A little background
St Bride Foundation is a remarkable survivor, a building which has hardly changed in appearance since it was built in the 1890s. Originally conceived as an educational institute and social centre it still provides a theatre, function rooms for hire, printing workshop and the only library in the UK entirely devoted to the history of printing and allied crafts. It retains many original features and stands behind the church of St Bride at the bottom of Fleet Street.
In 1883 a survey was made of the smaller charities in the City of London with a view to consolidating funds so that they might be better used. Those relating to the parish of St Bride’s were an exception however the St Bride’s Parochial Charities were able to work to establish something relevant to their own community which had printing and publishing as its major industry. The result was the Foundation whose purpose was to build and maintain an Institute for the benefit of all who lived and worked in the western part of the City, with particular reference to the needs of the Parish.
The objectives of the original scheme were to build and maintain an Institute ‘containing baths, a laundry, a library, reading rooms and such other rooms and offices as may be suitable for the Printing school.’ Other purposes were listed as providing educational and moral training of boys and girls belonging to the ‘poorer classes’ and the provision of lectures, exhibitions, musical and other works of art in addition to a meeting place for societies and committees.
The death of William Blades, Victorian printer and the expert of the time on Caxton and early printing, allowed the opportunity to buy a private library devoted to the history of printing which contained many rare works. That private library still remains in its purpose built fire-proof room standing alongside the collection of technical and academic works which have been acquired over the years.
The Printing School moved out of the building in 1922 but the library and the other uses of the building remain to this day, although the swimming pool is boarded over to house the theatre. Many of the clubs and societies which arose from the Fleet Street community have long since gone but the St Bride archives provide many details of life and activities over the years with some fascinating detail of social life between the two world wars.
There have, of course, been many changes of fortune but St Bride Foundation is now a charity which through its use of the building supports the continuation of the Library. This collection consists of well over 50,000 books and periodicals and is a thriving, international resource for typographers, graphic designers, writers, researchers and many others who simply enjoy the wealth of publications about the printed word. The Friends of St Bride Library organise events devoted not only to the history of printing and the art of letter press but the digital revolution which has changed our ways of seeing and reading.
Visitors to the building will quickly become aware of the original shape of the reception area (with its marble memorial stone laid by HRH the Prince of Wales in 1893) and authentic ground-floor rooms. The public reading room, though, was relocated in 2007 to provide a light and welcoming work area with many books immediately available from the shelves and computer and wifi facilities. Those who delve deeper into the building might get as far as the bar in the basement which still has the drying racks originally provided for the bath towels!
Hidden as it is behind the church and buildings from several centuries, the Institute has somehow survived the many changes affecting London, including the Blitz. Many who come through the doors for meetings have no idea of its origins but the choirs and the theatre groups, the design students and the academics are all still fulfilling the objectives of the original trustees who fought hard to establish an educational and social resource for their local community.