The printing office of John Fowler of Leicester

Receipt Book of the Caxton Printing Offices, Leicester, 1818-1868. Graphic Arts GAX 2010- in process.

A large receipt book for John Fowler’s (later called Caxton) Printing Offices in Leicester, Great Britain, was recently acquired. Through its more than 350 pasted-down items relating to 50 printing firms and around 350 specimen woodcuts, the collection offers a comprehensive view into a provincial Victorian printing office. The volume is divided into two parts. The front contains fifteen leaves of woodcut samples and the other fifty-nine leaves are filled with receipts and other business items including information on trade with leading type founders, engravers and merchants of presses and other printing equipment within the British printing trade, both in London and the provinces.

The volume came with a well-researched history, which I quote in part here:

“The Leicester firm called towards the end of its existence Caxton Printing Offices, was established according to its letterhead in 1816 but probably at least two years before that. The earliest references in this collection give the proprietor’s name as Thomas Gregory (not in BBTI). By 1825, it was in the hands of John Fowler (BBTI, 1812-1845) passing, around 1846, to his eldest son John Smith Fowler (BBTI, 1846-1884). Most of its few publications were of a religious nature and the Fowlers were clearly dissenters, with the father publishing A Methodist Magazine, conducted by the camp-meeting Methodists known by the name of Ranters, called also Primitive Methodists… One of John Smith Fowler’s brothers, William, traded in St Martin’s, Leicester, as ‘Son and Successor to the late John Fowler,’ ‘General Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, and Book-binder.’”

“The collection reflects all aspects of the trade from ink, paper and binding, to the carpentry required for fitting out an office. Most of the bills are on printed letterheads and forms but some are handwritten, often with a signed acknowledgement of receipt of payment and several with other communications. There are numerous letters and printed circulars, price lists and advertisements, some with illustrations of presses by Clymer & Dixon; Harrild; S. & T. Sharwood; Sherwin, Cope & Co. Many of the letterheads are interesting examples of Victorian graphic design, exhibiting the care one would expect from members of the printing trade.

A couple of items of correspondence, responding to contested bills indicate a contentious streak in the younger Fowler. ‘[W]e wish to meet you as fair as possible,’ the firm of Caslon informs him in 1868. The collection also gives hints of the change in the economic climate. ‘Times are not very good, but I think you are disposed to make them worse,’ Thomas writes in 1844; and in 1868 Rowland Wood of Austin Wood & Co. writes: ‘I hope that trade has so revived, that you have abandoned the idea of parting with such a nice compact Office.’

The most charming aspect of this collection are the hundreds of specimen woodcuts, many on tinted paper, mostly for scrap books, advertisements, almanacs and other ephemeral publications. Several miniature scrap books are preserved in their entirety and mounted, such as Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, Tom, the Piper’s Son, Little Red Riding Hood, The Life of Jack Sprat, His Wife and his Cat, The Cries of London, Old Dame Trot, The House that Jack Built, and Jack & Jill, and Old Dame Gill. Other miniature books are the delightful alphabet book The History of an Apple Pie or A New Riddle Book, for Little Boys and Girls, which assembles woodcuts and engravings from diverse sources, periods and styles. All miniature books were reasonably priced at halfpenny and consist of 12 pages including self-wrappers, measuring 76 x 44 mm.”