Skip to content

John James Baddeley, Engraver, Die Sinker & Lord Mayor

November 17, 2022
by the gentle author

Click here to book for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS throughout November and beyond

Click here to buy GIFT VOUCHERS for The Gentle Author’s Tours – ideal presents for friends and family


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

One hundred years ago this week, John James Baddeley, an engraver and die sinker, became Lord Mayor of London. Today his company, Baddeley Brothers, still flourishes as the pre-eminent specialist printers and envelope makers.


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

You may also like to read about

Roger Pertwee, Manufacturing Stationer

Terry Smith, Envelope Cutter

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Jane Jones permalink
    November 17, 2022

    If only JJ’s wish could be imprinted on the mind of every developer: “Let us never live where there is nothing ancient, nothing to connect us with our forefathers.”

    Here’s hoping …

  2. Eimear permalink
    November 17, 2022

    Wonderful article….what an amazing man….love the quote….nothing to connect us to our forefathers

  3. Kate permalink
    November 17, 2022

    “Let us never live where there is nothing ancient, nothing to connect us with our forefathers.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Wonderful story about a great man.

  4. Christina permalink
    November 17, 2022

    What a story!

  5. Ann V permalink
    November 17, 2022

    What an amazing man JJ was. Present-day developers take note!

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 29, 2022

    Only just had time to catch up with this. What a great story, and quote! Thanks GA

  7. Scott permalink
    November 9, 2023

    Fascinating. Here after looking up author of book I’ve just read on St Giles Church. An 1888 edition “complimentary from the author” gifted to George W Marshall.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS