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The Richardsons: the worst of times at Oxford University Press?

By John Feather


From 1715 to 1758, Stephen and Zaccheus Richardson were successively the ‘Warehouse Keepers’ for Oxford University Press. The seemingly innocuous title conceals more than it reveals and yet is telling. In William Laud’s original vision of a university press at Oxford in the 1630s—a vision that John Fell adopted and adapted after the Restoration—at the heart of the enterprise was to be an individual known as the ‘Architypographus’. He was to be a scholar-businessman, a man who understood the book trade and could manage the Press but who could also find books to publish, authors to write them and booksellers to buy and sell them. However, by the early eighteenth century the office had fallen into disuse, leaving the Warehouse Keeper as the effective manager of the Press’s daily activities.

The Richardsons could do none of the things expected of the Architypographus. At best (and their best was not very good) they were the keepers of inventories and account books, not learned publishers. Under their regime (son succeeded father on the latter’s death in 1756), the Press accounts were always cursory and formulaic, and at times almost non-existent. The Delegates of the Press were too supine to intervene. One Vice-Chancellor, Robert Shippen, a notorious crypto-Jacobite (and not always terribly crypto), signed off a single account to cover the four years of his term of office (1719-23). This was the nadir, yet the accounts is in a perverse way a very fair representation of the Press under the first two Hanoverians: barely functional, ill-managed, unproductive.

A_prospect_of_oxford_by_BOYDELL,_JOHN_-_GMII

Some books were printed even in the worst of times. But almost without exception the substantial books printed at the Press in the Richardson years were either privately printed for their authors, or were printed on commission for booksellers — and more often London booksellers than those in Oxford. At times even the privately printed work was little more than vanity printing for clerical Oxford: many of them sermons preached before the university and printed to draw the world’s attention (and more particularly the attention of potential patrons of livings) to their authors. The Press was not inactive in the middle decades of the eighteenth century — that is a myth — but it was certainly not the learned press commanding a European audience to enhance the reputation of the University which had been envisaged by Laud and Fell, and which had been partially realised at the very beginning of the eighteenth century.

This was the Press investigated by William Blackstone, following his appointment as a Delegate in 1755. He found that the University had ignored (and perhaps forgotten) its rights and obligations. It seems to have been this which really riled him. Most of the reforms which he persuaded a reluctant Vice-Chancellor and indifferent University to adopt were little more than a reassertion of the earlier agreements reached by Laud and Fell about how the University would support the Press from its limited funds. But Blackstone also made one critical practical contribution. He consulted Daniel Prince, a prominent and well-established Oxford bookseller, about the Press, and it was from him that he learned enough about the trade to understand what was wrong. He also began to understand how to solve the problems. Prince was appointed as ‘Overseer of the Press’ in 1758, and with the support of Blackstone and other Delegates, he began to forge the links with the London book trade which eventually turned the Press into both a successful commercial enterprise and a learned publisher. From its early Georgian nadir, the Press began the ascent which led it to become the world’s leading academic publisher by the end of the nineteenth century.

John Feather, a former President of the Oxford Bibliographical Society, is a Professor at Loughborough University and the author of A History of British Publishing and many other works on the history of books and the book trade. He has contributed to both volumes 1 and 2 of The History of Oxford University Press.

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 previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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Image credit: A West Prospect of the City of Oxford by John Boydell, 1751. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (GMII). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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