manufacturers of Sheffield, in the early 1920s, which became a wholly owned subsidiary. Thomas Turton board minutes of November 1920 record the election of Henry Kenyon Stephenson (1865-1947) as Director and Chairman of the company in place of Samuel Wilson Mappin, who had resigned his position on 23rd November. Three days later Robert G. Blake was elected a Director also. Sir Francis Stephenson and James Blake succeeded to directorships on the board of Thomas Turton in 1947. At this time the directors of both boards decided to form a holding company, Stephenson Blake (Holdings) Limited.

In 1936, Stephenson, Blake and Company bought the goodwill, assets and punches of its main competitor, H W Caslon and Sons, which had fallen into voluntary liquidation. They retained the prestigious name of the London firm by calling their Sheffield Premises 'The Caslon Letter Foundry'.

During World War II, from December 1940 until January 1942, casting work at the firm was conducted at the home of R G Blake as air raids disrupted the supply of gas, electricity and water to the foundry. Post 1950, the Woodworking Department had expanded to provide a full service to composing rooms. Prestigious orders taken by the firm included the Sunday Times' composing room in 1973.

Stephenson, Blake and Company struggled to retain a letterpress business in the face of mounting competition from litho machines. It diversified by offering the 'Letterphot' system of photo typesetting and turning its wood operations to the manufacture of precision instrument cases. Rolls-Royce Olympus enlisted the firm's precision engineering team to produce moulds for parts for Concorde.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the firm was forced to divest itself of some of its sprawling building premises around Upper Allen Street. In late 1999, the firm sold its non-printing businesses and James Barbour Blake sought to re-launch the firm, concentrating on the production of related items for the non-printing market: brass rule for plastics firms; Mazak type for hot-foiling; and cabinet making for museums. The firm's collection of historical matrices and punches was transferred to the Type Museum in London.

By December 2004, the final elements of the business had ceased, although the firm's website ran until March 2005.
DescriptionDrawings of proposed engineer's shop, Edward Street, Sheffield.
Extent2 items
RelatedMaterialCatalogue prepared by Peter Evans, October 2018.
CustodialHistoryThese items were donated to Sheffield Archives by a private individual in November 2003.
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