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The changing face of London’s printers

There is still at least one printer left in Fleet Street in central London, although the business is a world away from the once mighty print halls of the national newspapers.

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Back in the day: Fleet Street was once the hub of the British Printing Industry but today is almost void of printers. Picture: Fleet Street Archive

In many ways, the Kall Kwik franchise in the street symbolises much about the multi-tasking, multiple-services and high tech outfit that survive and indeed thrive in the capital. 

As the company’s website says: “We provide a one-stop design, print and on-line solution for businesses in Fleet Street, Holborn, Chancery Lane, Temple, Covent Garden, Waterloo, the City, central London and beyond who want to make sure they communicate the right message whenever they talk to their market. With our team of skilled designers and print specialists we can design, print and deliver everything you need from business stationery through to marketing collateral, training material and exhibition graphics.”

Kall Kwik is not completely alone in Fleet Street, as the presses will be rolling again in February at St Bride Foundation when tutor Mick Clayton overseas his students in letterpress courses using some of the classic presses in the Foundation’s care. 

London calling: Southside Printers are an example of a small but successful print 
outfit in the capital. Picture: Harry Mottram

That aside, there are still a surprising number of printers in central London, despite the high rents and difficulties of parking, the congestion charge and transporting print around the busy streets. Many of the larger outfits have moved out in search of industrial sized premises at lower rents with quicker access to the motorway network. 

There are exceptions such as Rapidity (formerly Print Flow) with a sizable workforce based at its Goswell Road premises near Clerkenwell and the long established Solways Printers at the Elephant and Castle, which has a range of traditional print services. Many of the really large scale outfits have however upped stone and gone—best symbolised by News International’s controversial migration to Wapping in 1986.

Southside Printers is a typical inner city print business based in Tabard Street, the road known to readers of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Within the shadow of The Shard, Southside had like many before it rebranded in order to retain its independence and remain relevant in an ever-changing industry. 

Yes, Fleet Street is still there and printing still takes place in around the ancient thoroughfare but the world it once symbolised has moved on

Manager Mark Potter said the main strengths of Southside were being embedded in the local community with a quick turn-around of work and a longevity in business with an established client base. The firm is also proactive on social media in promoting the business and ensuring its name appears high up on Google searches in the competitive world of SEO. And along with good customer service that emphasis tells a tail of how the business works in London.

Many or indeed most inner city printers tend to be High Street print shops, with an emphasis on passing trade meaning their frontages are attractive, eye-catching and consumer friendly. The London Printing Company has branches in Kensington and Chelsea and like Southside Printers take their social media seriously even incorporating a newsfeed on their website and looking attractive to passing trade. 

In Soho’s Wardour Street, the stylish looking frontage to The Print Room could almost pass as a coffee shop at first glance, proving the point that city printers need to have ‘the look’ beguiling the fact the firm offers high volume litho printing as well as the latest in digital printing.

Master printer: Mick Clayton at St Bride Foundation keeps the presses rolling off 
Fleet Street for workshops and classes for students. Picture: Harry Mottram

Many of the print firms in central London offer more than just print with graphic design and even website design listed along with wide-format, sign-making and marketing as extra services. And it is an open secret in the trade that some may not have those services in-house and so sub-contract out some specialist jobs to other printers in the area, which of course is standard practice for many companies across the UK.

For those who suggest print is in decline need to look at this sector and realise the industry is simply changing. Gone are most of those old style print factories that populated London with large workforces and heavy metal presses in an age of mass newspaper readership and when every office had a comprehensive stationery range with NCR sets and a business card for every employee. 

Instead, small start-ups demand traditional leaflets, shops and exhibitions need posters, flyers and wide format printing and art students need projects printed to a professional standard. 

Yes, Fleet Street is still there and printing still takes place in around the ancient thoroughfare but the world it once symbolised has moved on.

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