A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
47: The spread of printing
A new gauge of literacy, or at any rate the ability to sign one's name, is available from 1754 when both parties were required to sign marriage registers. An analysis of signatures in six Devon parishes indicates that 26 per cent of men and 68 per cent of women were unable to sign their names in the periood 1754-64. By the turn of the century the figure for men had actually risen to 47 per cent while the figure for women showed a slight improvement to 66 per cent (Stephens 1976). Other parishes analysed by R.R.Sellman also show little improvement in literacy during the latter half of the century. Nevertheless the general rise in population meant that by 1801 when there were almost 75,000 families in Devon, the potential market had risen from the 10,000 of 1641 to a figure approaching 50,000. Andrew Brice, writing in his Grand gazetteer in 1752, points to the civilising influence of the "charity-school establishment whereby a hundred can read, write and cypher, now at this time, to ten that could barely read 50 or 60 years ago."
It is difficult to assess the amount of printed material produced by Exeter presses during this period. We are in ignorance as to the number of presses owned by each printing house, and to the extent to which they were kept active. Certainly printers did not rely solely on printing work, as can be seen by their extensive involvement with patent medicines and a wide range of stationery and other products. Nor is it known what staff a typical Exeter printer had at his disposal. Andrew Brice in The mobiad (1770) gives the impression that for long periods he was undertaking all the functions of the printing office single-handed, but many printers had apprentices - if the regular newspaper announcements that they had absconded are anything to go by. Bibliographers have assumed that a typical press was able to turn out one average edition sheet printed on both sides each day. But this assumes a normal edition size in the London trade of 1,000 to 1,500 copies and a printing shop where the numbers of compositors and pressmen are theoretically balanced and the presses kept continuously active. Many of the editions in Exeter must have been much smaller but they could vary considerably in size. Trewman's official orders could range from 200 to 5,000 copies. Davidson (1852, 96) claims that 20,000 copies of A genuine account of the trial of William Smith and John Richards were sold around the gallows by Stoke Church near Plymouth in 1788. Besides ephemera were printed only on one side of the paper and many items could be produced on one sheet. In a 1782 example Rodney victorious, or the Spaniards defeated shares the same half sheet as Capt. Ephraim, or the Yankee entertainment. This is surpassed by an example dating from 1782 where The maid's lamentation on the loss of her shepherd is found on the same quarter sheet as Rodney triumphant and France humbled, both of them slip songs headed by crude woodcuts printed by Thomas Brice. The whole sheet could have contained eight such pieces, all printed off in a few hours.
Taking Trewman as a sample printer and 1791 as a sample year a few calculations can be made. Four books printed by Trewman in this year have been traced (Maxted 1989), although some smaller items may have disappeared without record. Three are books of poems, by Downman, Hallaran and Kendall made up of 14, 13 and 3 sheets respectively. The most substantial work was An elementary treatise, by way of an essay, on the quantity of estates by Richard Preston, an octavo of 684 pages or 43 sheets. This produces a total of 73 sheets, theoretically 73 days work. A further 52 days would be taken up by his newspaper. Two broadsheets are recorded and other official work might take up another week or so of his time. So far only 22 weeks of work for a single press has been accounted for, leaving the theoretical capacity for a single press to produce a couple of hundred sheets of popular literature. That Trewman had at one stage employed his press in the production of such material can be seen from the imprint of The prodigal daughter; or the disobedient lady reclaim'd, an eight page chapbook printed in the 1770s whose imprint reads "Exeter: Printed by R.Trewman, behind the Guildhall, where country shopkeepers, travellers, and others, may be supplied with a variety of old and new ballads, patters, penny histories, &c. &c. &c." The nature of this popular literature will be discussed in the next section.
It may be expected that the production of a periodical would be seized on as providing a regular source of activity for the press and income for the printer. The earliest recorded periodical in Devon was published in Plymouth by Orion Adams who was active there between 1758 and 1764. The first issue of The Plymouth Magazine: or, the Universal Intelligencer appeared on 23 October 1758 and the publisher announced his intention to continue it fortnightly. It contained the freshest advices foreign and domestic with the prices of corn, stocks, lottery tickets, bills of mortality and similar intelligence as brought in Tuesday's and Friday's posts. While waiting for Sunday's post Adams set 'The Fairring' and 'Friendship', two new songs as sung at Vauxhall and Ranelagh. There were five advertisements, all for sales by the candle and all placed by Francis Fanning. Set in an identical measure to the main text are two supplementary pages of 'Memoirs of Frederick III, King of Prussia' which breaks off abruptly and is followed by the first sixteen pages (signatures A and B) of Romeo and Juliet with the imprint: 'London: Printed for Fr. Cooke, ... 1758'. The whole seems a cross between a cut down weekly newspaper and an apology for one of the London monthly magazines. It does not seem to have survived for long, perhaps because of the narrow advertising base. In 1759 Adams appears to have founded a more traditional newspaper, perhaps called the Plymouth and Exeter Gazette, but this seems to have ceased before 14 January 1760 when the Western Flying Post names Adams as the late printer of the Plymouth paper. In the 18 February issue of the same paper Adams thanked his readers for their support but regretted that he had been obliged to cease publication. No copies of the Plymouth newspaper are known to survive (Wiles).
Adams remained in Plymouth until at least 1763 when he printed Observations on that part of a late act of Parliament which lays an additional duty on cyder and perry by Thomas Alcock, but had moved on by 1765, in which year William Andrews moved from Exeter to Plymouth 'there then being no printer there' (Dredge). Orion Adams had been born in 1717 in Manchester, the son of Roger Adams, printer of the Manchester Weekly Journal and later of the Chester Courant. He was even more of a wandering printer than Samuel Farley. Daniel Prince described him as 'an old itinerant type' in a letter to John Nichols dated 8 October 1795. He had been active as a master in Manchester where he had started a short-lived newspaper Orion Adams's Weekly Journal and a fortnightly periodical modestly entitled The Humourist: or the Magazine of Magazines in 1752, and also in Chester, Plymouth and Dublin. He worked in London and other provincial offices as a journeyman. Soon after leaving Plymouth he was a prisoner in the King's Bench Prison Surrey, and applied in the London Gazette of 16 August 1766 to take benefit of the act for the relief of insolvent debtors. His fortunes soon improved. In Birmingham he became partner with Nicholas Boden, with whom he published a folio Bible, part of which was printed in Baskerville's office, in 1769. In that year he was distinguished as a brilliant character in his own carriage at the Shakespeare jubilee in Stratford but a few months later he was distributing playbills for an itinerant company. He, or a printer of the same name, appeared in Exeter in August 1775 when he applied for a licence to marry. He died in poverty near Chester in April 1797 at the age of 80. Biographers comment on the instability and eccentricities which made the last fifty years of his life 'a lamentable scene of chequered events'. It is as well that his heart was 'as light as his pocket; for, under all adversities his temper was cheerful, obliging and friendly' (Timperley 1842, 795).
So Adams, the archetype of the wandering printer, was perhaps indicative of the fact that in the provinces the time was not yet ripe for a regular periodical and indeed, where periodicals were started thay tended to fail after a year or so until well into the 19th century. Annual publications developed from the almanacks proved more durable. The Exeter pocket journal, published from at least 1759 in Exeter by a group of booksellers survived into the nineteenth century and from the 1790s it added a list of Exeter tradesmen to the official and calendrical information, thus transforming itself into a trade directory for the city.
The increase in the market for literature, coupled with the general improvement in communications, brought about at least in part by the newspaper, meant that in many respects more reliable outlets were available for the products of local presses. Pendred in 1785 listed a dozen printers in six Devon towns: Exeter, Plymouth, Plymouth Dock, Honiton, Totnes and Newton Abbot. By the end of the century a further six towns had acquired a printing office: Barnstaple, Dartmouth, Great Torrington, South Molton, Tavistock and Tiverton, some of them towns of little more than 2,000 inhabitants. Printing was a part-time occupation for many of these pioneer printers. Samuel Lott, who appears to have established himself as a printer in Honiton by 1783, is described in Bailey's 1784 national directory as "post-master, land surveyor, printer, bookseller and stationer". He also eked out his livelihood by acting as a lottery agent, as did John Weatherdon in Newton Abbot, Walter Cleave in Totnes and many other book trade members in the 1780s - and indeed many newsagents today. None of these printers seems to have established a newspaper or, if this was attempted for a short time copies were only distributed locally and have not survived.
The spread of the printing industry in Devon was paralleled elsewhere in England. From the half dozen towns that had active printing presses at the start of the 18th century the total, as recorded by John Pendred, had grown by 1785 to at least 200 printing offices in 122 towns, in 37 of which newspapers were published. This contrasts with a decline in France where in 1701 there had been 360 firms in 158 towns. By 1777 this had declined to 254 printing offices in 149 towns to serve a much larger population than provincial England. This was an effect of the continued control of the press in France where, by a series of edicts, the numbers of presses permitted in provincial towns was progressively decreased (Quéniart 1984). The provincial newspaper too was slow to develop in France with a series of "annonces", largely advertising sheets, developing only in the 1760s and 1770s. In Caen the number of active printing offices declined from twelve in 1701 to four in 1777. In the same period the number of active firms in Rennes declined from eight to five. So, by the later 18th century typographical activity in Exeter was rivalling that in the larger French towns, a great contrast to the situation previously described for the 16th century.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.