Aldgate Press is a worker’s co-operative set up in 1981, predominantly an offset litho printers.Originally part of Freedom Press, the anarchist publishers and bookshop founded in 1886, Aldgate Press was established with money from supporters of Freedom in order to update their printing resources. Vernon Richards from Freedom Press had previously bought Express Printers, that was in the building next door (now the Whitechapel Gallery), but the equipment had become too old to use by 1972 and so they started using other printers in and out of London.

View of Angel Alley
Angel Alley E1, showing Freedom Press on the left and the entrance to Aldgate Press, early 2000s, courtesy of Aldgate Press

Aldgate Press began life in the building that is now Freedom’s bookshop in Angel Alley. Steve Sorba from Aldgate Press talks in his oral history interview for this project about how money was raised from donors (‘octogenarian anarchists’, as he describes them) and describes how a press was bought for £2000. Having started taking on other work for local clients they gradually became a more commercial printers with a smaller proportion of their work coming from Freedom Press and other similar organisations.

Two printed flyers 'Anarchist Bookfair'
Anarchist Bookfair flyers printed by Aldgate Press. Courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute. Installation photo by Rob Harris.

In the 1990s Aldgate Press, after a politically motivated fire bombing, moved around the corner to Gunthorpe Street, then in 2015 after a rent hike, moved to premises in railway arches in Bow where they are now. They still work for a range of clients across London and the UK.

When Aldgate Press was founded, it was actually set up as a partnership rather than a limited company. We were individual partners and individually personally liable, and everybody who joined thereafter became a partner. So we had no employees and strictly speaking we weren’t a co-op, because we didn’t fulfil the criteria, nor could we join a union because we weren’t employees. However we approached the unions and asked them, there was quite a bit of closed shop going on at that time, and it never presented itself as a problem. Eventually we became a limited company to give financial protection to the partners. We were never constituted formally as a co-op but it always ran along those lines. Which is simply that everybody was paid the same hourly rate for whatever job they were doing. And everyone had an equal say in the decision-making process. Originally as well, we had this idea that people would rotate jobs so you would be doing machine-minding for one week and then you’d be doing layout or you’d be in the darkroom the next week or whatever, but it soon became apparent that people didn’t actually want to do that because they found themselves more comfortable doing jobs that they actually enjoyed and felt they were good at. Some people didn’t particularly want to speak to clients, some people didn’t want to spend all day in the darkroom and some people really enjoyed being machine-minders. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really enjoyed being a machine-minder, but you know, eventually we ended up with particular jobs.

Steve Sorba, Aldgate Press
Person at work at Aldgate Press
Gill Rolfe at Aldgate Press in their former premises on Gunthorpe Street E1, 2013. By Colin O’Brien, courtesy of Jan O’Brien

Basically everybody was equal within the business, just everybody had different roles to play and different jobs to do. When it came to the end of the year, we all used to make the decision on if we had any spare money to spend what we would do with it, how we would spend it, whether we would invest in new equipment and what equipment we needed, whether we decided we would give ourselves a bonus, so we all got together and all decided on those decisions, which was really nice that you had that opportunity. So if where the area that you worked you felt like you needed a piece of equipment, you could go and say, ‘well, actually, this really needs replacing,’ or, you know, and we would just prioritise what was more necessary or what needed replacing rather than someone, you know, a boss actually saying, ‘no, we’re not doing that. We’re not doing this,’ you know, it was quite nice to have that input.

As a co-op we were all paid the same wage no matter what job you did. Everybody was paid the same, and everybody just had a different role to play, so, you know, some people say, ‘but how is that fair if you’re doing a more physical, more manual job?’ but then at the end of the day, you’re a co-op; you’re all in it together. That was my part that I played, like my role I played. You know, I wasn’t bothered by that because everybody had their own role that they played and part that they did.

Gill Rolfe, Aldgate Press / Lithosphere