Printing Press of type used in the early 1800s

On leaving school William Clowes (1779-1847) was apprenticed to a printer at Chichester. Early in 1802, after serving seven years apprenticeship, he moved to London to seek employment as a journeyman printer. He found a job but on 21st October 1803 he set up on his own at 20 Villiers Street (off The Strand). (Charles Dickens started his working life as a blacking boy at Clowes - his experiences are recorded in Oliver Twist.)

Clowes concentrated on jobs with large print runs like travel books, biographies, histories, and official reports. Business flourished and in 1823 he expanded to Northumberland Court and employed up to twenty staff to print and bind his books. In 1824 Clowes installed the first Applegarth and Cooper* steam press, the speed of this press enabled mass production of books at a price that was in the reach of the masses. The drawback was that the steam press was noisy and produced a lot of smoke and in 1825, following a legal dispute with his landlord the firm moved to Duke Street (off Stamford Street) Lambeth.

The new site had belonged to Applegarth and Cowper who had made the printing equipment. The new premises were, for its time, the largest printing works in the world and proved a good move for William Clowes and Sons whose business continued to grow. At one stage the company were turning out 725,000 printed sheets (equivilent to 30,000 books) a week. By the mid 1800s the firm was employing about 600 people using 23 hand and 5 hydraulic presses.

In 1847 William and George took over from their father, but in 1848 a publisher went bankrupt owing the company �40,000. This nearly brought the company down but it survived and by 1851 had secured the contract to produce half a million catalogues for the Great Exhibition.

During 1873, two of the younger Clowes went into partnership with William Moore, of the Caxton Press, Suffolk but Moore ran off with the company funds. However, Clowes and Clowes prospered and in 1876 was valued at �20,000 with 15 powerful presses and in 1880 amalgamated with the London company to form William Clowes Limited. The firm led the field in the development of monotype composition.

The premises at Duke Street were destroyed during the blitz in 1941 and production, especially of journals, for the remaining war years was greatly reduced. In the year following the war, the company needed investment and it was decided to join forces with the family firm of McCorquodale and Company which already had association with Blades, East and Blades and Charles Skipper and East.

Though not the most innovative of companies the owners did have a caring attitude to their staff, when new machines or techniques were introduced they kept on workers when they could. They also set up a sick pay fund and a pension scheme, some almshouses and helped to form the London School of Printing.

* Applegarth patented a process using cylindrical printing plates capable of printing 1000 double-sided sheets and hour in 1815. The Applegarth and Cowper company produced a large number of printing presses for all sorts of applications. Their machines were considered to be very reliable partly because they used fewer moving parts than their competitors. They were well liked by the operators because the presses inked well, registered different impressions easily; and the sheets were printed off more neatly, regularly, and quickly; and larger sheets could be printed on both sides, than by any other method. The company demonstrated an eight cylinder press at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Drawings of a Printing Trades Exhibition 17 July 1880