Mudlarking: Lost for Words

By Jason Sandy

printers lead type face found in thames river london

It was midnight as T.J. Cobden-Sanderson stepped out into the dark, summer night in West London in August 1916. He struggled to remain inconspicuous as he carried a heavy wooden box down the small passageway, his face concealed under his large beret. It was an arduous task for a 76-year-old man, but he was on a mission to destroy the very thing he loved so much: his life’s work.

hammersmith bridge

After a ten-minute walk along the River Thames, Cobden-Sanderson arrived at Hammersmith Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge gracefully supported by towering green turrets and decorated with ornate, golden features. Concealed by the darkness of night, Cobden-Sanderson went to a discreet spot on the bridge where he quietly dumped trays of metal typeface into the River Thames. The sound of passing buses and traffic on the timber-decked bridge drowned out the splash of the heavy type in the river below. Between 1916 and 1917, Cobden-Sanderson made around 170 trips to Hammersmith Bridge to condemn his precious masterpiece to the depths of the River Thames, hoping it would never be seen again.

David Iliff, Wikimedia. Bottom: T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in 1902, Wikimedia. Doves Press Bible, Wikimedia.

So why did he dispose of his life’s work? T.J. Cobden-Sanderson was a printer and book binder who established the Doves Bindery in 1893, which he named after The Dove pub located next to his house along the River Thames. Cobden-Sanderson was part of the Arts & Crafts movement and was friends with Emery Walker and William Morris, who ran Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith near Cobden-Sanderson’s house. After Morris died in 1896, Cobden-Sanderson convinced Walker to set up their own printing press. In 1900, the Doves Press was established by the two men who became partners in the joint venture.

Critical of the quality of recently mechanized printing technology, Cobden-Sanderson and Walker decided to create their own bespoke typeface inspired by Nicholas Jenson, a Venetian printer in the 15th century. Cobden-Sanderson commissioned the production of the Doves typeface, and Emery Walker oversaw the design of the unique type used to print all of their books which were bound at the Doves Bindery. They created many extraordinary books, but the Doves Bible is considered to be their greatest masterpiece. The first page of Genesis is one of the most iconic pages in printing.

Despite their success, Cobden-Sanderson and Walker were entangled in a bitter dispute. Walker was distracted by his many other business ventures, and Cobden-Sanderson did the lion’s share of the work, managing the printing and binding operations with meticulous attention to detail. By 1906, Cobden-Sanderson had grown increasingly unhappy with the arrangement and wanted to terminate their partnership. He was able to negotiate a deal, whereby he would run the printing press on his own, retaining sole use of the type until his death, when it would pass to Walker. Cobden-Sanderson wrote to a friend proclaiming, “nothing on earth will now induce me to part with the type.” In July 1909, the deal was agreed, and their partnership came to an end.

Cobden-Sanderson continued to print with the Doves Type until his retirement in 1917. Because of his long-standing feud with Walker, he wanted to destroy the typeface to prevent Walker from obtaining it after his death. He could not imagine the typeface being used in books other than those he had so carefully crafted with his passionate perfectionism. To prevent anyone else printing with his beloved type, Cobden-Sanderson dumped the entire font off of Hammersmith Bridge into the Thames between 1916 and 1917, only five years before his death in 1922. He also threw its punches and matrices into the Thames to ensure that Walker could never recreate the typeface.

In 1917, Cobden-Sanderson announced publicly that the Doves Press would close, and he admitted that the typeface had been “bequeathed” and “consecrated” to the Thames. Over the following 100 years, the typeface laid in its watery grave at the bottom of the Thames, concealed in the gravel and mud. Many attempts were made to find the discarded typeface, but no one succeeded. Cobden-Sanderson had been very successful in hiding the typeface at the bottom of the river.

Doves Type discovered by Jason Sandy. Boat and diver from Port of London Authority by Toby Amies/Ali Tollervey. Doves typeface in a sieve shortly after its retrieval from the Thames, byToby Amies/Ali Tollervey.

While studying graphic design at the University of the Arts London (Central Saint Martins) and the Royal College of Art in the 1990s, Robert Green was introduced to the Doves typeface. “I remember being blown away by the typesetting and layout of the first page of Genesis in the Doves Bible, after seeing it in a typography book,” explains Robert. Slowly, he became obsessed with the typeface because it is so unique and extraordinary: “It’s incredibly elegant and was thought by some to be the most beautiful type in use at the time,” describes Robert.

Fueled by his passion for the Doves typeface, Robert decided to create a digital facsimile of the font. Over the course of five years, he slavishly digitized the original typeface. Although he released the first version of his facsimile in 2013, he was dissatisfied with the result. “I wasn’t happy with it for various reasons and wanted to partially redraw it. One of my former tutors had said to me that the only way I could be sure it was as accurate as possible was by referencing the metal (the original type). I knew where it was, pretty much, so off I went,” explains Robert.

Determined to retrieve the typeface from the riverbed, Robert conducted endless hours of research and detective work over several years to ascertain where Cobden-Sanderson had dumped the Doves typeface in the Thames. “The exact location was gleaned by a combination of reading some entries in Cobden-Sanderson’s journals and fieldwork—visiting the bridge and guessing what I’d do if I were him. Turns out, I guessed right,” states Robert.

In 2014, Robert contacted the Port of London Authority in order to commission divers to retrieve the typeface from the thick, black mud. “They were quite concerned I might be wasting my money, searching for tiny artefacts disposed of so long ago. So, they advised me to get a mudlarking license and go to the foreshore at low tide, have a look for myself before commissioning them just to see if I thought it was feasible to salvage some,” explains Robert.

Searching along the exposed foreshore at low tide, Robert found three pieces of the typeface, which had been washed up from the depths of the Thames. This confirmed his theories about the location where Cobden-Sanderson had dumped the typeface between 1916-1917. Robert went back to the officers at the Port of London Authority to show them his discovery and convince them to send a diver down to excavate more of the typeface. “A boat arrived from Gravesend with a full crew onboard including three divers. They wore full scuba gear, diving down and dredging the riverbed with a bucket, which they took over to the abutment and sorted through a household sieve. It was all pretty low-tech apart from the boat and the scuba gear, relying on the skill and experience of the divers,” describes Robert.

Upper and lowercase letters of Doves Type discovered in the Thames, by Karl Donovan.

Upper and lowercase letters of Doves Type discovered in the Thames, by Karl Donovan.

His in-depth research and persistence paid off. “As the divers got closer to the spot after around 90 minutes, small amounts of type began appearing in the sieve. The spot where the type was dumped is never fully exposed at low tide. It’s probably just over chest height when the tide is lowest, so scuba gear was still necessary to execute a thorough search of the riverbed,” explains Robert. During the two dives over a week, 147 pieces were recovered by the divers. From the metal typeface retrieved from the river, Robert was able to digitally recreate an accurate facsimile which was released in 2015. The digital version is available to buy from Type Spec at typespec.co.uk.

Several years ago, I heard the story about the famous Doves typeface for the first time. As I live close to Hammersmith Bridge in West London, I searched for many years but was not able to find the elusive Doves Type. On a cold February evening in 2019, I arranged to meet Robert at The Dove pub next to Cobden-Sanderson’s house and former site of the Doves Press. As I enjoyed a chilled pint of locally crafted lager next to the crackling fireplace in the cheerfully small pub, Robert showed me some of the original Doves typeface he had found. Inspired by his detective work, I followed some of the clues left behind from his search. I discovered that I had been looking in the wrong place for many years. Astonishingly, I have now found eleven pieces of the original Doves Type. As a local Hammersmith resident, I am thrilled to have found pieces of this incredible history concealed in the River Thames for over 100 years!

Interior of Emery Walker’s House, by Emery Walker Trust.

Cobden-Sanderson’s former house is still lived in, but it is not open to the public. However, Emery Walker’s House has been converted into a museum located along the River Thames by the Emery Walker Trust. The house has been beautifully and lovingly restored and still contains many of the original contents. (Figure 10) In 2020, I decided to donate my pieces of Doves Type to the museum. I’m sure Cobden-Sanderson would be rolling in his grave! He discarded the type in the river to prevent Walker from ever obtaining them. Now, I have retrieved some of the type and returned them to Walker’s house.

Mallory Horrill, senior curator at Emery Walker’s House, was delighted with the donation and wrote, “This is such a generous and most welcome offer of donation! You may be aware that we do not have a piece of Doves Type in our collection but have always remained hopeful that one day we might.” Lucinda MacPherson, spokesman for Emery Walker’s House, thanked me for my donation stating, “It really is so kind of you to give this gift—especially as the house does not have so much evidence of Emery’s publishing as they had to sell his books to pay for setting up the Trust to care for the house in the first place.” The museum is holding its first exhibition next year with a focus on publishing, and my Doves Type will be on display for the first time. This story began with a disgruntled Cobden-Sanderson stealthfully dumping the type in the river, and the story ends over 100 years later with the recovered type displayed proudly in Walker’s house. It’s definitely not the “happy ending” Cobden-Sanderson was hoping for!

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.

Read more articles about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.

1 comment

This is phenomenal; I cannot wait to do my own research into this typeface now that I’ve read the article!

Sabrina Ricks May 10, 2021

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