Printers’ parties in ascendency again

Printers like to party, and for over 300 years the industry’s social gatherings have been referred to as a ‘waygoose’ or ‘wayzgoose’. Originally an evening feast with entertainment, the waygoose was scheduled to mark the end of summer, but over time the custom dwindled and by the 19th century had fallen into disuse.

It was revived, however, in the early 20th century when it took the form of an annual social outing and became a major fixture in the summer calendar of many British printing firms; it had all but died out by the late 1960s. Today, the waygoose has once again been revitalized, the term preserved as a quaint archaism to describe printing and literary social occasions such as dinners, with or without entertainment; fetes or fairs; talks and demonstrations, in fact, the term is applied to almost any event where printers gather together to talk about the art they love. 

However, despite its long history, both the origins of the waygoose and its etymology remain shrouded in mystery and it is the subject of much scholarly and popular debate. 

‘Waygoose’ first appeared in print in 1683, when Joseph Moxon (1627-1691), an English printer of mathematical books and maps and the author of Mechanick Exercises (1677) wrote: “It is customary for the Journey-men every year to make new paper windows, whether the old will serve or no; Because that day they make them the Master Printer gives them a Way-goose, that is, he makes them a good Feast, and not only entertains them at his own house, but besides, gives them Money to spend at the Ale-house or Tavern at Night... These Waygooses are always kept at Bartholomew-tide [24 August, which date marks the end of the summer]; and till the Master-Printer has given this Way-goose the Journey-men do not use to Work by Candle Light.”

But Moxon gave no intimation as to the origins either of the word or its customs. Russian linguist Anatoly Liberman finds the word a bit of a puzzle, because although it has a precise meaning – entertainment given specifically to printers at Bartholomew-tide – it contains no reference, as might be expected, to the printing trade. It is likely, therefore, that the word was appropriated from another occupation. Perhaps Barry McKay, a researcher of 16th-century inventories has the answer. When looking through the registers of Appleby-in-Westmorland, McKay found the following reference, which predates Moxon by nearly a century: “In 1588 Leonard Lamb of Appleby St Michael’s owed the Earl of Cumberland 5 shillings and 8d for the jests; while in 1594 Thomas Fawcett of Rutter Milne included one shilling for his servants’ waygease.”

The great lexicographers of the past shed little light on the matter. Samuel Johnson failed to include it in his celebrated dictionary, nor did John Baskerville the famous printer and presumed author of the Vocabulary, or Pocket Dictionary (1765). Webster’s Dictionary listed it in 1880, but it was removed from the next edition, and not reinstated until 1934. The Oxford English Dictionary does, of course, include it and suggests that ‘waygoose’ maybe an alteration of some word hitherto unknown.

The earliest dictionary that listed ‘wayzgoose’ (with a ‘z’) was Nathaniel Bailey’s immensely popular Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1731). It is unclear if, or why, he added a ‘z’ or whether ‘wayzgoose’ had lost a ‘z’ when used by Moxon in his Mechanick Exercises. Liberman suggests that Bailey, not being able to explain the origins of ‘waygoose’, changed it to ‘wayzgoose’ to get the meaning ‘stubble goose’ or ‘a goose fed on stubble’, because he probably understood wayz as ‘stubble’. But as geese do not eat stubble and as noted by the OED the alleged custom of eating a goose at the waygoose is not supported by any evidence, both Bailey’s definition and his exotic spelling are generally discredited. 

‘Waygoose’ is now believed to be the original spelling.

While there are many variations of etymology and spelling, there are equally as many alternatives as to how the waygoose was celebrated. In the 17th century it was an entertainment given by a master-printer to his workmen at Bartholomew-tide, marking the beginning of the season of working by candlelight. By the 20th century the waygoose had become an annual festivity held at anytime during the summer, organised by printing trade unions or management for their members or employees and consisting of a dinner and, usually, an excursion to the country or seaside. 

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have been working on project looking at the social history of printers’ outings in 20th-century Scotland. Utilising oral history and ephemeral material to explore and document the waygoose, they investigated the form, funding and impact this annual event had on the lives of Scottish print workers. An important social event for those who worked in the printing industry, Scotland’s ex-print workers remembered the annual waygoose as a time for celebration and the highlight of the working year. Festivities included various sporting activities, galas or cultural events, which were generally financed by employers or unions, although the practicalities of organising the annual trip were left to the employees. Where employers could not meet all costs, workers set up and contributed to a waygoose fund. The waygoose was an annual day out not only for the employees but also their immediate families, and it was usually held on a Saturday, because most print works opened half-day Saturday, thereby giving the employees a welcome half-day holiday. 

Over the border in England the waygoose was also a jovial and sometimes disorderly event. In 1919, Oxford University Press staff magazine The Clarendonian, reported: “Prior to the year 1851 the Wayzgoose was an afternoon affair at some local inn… followed by a supper, which, if the accounts given by our seniors are to be trusted, did not invariably end in harmony.” It went on to describe how the arrival of the railways led to the waygoose becoming more of a holiday than a day trip: “On Saturday 15 July 1854 the men and boys employed on the Bible Side of the University Press enjoyed their annual holiday. The former, through the liberality of their employers and by an arrangement with the Great Western and the South Western Railway Companies, were enabled to spend a day or two on the sea-shore, arriving at Portsmouth about noon on Saturday and returning on the Monday evening following.” Departmental excursions at OUP remained popular until the 1960s when, as a result of the introduction of universal annual paid holidays, a work’s trip to the country or seaside became less appealing. The Oxford waygoose was resurrected, however, to celebrate OUP’s quincentenary in 1978, when 340 print shop employees were treated to a visit to Alton Towers. 

The introduction of the statutory annual holiday undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the waygoose. Traditionally, print workers were given very few days leave, but from the end of the 19th century they were entitled to just one-week unpaid holiday during the annual shutdown. This remained the norm until the late 1940s, when paid holidays were commonly implemented across British industry, including printing. The introduction of annual paid holidays, the increase in leisure opportunities, and the advent of cheap foreign travel led to the end of the waygoose and the cessation of a whole range of other social activities for employees. 

But economics also played a part in the demise of the waygoose. After the Second World War there was a general contraction of the printing industry: closures and mergers were the result of a weakened industry; increased overseas competition threatened the home market; and a failure to invest in the new technologies of print production affected efficiency and profits. With a depression in the printing industry, employers were less inclined to offer the paternal support they had once provided their employees and successive mergers and the creation of large corporations destroyed the family atmosphere that had once existed. 

The waygoose was consigned to history – but not for long.

In the 21st century the ‘wayzgoose’ (with the exotic ‘z’ spelling) has seen something of a revival, mainly because of the renewed appreciation of letterpress printing. This interest is undoubtedly a manifestation of the worldwide ‘Slow Movement’ that seeks to connect people more meaningfully with each other, with place, with craft and the environment. The interest in letterpress is a reaction against the fast-paced, digitally led, commodity-focused anonymity of the 21st century, and the wayzgoose – inextricably associated with the letterpress era – is a means of creating a community in a world that has become increasingly hands-off and remote. 

This year a bumper number of wayzgooses around the country are celebrating all things inky.

Probably the oldest and largest 20th-century wayzgoose, is held in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. This annual celebration of book arts takes place on the last Saturday in April and was started in 1979 by a handful of friends and letterpress enthusiasts in order to provide people with the “opportunity to experience first-hand the traditions that turned us into a literate society”. Hosted by Grimsby Public Art Gallery it attracts practitioners of traditional book-related crafts including letterpress printers, printmakers, paper makers and hand bookbinders who gather to showcase their work, make connections and pass on their knowledge to the next generation of emerging artisan printers. The first wayzgoose welcomed 300 visitors, but today up to 2,500 people from across the UK, North America, Europe and Japan visit the event each year to witness displays of paper making, book binding, calligraphy, paper marbling and book making.

The highly popular St Bride Wayzgoose, takes place in May just off London’s Fleet Street at the St Bride Library which was opened in 1895 as the social and educational hub of the area’s printing and publishing industry. The St Bride Wayzgoose, while retaining the festival feel of the original outings, also provides an occasion at which to buy and sell letterpress printing equipment, type, and various other related products of the craft. It is also an opportunity for people to showcase recent work, meet new practitioners, and renew old aquaintances.

In Birmingham, the Centre for Printing History & Culture (jointly run by Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham) has, since 2015, organised bi-annual wayzgooses, which usually take place in a local hostelry, and are open to anyone who has an interest in printing history or the art and practice of printing, past, present or future. The events range from informal conversations over a beer, to presentations and displays of work, and have even included an evening screening of print-related films. 

The inaugural Hay-on-Wye Wayzgoose opened at the fortuitously named Baskerville Hall (no connection to the printer of the same name) in April. Experts in the field of letterpress and intaglio printing, bookbinding, papermaking, marbling, book illustration and design demonstrated their skills and displayed work including private press books, posters, prints, type, and paper goods. The Hay-on-Wye Wayzgoose marked the first stage in a new venture that anticipates Baskerville Hall becoming a year-round celebration of books. Future additions will include a large collection of early printing presses that will have a permanent home at at the Hall and be in daily working use.

The most recent addition to the Wayzgoose scene is the Shipley Wayzgoose, which held its inaugural event this summer. Established by two enthusiasts of letterpress printing and fine binding – Nick Loaring, owner of The Print Project and Roger Grech proprietor of the Paper Cut Bindery – the focus of the event is letterpress printing and the book arts. Open to all the Wayzgoose took place on 3 June at the Kirkgate Centre, Shipley and participants included the Whittington Press,  Effra Press & Typefoundry, Print for Love  of Wood, Nomad Letterpress and  Double Dagger.

Judging by their popularity and rapid growth and expansion, the 21st-century wayzgose is alive, well and here to stay. No longer the gift of paternalistic industrial employers, it is the result of the enthusiasms and energies of worldwide community of people with a passion for retaining, promoting and preserving the art, craft and humanity of printing. 


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