Best of British: A Christmas compendium

Simon Eccles
Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Grace’s Guide is an online, free-access treasure trove of British industrial history.

Linotype factory in 1898.
Linotype factory in 1898.

Image: Grace's Guide

Back in the days before video games, a Compendium of Games appeared in many a Christmas stocking. So for this last Printweek of 2022, we present the story of a compendium of historical Best of British print companies. You can read about them in an eclectic online Wiki database called Grace’s Guide to British Industrial Print History (www.gracesguide.co.uk). Mind you, given how few of them are still around, “Best” may be stretching it a bit. Perhaps our seasonal compendium should be “Most Intriguing” instead. 

Every now and again in the four years we’ve been running Printweek’s series on the ‘Best of British’ printing manufacturers, we’ve covered a company with roots stretching back a century or more, sometimes two. When we search around online, Grace’s Guide often comes up in the results. 

The record holder, and likely to remain so, is Caslon, which clocked up its 300th birthday in 2020 and featured as a Printweek Best of British in June 2019. 

We found some of the history from Grace’s Guide’s timeline for the company’s complex descent through the Caslon family, including when it was left in a will to an employee, Thomas White Smith, in 1874. He in turn passed it to his sons, who changed their names to Caslon-Smith to emphasise the company connection. Richard Caslon, today’s managing director, is a descendent of the Caslon-Smiths.

Digging around Grace’s Guide is always risky in a deadline-driven world, as the temptation to follow interesting links is irresistible, leading to ever more linked topics down fascinating rabbit holes of print and other industrial history, where you can wander for hours. Search for the word ‘printing’ and you are offered 1,945 entries. ‘Paper’ returns 4,377 entries, where you can learn the history of the once extensive British papermaking sector. 

There are also pre-labelled industrial categories, with print-related subjects including ‘printing machinery’ with 212 companies; ‘packaging and containers’ with 222; and ‘paper and card makers’ with 321. Other categories that overlap with printing include computers, electronics, office equipment and photography. Each category has lists of manufacturers and suppliers by name. 

While there’s no separate category for actual printing services companies, these do show up in that search for ‘printing’ that gives 1,945 results. Some entries are brief, such as the Harpurhey Printing Company, which in 1891 was listed as “bleachers, dyers, finishers and calico printers,” but that includes a link to about 100 other printers associated with the Manchester cotton industry, from where you can explore other print related links and so on.

Celebration of industrial history

Grace’s Guide was set up 15 years ago by Andrew Tweedie as a celebration of British industrial history. He remains the editor today. The guide is a registered charity, doesn’t aim to make a profit, and relies on a floating population of volunteer contributors to build up the content. “We just love the subjects and we do it as we want,” says Tweedie.

The inspiration for the guide came out of his career in industry. “I am not an engineer, though I always worked in engineering,” Tweedie says. 

“I spent 10 years in business development for a FTSE company, and travelled worldwide looking for ideas. Wherever I went I kept finding bits of British engineering, such as sugar machines in the West Indies or the Indian and South American railways. Letterboxes have British names on. I realised how widespread British engineering had reached in the past. 

“It’s amazing what is preserved too – for example in Australia you will often come across old steam engines preserved in small towns, with railings around them, and British names on them.”

After Tweedie retired 15 years ago aged 60, he decided he had “a few decades ahead and nothing planned. I always had an interest in the history of industry. I set up Grace’s Guide as a Wiki. People came to me and it progressed. I was initially interested in shipbuilding, but it has expanded to cover the whole of industry and some major retailers.”

Who is Grace? “We had a project and couldn’t think of a name. So I named it after my young granddaughter, who is now 15!”

Digitising old documents

The website includes digitised photographs and documents, plus scans of some magazines and journals: The Engineer (from 1856-1940), now a Printweek stablemate at Mark Allen Group; its rival Engineering (most copies from 1866-1930), set up by Zerah Colburn, an engineer of great vigour – Grace’s Guide notes that Engineering “was funded largely by Henry Bessemer after Colburn’s dismissal from The Engineer for bigamy and social conduct”.

There are also digitised copies of early motoring magazines and industry journals: Autocar (1895-1915); Motor (1902-1914); Automotor Journal (1896-1917); Car Illustrated (1902-1903); and Light Car and Cyclecar (1912-1939).

This has been the guide’s greatest expense, says Tweedie: “We have a Bookeye overhead scanner made by Sunrise Imaging, costing about £10,000 to £11,000 at the time. It has a v-shaped support, with software that gets rid of gutters. Sometimes we have to pay someone to come in and work with it.” Flat documents are also digitised on conventional scanners.

Nothing later than 1950 is digitised so as to fit in with the 70-year copyright rule. 

One reason for the digitising project, at least for engineering, is that there is no centralised resource for this sort of information, according to Tweedie. “There is the British Library, the Institute of Engineers, and Manchester University has a certain amount that started with UMIST. 

“The Institute of Engineers has a good library, but you have to ask them to look for something. It’s not digitised and searchable. The history of automotive is all kept at Beaulieu, where there is a very knowledgeable librarian, but again, you need to ask for it.”

No Printweeks so far

Sadly there are no printing trade journals in the list. Keen readers will remember that today’s Printweek is the descendent of The Litho Printer, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated in 2018, so it’s all still copyright to somebody. However Printing World, which was acquired by Printweek’s then publisher Haymarket in 2006, was the descendent of the lavishly named broadsheet British & Colonial Printer and Stationer, which dated back to the mid-1800s and kept its name into the 1930s. 

The St Bride Library off Fleet Street is the place to go if you want to read those alongside vast numbers of other print history resources. The nearby Stationers Hall has a small but interesting collection too. However, as with the engineering titles, they are not digitised or online, and any digitisation project would be immensely expensive considering the limited interest and commercial return. The British Library does have a digitisation project and significant funds, but print history has to take its turn.

Volunteer researchers

All entries to Grace’s Guide are made by volunteers. “The number of volunteers varies,” says Tweedie. “A couple of retired people are on eight hours every day. Others come and go with entries. There are usually 10 to 12 people contributing, but they vary hugely on their input. They do what they want and take what subjects they want. One was originally into machine tools, then moved more into bridges. Another is a generalist, from steam engines to accountancies. 

“We tag all that we can and cross-reference. It’s the same software as Wikipedia, with additions on top. So it’s a free form database. It’s the cross-connections that make it so powerful.”

The guide is all organised by Tweedie, but there is professional support to run the servers and sometimes to run the scanner. “I talk to the writers, but that’s about what they want to do. It comes down to us to do the charity returns to keep it going. It’s financed by donations. Sponsorship by one or more larger companies would be welcome – it wouldn’t take a lot of money to have someone doing digitising, applying for Lottery grants, etc. But at 75 I don’t have the energy I once did!”

For now Grace’s Guide relies on charitable donations (there’s a donation button on the home page at www.gracesguide.co.uk), plus there’s a membership option that allows you to download a number of low-res digital documents per quarter – how many depends on how much you give. There’s also an option to purchase individual high-res downloads at £9.50 each – you can use these in publications as long as you acknowledge Grace’s Guide as the source. 

If you would like to help boost the printing sector content with documents or research of your own, Tweedie is looking for volunteers. “We’ll take any subject as long as it’s referenced,” he says. “We’ve done large retail shops on occasion – as long as it’s factual, we’ll put it up. We can’t always say the information is reliable, but at least we do have the reference. Though some of the 1800s sources are wrong to start with!” You can drop him a line at editor@gracesguide.co.uk.

See for yourself

With so many entries to choose from, it’s impossible to give more than a flavour of the print entries here. However, some of the ones we’ve looked up when writing this story included: Bowater-Scott and Rexam; Caslon; Crabtree Vickers; Crosfield; Great Exhibition Catalogue print; Hunter-Penrose; Monotype; Stanhope Press and Charles Stanhope; Stephenson, Blake; Sun Printers; Victory Printing & Folding Machine Manufacturing Co; Williams, Lea. The results were variable, ranging from a few lines to long histories with useful links. See for yourself, and if you know more about something, you could write it yourself too! 

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