ON DARK evenings in late 1916, a frail 76-year-old man could often be seen shuffling furtively between The Dove, a pub in west London, and the green and gold turrets of Hammersmith Bridge. Passers-by paid no attention, for there was nothing about Thomas Cobden-Sanderson’s nightly walks to suggest that he was undertaking a peculiar and criminal act of destruction.
Between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the west side of the bridge. He made around 170 trips in all from his bindery beside the pub, a distance of about half a mile, and always after dusk. At the start he hurled whole pages of type into the river; later he threw it like bird seed from his pockets. Then he found a small wooden box with a sliding lid, for which he made a handle out of tape—perfect for sprinkling the pieces into the water, and not too suspicious to bystanders.
Those tiny metal slugs belonged to a font of type used exclusively by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to destroy, so he concealed his trips from his friends and family and dropped his packages only when passing traffic would drown out the splash. There were slip-ups, all the same. One evening he nearly struck a boatman, whose vessel shot out unexpectedly from under the bridge. Another night he threw two cases of type short of the water. They landed on the pier below, out of reach but in plain sight. After sleepless nights he determined to retrieve them by boat, but they eventually washed away. After that he was more careful.
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