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16 January 2007

Devon Book 61

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
61: The printer's repertoire

The population of Exeter and its suburbs continued to grow in the later 19th century, growing from 45,000 in 1851 to 70,000 in 1901. Thereafter the rate slowed, the population reaching 85,000 in 1931 and 100,000 by the end of the 20th century. The numbers of printers and booksellers have not reflected this doubling in size of the population as the table below shows:

YearAll printers & booksellersPrintersBooksellersPrinters & booksellers

Typically there have been between 20 and 25 printing firms in Exeter and 15 and 20 booksellers. There is little overlap between the two, reflecting the growng specialisation in the provincial trade brought on by changing technological, economic and social conditions. Nevertheless this apparent lack of growth should not imply stagnation. In 1908 H.Tapley-Soper the City Librarian noted that printing was a major industry in Exeter and the city was considered a cheap centre for production. He knew of more than twenty firms, among the largest being Townsend, Southwood and Pollard. The output of printed material certainly did not remain static over this period. The fact that, while the numbers of booksellers showed a tendency to decline over the period, the numbers of printing firms showed a gradual increase indicates two things. Firstly, to meet the steadily growing demand for printed material produced by the rising population, the increase in literacy and the new economic demands, the supply must have been ensured not only by increased mechanisation but also by by growth in the size of individual firms. Secondly, an increasing amount of the printed output was not passing through the normal bookselling outlets.

Indeed the later 19th century was the golden age of the jobbing printer and the range of products that the printer was required to produce widened considerably during this period. The provincial printer could obtain an infinite variety of typefaces, stock blocks and ornaments and sometimes seemed determined to employ as many of them as possible in a single printed sheet.

There were new formats that required mastering, such as the railway timetable with its columns of figures and symbols once the railway arrived in Devon in 1844. The range of jobbing printing can be amusingly and profitably examined by the various pastiches that were produced for humorous or satirical effect. This use of typography was nothing new but now printers seized with enthusiasm the new resources which were at their disposal. An undated and unsigned poster in the Westcountry Studies Library which, from its provenance and typographical style, was probably printed in Exeter in about 1850 seems to gently mock the summer celebrations which were a feature of community life. It starts off normally enough with the announcement of a wrestling match for a purse of sovereigns, then proceeds to list, using a variety of typefaces, a delightful series of contests such as might fill any village fete across the country. Because of the cheerful vagueness about the location and date of the event it must be intended as a pasticlhe of the long posters which advertised such occasions. The menu which accompanied banquets on important occasions was cleverly parodied by Henry Besley in the 1880s. It starts "A grand banquet (or general mess) will be given at the Boer's Head Hotel ... carefully prepared by Mr. W.E.Gladstone", then introduces a witty series of dishes on the menu which make satirical allusions to events during Gladstone's 1880-85 term as Prime Minister, such as his Midlothian election campaign and dealings with the Boers in the Transvaal. The auction sale poster and the in memoriam card were used by Besley to similar effect in Mr Gladston's sale by auction and The "Honor" in memoriam card. In Ilfracombe the programme for horseracing meetings, complete with a wood engraving of horses and riders was put to good effect to satirise a long forgotten local government controversy with its programme headed "Grand international steeple chaise, April 6th 1880".

In the middle of the 19th century printers were making wider use of wood engravings. In 1849 Thomas Shapter employed them to good effect in The history of the cholera in Exeter in 1832, illustrating the grim realities of the insanitary conditions which prevailed. National periodicals such as the Illustrated London news were making wood engravings the accepted form of illustration in many forms of publication, although for more accurate illustrations lithographic plates were replacing copper or steel engraving. Lithographs were used by publications such as those of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society for illustrations of churches and monuments.

In the early 1850s Owen Angel was experimenting in Exeter with a new form of illustration, photography. He is first listed in trade directories as an engraver and printer but on 26 March 1846 an advertisement in Trewman's Exeter flying post notes that he had added lithography to his skills and on 4 January 1855 another advertisement in the same newspaper tells us that photographic portraits were being taken daily. On 22 November 1855 he was advertising stereoscopic prints of local views which he had taken during that summer. At about this time he established the West of England Photographic Institute and photography came to play an increasingly important part in his business. Newspapers report his winning several prizes and in the 1880s he opened a gallery. Beginning as an engraver he became one of Exeter's earliest and most successful photographers.

However the photgraphic image was only to become an important factor in book illustration after the introduction of the half-tone block, which only came in toward the end of the 19th century. There were some books which were illustrated with original photographic plates such as Kingsbridge estuary, with rambles in the neighbourhood. compiled by S.P.Fox. This was published by G.P.Friend at the Gazette office in Kingsbridge and Hamilton Adams and Co. in London in 1864 and was illustrated by 25 three inch square photographic illustrations mounted as plates on separate leaves, some copies boasting a further 21 plates. A later and better known example from the region is 'Mongst mines and miners; or underground scenes by flashlight published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd in London, and the Camborne Printing and Stationery Co. in Cornwall, although the production was done by Waterlow and Sons, photographic art printers in London. This contained 28 six by four inch photographs taken by J.C.Burrow, who had a long experience of working in the mining districts of Cornwall, with a description of the subjects of the photographs provided by William Thomas who taught at the Camborne School of Mines. The firm of Francis Bedford was also producing albums of original photographs of Devon scenes mounted on card in the 1870s. However such extensive use of original photographs remained rare.

The line block continued to be important, especially for commercial publications and publicity. Even as late as 1911 the Devon and Somerset Stores in its March, April and May price current, 1911 was predominantly illustrated by line blocks, although the printer James Townsend did use a half-tone illustration of the High Street shop front on the cover of this 50 page price list which was closely set in two columns. The sources of the blocks used in this and similar publications were frequently photographs which were redrawn and reproduced as electrotypes. These could often be hired from the manufacturers of the product. Thus in the New and revised list of Drayton Mill prize medal toilet papers, issued by the Drayton Paper Works at Fulham in about 1910 it is stated: "Electro of any block used in this list supplied for one shilling, which will be refunded on return." Although the Devon and Somerset Stores listed the Waldorf, one of the rolls produced by the mill, it illustrated this section of its catalogue with two blocks supplied by the British Patent Perforated Paper Company, which had probably been supplied on similar terms.

The various technical changes posed challenges to businesses in Exeter. Considerable investment was required to update equipment and working practices had to be continually adapted. There were also other hazards to face as this account of the developing fortunes of one Exeter firm demonstrates.

Wheatons, which had been established as booksellers at 185 and 186 Fore Street since the first half of the century suffered a disastrous fire in 1882 which also destroyed several surrounding premises. The business was moved to temporary premises across the road at the corner of South Street but after the shop had been rebuilt moved back to the original site, now, because of street widening a corner building between Fore Street and North Street. The rebuilt premises retained the name of Paternoster House after the publishing quarter in London, a name that can still be seen engraved on the building today. By 1886 they had taken over the lease of a store at 223 High Street, at the corner of Queen Street, which it retained until it was transferred to Boots the chemists in 1927. While it was active as a publisher, issuing a number of almanacks, pamphlets and prints, Wheaton's own printing activities were confined to a small amount of dye-stamping and engraving. This was to change in 1906. Wheatons had acquired the premises occupied by S.Lee and Co. at 1 Preston Street in about 1901 and began to build up its business as printers and binders. In about 1905 it acquired the magnificent Queen Anne merchant's house at 143 Fore Street, built in 1714, which had previously been occupied by the Western Times and it was here that the printing business began to develop with labels, stationery and church magazines. In 1910 it made its first tentative steps into educational publishing with Wheaton's observation drawing cards and this was followed by other publications in this field. The firm gradually acquired virtually all the land behind and adjacent to the main building and the factory eventually extended all the way back to Bartholomew Street which ran parallel to Fore Street about 120 metres behind. The complex contained a large composing department, letterpress and litho machine rooms and a mechanised bindery. A factor in the survival of firms like Wheaton, which culdovercome disaster such as fires, was the strong family links. Over most of this period the firm was conducted by Alfred Wheaton who enetered the firm in th 1860s when it was being conducted by his aunts. He retired in 1928 and died in British Columbia in 1931 at the age of 79. He was a keen congregationalist and was active in local politics as a Liberal, being a member of Heavitree Urban District Council. (E&E 16 Sep 1931). He was also a major benefactor to Exeter City Library, donating among other items the magnificent account of Napoleon's scientific expedition Description de l'Egypte.

Beside the multifarious items of jobbing printing, the periodical developed in style during this period. The octavo productions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, usually modelled on London series such as the Gentleman's magazine but of short duration, were supplanted by series which were intermediate in size between those early titles and the newspaper. There were a number of titles which were aimed at the entertainment market and some of the more successful examples came from Plymouth. The thunderbolt: a satirical weekly journal and review for Devon and Cornwall appeared between 5 August 1871 and 4 July 1874 (Beckerlegge 1946). On 7 November 1877 the first number of the Western Figaro appeared. For a penny it provided sixteen pages in two colums illustrated by cartoons, much in the style of Punch. The publishers Messrs Screech and Dunstan of Martin Street, Plymouth announced "We don't propose to make thrones totter, or nations rise and fall .. We desire simply to please, to beguile and amuse ... It may also be intimated that it may be regarded as either Liberal or Conservative, without extra charge." The publishers had sought to ensure its wide distribution with 19 agents in the three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport and a similar number in towns across Devon and Cornwall although in Exeter it could be had of "all news agents". It survived for a quarter of a century until 1902 which is more than can be said for imitations in Exeter.

The first edition of Echoes of the Exe appeared on Friday 27 March 1885, again providing 16 double-columned pages each fortnight for a penny. Its subtitle "original satire, fiction and fun" well described its tone and the publisher H.Leduc of 32 Waterbeer Street claimed it to be "independent, and while aiming to expose abuses ... moderate in tone; and everything calculated to pander to a low appetite will be avoided, alike in expression and suggestion." Apart from woodcut line blocks in the text there were cartoons by exponents of the art rejoicing in the names of Fred and Grip, which appeared as separately printed lithographic plates. As a supplement to the first issue was a lithographed portrait of the elderly Thomas Latimer copied from a photograph by Owen Angel, perhaps indicating the real inspiration behind the venture. Nevertheless the publication died before its inspirer, the last issue appearing on 10 December 1886. A similar publication the Western Ariel, published by Charles Spicer in Queen Street was even more ephemeral, lasting from 10 October to 5 December 1891.

The working conditions in the printing industry improved gradually but remained harsh to modern eyes. A.J.Clamp, who talked with senior workers with James Townsend and Son in 1960 provides some anecdotal evidence. Technical innovations brought their own problems. When monotype was introduced to offices in Exeter around 1908 there was much unemployment among compositors. Alfred Gosling was employed as compositor by the firm from 1891 to 1951. In 1891 his wages as an apprentice were 3/- a week, rising to 10/- a week when he finished his apprenticeship. By 1914 they had risen to £1/2/-. Merit money was paid and could be quite generous but there were no bonuses for Christmas or holidays. The levels of work fluctuated widely. Townsends enjoyed the contracts for much official printing for the City Council and at peak times, for example when the electoral registers were being produced, up to 81 compositors could be employed, but normally about 60 were employed for general work. There were about 14 to 16 apprentices in the first years of the 20th century. The hours in 1911 were 52½ a week, 8-6.30 Monday to Friday and 8-1 on Saturday. In 1910 a weeks holiday was granted to those with ten years service at the firm's convenience. A provident fund for sickness had been established before 1900 and the waygoose was held each year, an outing paid for by the employers. The foremen held complete control over the men, and Blackmore, the foreman compositor, was a hard taskmaster. No talking was allowed and lateness was punished by giving the offender the whole morning off. All personal problems were referred to the foreman in whom, so Clamp's informants claimed, the management had complete faith. Unionism seemed to make a slow start in Townsends, although it may have been different in other firms. Mr Bowe joined the union when arriving in Exeter but, finding he was in the minoirity, judged it better to leave. But after World War I the unions gained ground and broke the power of the foremen. A week's holiday was given as standard in 1919 and this was increased to two weeks in 1939.

There was little formal training in this period. Classes started in the Museum after 1929 with support and funding given by Exeter master printers. In the 1930s classes moved to St James's School where Mr Bowe of Townsends taught composing. The classes were held on winter evenings and were practical in nature, covering type setting and machine printing. There were no formal lectures and the equipment available was limited, just one platen machine. Normally there were up to a dozen apprentices enrolled. The classes later moved to Exe Island where Mr Denning was responsible for the teaching and they were discontinued during World War 2.

This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.