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John James Baddeley, Die Sinker

May 10, 2015
by the gentle author

“I haven’t time in my life for much else than work”

These photographs show Sir John James Baddeley, Baronet – known colloquially as ‘JJ’ – taking a Sunday morning walk with his wife through the empty City of London in 1922, when he was Lord Mayor and residing at the Mansion House.

With his top hat, cane and Edwardian beard, the eighty-year-old gentleman looks the epitome of self-confident respectability and worldly success, yet there is a poignancy in his excursion through the deserted streets, when the hubbub of the week was stilled, pausing to gaze into the windows of the shabby little printshops that competed to supply letterheads and engraved stationery to the banks, stock-brokers and insurance companies of the City.

In those days, all transactions and share issues required elaborately-engraved forms and there was a legal obligation to list all the directors on business notepaper which needed constant reprinting and adjustment of the dies whenever there were staff changes. Consequently, the City of London teemed with small highly-specialised companies eager to fulfil the constant demand for all this printed paper.

At the time of these photographs, nearly sixty years had passed since, at the age of twenty-three in October 1865, JJ had set up independently as a die sinker in a shared workshop in Little Bell Alley at the back of the Bank of England under entirely inauspicious circumstances. The eldest of thirteen children, JJ had already acquired plenty of experience of the long hours of labour required to scrape a modest living in the trade of die-sinking and engraving when he was apprenticed to his father at fourteen years old in Hackney.

Even by the standards of nineteenth century fiction, it was an extraordinary story of personal advancement. JJ oversaw the transformation of his business from an artisan trade to an industrialised process employing hundreds in a single factory. Born into an ever-increasing family that struggled to keep themselves, he inherited a powerful work ethos and a burning desire to overcome the injustice his father had suffered. JJ can only have been a driven man, the eldest brother who set his own modest industry in motion and then drew in his younger siblings to assist with spectacular results.

“In January 1857, I started my business life with my father in his workshop in Hackney at the back of the house at the Triangle in Mare St where I first donned a white apron, turned up my shirt sleeves and did all sorts of jobs,” he wrote of his apprenticeship in the trade of die sinking, “sweeping up and lighting the forge fire, warming the dies and later forging them on the anvil, then annealing them and afterwards filing them to shape and, when engraved, hardening them and tempering them.”

“During the whole time there, I was the errand boy, taking the dies and stamps to the few customers that my father had, Jarrett at No 3 Poulty being the chief one,” he recalled at the end of his life, “Many a time have I trudged – in winter with my feet crippled with chilblains – to the Poultry and at night to his other shop in Regent St. During the time I was at work with my father I had very good health, but we were all poorly-clad and none of the children had overcoats.”

In 1851, Griffith Jarrett exhibited his popular embossing press at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, ordering the dies from JJ’s father who took on a larger house for his growing family and more apprentices on the basis of this seemingly-endless new source of income. Yet Griffith Jarrett exploited the situation mercilessly, inducing JJ’s father to make dies for him alone, then driving the prices down and eventually turning JJ’s father into a mere journeyman who worked like a slave and found he had little left after he had paid his production costs, impoverishing the family.

When, as a boy, JJ walked through the snow at night to deliver the dies for his father to Griffith Jarrett’s Regent St shop at 8pm or 10pm, Jarrett sometimes gave JJ tuppence to ride part of the way home. It was an offence of meagre omission that JJ never forgot.  “These two pennies were the beginnings of my savings which enabled me to set up in business for myself and to defy the man who for more than twenty years had my father in his clutches,” admitted JJ in later years.

“I began work by doing simple dies for my father at journeyman prices and began making traces, stops, commas, letter punches and other small tools. By the end of the year, I managed to get a few orders for dies from Messrs John Simmons & Sons who had a warehouse in Norton Folgate,” he recorded, looking back on his small beginnings in the light of his big success, “I turned out my work quicker than my competitors and gave better personal attention to my customers, trusting to this rather than obtaining orders by quoting lower prices.”

“These were very strenuous and hard working times, I commenced work at nine and seldom leaving before ten o’clock at night,” he confessed – but twenty years later, in 1885, the company occupied a six storey factory at the corner of Moor Lane and employed more than three hundred people. It was an astonishing outcome.

Yet, while embracing the potential of technological progress so effectively, JJ possessed an equal passion for craft and tradition – especially the history of Cripplegate where he became a Warden. “In 1889, an attempt to take down the St Giles Church Tower, after a good fight I saved it,” he wrote with succint satisfaction. Later, devoting a year of his life to writing an authoritative history of Cripplegate, he prefaced it with the words – “Let us never live where there is nothing ancient, nothing to connect us with our forefathers.”

No wonder then that, as an old man, John James Baddeley chose to stroll through the empty streets of London on Sunday mornings, pausing to look into old print shop windows, and consider his own place in the long history of printing and the City.

John James Baddeley’s business card

Over 300 hands were employed at Baddeley Brothers in Moor Lane, 1888

Engineering & Press Making Dept in the basement

Paper & Envelope Department on the first floor where over fifty hands are employed in envelope making, gumming, black and silver bordering, scoring etc

Die Sinking & Engraving Dept – The largest in the trade, twenty-one die sinkers are employed alongside twenty-one copperplate engravers and eight wood engravers.

Litho Dept on the second floor with fourteen copperplate presses, three litho machines, nine litho presses and three Waddie lithos

The view from the Mansion House in 1922

JJ in the Venetian Parlour at the Mansion House

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. May 10, 2015

    A wonderful story of a determined, clever and ambitious man. What would he have said o British Land and their cronies? We could do with Lord Mayor like him now.Valerie

  2. May 10, 2015

    Inspiring story; and such elegant work

  3. May 10, 2015

    A man fired by circumstances to overcome the exploitation of his father makes for a powerful story. There’s stimulus aplenty for would be historical novelists (and indeed contemporary ones too) on Spitalfields’ Life. It must be a mammoth task to keep on finding and researching your blog but you never seem to run out of stuff. From business magnets to humble mobile caterers, the stories just keep on giving.
    I had to look up die sinking…so I learned something new too.

    Spitalfields’ Life is a wonderful creative project.

  4. May 10, 2015

    So beautiful. Thanks for yet another glimpse into the fascinating past. It’s all too easy to forget the skills and craftsmanship that was once part of life.

  5. Annie permalink
    May 10, 2015

    Such craftsmanship. I wonder if he ever took revenge on the evil taskmaster who brought his family so low? Or was it just a case of best revenge is living well?

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 10, 2015

    What an inspiring story, and an example of how it was possible then to became a self made man but still to retain a sensitivity as to what makes our lives worthwhile, if only that still applied today!!


  7. Peter Harrison permalink
    May 10, 2015

    Thank you for this brief, but excellent, insight into the working lives, and fortunes, of those who peopled the area. We forget the enormous labour earlier generations had to devote to simply staying alive.

  8. Chris F permalink
    May 10, 2015

    It does show how adversity combined with a strong work ethic can (in some cases) pay off… What an inspirational character, but unknown to millions. I see that on the second sheet of Stock Dies, there is a monogram for the Primrose League founded in 1883 in order to promote Conservative principles in Great Britain… This organisations stated aims were:

    1.To Uphold and support God, Queen, and Country, and the Conservative cause;
    2.To provide an effective voice to represent the interests of our members and to bring the experience of the Leaders to bear on the conduct of public affairs for the common good;
    3.To encourage and help our members to improve their professional competence as leaders;
    4.To fight for free enterprise.

    I wonder if Mr Baddeley was a member?

  9. May 10, 2015

    Fascinating, wonderful story

  10. May 10, 2015

    I didn’t know that you can see down Threadneedle Street from the Mansion House.

  11. Leonard Baddeley permalink
    December 3, 2020

    Sir John was my great uncle, and I am told when I have grow my beard I look just like him. My grandfather, Water, who I never knew was one of his brother brother. I have the menu for one of the dinners at the mansion house, that my father Ronald attended, my father was born in 1889.
    I have family history going back to the 14th century.

  12. FREDA DOUGLAS permalink
    March 7, 2021

    I Bought the book hoping to find something about my Grandad in it, Fredrick Baddeley, I know he brought shame to the Family by having my Father out of wedlock but there it, ends would love to hear if anyone knows his history, he was born in 1845 but can’t find when and where he died.

  13. Jessica Clark (Baddeley) permalink
    August 29, 2022

    JJ Baddeley was my great great Uncle – my Grandfathers Uncle ! I love finding news paper articles and information about my family that I have yet to discover !

  14. Scott permalink
    November 27, 2022

    I visited Spitalfields Market last Thursday and bought a book for a modest £8.
    “An Account Of The Church And Parish Of St Giles Without Cripplegate In The City Of London”
    By John James Baddeley Churchwarden, published by him too, dated 1888.
    I wondered who the author was so found him here via a quick search.
    The book is signed. A very interesting man indeed. Great account of the church and Parish in the book. Outstanding, I would think it’s probably quite a rare book, it was gifted to George W Marshal, a member of FSA. And ILD.

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