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The vanished printing houses

By Martyn Ould


Someone on even the most cursory visit to Oxford must surely see two fine buildings that once housed the University Press: the Sheldonian Theatre and the Clarendon Building, close to each other on today’s Broad Street. If they venture further afield, perhaps heading for the restaurants and bars along Walton Street, they also can’t fail to notice the neo-classical building that has been the Press’s current home since 1832. What they’ll never see however is the Press’s second home. Because it’s no longer there.

To begin at the beginning . . . when the University founded its own Press in order to print books of scholarship, it needed a suitable building to house the type and printing presses and the whole business of book manufacture. Now, there had long been an ambition to move the University ritual of ‘the Act’ — often a raucous and profane affair — out of the sacred space of the University church of St Mary the Virgin. The solution was a new building: Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre. And a theatre it surely was, a place where University ritual — and dissections — could be performed and witnessed. However, in an attempt to kill three birds with one stone it was also decided that the nascent University Press should also be housed there. It’s hard to see this as anything but a temporary expedient: the grand auditorium was hardly a place to install a factory for books, yet that was what happened. In 1669 five wooden printing presses went down into the cellar beneath the auditorium floor, while the racks of cases of type and the frames at which compositors stood when composing type were squirrelled into the spaces beneath the galleries. Damp printed sheets were hung on suspended poles wherever there was room. And when the University needed the Theatre for its primary purpose, much of this materiel had of course to be moved out and the work of the Press was disrupted for the duration.

The ‘Little Print-house’ peeps over the Theatre Court Wall to the left of the Theatre
The ‘Little Print-house’ peeps over the Theatre Court Wall to the left of the Theatre

This was hardly an ideal situation and, not surprisingly, within just a couple of years plans were laid to move out. Right next door to the Theatre, on its east side, was a small house known locally as Tom Pun’s House, and a Mr Delgardno was paid to remove himself and make way for some of the Press’s printing activities; we can see what became known as the ‘Little Print-house’ on an engraving of the Theatre by Michael Burghers. Better still, between that house and the high wall that surrounded the Theatre was a narrow strip of land which the University owned and on which the University now proceeded to build a long, single-storey, wooden building, glazed and slated, into which the compositors and press-crews decamped with their equipment. Though far from grand it was no doubt a great deal more suitable and comfortable than the elegant but inappropriate surroundings of the Theatre. We can clearly see this ‘New Print-house’ on David Loggan’s bird’s-eye-view engraving of Oxford of 1675.

The single-storey ‘New Print-house’ nestles under the Theatre Court Wall
The single-storey ‘New Print-house’ nestles under the Theatre Court Wall

In subsequent years the University continued buying up the lease of the tenements bordered by the Little Print-house on the west, Catte Street on the east, Canditch on the north, and the Schools on the south, and yet more wooden buildings were erected for the Press, in particular one to house a type foundry where the Press could make its own metal printing type, a unique facility that freed it from dependence on London typefounders. All very homely. But the desire at the highest level for the University’s Press to take its proper, dignified place in the heart of the University never went away and architect Nicholas Hawksmoor was engaged to design a new, dedicated printing-house that would stand alongside the Theatre on a line through the Schools. It was time for all those wooden buildings — hardly a matter of pride to the University, we might guess — to be brushed aside, and in early 1712 the workmen and their equipment all moved back into the Theatre while their home of decades was razed and the new edifice — the Clarendon Building — raised. By late 1713 its two equal halves were home to the Learned Press and the Bible Press, one on ‘Learned Side’ (to the west) and the other on ‘Bible Side’ (to the east).

The visitor who stands today on the bleak gravelled area between the Schools and the Clarendon Building might be surprised to know that they stand among the ghosts of a clutch of wooden buildings in which Oxford University Press printed its books and where men set type and pulled at their printing presses three centuries before.

printingMartyn Ould is an independent researcher who has written on the printing history of OUP, most recently contributing three chapters to volume 1 of The History of Oxford University Press. He is a practising letterpress printer, operating The Old School Press with his wife. The first volume of his own four-volume study Printing at the University Press, Oxford 1660-1780 is planned for publication in 2014. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Book Text and Place 1500-1750 Research Centre at Bath Spa University.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read our previous posts about the History of Oxford University Press.

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