A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
71: Survivors and failures
On the night of the 3-4 May 1942 Exeter suffered its most destructive air raid of the second World War, which killed 161 people and unleashed 160 high explosive bombs and about 10,000 incendiary devices. The centre of the city was changed for ever and several book trade firms were hit However many printers and publishers have survived the upheavals of both World Wars and the accompanying technological, social and economic changes which have taken place throughout the 20th century. They have been greatly assisted in this by their ability to be flexible in the face of change.
The firm of Besley and Copp, successors to Henry Besley, the printer of guidebooks with steel engraved illustrations and publisher of the Exeter directory, had moved in 1901 from 89 South Street into premises in Guinea Street. This was bombed during the 1942 blitz and after several years in temporary premises the firm opened in new buildings outside the city centre in Courtenay Road in 1946, one of the first firms to move to the Marsh Barton area, now the largest trading estate in Exeter. Like several of their rivals Besley and Copp survived by being able to adapt and develop. In the 1930s they had already begun to print continuous stationery, including such items as rate demands, and this activity proved so successful that after the war John Copp ordered the printing equipment manufacturers Timson Rotary "Make me a machine to replace the one that was destroyed in the blitz". In 1969 an extension costing £15,000 was opened with rotary machines able to handle 30,000 metres of paper an hour. There was a store for 100 tonnes of paper; at that time the firm used 350 tonnes a year, mainly for commercial printing. Beside continuous stationery this included brochures, price lists, business cards and catalogues (WMN 4 Nov 1969). The firm saw that after more than a century its directory was no longer profitable and it was taken over by the national directory specialists Kelly's in 1955. The firm took advantage of the computer's great hunger for paper by starting to print computer stationery, taking delivery of 1,000,000 sheets of computer paper in February 1981 to print special forms and in April the same year opening a new division named Technaprint to market computer stationery (E&E 23 Feb 1981, 11 Apr 1981). In October 1985 a new three-colour Akira Press was installed (E&E 9/10/1985). At that time the firm had been wholly owned by the Copp family since the last of the Besleys had retired in the 1930s. In 1997 the firm employed 35 people.
A much larger family business than Besley and Copp also suffered in the blitz. Wheaton's had moved to 231-232 High Street in 1927 and this premises was destroyed in the air raids in May 1942. For several years the shop was housed in a cellar at 14 Gandy Street until it moved to 198 High Street in the late 1940s. The factory premises in 143 Fore Street survived the war developing its commercial printing as well as the production of its own publications, especially in the field of education. As its work for other publishers grew during the 1950s it became increasingly clear that the city centre premises were becoming inadequate and in September 1965 the announcement was made that Wheatons were to build a new factory in Hennock Road on the Marsh Barton Trading Estate. Until the 1960s the company was still a family business Fred Wheaton, the son of Alfred being the head of the company from 1920 to 1961. However in February 1966 it was announced that Wheatons had decided to merge with Pergamon Press, an Oxford-based company for which it was undertaking a considerable amount of work. Pergamon paid £559,500 by a share issue to acquire the business and John Wheaton was to continue as chairman. Expansion in educational publishing was envisaged and as a result a more ambitious development was put in hand. The first stage of the new factory, the bindery, which cost £200,000 was officially opened on 24 May 1968 by Robert Maxwell M.P., the owner of Pergamon, with a typically upbeat message and a hint of a computer centre in Exeter. A warehouse for the storage of flat and folded printed sheets followed a couple of years later, but only early in 1973 was it possible to begin to move the printing section, starting with the litho machine department. The move was only finally completed, together with the administration offices, in November 1973 and for the first time for many years all operations were on one site. During the move machinery was updated, including the introduction of computer assisted film-setting and web-offset printing. Wheatons were printing many of Pergamon's scientific and technical journals. In 1974 Maxwell lamented the shortage of workers with key skills which was holding up expansion plans. In 1966 Wheatons had employed 250 workers, now there were 400 and there were opportunities for another 200 (E&E 1 Jun 74). But not everything was plain sailing under the Maxwell regime. In October 1966 it was annonced that the bookshop in 198 High Street was to close, a victim, it was claimed of the government's selective employment tax (E&E 30 Oct 1966). Half of the 23 staff were made redundant, the rest merged with the Fore Street shop which opened extended premises on 2 March 1967 . It devoted 1,200 square feet to books and with its large educational stock, acted as a showroom for teachers (E&E 1 Mar 1967, 6 Dec 1968). But little more than ten years later in 1980 the Fore Street shop's closure with the loss of eleven jobs was announced by the chairman Anthony Wheaton; this time the closure was blamed on a fall in orders from local libraries (E&E 7 Jan 1980).
In 1976 the business had been reorganised in three divisions: printing, educational publishing and sales and thus restructured it faced the series of economic recessions that were to arrive in the 1980s. On 8 November 1980 it was announced that 25 of the 90 bindery workers were to be laid off, the economic recession being given as the cause (E&E 8 Nov 1980). The following year 80 print workers were given 90 days notice. The reason given was disagreement over bonus payments and the introduction of new machinery. After lengthy negotiations they were later granted a reprieve but worse was to follow. In February 1982 95 redundancies were announced, a result, it was claimed, of difficulties caused by cheap overseas competition. In 1986 Wheatons became part of Maxwell's British Printing and Communications Corporation, then the largest printing group in Britain, owning more than 40 companies. The firm still employed more than 300 staff in Exeter and were capable of producing 300,000 books a week. In 1987 they printed 90,000 copies of Shirley Conran's bestseller Lace for Sidgwick and Jackson and a similar number of her novel Savages. Their Harris 2 web offset presses were able to print 64 pages of a novel at once (E&E 2 Sep 1987). Educational publishing remained important and they also printed for the British and Foreign Bible Society. Maxwell's links with the eastern block brought a number of unusual contracts. In 1984 they printed Deng Xiaoping's speeches for Maxwell's Pergamon Press. It formed part of the Leaders of the world series. There was a visit by a Chinese delegation which was thoughtfully presented with Express and Echo 80th anniversary tankards (WMN 12 Oct 1984). In 1989 Wheatons printed an official reference book The German Democratic Republic (E&E 7 Oct 1989).
In 1991 a further 31 workers lost their jobs overnight when it was decided to close Wheaton Publishers Ltd. Under the labyrinthine complexities of business conglomerates such as Maxwell's this was achieved without affecting the other companies which shared the Hennock Road site, then named BPCC Wheatons Ltd, BPCC Techset Ltd and Oyez Wheaton Ltd (WMN, E&E 9 Jan 1991). The Exeter companies largely survived the cancellation of the listing of Mawell Communications Corporation's ordinary shares by order of the Stock Exchange on 8 June 1992 and in 1997 Wheatons, now known as BPC Information Ltd (Wheatons) employed 320 people at Hennock Road publishing directories, reference books and journals. Also at the same site was BPC Information Ltd (Digital Techset) sharing the same managing director, John Horrocks, and employing 70 people in the fields of reprographics, typesetting and scanning. Another company in the group was BPC Exeter Bindery Ltd, established in 1990 with a capital amounting to the grand sum of £2. These were some of the 90 subsidiaries owned by the British printing Company Ltd, a holding company established in 1988. The ultimate owners appear to be the First British Mezzanine NV, based in the Netherland Antilles. Thus are long-standing Exeter firms locked into multinational conglomerates. What would William Wheaton have made of it all?
Mercifully other surviving printing firms have not led such complex lives and for a long time remained essentially family firms, often able to maintain long-term loyalty of employees but also capable of adapting to the changing world. William Pollard & Co, established in the early 19th century had moved to Sothernhay Gardens in 1935, where they survived the War, moving to Oak House, Falcon Road in 1991. It remained a family firm until the 1980s when Michael Pollard was managing director, and during that period it invested £200,000 in the purchase of a Morgan three-colour press for producing computer stationery. This area of specialisation proved to be successful and by 1990 it was producing computer stationery and business forms for more than 5,000 customers world wide and had a staff of 64. In that year the foundations were laid for a new premises with an area of 26,000 square feet as opposed to the 11,000 it had occupied in Southernhay since 1935. The building contract was for £1,100,000 and the firm invested £500,000 in new equipment (WMN 25 Aug 1990). When the new building on the Sowton Industrial Estate was opened on 14 June 1991, the ribbon was cut by Brenda Dean, leader of SOGAT, the printing union, a recognition of the good relations between staff and employees, almost all of whom had equity shares in the company (E&E 15 Jun 1991).
James Townsend and Sons, established in 1866, have had a variety of premises, in the city centre, including Gandy Street and Little Queen Street from the 19th century until after World War 2. In 1955 they moved to Musgrave House in Western Way and at that time the Townsend family was still involved in the business, R.W.Townsend being the managing director. A dinner was held for almost 300 past and present staff and guests on the occasion of the move and the reports indicate the loyalty of many of the staff and the sense of continuity in the firm. One employee, Mr Harry Stone, apprenticed in 1876, retired 74 years later in 1950, although informant of A.J.Clamp indicated that he would sleep during the afternoon toward the end of his remarkable period of service. At least 20 employees had served for more than 50 years (E&E 24 Sep 1955). The firm has specialised in printing labels for the food industry and in the early 1960s was experimenting with colour litho, an early example being the Exmouth guide of 1962. They also continued as traditional publishers, producing Two thousand years in Exeter by W.G.Hoskins in 1960 using traditional letterpess with half-tone plates. Among their prized contracts was work for the Amiralty, including the series of notices for mariners, which started during World War 2. The use of hot metal machines was finally discontinued in 1989 when the monotype machines were replaced by six-colour photographic presses capable of printing 10,000 sheets an hour. With the machinery, staff like Ron Littlejohn were also retired. He had worked as a monotype keyboard oprerator for fifty years. (E&E 2 May 1989).
The printers in Exeter were served by the School of Printing which formed a department of Exeter College of Art. The College of Art had moved to new premises within the Royal Albert Memorial in Queen Street in 1868. As the College grew it acquired premises scattered across the city and the School of Printing had a variety of homes following its revival after World War 2. In 1954 it was in Burnthouse Lane, moving to the Mint in 1960. In the 1950s it ran a six year part-time course for apprentices covering composing, monotype, letterpress and design. In the early 1960s block release courses were introduced to cater for the more isolated apprentices. The three-week sessions, which lead to City and Guilds certificates, were supported by local education authority grants to cover travel and lodging. In 1962 it was reported by the Principal that 92% of employees were cooperating with day release classes (E&E 27 Mar 1962).
The appointment of Clifford Fishwick as the Principal of the College of Art in 1958 lead to an active period of creativity in all departments including the School of Printing. Alan Richards arrived at the College in 1958 and, together with Bernard Beard, the head of the School of Printing, now in the Mint, he established the Priory Press, named after the nearby St Nicholas Priory. Clifford Fishwick gave his support to the enterprise and provided £100 funding each year. The press issued hand-made books in limited editions which were produced by students in association with the Bartholomew Print Workshop. The first publication of the press was appropriately entitled First impressions. It appeared in 1961 with nine pieces by students, accompanied by their own coloured lithographs. Another collaborative project by students was Bartholomew Place in memoriam (1963). Other publications include Coleridge's Rime of the ancient mariner, illustrated by Reiner Burger, Delabole by Grenville Cottingham (1961), evoking the slate quarry in Cornwall with auto-lithographic illustrations, and Poem and wooducts by Jenny Ashmore (1968). Among the printmakers who came to Exeter was Marek Laczynski and in 1966 the work of the School was featured in an exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery in London with the title "An approach to printmaking at Exeter". The books were sold through the Exe Gallery after it opened in Gandy Street in 1965, any profits helping to maintain the work of the gallery. In 1972 Marek Laczynski with Brenda Barnard produced The wizard with his pupil, published by Bartholomew Books, illustrated using the medium of etchings with aquatint. The School continued to encourage students in the book production and publishing course to see a book through all its stages, from researching the subject to designing, printing and binding the volume. A typical example of such a project was A font of philanthropic concern: horse troughs and drinking fountains in Exeter by George Fox (1978), a 24 page book with photographic and facsimile wood-engraved illustrations, set in Monotype Bembo and printed by offset lithography on heavy 135gsm paper in an edition of 100 copies.
The catchment area served in 1970 is illustrated by the list of awards in the prospectus for 1971/2. Of the 67 names mentioned 45 came from Exeter, 14 from other towns in Devon, including Torquay (7), Plymouth (3), Barnstaple, Exmouth and Dawlish, eight came from outside the county, from Sherborne (3), Yeovil (3), Launceston and one from the Government Press, Nigeria. The largest representation from an individual firm was A.Wheaton & Co. with 13 students, followed by James Townsend & Sons (7), the Western Times Co. (6), Sydney Lee (4) and Besley and Copp (3). About 20% came from newspaper publishers and it is to be expected that of the industrial awards for endeavour, the linotype award was won by a student from the Western Times Co. and the Monotype award by a representative of A.Wheaton & Co. This was still the world of hot metal, and courses lead to City and Guilds awards in subjects such as compositor's work, letterpress machine printing, monotype composition. Times were to change with the rapid developments in information technology and by 1988 this area of teaching had become part of the Department of Arts Communication which ran a one year full-time diploma in publishing and book production. In that year the College became part of Polytechnic Southwest, with its headquarters in Plymouth and in 1992 the Polytechnic was in turn promoted to become the University of Plymouth.
By 1998 classes in this field had moved to the School of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Education. The School of Humanities and Cultural Interpretation supported postgraduate research in design history, including publishing history as part of its integrated master's programme. It was possible to study for an MA postgraduate diploma in publishing which lasted one year full time and up to five years part time. There were four main modules on the course: 1. The publishing process, covering paper, CD-ROM and the World Wide Web and including marketing, contracts and rights. 2. Publishing skills, including discrimination and good practice in assessing the qualities of material as well as editing and design skills. 3. Publishing: product and business, a case study, allowing the student to follow the progress of a title through a publishing house. 4. Professional practice, innovation and the convergence of publishing technologies. This last involved a work placement using metworked files of publishing material. Clearly education in the field of publishing had come a long way since the first classes offered in St. James's School during winter evenings between the Wars.
Some sections of the printing and allied industries in Exeter have not been so successful in meeting the changing circumstances of the later twentieth century. The paper industry in Devon, which had more than twenty active mills in 1860 had declined to twelve by the turn of the century and eight by 1950. All of the five mills that had been active in and around Exeter were closed. Lower Wear Mill, near Topsham, had ceased to operate in 1829 and Higher Weir in 1884. Above Exeter and on the other side of the River Exe, Exwick Mill was operational as a papermill between about 1806 and 1860. The two mills nearest to the centre of Exeter survived for longer. In 1967 Head Weir Mill closed and was converted into a restaurant and in 1982 the last papermill in Exeter, Trew's Weir Mill, active as a papermill since 1834, ceased to manufacture paper and the late eighteenth-century industrial building was later redeveloped as prestige riverside apartments.
As the 1990s drew to a close only three paper manufacturers survived in the whole of Devon, located in Silverton, Hele and Ivybridge. The largest was Devon Valley Industries which employed about 205 staff in its mill at Hele. In Ivybridge Arjo Wiggins had a staff of about 145 at Stowford Mills manufacturing security and business papers while the St Regis Paper Co. Ltd occupied about 127 staff at Silverton and Cullompton manufacturing, among other products, recycled coloured paper and board, and paper for educational purposes. This is a decline since the 1970s when Jean Chitty surveyed the surviving mills for her book Paper in Devon (1976). Then Higher Kings Mill, Cullompton employed 100 staff, Silverton Mill had 320 workers, Devon Valley Mill 240 and Stowford Mill 175.
Perhap the most innovative local activity in the field of paper at present is being undertaken by craftworkers. Gillian Spires has made paper from plants since 1973 using traditional oriental methods and has travelled widely to learn about techniques and materials. She has designed watermarks for the paper industry and has been a committee member for the National Paper Museum. She has developed decorative papers incorporating gold leaf and has devised techniques for making multi-coloured papers. In 1987 she organised an exhibition entitled "Papermakers" for the Devon Guild of Craftsmen at Bovey Tracey. Unfortunately this imaginative work cannot reverse the decline of the papermaking industry in the county.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.