I’ve just been reading a couple of books by University Printers. The first is by Brooke Crutchley who was Printer to the University of Cambridge from 1946 to 1974. To be a printer, his memoir, was published in 1980. The second, Vivian Ridler’s Diary of a Master Printer: A year in the life of the Printer to the University, Oxford, has just been published. Ridler was University Printer at Oxford from 1958 till 1978.

Brooke Crutchley started out at the Press in 1930 as Assistant to the then Printer, Walter Lewis, a giant of Cambridge printing history. It was Lewis had who retained the services of Stanley Morison, the driver of the revolution in print quality in Britain, a revolution spearheaded in Cambridge and focussed on Monotype and letterpress. Much of the book is about these two heroes, Lewis and Morison. We actually get very little feel for what Crutchley’s job was like: at his interview Lewis told him he wanted an Assistant who knew nothing about printing. The young Brooke, a rather literary type while at university and at the time employed by The Yorkshire Post, fit the bill. Of course he learned quickly — it’s not rocket science after all — but was always more interested in the aesthetic than the business side of printing. We do learn about the introduction of an incentive payment scheme at the Press, which seems to have occurred smoothly and successfully according to its prime mover. Back then relations between labor and management were a good deal more aggressive than they are now, so this was a notable achievement, getting the local unions to admit that increased output might be a good thing, as long as the worker was directly remunerated.

The book, typeset and printed at the University Press of course, is a modest little demy octavo (5½” x 8½”) volume. It’s set in Bembo with no running heads and with the folios enclosed in parentheses centered at the foot. A clean straightforward design, the least successful feature of which is the decision to pick up of those horizontal parens featured on the jacket above and below the title. They become a bit too much when they reappear on the title page and in every chapter title — there are fourteen of them within the 187 pages of the text. The binding is sewn in a case made of a pale green Linson over boards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before, but this shade of Linson (a paper-based binding material) is fading with age and you can see a distinct paleness along the top of the case, which has been living peacefully on a bookshelf for the last forty years.

Thirty years later the Press would no doubt not have published a book of this type. The book was in fact published in Britain by The Bodley Head. The Cambridge University Press copy I have is only the US edition.

Nor would OUP publish such a volume: Mr Ridler’s book does not come from that source. Compared to Mr Crutchley’s book this one tells you much more about the job of running a print works, unsurprisingly since it is a diary of a year’s working life. There’s quite a bit of agonizing about computerization and film typesetting, which in Ridler’s case takes the form of sensible study proposals and tests — OUP already had a film setting operation in place — rather than Crutchley’s more handwringing reaction. Concern about the volume of work features largely: there were after all 900 employees to keep busy. A university printing house must always be in a strained relationship with the publishing wing: the printing house exists primarily to serve the publishing business but the publishing business is free to place work elsewhere, and forward loading is always a source of tension. (The year covered by the diary, 1970-1, was a particularly difficult year for publishers and thus book manufacturers.) Both men were toward the end of the line of a long list of Printers to the University, and status concerns were unavoidable. Bear in mind that the University originally had a printing business which, after a century or two, developed a publishing department, whereas now in everyone’s eye, they had a publishing business with a printing department attached.

The Printer, who started his working life as a designer, is often found worrying about the quality of the litho† illustrations printed for a Dante Gabriel Rossetti book. The Printer’s job involved visiting a surprising number of sick workers in hospital; and attending the funerals of not a few; signing indentures for many apprentices; and general morale boosting tours of the plant. And of course there were endless meetings of committees to study this that and the other — more of them industry-wide rather than local.

There are lots of visits to the theatre in Oxford, in London, in Stratford and elsewhere — the Ridlers were an artistic lot. The Diary contains many of walk-on appearances, by on one occasion a couple of my bosses from Cambridge. There are quite a few unbuttoned comments on personalities. Jack S., my boss from New York, is described, as “not very attractive” — though one wonders what that means, or amounts to. Sir Frank Lee, Chairman of the Cambridge Syndicate, is portrayed cocking his leg over the arm of his chair in Ridler’s office. Mr Ridler claims Dick David, Secretary to the Syndics, looked askance, but I suspect it’s only the more tightly-buttoned Oxonian who thought anything about such casual address. Indiscreetly‡ Mr Ridler provides the salaries of the top executives at OUP in 1970.

OUP and CUP were then, and remain, rather different from one another. In the early part of the twentieth century OUP’s London office had picked up the ball and run with it: they started publishing books on their own say-so. Under the guidance of Humphrey Milford OUP London fairly soon built up a publishing program which dwarfed that coming out of Oxford. The Oxford bit, referred to as the Clarendon Press, still got all its books accepted for publication by the Delegates (the Oxford equivalent of Cambridge’s Syndicate, a committee of academics appointed by the University to run the Press) and most of the OUP academic publishing came through the Clarendon Press. Cambridge never relaxed this Syndical control. Oxford’s London office output contained most of what the general book-reading public would come to regard as Oxford’s publishing: The Oxford Book of This and That, The Oxford Companion to Whatever, a serious poetry list, and series like The World’s Classics. The London office went on to establish offices around the world which were enabled themselves to publish books without reference to Oxford. To some this might seem a risky policy, but it worked out brilliantly, mainly I suppose because the people hired were able to find success while maintaining discipline. Soon non-Clarendon sales represented the vast majority of Oxford’s revenue. As a consequence OUP grew to be much bigger than CUP, which may partly have motivated the febrile and somewhat desperate efforts around the 450th anniversary of CUP’s royal charter to “prove” that Cambridge was the oldest continuously-operating Press in the world — and obviously the best.

Mr Ridler’s book is published under the imprint of the Perpetua Press which is a revival of a private press which Ridler and his friend David Bland had established before World War II. It is effectively published privately by its editor, Colin Ridler, son of the author. They’ve gone all out to create a handsome volume. Printed in two colors (excessive to my mind to have running head and folios (at the foot) printed throughout in a second color, red), they’ve used a nice paper, tricked the book out with a ribbon marker, and sewn it and casebound it in a red paper-based material over substantial boards, with printed endpapers showing original handwritten pages from the diary. The book was printed in Wales by Gomer Press of Llandysul in Ceredigion. Its trim size is 6⅛” x 9¼”, an unusual size for UK book printing: a US standard. The publishers have added two eight-page inserts of plates, one spread printed in four colors, and topped the book off with nice head (and tail) bands. The jacket is a dark blue contrast.

The typesetting would have raised eyebrows at the University Press (like Cambridge’s, Oxford University’s printing history ended a few years ago). We readers have become used to more than a word space following a period or comma and getting rid of that extra space doesn’t help any. Space before an opening quote is kind of important too. And Mr Ridler would never have allowed a heading to fall at the foot of a verso page to be followed by the consequent text at the top of the next page. Conventions in typesetting exist for good strong comprehension reasons, and designers shouldn’t be encouraged to mess around with them. The book’s imprint page tells us it’s set in Caslon and Gill Sans. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time searching for a single character in sans serif type, I’ve failed to find one. Editorial issues include the decision to refer to people by initials although no listing of initials is provided. Obviously Ridler had no problem recognizing RR as his deputy, but the reader often struggles with characters who appear less frequently.

This is an oddly fascinating book which makes you rather envious of the job holder. Most of the work of the University Printer was relatively undemanding and rather pleasant, though he had to be constantly ready to make some hugely consequential decisions. Having written the piece, the only year he wrote a work diary, Mr Ridler did nothing with it. Luckily his sons Colin and Ben have now brought it out. Thanks to Gordon Johnson for bringing it to my attention.


* Odd that such august educational institutions would describe themselves in dog Latin. Oxoniensis, Cantabrigiensis — it’s all a bit pathetic. What happened to the ford the oxen used, and wasn’t there a Latin word for bridge that I was taught when I was nine?

Well of course that’s not the way it came about. Cantabrigiensis is a Medieval Latin coinage based on the Old English name for the town, Grantebrycge (Granta bridge). We just have to accept that the Gr migrated to C at some point before its Latinification — I suppose you can just about imagine that happening in an oral context. At some point the River Granta was renamed Cam, at least from Cambridge on downstream, though it still retains the name Granta for its upper reaches — think of Grantchester after all. It’s not the Roman name for the place: it’s later Latin. When the Romans had a fort on top of Castle Hill they named it Duroliponte — obviously the bridge was already there.

So Cantab has nothing to do with Canterbury. Maybe we should take it as a kind of insider joke based on the local knowledge that Granta = Cam.


† Oxford University Press had used lithography since the days when that implied using stones. Cambridge on the other hand was able to demonstrate the utter uselessness of lithography in the early 1970s by getting in a machine for a try-out and printing on it wantonly awful work, thus proving that letterpress would never die. OUP also had a collotype department — which was closed in 1968. And a paper mill. A bigger business altogether.


‡ Perhaps not that indiscreetly. In those days information about colleagues’ salaries was much more casually exchanged than nowadays. Indeed at dinner parties nobody would bat an eye at being asked by a relative stranger how much they earned, or how much they’d paid for their house. The information Ridler provides is entirely congruent with what I always say was the top level of pay in Cambridge when I was working there. That top level was only three to four times more than the bottom.