Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, bookbinder by the Thames
No feature of London - not even St Paul’s or the White Tower - has as much physical presence or historical importance as the river Thames. Indeed, it has been around much longer than the city itself, and has been the most significant factor in the city’s growth over the years. Many of the diarists in this collection mention the river, but none have as vital or as spiritual a connection as Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, and none write of it as romantically, as here: ‘What I should like to convey is the intense energy, sparkling, crisping, into moments of whitest, brightest light, again and again and again, everywhere over the surface of the the outstretched sheet of water.’ He was an extraordinary man in many ways, abandoning a legal career, he took up with William Morris’s Arts and Craft movement, becoming a highly-skilled bookbinder and printer. Apart from lyrical descriptions of the river, it figures often in his exquisitely-written diary for more practical reasons, whether because he is walking with his lover along the Embankment, setting up a business in a house with a garden that runs down to the riverbank, or secretly at night drowning blocks of valuable metal type.
Thomas James Sanderson was born in 1840, at Alnwick in Northumberland. His father, James, was a district surveyor of taxes who worked his way up to become a Special Commissioner of Income Tax at Somerset House. After grammar school, Thomas studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, aiming to enter the church, but he left without taking a degree, apparently in protest against the examination system. After a period of soul searching, he was called to the Bar as a member of the Inner Temple, where he worked throughout the 1870s. He was involved in establishing the powers, rights and obligations of the London and North Western Railway Company, a task which debilitated his health, and led him to go abroad to recuperate.
In Siena, in 1861, he met Janey Morris (wife of William who, still in his 20s, was in the process of launching a new-style company to supply decorative arts). Janey was with two daughters of Richard Cobden, a well-known British manufacturer and statesmen. The following year Thomas married the younger Cobden daughter Anne (she was 29 at the time, and he 41), and, out of respect for her father, changed his own surname to Cobden-Sanderson. Soon after, he left the Bar and, eager to work with his hands in the spirit of the evolving Arts and Crafts movement, took up a suggestion by Janey Morris, to train as a bookbinder. He and Anne lived first in Hendon and then in Hampstead; and they had two children, Richard and Stella.
Cobden-Sanderson took his new craft to the highest level, binding classic works of literature in simple but sumptuous floral designs with gold on leather. Unusually, he chose which books to bind, and sold them through Bains in the Haymarket. By the late 1880s, his bound books were much in demand from American buyers. Both Thomas and Anne were early socialists. Anne became a leading campaigner for woman’s suffrage, and was arrested in 1909 for picketing outside 10 Downing Street (and kept a diary while in prison). She also did much to press for various improvements in children’s well-being.
In the early 1890s, Cobden-Sanderson started the Doves Bindery at 15 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, a small house with a garden running down to the Thames, not far from William Morris’s Kelmscott House. At first, he employed several professional binders to work on individual books as he had done, but, in 1890, he launched, in partnership with Emery Walker, the Doves Press, and thereafter the Bindery worked more mundanely to cover printed editions. Between 1900 and 1917, the Doves Press produced 50 classic titles (Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, the Bible, etc), all in the so-called Doves Type (designed by Walker) and all austere, characterised by a lack of illustration and ornament, in reverence to the literature itself.
Although the partnership with Walker, who had other interests, had been dissolved in 1908, it allowed Cobden-Sanderson to continue using the Doves Type until his death, at which time it would revert to Walker. Fearing his ex-partner might not use the type in a way he thought fitting, Cobden-Sanderson chose to destroy it. He did this during many nights in the latter half of 1916 by throwing the metal blocks into the Thames. Subsequently, he wrote to Walker’s lawyers, and his actions became public knowledge. Cobden-Sanderson died in 1922, and Anne was left to settle, at some personal cost, the legal action brought against her husband by Walker.
Throughout most of his life Cobden-Sanderson kept a regular diary. This was edited by his son, Richard, and published in 1926 in two volumes as The Journals of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, 1879-1922. They reveal the author as a spiritual man, high-minded and intellectual, lacking perhaps a little in humour and colour himself, though the details that emerge of his life and those of others in the Arts and Crafts movement are immensely interesting, not least those about the early life-changing suggestion by Janey Morris and those about the disposal of the Doves Type. And through all of his life, apparently, and the diary, runs the River Thames which regularly inspires him to flights of literary fancy.
Annie back from Chelsea
31 May 1883
Yesterday Annie and I walked together on the Embankment towards Westminster, I to the Long Gallery, she to the Abbey to wait till I had done. But the day was so lovely, the sun so bright, the river so attractive, that when I suggested that we should walk on the river-side of the road, she suddenly bethought herself of Walter Sickert at Chelsea, and should she not go by water to see him? I backed her up, and so at the next pier we parted; she went down the landing steps - the tide was very low - and I continued along the Embankment, looking back from time to time. Presently her steamer approached the pier, paused and came off again - I watched it approach, and a wave of a parasol drew my eyes to my darling. I waved my hand and hat, and smiled to her. [. . .]
Here there came a knock at the door, and my diary fell to the ground as I rushed to open it. It was Annie back from Chelsea. We embraced, and then she hurriedly began to tell me of a girl whom she had met on the steamer, red-haired, consumptive, Scotch, an envelope folder or sorter, returning from the Brompton Hospital where she was an out-patient. (She ought to be an in-patient, but could get no letter). [. . .] She got 1d. for 1,000 envelopes, and, when well, made 12s a week.
Why don’t you learn bookbinding?
24 June 1883
Yesterday afternoon we called at the Morrises, and in the evening supped with the William Richmonds, where we again saw the Morrises. I was talking to Mrs Morris after supper, and saying how anxious I was to use my hands - “Then why don’t you learn bookbinding?” she said. “That would add an Art to our little community, and we would work together. I should like,” she continued, “to do some little embroideries for books, and I would do so for you.” Shall bookbinding, then, be my trade?
26 June 1884
I am now the proprietor of a workshop! On Saturday I signed an agreement by virtue of which I became on Tuesday last the tenant under Mr Williams (of Williams and Norgate [a bookseller]), of three rooms of the second floor of 30 Maiden Lane, being part of the back premises of Williams and Norgate’s shop in Henrietta Street at £50 per annum.
23 July 1884
On Monday, Morris and the Hyndmans came to lunch with us, and I afterwards went with them to Hyde Park to take the opportunity of the Liberal demonstration to spread socialistic literature and to hold an open-air meeting. This last was a fiasco, being brought to an ignominious close by an ugly rush of the crowd.
27 August 1885
On Saturday Annie and I went to the meeting for the protection of young girls, in Hyde Park. Mrs Morris was in the procession of the Ladies’ National Society, and Morris in the brake of the Socialist League.
A body of art which quite startles
2 April 1886
I went on to St James’s to see the Graham pictures on view at Christie’s. Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Millais and F. Walker - prodigious performances. They, and the works of Millais and Holman Hunt on view in Bond Street, constitute a body of art which quite startles by its greatness.
24 December 1886
Yesterday I went into town to do some shopping. I called at Bain’s [booksellers]. He told me with great joy that he had only one of my books left - The Gospels!
28 March 1891
On Wednesday last I went to the British Museum to see a collection of drawings arranged by Sidney Colvin, and later I went to Hammersmith to see Morris. I found Mrs Morris very happy, for he was very much better. He was having his supper - oysters etc. When he finished, I went into his room, and found him sitting in a chair by the fire with a large silk handkerchief spread over his knees. He looked - despite his supper! - a little empty, his clothes hanging somewhat loosely upon him. But he was cheery and hopeful, and fell to talking about the new book (The Glittering Plain) now in the course of printing at the Morris Press. It promises to be a very beautiful book. [The Glittering Plain, a novel by Morris, is considered to be one of the first in a genre now called fantasy.]
The occasional sound of an oar turning
4 April 1891
Last Sunday I visited Morris’s printing press. Morris was a little down; not up to talking.
The Press has been set up in a little cottage opposite The Doves, and next door to Sussex House [Upper Mall, north bank of the Thames in Hammersmith], and is worked by two compositors and one pressman - of course all by hand. I saw the new type, and the sheets, paper and vellum, already printed The Glittering Plain.
4 July 1895
I am reading Pater’s study of Dionysus. It is delightfully silent. From the window I see the lights on and beyond Hammersmith Bridge, and the lengthened reflection on the dark river, and I hear the occasional sound of an oar turning in the rowlocks; but the tide is low, and the otherwise-sounding river is still, sounding only with the passing toiling barge, and alive with moving lights. On my table are my tools, and a glass of tiger-lilies given to me out of our garden by my cleaner, Mrs Mansel.
William Morris in a bathchair
11 October 1896
Morris is dead. He died on Saturday 3rd October at 11:30 in the morning. I saw him alive in Riverscourt Road the preceding Monday. I had been to the Bindery to get some of my books for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition, and I was on my way to the Gallery on my bicycle, when on turning the corner into Riverscourt Road I saw before me, going in the same direction, Morris in a bathchair, with a shawl across his shoulders [. . .]. I had never seen Morris in his chair before. It was a strange sensation to see the strong man so reduced. Yet he looked clear of complexion and ruddy red, and though he said not a word he yet lifted his gloved hand and waved me farewell as I mounted again and turned and bade him good-bye. . . a last good-bye.
21 August 1897
How superbly beautiful the river is at this moment! There is a high wind blowing the surface into innumerable ripples, each of which catches instantly and reflects a dazzling gleam from the sun, so that there are as it were countless diamonds at play, reflecting and deflecting rays of brightest light, so that the river’s face is an ever shifting . . .
What I should like to convey is the intense energy, sparkling, crisping, into moments of whitest, brightest light, again and again and again, everywhere over the surface of the outstretched sheet of water.
Education: shall we at last transform it, and with it our vision of and dealings with the world? Shall we have the energy of the light I see in dazzling brilliance playing upon the reflecting facets of the water, and play with the earth our home, and its dwelling-place, the infinite voids of space? Education will be transformed. “Arts and crafts” will invade and overcome literature and science and commerce, and with our own eyes we shall re-see the universe, and with our own hands and brains we shall re-create it afresh.
My writing splutters and fails of the mark.
Hampstead hideous with affluent vulgarity
28 September 1897
A cold mist this morning shuts out the sun, and only the near trees, now so yellow, are visible, and the outlines of the bridge. [. . .] On Sunday I went to Hampstead, and lunched with the Kapteyns, and had tea with Blomfield, and looked over the wall at the old house and home, No. 49. It looked very pretty, but Hampstead is becoming every moment more hideous with affluent vulgarity. I wheeled along the Finchley Road to the cemetery, and went and stood by the dear, quiet grave of Father and Mother.
21 January 1898
The sea-gulls - or river-gulls? - are sweeping in wide curves to and fro over the river - the river slides smoothly on its course - the wintered trees, arrested, placidly wait for the spring, the sky overhead is one continuous veil of stationary cloud.
All life at its best is poetry
9 May 1905
I have just seen Swinburne pass through the [British] library into the Large Room preceded by a lady and Watts-Dunton. Swinburne had on a grey, large, soft felt hat. His head, too, seemed vast, his shoulders, on the other hand, seemed slight and very sloping, and his figure plump but small. He walked without moving his body, or arms, which were held down straight at his sides. So passed our greatest living poet. I rose from my seat to see him, and pondered upon the insignificance and significance of things. The library remained as undisturbed as the surface of a lake and its whole body of water by the entrance of an undistinguishable pebble.
30 May 1905
The poets are the supreme craftsmen - the poets at their best. But all life at its best is poetry.
26 July 1908
Yesterday there was a procession, or series of processions, in support of the Licensing Bill. Annie with Stella went off early to join in it under the Suffragist banner. [. . .] I took the Turnham Green omnibus at the top of Rivercourt Road, and drove to Hyde Park Corner. There I got down, for already a procession blocked the way. I stood at the gate and watched the passing whirl; not a great stream, but great “the cause.”
25 August 1908
I went the other night to a concert at Queen’s Hall. It was a Promenade Concert, and a Wagner night. The Hall was packed. To get in I had to go to the end of a long queue extending round the building. I paid 2s., and got a seat in the balcony. The music was very loud, and filled the Hall like a great sea, and beat up into our ears as the sea does into the caves and hollows of the shore. [. . .]
Having resolved to close the Bindery next year, it seems to follow as a matter of course that I should close the Press also. But whereas I seemed to come naturally, after twenty-five years, to the former resolve, to come to the latter seemed to be against nature, there are so many great books to print and so few to bind.
Westminster Cathedral and St Paul’s
12 October 1908
Yesterday was a lost day, save that in the morning I was at Westminster Cathedral and St Paul’s - the former, by the way, was the finer. St Paul’s seemed littered up with columns and architectural ornament, and the arches under the dome hideous in the meanness of their junctions coming down together, and [William Blake] Richmond’s decoration has not enlarged them. The effect of the Cathedral, on the other hand, with sun and shade and enclosed atmosphere, was quite beautiful. In both, however, the singing was enchanting.
14 October 1908
I came [to Kew Gardens] to see the great lily. But one had flowered and passed away in a day, and the next would not flower till to-morrow. I walked around the tank and saw the blossom of the flower to be, and its vast leaves outspread upon the water, slowly born and quickly dead, and so on from age to age.
Annie must not go to prison again
30 January 1909
Annie has just been in to say that Mrs Pankhurst has been proposing on the telephone to come and see her this afternoon. The Women’s Social and Political Union want Annie now to speak on their platform, perhaps “to go to prison.”
1 February 1909
I was at Kew on Saturday, and walked through the flower-house; lilies, lilac, azaleas, camellias, carnations, all, and others in sweet flower; and around them, outside, the bare dreaming trees, whose time is yet to come.
On Sunday afternoon, yesterday, Mrs Pankhurst called. She was gentle and affectionate, but, as it seemed to us all, tired. The prison immurement seemed to have damped her fire. [. . .] This is an odious result of prison, and an argument against its use as a weapon of revolt. Annie must not go again.
The Red Flag at the Albert Hall
20 November 1913
Last night I went to the Albert Hall to hear Larkin [Jim Larkin, an Irish trade unionist then heavily involved in the famous Dublin Lock-out dispute], and was disappointed. When he was speaking a raid was made on the hall by some “students” from outside. Suddenly a sound of running feet arose in the corridor, then the attention of the whole audience was concentrated on a dense commotion at one of the entrances to the hall and the passage leading down from it, and from all parts of the hall men rose from their seats and rushed towards it. The scrimmage continued with a dead sound of the struggle, but, as I remember, otherwise in silence. But from above women leant over from the balconies, and looking upon the struggle applauded. As it went on - I witnessed it from a box - limelights burst out in various parts of the hall, and finally the organ contributed its roar to the ear, playing “The Red Flag.” At last victory was cheered by the audience, and Larkin resumed his speech. The students had been driven out; but outside they raided the electric works, and tried to put out the lights of the hall, fortunately unsuccessfully. I was disappointed; not in this, which was highly dramatic and thrilling, but in Larkin’s speech.
12 December 1913
Last night Annie and I went to see and hear Anatole France [French novelist and man of letters] at the Suffolk Street Galleries, at the invitation of the Fabian Society. Bernard Shaw in the chair. Anatole France looked like an affectionate old fox, and spoke with great animation, and many smiles and many wrinkles. He was, or seemed to be, short and stout and bent and grey. Justice, Pity, Mercy, Love - these are things as wonderful as are the flowers of the field and the stars of heaven.
13 December 1913
Clear for London, and cold. Yesterday morning as I walked through Kensington I paused in front of a “provision” shop, and looked at the birds - shot, and hanging with their heads downward - golden plovers, pheasants, partridges. Pitiful sight.
The great fight at Olympia
1 July 1914
On coming home last night between 10 and 11 o’clock after dining with Stella, I at once felt myself in an atmosphere of excitement - motors were rushing past, and newspaper boys and men were rushing about on foot, and crying hoarse, and to me unintelligible, cries. As I proceeded towards Addison Bridge - I was on my bicycle - the crowd and excitement became so great that I had to get off and walk close to the kerb. Presently the crowd was impenetrable. I asked the reason why. The great fight at Olympia - which was indeed all lighted up; Bombardier Wells had just knocked Bell out in the second round, and that was it! I pulled to the side, and leaning my bicycle against the wall on the bridge, waited the passing of the crowd. Such a crowd! Old and young, rich and poor, evening dress and filth, and men, almost all, or boys, but some women on foot, in the latest limpest evening dress, some in motors; all hurrying by as if all were bearers, to some remote other world, of long expected news. [Wells beat the Australian Colin Bell, for the heavyweight championship of the British Empire and a purse of £10,000. The New York Times headline for a report of the match ran: Women flock to fight at Olympia.]
5 August 1914
Europe and the world are now in the hands of statesmen and warriors, who have enslaved - and are now hurling against each other their enslaved - human beings, drilled to destruction. Death, not Life, and Death in another form than in times of peace, now fills to their utmost limits the minds of men, and spreads itself over all the aspects of life.
A gun mounted in peaceful Green Park
9 October 1914
A few moments ago, as I passed into [Hyde] Park, a regiment of recruits marched by - it brought tears to my eyes.
8 February 1915
In the Green Park, newly erected, there is an enclosure and platform, and on the latter, with its muzzle appearing above the screen, is mounted a gun. In the midst of Peaceful Green Park.
24 January 1916
This morning I walked to Kensington through the Park. At Hyde Park Corner three guns mounted on trucks passed. Horrible looking weapons, apparently for high firing. Walking on, I saw a company of soldiers doing bayonet practice, piercing sacks with a thrust of their bayonets. I had just passed the gardens on the other side, where the flowers of spring were just piercing the grass. How beautiful they were; how horrible the bayonets.
This evening I began its destruction
31 August 1916
The Doves Press type was designed after that of Jensen; this evening I began its destruction. I threw three pages into the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge. I had gone for a stroll on the Mall, when it occurred to me that it was a suitable night and time; so I went indoors, and taking first one page and then two, succeeded in destroying three. I will now go on till I have destroyed the whole of it.
9 February 1918
Just returned from Bow Street whither I went at 2pm to stand by Bertie Russell, on trial for some writing which I had not seen in some obscure pacifist journal. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in the second class. He appealed, and Frank and I bailed him out, otherwise he would have gone straight to prison. To prison, to solitary confinement, day and night in a locked cell. There was not a crowded court, only a gathering of friends, mainly women. [. . .] Bertie sat in front of the dock with his co-defendant, a young lady editor and proprietor of the journal in question, The Tribunal.
11 November 1918
The bells are ringing, and the guns have ceased.
12 November 1918
All London went merrily mad yesterday. I was indoors all day. All London merrily mad; all Germany?
The Oxford-Cambridge boat race
31 March 1921
The race was rowed yesterday, and after a terrific struggle - first Cambridge leading, then, at Hammersmith Bridge, Oxford, then beyond Chiswick, out of sight, Cambridge - Cambridge finally won by a length, but never once, or hardly once, was daylight seen between the boats. The crowd was immense, for the day was fine, and it was expected that the race would be a great race. We had a great crowd, and all the morning was taken up in preparing tea - cakes, tables, etc. - and arranging seats and benches in the garden. We were to be “at home” from 4 to 6pm - the race being at 5 or thereabouts - and by 4 I was exhausted, and retired to the parlour to rest.