18 December, 2007

The Caslon tomb at St Luke’s, Old Street

Historically minded typographical visitors to London sometimes go to the churchyard of St Luke’s in Old Street, about a mile to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral, a public space with some tall plane trees and a single free-standing 18th-century tomb surrounded by iron railings. The tomb commemorates William Caslon I and several members of his family, and the churchyard is historic ground in other respects. Caslon was said to have had his first foundry in a small house, which Edward Rowe Mores called ‘a garret’, in Helmet Row, the street that flanks it to the west. (But the date is not certain: there is evidence that in 1723 he was still working from his first London address in the Minories.)

From 1727 he was established as a ratepayer in Ironmonger Row, the street just to its east, which is the address that appears on his first type specimen sheet, dated 1734. (The image above is from Rocque’s map of London, 1746. That below is of the unique known complete copy of the specimen of 1734, at Columbia University Library, New York.) By 1737 the Caslon foundry had moved to Chiswell Street, still in the newly-created parish of St Luke, which is the address given on the later issues of the specimen sheet that appeared in successive editions of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, and it remained there until the firm ceased trading in 1936.

St Luke’s church is worth a visit for its own sake. It was built on land bought in 1721 for £900 from the Ironmongers’ Company, part of a ten-acre property that had been left to it in 1547. The two names associated with its design are those of John James (c. 1672–1746) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (c. 1662–1736), to whom, when he was clerk of works at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, James was attached as assistant. Hawksmoor and James were among the surveyors responsible under the Act of Parliament of 1711 for finding locations for building fifty new churches in the expanding London suburbs to the north, east and west. The steeple of the church is in the form of an obelisk, a motif that is known to have pleased Hawksmoor, although the details of the design are attributed chiefly to James.

The building of the church was begun in 1727 and completed in 1733, so that the dates of its planning and construction coincide closely with those known for the location of Caslon’s foundry next to the churchyard. Nor does the coincidence end there. Thomas James, a brother of John James the architect, was a typefounder, with his premises in what had been the Lady Chapel of the church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, a little over half a mile to the south, and in about 1730 both brothers were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to launch the system of stereotyping devised by William Ged. While Caslon was at Ironmonger Row he must have cut many of the roman and italic types that made his reputation. Although there is little direct evidence about relations between the two rival foundries they must have been complicated by figures like the printer Samuel Palmer, who shared the premises at St Bartholomew’s with Thomas James and had some dealings, not always happy ones, with Caslon. Inevitably one wonders whether Caslon’s choice of addresses next to St Luke’s churchyard was in any way connected with interests there of the James family. Although there is no known proof of anything of the kind it is tempting to speculate that they may have had a hand in the leasing out of neighbouring premises.

For many years during the latter half of the 20th century the church was disused and an embarrassment to the Church of England. It had not been significantly damaged by bombing during the Second World War, but the effects of subsidence were becoming visible and would have been expensive to repair. The original interior woodwork and fittings were stripped out and installed in other churches, the roof was removed, and the churchyard was locked up, leaving the church to become a ‘managed ruin’ which although it had a Piranesian charm seemed to have a precarious future. It was rescued from this state by the London Symphony Orchestra, which raised funds to put a roof back on and to place rehearsal rooms and a small concert hall within the surviving walls, a project that was completed in 2002. The churchyard to the south of the building, with the Caslon tomb, is now a public garden in the care of the Borough of Islington.

T. B. Reed (who to judge from his account of the inscription may not have looked at it very carefully) wrote that the Caslon tomb was kept in repair by a bequest from Mary Hanbey, daughter of William Caslon I, who died in January 1797. In fact it is clear from her will that the present tomb, which she paid for, replaced the original monument of the Caslon family, and was dedicated to her husband Thomas Hanbey, who had been born in Sheffield and died in 1786. He was a Liveryman of the Ironmongers’ Company and Master of the Company in 1775. He was also a freeman of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, and left money to establish charities in Sheffield, and also to support sons of freemen of the Ironmongers’ Company at Christ’s Hospital in London. Mary Hanbey’s bequest was administered by the Ironmongers’ Company. This is the passage :

And whereas upon the death of my said late Husband I erected a new Monument for him where the Monument of the Caslon Family had formerly been in the church yard of Saint Lukes Old Street at the expense of twenty pounds or thereabouts And whereas I am very desirous that the same should be kept in decent and proper Repair from time to time as it may be necessary I now therefore Hereby give devise and bequeath unto the Master and Wardens of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers for the time being the sum of Three hundred pounds three per cent Reduced Bank Annuities Upon this special trust and confidence that they do once in every four years at least after my decease as I have directed the said Monument to be put in Compleat Repair by my Executors immediately after my decease cause the said Monument to be inspected by a proper Workman and out of the dividends and proceeds of the said Three hundred pounds three per cent Reduced Bank Annuities Paint and Repair the said Monument in such manner as the same may want and as to the Remainder of the said dividends and produce after paying for such Reparations upon trust to dispose of and distribute the same every four years as aforesaid to and among the poor Freemen of the said Company.

When the iron railings, which seem to date from the 19th century, were damaged early in 2007 by a branch that was blown from one of the remaining plane trees and an approach was made to Ironmongers’ Company to see if they could help, there was a sympathetic response. (They said, reasonably enough, that they regarded it as the ‘Hanbey’ tomb.) In the end Islington Council, as the authority that is now reponsible for the public space, had the railings expertly restored and repainted. The Council is also considering what can be done about a problem that, paradoxically, seems to derive from the tidying up of the churchyard and its monuments by the restorers of the site. During the period when the railings to the graveyard were locked up, the limestone slab which forms the top of the tomb seemed to have been painted white – perhaps, recalling the reference to painting in the will, a relic of its original state. The paint looked horrid and had begun to flake, but it did seem to have protected the surface of the stone. Now that the paint has gone a thick layer of moss is creeping over the horizontal surface, making it difficult to see much of the lettering, probably degrading the surface of the stone, and offering a temptation to well-meaning typographers to make hazardous attempts at its removal. The Environment and Regeneration Department of Islington Council is aware of the problem and is seeking advice on how to deal with it.

To judge from its style, it looks as if the inscription on the top slab may have been cut (or recut) at some date in the first half of the 19th century. Was it possibly added as an afterthought, belatedly supplying references to the other members of the Caslon family buried there? John Nichols, referring to the burial of William Caslon I at St Luke’s in his Biographical and Literary Anecdotes of William Bowyer, 1783, page 317, has a note that ‘a handsome monument is erected to his memory, with this slight inscription: W. Caslon, Esq. ob. 23 Jan. 1766, Aet. 74. Also W. Caslon, Esq. (son of the above) Ob. 17 Aug. 1778, aet. 58 years.’ The present top inscription, with all the additional names, cannot be called slight (nor especially ‘handsome’, if by that term Nichols meant ornamented). Nor does the present wording exactly match that given by Nichols, which has the Latin terms ‘ob.’ for ‘died’ and ‘aet.’ for ‘aged’. So it seems unlikely that this slab is from the monument that had been seen by Nichols. Perhaps its wording was adapted and added to for the inscription that was cut on the top slab – whenever that was done.

Since the top inscription is no longer completely legible, it seems useful to reproduce here all the texts that are at present on the tomb. Here they are.

Top inscription

William Caslon Esqr. Died Jany. 23d. 1766 Aged 74 years.
Also William Caslon, Esqr. Son of the above died Augst. 17th. 1778 Aged 58 years.
Also Miss Elizath. Mary Caslon, daughter of William & Elizabeth Caslon and Grand Daughter to the above William Caslon, Esqr. who died October 30th. 1780 Aged 7 months and 18 days
Also Mr. Thomas Caslon, Son of the above William Caslon Senr. died March 29th 1783 Aged 56 Years
Also Miss Harriot Caslon daugher of Henry and Elizabeth Caslon and Grand Daughter of the above William Caslon, Esqr. who died May 1st. 1785 Aged 2 months and 9 days
Also Edward Caslon Son of the above Henry and Elizabeth Caslon Died Oct. 29th. 1787 aged 12 weeks and 3 days
Here lyeth the Body of Elizabeth Caslon Widow of William Caslon Senior Esqr. who died October the 24th. 1795 Aged 65 years.

Slate tablet on the north side

Mary Anne Caslon, Wife of Henry Caslon Son of Henry and Elizabeth Caslon Born Aug. 21st. 1785 Died March 31st. 1816.
Sacred to the Memory of Henry Caslon, Esqre. of Higham Hill Walthamstow Essex only Surviving child of Henry Caslon and Elizabeth eldest daughter of William Rowe Esqre. of Higham Hill Born in Gower Street London May 15th. 1786 Died at Boulogne sur-mer May 28th. 1850

Slate tablet on the south side

Thomas Hanbey Esqre. late of Hackney, Died December the 25th, 1786, Aged 74 years.
Here lyeth the body of Mary Widow of the above named Thomas Hanbey Esqr. who died 14th day of January 1797 Aged 75 years. And also Relict of Godfrey Sherwell Esqr. late of this Parish and likewise Daughter of William Caslon Senior Esqr. Formerly of this Parish.

So far as possible I have reproduced the spelling and the punctuation as they appear on the tomb, but not the use of capitals and of superior letters for abbreviations. Where the lettering can no longer be made out I have used the text that appears on an undated sheet set in Caslon Old Face type that was among items loosely inserted in Talbot Baines Reed’s own copy of his History of the Old English Letter Founders, 1887. The sheet bears a photograph of the tomb, reproduced above, taken from the north and showing the railings entwined with ivy.

Some references

The St Luke’s web site of the London Symphony Orchestra gives the background to their project and hosts a pdf of the St Luke’s Conservation Plan, the document relating to the church and its environment that was prepared in 2000 by Purcell, Miller, Tritton. Another document accessible on the same site is a report by Angela Boyle, Ceridwen Boston and Annsofie Witkin on the tombs and gravestones at St Luke’s, The Archaeological Experience at St Luke’s Church, Old Street, Islington, published in 2005 by the Oxford Archaeology Unit. This is a detailed account of the burials in the church and its graveyard, with much useful information about the site of the church and extracts from the minutes of the commissioners appointed under the Fifty New Churches act. It is a pity that it makes some errors in the text of the inscriptions on the Caslon tomb (which is listed as GR13S or ‘chest tomb 6’), of which the oddest of all is to give the family name as ‘Carlson’. For authoritative and up to date references regarding William Caslon and also the architects Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James, see the articles in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Lady Chapel, which once housed the foundry of Thomas James and the printing-office of Samuel Palmer, is now again a part of the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, having been restored by Aston Webb in 1897 to what might have been its 14th-century appearance. Since the summer of 2007 it costs four pounds, paid in cash at the door, just to enter the church, an unwelcome innovation and not one that I am inclined to support.