Reverting to type

Lucy Harrison is looking into how the printing industry left a mark on East London

Tomkin's Printing Works

Tomkin’s Printing Works in Grove Green Road, Leytonstone, 1939 (credit Vestry House Museum)

A new local project will explore the printing industry in East London in the years before digital technologies transformed it.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lightboxes and Lettering is the latest venture from Rendezvous Projects, a Community Interest Company (CIC) I run with four other artists and writers.

The project will document aspects of the industry that have changed, record the experiences of people working in the industry, and collect archive material including photographs of businesses and printed material.

We will be advertising for volunteers to join us in recording oral history interviews and collecting archive material and we will have a series of workshops and events for people to work with artists, respond to what we’ve found, and use some of the processes. It will all be included in an exhibition, book, and website in 2019.

The printing industry was a major employer in London in the 20th Century. Lithography, silkscreen, and in earlier days, letter press, were used for everyday items that today would be digitally produced or emailed.

Although lithography is still widely used, all of the processes used to make the printing plates have now become digital, so anyone who started working in the industry in the last 20 years or so will most likely have no experience of any of the previous processes – such as hand-corrected film on lightboxes or darkroom production of silkscreen positives.

Many industrial areas in East London have changed and some businesses have moved out of the area because of rising property prices and business rates, as well as large-scale regeneration like the construction of the Olympic Park. Lightboxes and Lettering will start to map these businesses and the contribution they made to the area.

East London has also been home to many smaller radical and community presses that allowed political groups to print their books, pamphlets, and publicity material. Aldgate Press started in 1981 as part of Freedom Press and is still in the area. As a workers’ co-operative it works with many of the same groups and charities it did when it started.

Other places like Chats Palace in Hackney provided silkscreen facilities for community groups to make posters, while risograph and even photocopying allowed pamphlets and flyers to be cheaply produced.

Our project will collect and record this era of printing in East London and celebrate the importance of the industry to the area.

Rendezvous Projects CIC was founded in 2015 by Iain Aitch, Rosa Ainley, Katherine Green, Lucy Harrison, and Michael Needham. Previous projects include WE: The ex-Warner Estate in Waltham Forest, and Lea Bridge Links. For more information: