Roger Pertwee, Manufacturing Stationer
Roger Pertwee with his envelope-making machine
When Roger Pertwee joined his family firm of Baddeley Brothers, the City of London was full of printers – as it had been for centuries – producing elaborate share certificates, decorative cheque books and fine hand-engraved notepaper for banks and financial companies of all kinds. Today the printers have gone from the Square Mile, replaced at first by electronic printing that has itself now been superceded by computerisation. Yet of all those erstwhile companies, Baddeley Brothers is the rare survivor, thriving in our uniformly digital age, in which - paradoxically – their exquisite, labour-intensive techniques of engraving, die-stamping, embossing and debossing have gained a new currency and an enhanced appeal.
In 1859, John Baddeley opened the company bank account, recorded as trading from Little Bell Alley near St Paul’s in the City of London in 1865, where he was joined by his sons John James and William Henry. They were the original Baddeley Brothers, who took over the running of the business in their twenties upon their father’s unexpected death in 1869. Yet the story goes back as far as Phineas Baddeley who was admitted to the Clockmakers’ Company in 1661 and, through the intervening centuries, members of the family participated in the interrelated trades of clockmaking, die-sinking and engraving.
With an ambition characteristic of Victorian entrepreneurs, the Baddeley Brothers oversaw the industrialisation of a business that had been artisanal for generations, building a towering printing works in Moorgate in 1885 and crowning the achievement when John James Baddeley became Lord Mayor of London at the ripe age of eighty in 1921. Twenty years later, the factory was destroyed in the Blitz, yet just a few pattern books survive today as tantalising indicators of the intricate lost glories of their die-stamped motifs and the lush sophistication of their illustrated headings for engraved notepapers.
“There was a gap, and I joined when I was twenty-seven, as a factory-come-officer gofer,” admitted Roger, whose sons Charles and Chris run the business today,“My uncle David ran the business then, he was tough Victorian taskmaster and, prior to that, it had been run by my grandfather William and two of his cousins.” When Roger started in the sixties, there were two factories – one in Tabernacle St which did the envelope making and die-stamping, and one in Paul St which did the engraving and lithography. In the eighties, he oversaw uniting all operations in a single building on the corner of Boundary St and Redchurch St.
“There were lots of little printers around Liverpool St, Fenchurch St, The Minories and Eastcheap – and, if there was financial take-over, any number of legal documents would need to be printed overnight,” explained Roger, recalling the days when he and his brother went round the City twice a week in their Burton suits taking orders, “It all started to go in the eighties with the advent of electronic printing but we were still producing engraved letter headings. We used to do runs of fifty to a hundred thousand letter-headings and we did all the letter-headings for Barclays Bank at one point. We had our own engravers then, they were a law to themselves – seven engravers and an artist, individuals who were creative and precise in their work, a nice crowd.”“
“We kept the dies and, in those days, all the partners in an accountancy firm were shown on the letterhead. So whenever a partner joined, we had to reprint the notepaper – which was good for business. We bought the dies from McCreedys in the Clerkenwell Rd, and they were ground and polished by hand.” he revealed, explaining the process whereby the dies could be softened for hand engraving and then hardened again for printing,“We used cyanide to harden the dies and the basement was like an inferno, but we’re perfectly ok – we’re all still here!”
Thanks to Roger’s tenacity and prudence, Baddeley Brothers survived the technological revolution, that wiped out printers in the City, by moving the family business back to Hackney – not so far from where John Baddeley operated his engraving and die-sinking works beside Mare St, two hundred years ago, before he moved down to Little Bell Alley near St Paul’s in the first place.
London Fields is where gilt-crested envelopes are produced today with unmatched finesse for those top institutions which discretion prevents us disclosing and where the fine notepaper adorned with coats of arms for venerable colleges is printed. The methods that Baddeley Brothers have kept alive, which were commonplace a century ago, have become unfamiliar now and words that sit upon the page, subtly raised or embossed or sunken, have a charismatic life of their own which no other technique can rival.
Baddeley Brothers, Little Bell Alley, business card from the early nineteenth century
Baddeley Brothers, Moorgate, constructed in 1885, this building was destroyed in the blitz of 1941
Baddeley Brothers at the corner of Boundary St and Redchurch St, 1989-1993 – now the Boundary Hotel.
Roger Pertwee, Manufacturing Stationer and Heroic Printer
Portraits of Roger Pertwee copyright © Colin O’Brien
Archive images © Baddeley Brothers