Print’s secret history

Now the accounts of print’s nefarious past can be read in all its disreputable detail thanks to a lottery-funded project that has made the Old Bailey proceedings freely available online for everyone to enjoy.

This internet resource is a fully-searchable digitised collection of all surviving editions of the Old Bailey proceedings from 1674 to 1913. It contains the largest body of texts describing the lives of the non-elite ever published, and allows access to over 210,000 trials and biographical details of approximately 3,000 men and women executed at Tyburn. I searched the website ( and was amazed – and amused – by what it revealed.

Search: printers + larceny
Printing works were a temptation to those with light fingers. Metal type was particularly irresistible, and it was frequently stolen and re-sold, either to other printers or as scrap. Punishment could be severe.

Daniel Dean was indicted in 1825 for stealing 80lbs of long-primer printing types and 100lbs of other types belonging to Walter McDowall for whom he worked. Giving evidence McDowall stated: “The prisoner was in our employ as a compositor – our type is kept upstairs in our premises on Gough Square. He was composing Eagle and Young’s Tythe Cases. When the type was used, it was his duty to distribute it and replace it in its order in the cases, which have a division for each letter. We used four sorts of letter on Eagle and Young’s book. While he was in my service, I missed the type of three pages of work, which had been set up, and I observed that long primer got scarcer than usual.”

On this occasion Dean got away with it, but just six months later he was up to his old tricks again when he was indicted for stealing 130lbs of type from printer John Dover in May 1826. Dean was caught selling small batches of the type to other printers; this time he was found guilty and transported to the colonies for 14 years.

Paper was also a prime target for print’s criminals and punishment was just as severe, as John Bewick found out when he was accused of feloniously receiving eight reams of stolen printer paper. Bewick worked for Abraham John Valpy, a publisher with a warehouse in Fleet Street. Valpy had a considerable quantity of unbound books loose in quires, but during stock-taking found “the entire store was skimmed over – several bundles of each work were taken away, so as to leave the appearance of all the piles being alike and right.” Bewick sold the paper to other printers, for which crime he too was transported abroad.

Search: printers + seditious libel
The printing press was long regarded with suspicion by the authorities. Its output could bring down governments, embarrass monarchs and throw doubt on the clergy; the Old Bailey proceedings show seditious libel as the most common crime among printers.

In 1683, John Culefant was convicted of offences against the King. Culefant was tried for “printing, and publishing two scandalous and seditious libels, the one entitled The Growth of Popery and the other Ignoramus Justice, and it being proved he brought the copy, corrected the proofs, and encouraged the work”. He was found guilty, fined and pilloried.

John Lowthorp, clergyman, was indicted in 1690 for a “high misdemeanour in writing, printing and publishing a most pernicious, scandalous, seditious and notorious libel against the King and Government, entitled A Letter to the Lord Bishop of Saturn in which scandalous libel there are many treasonable sentences”. Lowthorp was fined 500 marks (1 mark was 13s 4d) and the common hangman at Westminster burnt his books. Lowthorp had to remain in prison until the fine was paid, and was stripped of the cloth.

One nameless convict was not only accused of seditious libel but also impersonating a printer: “A pretended printer was brought to the bar, he had been convicted upon two several indictments, the one for exercising the Mystery of Printing, not being of the same (but formerly a scrivener) and the other for printing scandalous libels.” He was fined, imprisoned and prohibited from “exercising or using the trade of printing for three years to come”.

Search: printers + murder
Printing can be a stressful business with demanding clients, expedited deliveries and unpredictable technologies – tempers sometimes get frayed and occasionally there have been violent consequences.

Take the case of Albert Carolan who was a printer based in Gray’s Inn Road, London. In 1891, Carolan had legal problems, the stress of which prompted him to take a hammer from the composing room and strike his apprentice Albert Moore over the head 15 times, breaking the handle of the hammer and hospitalising Moore for several weeks. Carolan received 10 years penal servitude for the crime.

In 1683, John Derry was tried for killing Thomas Robinson in the parish of St Bartholomew the Great. Evidence given at the trial records: “The prisoner and the deceased working together (being printers by trade) upon some words passing between them, the prisoner struck the deceased with the handle of a printers ball, drawing blood by the stroke which happened on 27 June 1683, he lived until the 23 August, and then died, but no former malice appearing, and the doctor and surgeon giving testimony, that they verily believed the deceased died a natural death, not being any ways occasioned by that stroke, the printer was acquitted.”

Search: printers + sex offences
Printers, of course, are no more immune to the sins of the flesh than anyone else and the Old Bailey records confirm this. Examples are the case of a copper-plate printer called Thomas Meller who was sentenced to death for raping Mary Curtain in 1769, calico printer Charles Atwell, who was accused of sodomy then acquitted in 1779, and John Cole, a copper-plate printer who was confined for 12 months in Newgate for bigamy in 1809.

More unique to the printing profession was the crime of producing pornography.
Printer Jacob Vernarde was tried in 1696 “for composing and printing filthy obscene cards and books”, so was Charles Watts in 1877. The brothers Josiah and Albert Jacomb of the Rational Publishing Company were both accused and found guilty in 1906 of making, printing, procuring and selling obscene books. One of the titles in question was Womanhood, a Book for Ladies which “dealt with various phases of married life and with sexual relations, in places in a very plain and open way”. The brothers were bound over and fined £50.

Edward Stirling didn’t get off so lightly when he was convicted and imprisoned for two years in 1876 for unlawfully selling obscene prints including Fanny Hill and The F Countess. During a police ‘sting’, the printer was reported to have told an undercover constable, “I know the police are after me, and if they get me I know I shall get two years, some of them got two years for it a little while ago, and if I thought anyone was selling me I would rip their guts out, and the police too if they came here, I am one of the oldest left now.”

The trial also gave a glimpse into the production techniques of the day and the market value of the products as the constable recorded: “He showed me a picture of a woman, a very disgusting thing, and said that he was going to take some sketches of it, print them and colour them by hand. I asked for a dozen cards and paid him 22s.”

Search: typefounders
Even the great and the good of the typographic world get a mention the Old Bailey proceedings.

In 1743, Sarah and Alice Winn were accused of stealing three Holland-sheets to the value of 25s from the famous typefounder William Caslon. So upset was Caslon at this theft he circulated papers among the local pawnbrokers advertising his loss.
The notice read: “Five shillings reward: whereas some person or persons did, on the night of Saturday the 20th Day of march instant, steal from the yard belonging to Mr William Caslon’s letter-foundry in Chiswall-Street two pairs of holand-sheets value 25 shillings. Whoever will give information of the offender or offenders, so that they might be brought to justice shall, on his, her, or their conviction, receive the above reward, upon application to Mrs Jackson, Chiswell Street. London, 21st March 1743.” Sarah was acquitted, but Alice was found guilty and was transported to the colonies.

The Old Bailey proceedings are not simply a record of crime and punishment, they also catalogue three centuries of everyday life in the printing trade as seen through the eyes of those on the shop floor and not their masters. As such it is an invaluable archive.

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