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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Barclay & Fry

At the top of a large, plain and functional-looking building just off Southwark Street, is a sign proclaiming




The sign is in good condition thanks to remedial work and below it, over the entrance solid letters spell out THE METAL BOX FACTORY. The building, now split into studio work spaces, clearly has an industrial history which goes back to the very end of the 18th century.

Barclay & Fry 3 Barclay & Fry

Barclay & Fry had its roots in a company called John Williams & Co, bookbinders, stationers and printers, founded in 1799 and based in Bucklersbury.  Williams invented an innovative means of bookbinding whereby the backs of bound books were rounded with a spring effect leading to a large demand from all over the country for account books bound in this way. Williams & Co were also amongst the first in the country to use lithographic printing.


Robert Barclay acquired the company in 1855 with a view to meeting the ever increasing printing needs of his family’s banking business. He had an inventive mind and soon after acquiring the new company he designed a two revolution printing press and soon after this invented an indelible paper which could be used for the printing of cheques which prevented chemical alteration and so making cheque fraud easier to detect. There was a great demand for this and led to a large increase in business. This in turn led to a need for more capital and help with administration so Robert Barclay brought in fellow Quaker John Doyle Fry, a son of the Bristol confectioner family, and Barclay and Fry was born. They acquired Ashby & Co, engravers and printers of banknotes and other security documents. They began printing for the Hongkong and Shanghai Baking Corporation (now HSBC) overseas.


Robert Barclay’s next ground breaking invention was how to print commercially in colour directly onto tin plate and other sheet metals, prior to this decoration on tins had been by hand painting. Due to lack of sufficient finance, Barclay & Fry did not develop and exploit this process themselves but granted the full and exclusive rights to the patent to the match manufacturers Bryant and May. Even so, Bryant and May only used the process in a very limited way for the decoration of metal covers for matchboxes and it was not until the patent lapsed that the invention began to be fully exploited.


Robert Barclay died in 1877 and John Fry’s cousin Roderick Fry joined him in the running of the company. Through his contacts Barclay and Fry undertook the printing of labels and wrappers for tobacco and confectionary firms in both Bristol and London.  The patent for printing directly in colour onto tinplate lapsed in 1889 and though, to begin with Barclay & Fry just carried out the printing for other tin box manufacturers, fairly soon they decided to take the leap and go into the manufacture of tin containers themselves. They bought a site in The Grove, Great Guildford Street where they built a new factory and by 1894 they needed to build a further block to accommodate the increasing demand for their tin boxes and printing.


Decorative biscuit tins and tea caddies were very popular and many have become collectors’ items today. They carried a large profit margin for the companies that produced them as labour costs were low but  the Trade Boards Act of 1909 forced the manufacturers to increase wages and improve conditions for workers. Several of the companies formed the UK Tin Box Makers Union to protect their interests.


The First World War brought increased work to supply tin ration boxes for the forces and, as the supply of tin was restricted by the government, the tin box manufacturers worked together collaboratively. When the war ended, this collaboration was taken further and four of the companies, Barclay and Fry included, joined together in 1921 to form the Allied Tin Box Makers Ltd, changing their name a year later to Metal Box & Printing Industries. The amalgamation was set up in such a way that the member companies remained private and ran their affairs independently but the wider group was able to control the market, fend off competition and acquire further member companies. A booklet issued by Barclay and Fry to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their company described the move as being a part of a whole but at the same time “were most wisely encouraged to retain all that was best in our long tradition and to foster and increase the skill and ingenuity which had so sustained us down the years.” The Metal Box Company thrived for the next 50 years, sometimes engaging in business practices which would be illegal today. More information about the Metal Box Company can be read here.


The Blitz during World War II brought devastation to the Barclay and Fry factory in Southwark.  There were five major incidents at the factory in Great Guildford Street along with several minor incidents. 70% of the total factory space was destroyed as were many of the machines which were impossible to replace during wartime. Many of the beautiful engravings used to print banknotes both in the UK and overseas were also destroyed. It was possible to clear a small space within the ruined factory to continue production and a part of the plant was transferred to Tonbridge. Plans were drawn up to rebuild the factory after the war and until the new building was completed, orders were transferred to other branches of the Metal Box Company.

I have been unable to discover when Barclay & Fry / The Metal Box Company left the Southwark premises and Barclay and Fry ceased trading. Barclay & Fry were still recruiting in Great Guildford Street during the 1960s and advertising their services in 1974 but if anyone has any further knowledge regarding the company’s final days I would be pleased to hear from you via the Contact page. The Metal Box Company evolved considerably with huge diversification: for more information click here