It was back in late 2014 that I finally arrived in Dorrigo in NSW, Australia, and went to speak with the owner and printer of the last Australian newspaper printed letterpress – The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate.
Some five years later and the paper continues under the remarkable stewardship of Michael English and his wife Jade.
I still receive the paper weekly by mail. Read their story here.
It’s a long time now but once I ran what was called a ‘private’ or ‘fine’ press. I was publisher and printer.
Here’s my story.
Short history of the Beeches Press
Why the Beeches Press?
I started the Beeches Press as a teenager, when I was about 16 from memory. At that time [early 1970s] I was living with my parents in Carshalton Beeches, a small town about 40 minutes by train from Victoria Station, London. I bought an Adana desktop, [8×5] through the wonderful Exchange and Mart [a weekly printed on newsprint full of ads for all manner of things]and a very limited amount of type, consisting of Times. I have a recollection of buying the equipment locally then strapping the lot to some sort of rack over the back wheel of my bike. But that might just be memory playing tricks. It was most probably delivered.
Searching for a name for the press I selected where I lived and engraved a tree [though whether or not it resembles a beech I do not know] on a random piece of wood, which I used as a ‘device’ on my first publication – grandiloquently titled A Manifesto. I was a radical school student at the time, taking Sociology A level and very much into Marx!
Part I –A Manifesto, 1970s
This first manifestation of the press in Carshalton Beeches left little to posterity. I have a copy of the Manifesto [printed in black and red]and I seem to recall printing Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn [I was also taking an English A level] but, thankfully, that seems to have been lost.
The press work on the Manifesto was appalling, though the intentions were laudable: A private press will have four objectives: the press will print limited numbers of fine texts; an excellant [sic] but discriminate type face will be used; the press will print on high quality and, if possible, hand made paper; and finally, the press will ensure that the best bindings are tooled, I wrote. Nevertheless, this was all hand-set and printed on the Adana; a nice touch being a layer of tissue paper overlaying the example of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.
Part II – High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, early 1980s
The original press was discontinued around the time I was completing my A levels (18 years old) in 1975 and didn’t get going again until 1980, by which time I was living in High Wycombe (having started a degree in English at Newcastle University), working as a reporter on the town’s weekly broadsheet, The Bucks Free Press. I bought, with considerable financial assistance from my dad, a new build terrace house near West Wycombe. It was on a small estate backing on to the grounds of the Dashwood estate; in fact, the little garden backed on to the estate itself, a flint wall being the boundary. The house at Portway Drive had three bedrooms, one tiny which I converted into a printing room. My diary records that I purchased one machine in January [of this I can’t recall] and then on 11 July drove to Kenilworth, near Coventry, to collect a Furnival guillotine and a Cropper Carlton treadle press. As with the Adana, I think these would have been advertised in the Exchange and Mart, since in these pre-internet years this weekly magazine was like today’s Gumtree or eBay, and had a comprehensive section of printing machinery for sale. I bought it every week and followed up on various leads – it was through E&M that I would later find the Monotype.
One other thing I remember about West Wycombe was the local rector, Michael Staines, I think of St Paul’s Church, had a vast collection of printing equipment and type housed on the first floor the Church Loft, an old building that fronted the A40/High Street. I recall going up there a couple of times but, much to my regret now, did not further access this source or find out any more about its history or function. Does it still exist? I have this entry dated 26 February 1983: See the vicar, Michael Staines, in the Church loft. He is printing. He has such a quantity of type. I hope he will buy the guillotine.
I also made friends with Harry Warschauer during this time through his wife, Judy, who worked at the Bucks Free Press. Harry, who had fled from Nazi Germany as a young boy, was an investigative reporter on the Sunday People [their house was alarmed after one expose´ led to death threats]; but I loved him for his eclectic book collection not for being a celebrated Fleet Street journo. He opened my mind to concrete poetry, Ian Hamilton Finlay and much else, and became my first ‘patron’ after my enthusiasm shifted from hot metal to letter carving on stone a decade later.
This re-incarnation of the Beeches Press was not very productive: some ephemera and a book of poems for a friend of Harry’s is all I can recall, hand-set in whatever metal type I had at the time. The only other item of mention was a card Harry and I produced (printed offset by a printer in High Wycombe) to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana on 29 July 1981. The plan was to make some money and we had 10,000 printed thinking our fortune ensured. The card featured a typographic portrait of the pair done using Letraset Univers and was printed in purple on white glossy stock. Awful.I have found one surviving example, tucked at the back of a photo album mum kept of my ‘life’, as well as a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to whom one sent, very rightly, such things for the seal of approval. [The watermark is Original Turkey Mill Kent.]
On the day of the wedding I went into central London with dad and brother Andrew trying to flog the cards to spectators. [Dad was a salesman and saw this as an opportunity to suck up a captive audience. We sold a few cards. 50p each, but I was stopped by police asking me what I had in the large bag I was carrying: I think they thought it might be explosives!] When Diana fell pregnant a year later I over-printed the remaining cards on my treadle with the slogan, Fast Breeder, [one of Harry’s inspirations] and we distributed these to like-minded anti-monarchists and those who opposed nuclear power! There were some bookshops in Charing Cross Road and elsewhere who actually stocked them.
In late 1982 my dad came up with the fancy of buying a newspaper on the Isle of Wight – The Isle of Wight Mercury. Why not? I was a journalist and also a printer, and dad could do the selling and finances. Simple. We went to Ventnor on a cold November morning, taking the ferry from Portsmouth, the departure delayed by an hour because of dense fog. I recall us sitting below deck on the return when the fog was even thicker and mum moaning that we would all perish because of the fog! I wrote in my diary: I heard my mother saying to my father, ‘There’s nothing you can do. Your number has to come up some day and if it comes up well, that’s it. It will come up sooner or later. There’s nothing you can do about it’. We all survived but the project went no further.
The Cropper treadle was sold in 1982 ‘for £200, to a lady living in London. Sold the beautiful beast because of a few debts, mainly mortgage…’ I write in my diary on 23 October. It was at this time I was seeking to return to university to study archaeology and anthropology so I was downsizing. (I matriculated at Fitzwilliam, Cambridge in October 1983, graduating in 1986 with first class honours in Achaeology and Aathropology.) These plans may well have had something to do with dad’s crazy idea for the Isle of Wight – a not so subtle hint in an effort to sway me from giving up a regular job, a mortgage and a future in order to return to uni and uncertainty and penury for three years. I was stubborn and did my own thing.
Part III – Bromley, late 1980s to early 1990s
Two false starts. Now for the real thing. It’s 1988. I’m a full-time journalist at the Financial Times, then at Bracken House, 10 Canon Street, near St Paul’s. [A year later the paper moved to One Southwark Bridge and by a strange quirk of fate is due to return to its former HQ in 2018.] I have bought a small terrace house in Brockley, near Lewisham, and a beige coloured and batteredMGB GT [registration VMD 733G]. Life is good. In April I follow up on an advert placed in the Exchange and Mart for a 1960s built Monotype caster and keyboard once operated by Cox and Wyman in Fakenham, Norfolk. It is priced at £350 and owned by a printer in that town who is selling off his letterpress. My paternal grandmother died in December 1987 and I am left a small legacy. This I use to make the purchase, which includes five matrices: Bembo, Fournier, Times, Gill and Univers.
Earlier in the same year I also acquire an Albion hand press. I can’t exactly recall now how this came about, the diary relates that in February I was put in touch with someone who had the machine through a mutual friend. It was not complete, a ‘few pieces missing but should be quite serviceable,’ I write with the enthusiasm of the amateur. [I never did get it going, and I’ve no idea where it went. I did do a fair bit of research, however, visiting similar machines in Oxford and at the Kelmscott Museum in Chiswick. My press was manufactured the executors of Cope and is illustrated in Moran’s Printing Presses. I also saw a man named Chris Holladay at his workshop in Frederick Terrace, Hackney. He sold me a filial and gave me detailed drawings of other missing parts. He also guided me to the Slade where he thought there was a machine similar to mine. It was dated 1830.]
On 4 May 1988 I visit the Monotype headquarters at Redhill. I see Duncan Avery, the Sales Support Manager, ML Division, who provides me with the details of Ernie Devonshire. On 27 May I pick up the Monotype equipment from Norfolk – I have to hire a driver and lorry. This I do before starting my night shift at the FT! The Monotype caster is stored for the time being at my friend’s factory unit in Staines as I do not yet have a workshop. The keyboard and some other items I store in an outside shed at the house in Brockley.
In August 1988, I lay my hands on a proofing press. This from the Journal: ‘A chance browse through Artists Newsletter in Dillons, Long Acre, led me to Goldsmiths (just down the road @ New Cross) which had advertised a proofing press – a Western with a 30” wide bed. Saw it Thursday, meeting Colin Aggett who explained that the printing workshop was closing down…The Beeches Press is reborn!’
At the end of the year I write: ‘It is a delight, it is wonderful, to have the workshop. I consider how lucky I am to have come across Ernie just at the right time and for all the elements of my project to fall neatly into place. There is much to learn, a great deal, but I feel that I am moving forward. Next year must be consolidation as this year has been assembling the parts of the jigsaw and moving machinery from place to place. But I now have the equipment to do whatever I care to do and The Beeches Press is reborn and a private press is born and like a little demigod I [am] in charge.’
Brief Chronology from 1988
May: Monotype Caster, keyboard and five fonts (Bembo, Fournier, Times, Gill and Univers) purchased for £350 from a printer in Norfolk.
May: Visit Monotype headquarters in Redhill and given name of Ernie Devonshire, a retired former Monotype engineer who lives in Bromley, Kent.
June: Visit Ernie and negotiate space in his workshop. Ernie also offers me lessons on how to operate the keyboard and caster. I pay £20 a week in rent.
July: Purchase some equipment from Financial Times which is closing its works at Bracken House – includes trolley used to move large chases, furniture and other sundries.
August: Western Proofing Press purchased from Goldsmith’s College, Deptford for £75. [I am living in Brockley, near Lewisham.] I have to hire a specialist removal firm, the same Chris Holliday of Modbury Engineering,as the press is on the third or fourth floor.
September: Research Coryate’s Crudities at British Library, having heard a talk on radio earlier in the year about Thomas Coryate. Decide to use the section on Venice for first publication by the Press. Decide to use Bembo for text. In the same month visit the Whittington Press.
November: Set-up and print a specimen sheet for The Beeches Press, to use as publicity poster. Send this out to those who I think may be interested in the venture. [I purchase paper from John Purcell of Brixton.]
February: Complete Prospectus for Coryate’s Venice.
April: Print Prospectus.
June: Put in touch with artist Gwyn Roberts through Goldsmith’s College and I commission Gwyn to do linoprints for Coryate. Contact the Libanus Press regarding Greek sorts needed for Coryate.
July: Start printing – this being the third day of the third Ashes Test.
September: First proof of lino cuts by Gwyn arrive.
October: Back at British Library to commence research on possible second publication by Press: George Farquhar’s Adventures in Covent Garden.
November: Title page of Coryate printed.
December: First trial binding completed. Edition runs to XXXX copies. Some are boxed.
January: Bertram Rota Booksellers in Covent Garden agree to stock a few Coryate’s; orders come in for others.
August: On the Flying Scotsman printed in an edition of 100, including a printer’s hat. This is a reprint of Eric Gill’s essay originally published in the London and North Eastern Railway Magazine, vol. 23 no. 1, dated January 1933. Published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gill’s death.
October: Exhibit at first Oxford Fine Print Bookfair.
A prospectus is issued on the intention to publish a book on the artist Betty Swanwick, who died in 1989, to be called A Singular Vision.The work was never completed. I had been collaborating on this with my friend Philip Garner who knew Swanwick and would write the text.
Little work at the workshop and nothing printed: I married Marian in October this year after a short betrothal.
I extend my studies in calligraphy and letter carving in stone. In November I take leave from the FT [long service leave of about 5 weeks] and spend part of that time in the studio of Richard Kindersley, Camberwell.
August: Take a one week residential course in letter carving under Tom Perkins at West Dean.
August: Visit to see John Skelton, nephew of Gill’s, at his workshop at Blabers Mead, Streat. He is holding an exhibition to celebrate his 70th.I take a one week letter carving course at his workshop in 1994. [John Skelton died in November 1999. I attend his memorial service held at Chichester Cathedral, 24 June 2000.]
August: Make a video of the workshop at Piell’s Yard with Marian’s assistance. [This has now been converted to DVD.]
April: Visit David Kindersley at his workshop in Cambridge on the 24th. [DK died on 2 February 1995 and I attend his memorial service held at St James’ Church, Piccadilly, on 2 October.]
Last recorded entry of visiting the printing workshop is made on 1st November. I have no date for sale of the machinery but guess it may have been 1999.
Aside from wedding invitations [ours in 1991] and some other ephemera I printed nothing of consequence after On the Flying Scotsman.
The Beeches Press was, therefore, dormant from 1991 until machinery sold in or about 1999.
The development of cylinder presses was largely driven by the growth in circulation of newspapers during the early nineteenth century, and primarily The Times of London. The cylinder machine itself was the brainchild of German printer Friedrich Koenig, who patented the first model in 1811. (See here for a previous post about Koenig.)
James Moran in his Printing Presses (Faber & Faber, London, 1973) notes that during the late 1820s this newspaper installed a machine designed by Augstus Applegath that could print at a rate of 4,200 impressions per hour. This machine, a four-feeder, was steam driven, 18ft high by 14ft long, with type travelling ‘to and fro almost the whole length of the machine below four impression cylinders grouped together, and the form was inked on each journey by four sets of composition rollers’ (ibid, 1973, p.129). [Note: the first steam-driven Koenig press was installed at The Times, in secret, in 1814, printing the first issue for the November 29th edition. It is worth noting how secrecy was employed to prevent a walk-out by the pressroom, much in the same way that Murdoch moved the print operations of The Times and its associated News Corp papers to Docklands in 1986-1987.]
My recent visit to Dorrigo, northern NSW, Australia, revealed a wreck of a Wharfedale, another cylinder press, though one more modest than the Applegath model. The photo here (including a rare shot of the author) was taken outside the town’s museum where the remains of the once glorious machine now sit rusting.
Moran notes that the predecessor of this type of press was built in the mid-1850s, with the Wharfedale being developed by Samuel Bremmer, a North Country of England journeyman according to Mason who rose to become printing manager at a London firm, and William Dawson, a joiner and cabinet maker of Otley, Yorkshire, England in the valley of the river Wharfe – hence the name. Look closely at the side panel of the press in Dorrigo and that’s exactly what you still see proudly displayed in raised letters.
Moran writes: ‘[The Wharfedale] Basically…consisted of an impression cylinder mounted on parallel side frames, a bed which, with the ink slab, moved to and fro, carrying the cylinder in gear one revolution, when travelling outwards, and leaving the cylinder stationary on returning, in order to admit the sheet being laid into the grippers for the next impression’ (ibid, 1973, p.135). Over time the principle was taken up by a number of other manufacturers, hence the name Wharfedale became generic.
This skeleton drawing is from Modern Printing, a handbook (vol 2, 1913, p.55).
To see one at work follow this YouTube link to the wonderful site of the National Print Museum, Ireland. One interesting point to note – the paper sheets were fed by women employees after make-ready had been completed, by a man.