Photos of the Early Printing Presses at Fleet Street

Fleet Street may have been known as the traditional heart of London’s newspapers, but in fact, many of the newspapers were situated not on Fleet Street proper, but on side streets around it.

One such property was the Associated Newspapers printing presses and offices for the Daily Mail.

If visiting the Whitefriars Crypt that I mentioned last week, you might notice that one of the office blocks next to the alley has a series of metal plates with photos etched into them. This is the old printing press building, and when it was converted into offices in the 1980s, these photos of the old printing presses were put on the outside of the building.

Thinking they are quite interesting, I took a few photos of the photos, and transcribed the descriptive text below:

Click on the photos for larger versions.

The streets surrounding Northcliffe House were still in a state of flux until the early 1800s. Whitefriars Street initially started as a meandering link from Fleet Street to WhiteFriars Docks which was a water way which stretched like a road in the position of the present Carmelite Street. It enabled boats to travel with their load all the way up to Temple Street which is now known as Tudor Street. Bouverie Street seems to have taken over where Whitefriars Street originally was and pushed Whitefriars Street Eastwards to create a much more direct route from Fleet Street to the Thames in the early 1800′s.

The present layout of streets was finalised in the 1860′s. It was not until the gas works South of Tudor Street were constructed, that the printing world began to drift South of Fleet Street. They were attracted to the reliable supplies of both piped water and gas. The ‘Daily Telegraph’ set up on Tudor Street in 1886, followed by the Institute of Journalists, Co-operative Printing Society, Argus Printing and Marshall Printers.


Alfred Harmsworth who was later known as Lord Northcllffe brought the Co-Operative printing Society to Tudor Street in 1907. At the time it was known as ‘a leading avenue of the brain world of London.’ Soon after they set up their own daily newspaper which took off with outstanding success it was called the ‘Daily Mail’. The success of their second daily paper; ‘The Mirror’ was saved from doom by the introduction of photographic printing in 1904. Lord Northcliffe died in 1922 after the purchase of both ‘The Times’ and ‘The Observer’ which were sold shortly afterwards. It was Lord Northcliffe’s brother Harold Harmsworth who took control of Associated Newspapers and had Northcliffe House built three years after his brothers death in 1925. Northcliffe House was originally built to house the production of the very popular ‘Daily Mail’.

Architects Ellis and Clarke designed Northcliffe House and by the fact that the building was purpose designed it made printing so much easier. Many other printers soon followed in its footsteps and a proliferation of specialist newspaper buildings went up in the following years. The architecture of Northc’iffe House has also been recognised as an important milestone in industrial building design. In recognition of this it was granted Listed Building status II in 1988. This meant that when the site was redeveloped between 1999 and 2001 into a large office complex the facade was retained, as can be seen now.



Northcliffe House housed the heavy and bulk printers in the basement. It had two levels which went below pavement level which required the propping of adjoining buildings as indicated on the photographs taken in 1925. The printing of the newspapers continued in the building to the North and the White Swan pub to the West remained open during the works. The building was constructed in a steel frame with the external elements encased in concrete to take the supports and ties for the pre-cast concrete cladding and decorative features.

The building was originally called New Carmelite House, which can be seen from some of the photos, after the name of the building that it was succeeding. The name was changed to Northcliffe House before its completion in 1927.

At the time it was built, it was described as having an Egyptian style. It made use of the Crittall minimalist W20 section galvanised steel windows with copper-light glazing.

Northcliffe House printed newspapers until the late 1980s when production was switched to a new building in Kensington.


Wood Press

The printing press which is commemorated by the displays in these window bays, was the press that was used in Northcliffe House and is known as the Wood Press. It is called the Wood Press as it was made by the: Wood Newspaper Machinery Corporation of New York.

The press is now exhibited at the Science Museum Wroughton, and these plaques exist as a memorial at the location where it was housed and used.

The displays purpose is to highlight its industrial and archaeological significance. The Wood Press was the last printing press to be in use in Fleet Street.


Lord Northcliffe based his empire upon the model set by the American newspapers and their printing presses. With the importation of American printing presses Northcliffe House led the way in the abandonment of deck type presses, and the introduction of unit type presses with magazine reel stands. These were the first to incorporate a process where production could remain continuous without the need to interrupt, to change paper reels. Northcliffe House was also the first to use conveyors to transfer the folded newspapers from the basement to the ground floor. The machines were operated by the most powerful electric motors of the time producing 100 h.p. each.

It was known as the best machine with regard to print quality and lack of vibrations. It was divided into three levels. The lower level rested on the basement floor slab while the upper levels where supported on a steel frame incorporating a walkway around them. Although the actual weight of the press is not known a similar one manufactured by Wood contained 92 tons of steel and 41 tons of cast iron and other materials.


Lower Level

The lower level consisted of three magazine reel stands and a large electric motor. The motor turned a mains shaft by means of a belt which inturn powered all the units, by a system of gearing and secondary drive shafts.

The magazine reel stands at this level provided minimum disruption to production during paper reel replacement, by a process known as ‘flying paster’.

As the paper reel was running low it was moved around so that a full reel was then positioned uppermost. The full reel was then pasted onto the old reel and for a short while the two of them ran through together until the old reel was cut. During this process the press was slowed down but most importantly, it did not need to stop.


Middle Level

The middle level of the press consisted of three printing units and a folder. Slightly raised wooden footboards on either side gave access to the printing cylinders. The printing process used a series of rollers with ink and lubrication boxes. Presses like this normally had a ‘fudge’ box for the printing of late news in the ‘Stop Press’ column.

The folder with the name ‘WOOD’ on it was situated between two printers and consisted of two separate folding units The folders worked on a system of sloping triangular wedges, wires, rollers and cylindrical tubes.

Upper Level

The upper level consisted of another printing unit and rollers to which a walkway was added around the outside. The rollers raise the newspapers up a distance of 2.5m in height.


Process Flow

From the magazine reel stands, the paper was guided, by rollers, up to the printing units on the middle level of the press. A raised image on one cylinder was inked by rollers and transferred to paper by passing between it and an impression cylinder.

The paper would flow through the impression cylinders each plate would be four pages wide. As the paper progressed through the printing unit, a total of eight pages printed on both sides would be produced. The cylinders were also able to produce spot colour on the back or the front of the paper.


Following the printing the paper would be guided through rollers on the upper level of the machine. The paper was assembled by the rollers of the upper level, above the folder on the middle level.

The paper was cut lengthwise and then sorted, so that as they passed down into the folder they had been divided into two lines containing all the pages needed for the paper in the correct order.


The triangular wedges were used to draw the paper together in order to put the crease in the spine. The paper would then pass over rollers that would actually cause the crease. The ‘cut off’ occurred just below this at which point the individual newspaper appeared. The individual newspapers dropped through another set of rollers or cylinders, to put a crease in the spine and create the finished item.

The newspapers then passed out of the delivery chute at the base of the folder, known as the ‘fly’. Every twenty-fifth copy was delivered askew to enable fast and accurate counting. From here the papers could be taken away by wire elevator at the side of the folder to a delivery room to be dispatched.

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1 Comment

  1. John Goodrich

    Thanks, just found this in time for a talk to friends on “The Printing life”
    and wanted something on actual presses.
    JG

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