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In the beginning was the word

And the word was "Doves".


I was skimming through a book that I was given for Christmas, the excellent A Field Guide to Larking by Lara Maiklem. I'd wanted this book as it's packed with loads of information regarding a new hobby I'm starting, that of Mudlarking on the banks of the river Thames.

As I was looking through a chapter on finds, I read a short piece that was a little confusing to begin with concerning what was called Doves Type. As I read further Lara was talking about a type face or font, in fact she was describing the lead printing blocks formally used in the printing process, some of which she had found washed up on the Thames foreshaw. There then unfolded a rather bizarre tales of feuding business partners.



Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson was an English artist and bookbinder during the early days of the 20th century. He had trained and practiced as a Lawyer, but during a dinner party at the home of his friend William Morris he was persuaded by Morris's wife Jane Burden to take up book-binding as a hobby. In 1884 he opened a workshop, abandoning his law practice. In 1887 Cobden-Sanderson suggested a new group be named the "Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society," and in so doing is credited for giving the movement its name. In 1893 he set up the Doves Bindery on the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith, naming it after a nearby pub, The Dove.  



By 1900 he had established the Doves Press and later that year the company was joined by the engraver and printer Emery Walker who became a partner and oversaw the creation of the Doves Typeface used for all of their books. They produced a number of letterpress books, including a five-volume Doves Bible and an imprint in 1902 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, described by one commentator "as the best there had ever been or was ever likely to be".




The aesthetic quality of the books stemmed from the clean typography and spacious setting. The vision was largely Cobden–Sanderson’s, who believed in "The Book Beautiful". Exterior covers were stark white vellum with gold spine lettering and there were no illustrations on the inside. It appears that the slightly eccentric Cobden-Sanderson obsessed about the typeface and the aesthetics of these books which brought him into conflict with the more grounded Emery Walker.

Despite the early triumphs of Paradise Lost, from as early as 1902 Cobden-Sanderson wanted to end the partnership. He had hoped that he and Walker would work side by side, but Walker's time was limited as he owned several other companies and his evenings were filled with committee work for various organisations, many concerned with the Arts & Crafts Movement. He also objected to what he saw as Walker’s interference in design and textual matters, which he felt was his preserve. It appears the final straw came over the letter "I” as it appears in the first draft pages of Genesis in the Doves' Bible (picture at the top of the page). It takes an elongated form and runs the length of the page. Walker had criticised it's design and had commented publicly that "it will never do"


In 1906 Cobden-Sanderson suggested that the completion of the Bible was a good time to end the partnership, which Walker was in agreement with. The sticking point came over the typeface itself. It had been agreed by both parties that Walker was entitled to have a set of the metal letters (the type mouldings). However, as time passed the even more eccentric Cobden-Sanderson who had imbued the typeface with a spiritual as well as aesthetic significance found the idea of anyone else using it, particularly Walker, unbearable.

Walker was offered cash in compensation for relinquishing the typeface, but refused. By 1908 Walker was claiming half of everything connected to the Press. After early editions sold out, sales had started falling and Walker wanted to close it down, but Cobden-Sanderson refused and in December 1908 he barred Walker from entering the premises.


The dispute would run for around another eight years before a compromise was finally reached. In principle the typeface would remain the property of Cobden-Sanderson by then 78 years old for the remainder of his life. On his death the rights would pass to Emery Walker, and there the matter would seem as if it had come to a conclusion.

However, the more Cobden-Sanderson thought about this, the more intolerable the prospect became. Some months before the Doves Press closed for good in 1916, Cobden-Sanderson would take an evening stroll along the banks of the Thames until he reached Hammersmith Bridge and pausing mid stream would throw a handful of the lead type mouldings into the waters below. The total weight of the mouldings stored within the Press' building was well over a ton and so Cobden-Sanderson started to wrap up parcels of type mouldings which he managed to carry over to the bridge to meet a watery end. In all he made 170 trips before his secret was discovered. Cobden-Sanderson died in 1922, his widow Anne was then sued by Walker and had to pay £700 for the loss of the type and it seemed that the Doves typeface was lost forever.


That is until 2010 when designer Robert Green started a project to reinstate the typeface in digital format which, he says, became an "obsession". Green decided that he would try and find some of the original metal type. Using the sources available, including Cobden-Sanderson's published journals, he worked out where he thought the type was thrown from the bridge into the Thames.

At low tide, and with a mudlarkers licence, he scoured the Thames foreshore and found three pieces of the original type. Due to the dangerous nature of the Thames currents and tides a team of professional divers from the Port of London Authority then spent two days looking for more type and a total of 150 pieces were recovered, although there were estimated to be around 500,00 individual pieces. Concrete which was used to make bridge repairs is thought to have covered the majority of the type, but occasionally single pieces are recovered from the area at low tide.


One rather charming footnote to this story is that when Cobden-Sanderson was cremated after his death, his ashes were interred in a small nook in the wall at the end of his garden which overlooked the Thames very near the Press' building. His wife's ashes joined him after her death in 1926. In 1928 there was catastrophic flooding along a large section of the Thames when the river broke it's banks. The floodwaters entered the garden and took the two urns with it and no doubt Cobden-Sanderson made his final journey to Hammersmith Bridge and the typeface that he had deposited in the Thames mud some ten years earlier.

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