Wolverhampton Printers

A short history - page 1

Wolverhampton’s monastery would probably have had some sort of scriptorium – a small one where the church's documents could be written out on parchment.  It does not appear to have been a centre of manuscript production.  The lay people living round about would not have done much writing – estate accounts and the occasional legal document.  All our earliest documents, such as the charters, are parchment and ink.

Printing was introduced into the country by Caxton in about 1473 and gradually expanded.  But the presses were tightly controlled by the government and for almost two hundred years the only places in which anything was printed were London, Oxford and Cambridge.  Their output was mainly religious texts, classical works and a large number of law books.  During the disturbances of the 17th century there were periods when many political tracts were published.

The general expansion of printing beyond the three cities began towards the end of the 17th century when presses were set up in many cities and larger towns.  But the type of material they produced remained largely religious, classical, governmental and legal.  Literacy was not widespread and most towns did not have a literate population large enough to sustain a printing press.  It was largely economic expansion, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, which changed the position.  Not only was there a great increase in the population generally, including great increases in the size of towns, and a general increase in literacy rates, but there was a commercial and industrial demand for printed material. 

The first book known to have been printed in Wolverhampton was produced by George Wilson in 1724.  He, and his wife, Mary Wilson who succeeded him, produced a number of books.  This suggests that they had a pretty good press and a reasonable stock of type and it is likely that they were finding a sufficiency of commercial work to be done, even before 1724.  By 1760 another printer, Thomas Smith, is found in operation and, at the same time Joseph Smart appears on the scene.  He was not only a printer but an editor and publisher of books, a book seller and a centre of Wolverhampton’s literary life.  He and his succesors, who included William Parke, continued printing until about 1833.

As the industrial revolution took a grip in the 19th century the demand for commercial and industrial printing increased.  Increasing political activity with the widening of the franchise and with the extension of local government increased the call for printed material.  There was also a great increase in non-fiction works and the rise in fiction to be allowed for.  Newspapers started to be regularly published and to flourish from the late 18th century onwards. 

Concert programme by F. Jones, of King Street.  1863.
In about 1811 Thomas Simpson appears as a printer and he seems to have operated on a large scale.  He was succeeded by his son, another Thomas Simpson, who eventually took into partnership John Steen, who continued in business under his own name, his firm becoming one of the largest in Wolverhampton, even taking over Edward Roden’s business when he retired.  

Another printer, whose output also included books, was J. Bridgen who seems to have been the first to introduce colour printing to the town.  At what date he did this is not recorded but his first book was printed in 1831. 

Edward Roden seems to have set up his business in Wolverhampton in 1848.  He not only printed to a higher standard than those who had gone before him but was a successful inventor of printing equipment. 

The rapidly expanding town had a rapidly expanding demand for print of all sorts.  This was met by the expansion of existing firms and the setting up of new ones.  Alfred Hinde set up in 1856 and became one of the town’s biggest printers.  

But we find references to other printers too during the latter part of the 19th century such as A. J. Caldicott, J. Hildreth & Son, Hildreth and Chambers, J. Heighway, Price and Williams, Richards & Cope, B. Rowlands, J. A. Roebuck.  

Although the bulk of their trade would have been jobbing printing – printing anything the private customer or the industrial or commercial customer might want – they would from time to time print (and possibly bind also) books mostly of the religious variety, but also some law books, trade directories, trade catalogues, local guides books, and even slim volumes of verse. 

A legal text book, printed by Barford and Newitt who were at 27 Queen Street.

A Sunday school prize book label by George Goodwin, Queen Street.
Some of these would have been printed for booksellers or other sorts of publishers, some for the authors themselves who would then circulate them however they wished, but some would be printed for the printer himself to publish. 

In times when, if you wanted more than a very few copies of any written material, printing would be the cheapest and quickest way to produce them, all sorts of material was printed – for example, we know that one local worthy, when applying for a new job, had his cv printed and produced as a book; it is unlikely that he was alone in this.   

But the bulk of their work would be visiting cards, business cards, letter heads, all sorts of commercial stationery, posters, commercial and political.  Sometimes they would venture out into printing and publishing newspapers or magazines; or they would print them for others. 

Rushtons shop (it seems to be at 60 Queen Street) shows the range of goods and services which a local printer, bookseller, book binder and general stationer would supply.  The prize book plate would be a stock item for the shop.

This seems to be a purpose built printing house.  It is in Wheeler's Fold.  Does anyone know anything about it?  Which company operated from here?

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