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John Bringhurst, Seditious Printer

August 13, 2020
by Sally Jeffery

Sally Jeffery, author of DISSENTING PRINTERS, the intractable men and women of a
17th century Quaker Press
, introduces seditious printer John Bringhurst who was apprenticed in Holywell Lane in Shoreditch and set up his press in Gracechurch St in the City of London

The book printer by Jan Luyken, 1694

On 3rd October 1685, a spy named Edmund Everard sent this intelligence from Amsterdam to the British envoy at the Hague, revealing the treasonous duplicity of a London printer:

A quaker, who is a german & a bookseller whose shop was about Peters ally in Gracious Street London who was concerned in printing the said Monm. Declaration is expected evry day to make his Escape from London, as I am told by his own brother a journey man shoemaker & young printer likewise (who was in Atterbury the Messengers hand for some time) this young man tells me the found of that matter thus, that Thomas Weeks a silkman in Peters allee (Landlord to the said Quaking bookseller) together with Mr Disny procured Churchill (him that is here fled) to lend his Presse to the said quaker for to print the said treasonable Declaration.

The individual expected in Amsterdam was John Bringhurst. He rented premises on Gracechurch St from Thomas Weeks, a lutestring merchant in Corbet’s Court. The trade had nothing to do with musical instruments, it was just a word-shift from French lustrine and Weeks dealt in lustrous silk fabrics for dresses. He was also politically engaged. In 1683 he had been involved in the Rye House plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother James. Although it never got beyond the planning stage, it led to multiple trials and executions.

Two years later when the openly Catholic James succeeded his brother as king, the cause took on a new urgency. The plan now was to overthrow James II and in his place install Charles’s natural son, James Duke of Monmouth. For some of the much-persecuted Quakers, a new revolt offered a better hope of religious freedom than a court in thrall to the absolutist French king. The rebellion failed disastrously and there was a hurried exodus of London conspirators to Amsterdam.

John Bringhurst was not German – as the intelligence believed – he was baptised in 1652 at St Michael Bassishaw in the City of London, son of a navy surgeon. When his father died, he was apprenticed to the Shoreditch printing house of Andrew Sowle, the first Quaker printer in London. The press was in Holywell Lane, once the location of a priory of Augustinian nuns and still there today.

Andrew Sowle’s press was frequently raided by Stationers’ Company men. Although Shoreditch was outside the City’s jurisdiction the Company operated as an arm of government, looking for evidence of sedition. In 1678 while Bringhurst was a journeyman there, they discovered ‘a private printing press and cases in two upper rooms, to which there was no passage but through trap doors. There they found parts of several scandalous and unlicensed books, printing and printed, which the said Souls acknowledged he had printed. He is the person that a considerable parcel of books was taken from formerly.

That earlier raid referred to was on premises in Moorfields belonging to one John Casimere, which had produced ‘three cartloads of unlicensed and seditious bookes written by a sort of people called Quakers’. Bringhurst would have experienced many such raids, as would Andrew Sowle’s three daughters, all of whom grew up to be printers. The youngest, Tace, succeeded her father, moved the press to Lombard Street and ran it for fifty years.

Bringhurst set up on his own in 1680 with George Fox’s support and became a printer to the Friends with a shop was on Gracechurch Street at the sign of the Book. Nearby was the Gracechurch Meeting House, the centre of Quaker life, and many of the businesses in the surrounding streets were owned by Friends. It was a progressive enclave lodged within the mercantile city.

Bringhurst married Rosina Prache Matern, daughter and widow of Behmenist refugees from Silesia. When her family arrived in London the Friends rented a house in Holywell Court for them. Rosina’s first husband worked as a schoolmaster at the Friends’ school at Edmonton, her scholarly father Hilarius Prache corrected proofs for Andrew Sowle at £10 per annum while her mother and sister were engaged in silk-weaving in Spitalfields.

In 1683 the Bringhursts crossed Gracechurch St to Leadenhall’s eastern side, with a shop at ‘the sign of the Book and Three-Black-Birds in Leaden-Hall Mutton-Market, commonly called the Green-Yard’. It was reached by a passage from Gracechurch Street between the Black Bull and Colchester Arms. Bull’s Head Passage is still there, across the street from Corbet Court.

When Thomas Weeks recruited Bringhurst to print the Duke of Monmouth’s incendiary ‘Declaration for the defence and vindication of the protestant religion and of the laws, rights and privileges of England from the invasion made upon them, and for delivering the Kingdom from the usurpation and tyranny of us by the name of James, Duke of York,’ they took the precaution of doing it outside the City of London.

A sympathetic bookseller let them use his press in Lambeth and the printing was supervised by another conspirator, William Disney. Bringhurst brought along an assistant – his wife’s younger brother Ephraim who, as a bored shoemaker’s apprentice, may simply have been hoping for a bit of adventure. What happened next would change his life too.

Four days after Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset with his army, the Lambeth press was raided. Only Disney was caught, because work had paused for the night. At the trial, a messenger gave evidence that he broke into Disney’s apartment and found him in bed with his maid. He then got into the printing house where he discovered about 750 Declarations printed on one side and five completed.

Disney was tried for treason and hanged, the Declarations were burned by the public hangman, but Weeks disappeared. Bringhurst made no immediate move until he heard a rumour that Weeks was taken, then he fled across the channel. ‘Speedier means & wings were afforded to him to gett out of the way’,  reported Edmund Everard in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam was already crowded with fugitives, the survivors of several seditious conspiracies. By the time William of Orange landed at Torbay in 1688, most of them had returned home but John Bringhurst remained in Amsterdam with his wife Rosina who had followed him there. When her father Hilarius Prache died, her remaining family in London emigrated once more, to Germantown in Philadelphia. They tried to persuade the Bringhursts to join them, but John ‘could not be prevaild with to cross the ocean to a new Country in his old age’.

Bringhurst was only in his forties, no great age even then. Perhaps he felt unwilling to return to life among the Quakers who had turned away from him in 1685, even though he had not taken up arms but simply printed a call for liberty of conscience. He chose to remain in the pluralistic Dutch Republic and died there in 1700, buried in the Westerkerkhof in Amsterdam.

This grimy copy of Monmouth’s Declaration was taken from a captured rebel

An initial with pinks printed by John Bringhurst in a George Fox epistle

Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, where John Bringhurst was apprenticed to Andrew Sowle, the first Quaker printer in London

Bull’s Head Passage, City of London, where John Bringhurst set up his printing shop in 1683

In London, the Bringhurts lived around the corner from Leadenhall Market. Depicted in the The Microcosm of London, 1809 ( Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

In Amsterdam, the Bringhursts lived around the corner from this market. The Nieuwezijds Voorburgswal with the Flower Market, Amsterdam, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, 1686 (Courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Click here to order Sally Jeffrey’s book Dissenting Printers: the intractable men and women of a 17th century Quaker Press direct from the publisher, Turnedup Press

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. August 13, 2020

    Fascinating detail! Close to my heart as James II slept in my house Old Swan House, Stockbridge on his way to confront William after his landing, but turned back after suffering from a ‘nosebleed’…….

  2. Jan permalink
    August 13, 2020

    This was so interesting particularly the amazing names. Thank you.

  3. Mckell Farrell permalink
    September 11, 2022

    Thank you for this! John Bringhurst is one of my ancestors and this had so much more information that I previously had.

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