This is one of the most famous printed pages of all time: the first page of Genesis in the five-volume “English Bible,” printed by a tiny London press from 1902–1905, with a type designed specifically for that press and used by no other. In those three years, Doves Press printed 500 Bibles.
Today, a Doves Bible is worth upwards of $30,000.
The story of Doves Press and its beautiful namesake type would make a great book—indeed, it already has—but the story didn’t end until late last year. That was when the Doves type was found.
You can read an excellent account of how it was lost in a 2013 Economist article, which details how two men came together in a friendship and business partnership but later had a parting of the ways. In between, the business made a name for itself as a printer of fine books, sought by connoisseurs the world over. The Doves Bible became the most famous of them, followed closely by a printing of Paradise Lost.
But the man who actually ran the press, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, was a ferocious perfectionist who believed that machine presses were an abomination. He did not appreciate his business partner’s lack of similar devotion, nor his opinions. Emery Walker’s contacts and business acumen helped establish Doves Press and keep it profitable, but Cobden-Sanderson was an artist down to the soles of his shoes.
In 1906, Cobden-Sanderson asked Walker to end their partnership so that he could run the press alone. But there was a catch. The initial contract stipulated that Walker had the right to a set of the type they had planned to develop for the press. By 1906 that type was famous—and Cobden-Sanderson was very possessive of it. He could not bear the idea of his glorious type being used in a machine press, and he knew that was exactly what Walker would do with it. So he offered a cash payment instead.
Walker refused, setting off a years-long feud. As Cobden-Sanderson wrote to a friend:
“Nothing on earth will now induce me to part with the type. I am what, he does not appear to realise, a Visionary and a Fanatic, and against a Visionary and a Fanatic he will beat himself in vain.”
It took three years before a mutual friend suggested a compromise: Cobden-Sanderson would retain the rights and use of the Doves type until his death, after which it would pass to Walker. Both men agreed.
But Cobden-Sanderson had no intention of keeping their agreement.
Unknown to Walker, at the height of their dispute he had asked the Scottish foundry that guarded their font to send him all the remaining pieces of Doves type, as well as the punches and matrices that would be needed to cast more. For several years it sat in his bindery, while he pondered whether or not to go through with his plan. Forced to cut expenses in order to keep the Doves Press alive, he moved in with it, setting up a lonely bedroom in the bindery attic (his wife went to live with her sister). Erratic diary entries suggest a return of the depressions that had haunted his youth. In 1913 he jettisoned the matrices from Hammersmith Bridge, rendering new type impossible. When he eventually retired three years later, the rest of the font went too.
Between August 1916 and July 1917, Cobden-Sanderson walked onto the Hammersmith Bridge more than 170 times and tossed some of his beloved type into the Thames. Sometimes it was whole pages, other times mere sprinklings of type from his pocket. It was a long-term, calculated act of destruction, taking place under cover of night. No one looked twice at the old man standing at the rail, and over the course of nearly one year, Cobden-Sanderson threw every single piece of Doves type into the Thames—some 2,600 pounds of it (1180 kilos). When it was finally done, and there was no possibility of anyone resurrecting his beloved type, he publicly announced that it had been “bequeathed to the Thames.” In his diary he wrote that only this act could guarantee that the Doves type would never be used in “a press pulled otherwise than by the hand and arm of man.”
Poor Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson paid the price for her husband’s obsession. She had initially bankrolled his business, then watched him choose his type over her, then was sued by his business partner in 1922, after her husband’s death. She ended up settling out of court, likely for about £700—half of her initial investment in the press.
And the cause of it all sat at the bottom of the Thames.
Fast forward nearly one hundred years, and the Doves type became an obsession for another man. In 2010, Robert Green decided to design a digital facsimile of it. He researched every sample he could get his hands on and spent four years painstakingly reproducing the type and adjusting it to be just so. In late 2014, his type finally finished, he decided to look for the original.
Keen to find out how he might go about recovering the type, Green contacted the Port of London Authority, which suggested he scan the riverbank himself before paying for professional divers to comb the area.
“I was able to pinpoint where he would have stood to within a five metre radius [based on Tidcombe’s work and Cobden-Sanderson’s journal] – he would have been trying to be surreptitious, as he didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing, and would have had his back turned to his house and Emery Walker’s in a spot concealed from passing traffic. I went on to the foreshore when the tide was out, looked around the riverbed and found three pieces within 20 minutes.”
The Port Authority carried out a two-day dive and recovered 150 pieces in all.
It’s not a full alphabet and sadly, it’s unlikely that any more will be found.
“That section of the Hammersmith Bridge was bombed three times by the IRA, first in 1939 … and most recently in 2000,” says Green. “[As a result] it has been repaired a few times, and some of the concrete from the abutment must have flowed in to the riverbed and entombed the rest of the type. What we found was whatever must have escaped both the explosions and the repairs,” he adds.
Green has since refined his design, mostly adjusting spaces and curves, but feels he has done all he can. His project, and the story of the Doves type, has finally come to an end.