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So Long, Butler & Tanner

May 14, 2014
by the gentle author

When I started publishing books, I knew we must print them in England and support the survival of our home print industry. It was my privilege to work with Butler & Tanner, one of the greats of the golden age of British printing, which sadly went into administration yesterday with the loss of one hundred jobs. Thus a company that started in 1845 is no more and its history ends here.

For Spitalfields Life Books, they produced The Gentle Author’s London Album, Brick Lane by Phil Maxwell, and a week ago I visited them for the printing of Underground by Bob Mazzer – one of the very last books to be produced by Butler & Tanner – which is to be published on 12th June.

W.T.Butler’s Steam Printing works in Frome, 1857

Everyone who loves books knows the name of Butler & Tanner, Britain’s oldest and foremost colour printer – established in Frome in 1845 and recently known as Butler, Tanner & Dennis. This was the printer that Allen Lane went to in 1935 to print Ariel, the first Penguin Book, and it was my great delight to go down to Somerset with Book Designer, David Pearson, and Contributing Photographer, Patricia Niven, to see the pages of The Gentle Author’s London Album roll off the presses at the same print works last year.

We met at Paddington Station before dawn and the sun was just rising as the train sped through the West Country to deliver us to Frome, where we walked from the station to our destination in the aptly-named Caxton Rd. Upon arrival at the unexpectedly quiet print works, we were ushered into a waiting room and told that the first page would be ready shortly. Once we were led through into the factory we encountered the clamour of the machines, where vast presses – each one the size of whale – were spewing forth huge pages of print.

Here we met printers Paul Wrintmore and Clive Acres, and I saw pages of the Album for the first time, laid upon a brightly-lit table that simulated daylight. To my right, the great machine sat humming to itself with impatience as it waited to run off thousands of copies. But first we had to give our approval and I had to sign off the sheet. Each sheet contains twenty-four pages and here, in these unfamiliar surroundings, I was delighted to find my old friends The Dogs of Old London, The Pointe Shoe Makers, The Car Crashes of Clerkenwell and The Spitalfields Nippers. This was one of those moments when you confront something entirely familiar as if you are seeing it for the first time. It all looked well to me, with sharp details and good definition even within the darker areas of the pictures and, where there were flat areas of colour, the tones were even. I could find no flaw.

Yet I stood back, deferring to David Pearson as the design professional, and he leaned over close, casting his critical gaze upon his beautiful pages. The printers stood behind us, exchanging expectant glaces in silence. This was not a moment to discover a mistake and thankfully we did not find any. Most importantly, we were both satisfied with the quality of the printing and I signed the sheet, setting the great press in motion. After a tour of the factory, we came back to see the second sheet and were satisfied again and I signed it off too, content now to leave the rest of the book in the safe hands of the printers.

The early start and the emotionalism of the occasion caught up with us, and we were happy to climb back onto a train and, feeling relieved, we dozed all the way back to Paddington. Yet I took copies of each of the sheets of the Album with me as souvenirs and, when I got back to Spitalfields, I examined them for errors – but I did not find any.

Book Designer, David Pearson, with pages of The Gentle Author’s London Album

W.T. Butler, 1850

Early print specimen from Butler & Tanner

Joseph Tanner went into partnership with W.T. Butler in 1863

Early print specimen by Butler & Tanner

Butler & Tanner Print Works, 1905

Paper to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Setting up the type, 1920

A special colour of ink mixed for The Gentle Author’s London Album

Adjusting the press, 1930

Pumping the ink to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Typesetting, 1950

David Pearson inspects one of the plates to print The Gentle Author’s London Album

Printing machine, 1935

Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 162 printing press, standing by

Printing Works Beano, 1950

Paul Wrintmore, one of the printers of The Gentle Author’s London Album, with the first page

Plate making, 1950

Clive Acres, one of the printers of The Gentle Author’s London Album

Printing press, 1950

The first page of the Album to come off the press

Digital typesetting, 1970

David Pearson scrutinises the first page

Printing press, 1978

Sewn-together copies heading for the bindery

Digital printing, 1988

In the bindery

1912, Sherlock Holmes

1935, Ariel – the first Penguin Book

1950, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

1965, James Bond

2013, The Gentle Author’s London Album

2014, Brick Lane

2014, Underground

Colour photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

Archive images courtesy of Butler, Tanner & Dennis

An exhibition of the work of Book Designer, David Pearson runs at Kemistry Gallery in Charlotte Rd, Shoreditch, until 28th June

You may also like to read about

David Pearson, Book Designer

One Hundred Penguin Books

36 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 14, 2014

    But … books still need printing, don’t they?
    What went wrong, or has someone “foreclosed” so to speak?
    Of course “administratioN” need not mean permanent closure, need it – one can always hope, perhaps.

  2. Molly Porter permalink
    May 14, 2014

    This is terrible news – the business failing, the loss of jobs; one naturally wonders how this came about and whether there is any hope of revival? It all seems extremely sad, even cataclysmic in the lives of those involved, I imagine.

  3. Linda Watson permalink
    May 14, 2014

    It is tragic that this company has gone into administration. Thank you for supporting it, and for giving it this touching and emotive send off.

  4. Philip Marriage permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Disheartening news – a great pity that a Printer with such a fine reputation, gained through decades of good work, has been forced to close.

  5. Judith Redfern permalink
    May 14, 2014

    This made me feel so sad.

    Did they close for a particular reason?

    My dad worked at a printer DC Thomson in Manchester (also no longer there). When
    I ran to greet him when he came home from work, my abiding memory is the smell of ink!

    I love books. Kindle has its uses I guess, but nothing beats holding a book and turning the pages. Especially an old and treasured book.


  6. May 14, 2014

    It is so sad to see, that all good things must come to an end … — Apart from this: Books will be for ever and ever! So it is absurd that Butler Tanner & Dennis Ltd has to abandon their existence…

    Love & Peace

  7. May 14, 2014

    Like many other industries, production it seems that production has moved East, with many books now being printed in China. Take a look next time you buy a new book and see where it was produced. Perhaps there just aren’t enough people like the Gentle Author who make a conscious decision to support homegrown, historic businesses.

  8. James Harris permalink
    May 14, 2014

    I have worked within the print and publishing industry all my life and unfortunately know of far too many printers that no longer exist but it is still heart wrenching to hear of another, especially with so much history falling by the way side.
    The daily email updates from the Gentle Author are my small indulgence with a cuppa as a break from engineering publishing so please keep going and going and going . . . .

  9. Andrew Ziminski permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Its common knowledge here in Frome that B&T are being kicked out by their landlord so that the site can be cleared for housing development.

  10. Susan Goldman permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Proud to own two of the books mentioned, The Gentle Author’s London Album and Brick Lane. How sad that this business has to close.

  11. May 14, 2014

    Sad news – I see the Brick Lane Bagel Bar closed it’s doors this week too

  12. May 14, 2014

    How sad, I had many tens of thousands of books printed by them in the ’70s and ’80s and guess I must have done the odd pass for press there too. Not seen a photo of a Monophoto keyboard in yonks

  13. May 14, 2014

    Such sad news. But I liked seeing the dust jacket to ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Fond childhood memories.

  14. Vicky permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Maybe all is not lost, it seems to have happened before –

    BBC News 26th April 2008:

    Nearly 300 workers at a printers in Somerset have been told they have been made “redundant with immediate effect”. All 287 workers at Butler and Tanner Printers Ltd in Frome received a letter on Saturday telling them the company is being liquidated …….

  15. May 14, 2014

    Having working for B+T for 16 years from 1988 – 2004 during the heady days of the 90`s – it is a very sad day indeed. Almost unbelievable that the last remaining book printer / binder has disappeared. Having also work for OUP Printing division and Bath ( Pitman Press ) there is a theme in that they too are no longer in existence. Many reasons for their demise, too depressing to go into here really. Fortunately the tradition of printing and binding in Italy has looked after me for the last 10 years. A family run company since day one ( 100+ years ago ).

    A fitting tribute article well done – it is much appreciate by one who had many happy a year there.

    Thank you.

  16. Ian Humphreys permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Such a shame, I spent 24 happy years at B&T, dedicated workforce! We all had such a laugh!

  17. Dixie D permalink
    May 14, 2014

    After redundancy in 2008 with 25 years at Butler and Tanner I was so pleased Felix Dennis rescued the company to become Butler Tanner and Dennis. Well done to all the publishers who supported his company while they could, may those who did not support British manufacturing hang their heads in shame.
    A sad loss for book printing, the town and manufacturing.

  18. Gary Arber permalink
    May 14, 2014

    I feel for them, I know how it feels to close a print works.
    In time the only businesses left in Britain will be bankers and their like.

  19. Paul Acres permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Such a shame to see Butler & Tanner finally close, but a cracking article. The photo of my dad doing a job he loved for over 40 years is great. Would there bd any chance I could be emailed an original copy of the photo? Thanks

  20. Mervyn Drew permalink
    May 14, 2014

    Great memories Monotype keyboard operator, Heidleburgh letterpress machines, rubber platemaking for the one and only Bristolian rotary press made specially for Mr Joe (Tanner) and bible work. Also the machine minders and assistants summer outing. And John Harvey plating up on of the first 4 colour presses. Many great memories I had of a great 38 years at B & Ts from apprentice to journeyman!!

  21. May 15, 2014

    I hate the news of printers closing, but maybe there will be a chance of resurrection. Here in the U.S., some manufacturing is finally returning to local soil as prices rise overseas for production and shipping. Maybe those publishing smaller runs will realize that it makes more economic sense to print locally — saving both time (to assess the quality of the run and to receive the product) and money (lower freight costs). Publishers operate on a thin margin, but I hope factors will align again for this historic company.

  22. jacqui permalink
    May 15, 2014

    Such a loss oe a once thriving business,it was a great place to work in the 70s-80s,i wonder if not renewing with the landlord in time a few years ago has brought this about,a shame if it is because of that!

  23. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 15, 2014

    Sad news indeed. Setting up the type brought back happy memories to me as I learned to do this when an art student, we were also allowed to run the presses when apprentices were not around. The noise is something never forgotten, and that wonderful smell of the ink. I went on to work for a printer publisher but was only allowed in the print room once and even then my boss had to get permission to take me in there from his staff!! Boys wanted to keep this fascinating occupation to themselves then, I don’t know if this is still true, but seeing all these photos made me very nostalgic, I wish everyone who worked there well, hope they will be employed somewhere similar soon.


  24. Lyn Elliott [Rowe} permalink
    May 15, 2014

    Very sad, Worked there during the 70s and 80s. Great memories, left as I moved away. Photos took me back. Wish everyone well.

  25. Mervyn Drew permalink
    May 16, 2014

    I do like the photo of the stonehand doing a revise on the Observers book of Aircraft. And of course the M/c Minders annual summer outing!!

  26. Emma Yerbury permalink
    May 16, 2014

    I loved my job here 🙁 gutted to be made redundant

  27. May 16, 2014

    Thanks to B&T for printing my book Brick Lane brilliantly. So sad they are now closing.

  28. Ian Perry permalink
    May 17, 2014

    How inestimably sad, and especially so, of course, for all the people who are so dreadfully affected by this potential closure. It does seem that very little of quality can thrive in modern society. Everything is governed by the lowest common denominator, to all our loss. We must hope that a sensitive administrator can help a phoenix to rise and re-employ all these talented people. Best wishes to you all, Ian

  29. Jan Marsh permalink
    May 22, 2014

    you know a printers’ annual outing is/was not a beano but a wayzgoose – but where does that term originate?

  30. Heather Fenton permalink
    May 26, 2014

    Yes, indeed a very sad day and so many skills unused and which will probably not be used in the same way again. I worked with B&T for many years in the 1960 and 70s when I was employed by various publishers, and they were always good to work with. I visited the works several times too. I also have another conection with Frome as well. A number of my paternal ancestors, the Belstens, were from there and I think were undertakers and cabinet makers. Sadly cabinet makers are also out of fashion too. So greeings to all unemployed printers, and any cabinet makers, in Frome!

  31. May 17, 2017

    Oh so sad . . one reflects on such skills, characters and dedication to our industry . . as a Monotype Caster Attendant and Monotype Keyboard Operator having to change over the years through to Litho and Digital, I take my hat off to Butler & Tanner for the many fine books produced . . to the men and women employed – it was an institution . . This is a Printing Office . . Friend, you stand on sacred ground . . Mick Kunzi (last of the letterpress boys !) 1963 (typesetter) apprentice and still doing a bit today.

  32. Derek Miles permalink
    August 2, 2017

    I came across a small book of some 500 pages in my family archives printed many years ago and in rather discoloured condition. It is titled
    “The Works of Aristotle” and states
    THE MIDWIFE’S VADE-MECUM. This book does not have a date of printing but its condition may suggest something around the later part of 1800.
    I would welcome any comment and especially some advice on what to do with it, since I’m nearer to 90 than 85. The youngsters don’t appear to be too interested !

  33. Charles Crawford permalink
    June 27, 2018

    Dear Sirs, I have just finished reading a very interesting and moving book, by Agnes Stewart, about 1874, with the title, MARGARET ROPER; OR, THE CHANCELLOR AND HIS DAUGHTER. This book has been published by Amazon, but inside Butler & Tanner are named as the printers, at The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London. I do hope that while others may legally, I suppose, provide the public with old-fashioned works, such as the above, your firm’s reputation will spread with the production of similar projects.

  34. gail foster permalink
    September 10, 2020

    I have found a book that I want info on. Printed by ward lock and company and printed by Butler and tanner ,frome and London…in great britain…no date..written by Mrs Henry Wood called East lynne…no date…very early edition.
    Can you help?
    Gail Foster

  35. Cathy Ritchie permalink
    December 29, 2021

    I have a Blackie’s Compact English Dictionary by Richard Cunliffe, M.A., LL.D and Geoffrey Payton, B.A in hardback c1969.

    I purchased it myself when I left school roughly around 1973. Just enquiring whether it is valuable, is it collectable, would a museum be interested in it? It doesn’t have the outer cover but the book itself is in good condition having been kept in a cupboard away from sunlight.

  36. Lyna Sandau permalink
    November 14, 2023

    I found a book that was printed in 1902: The Shaving of Shagpat by George Meredith. The first page has Charles Scribner’s Sons, but on the last page it shows Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London. Do you know anything about this book?

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