Just as everything is connected to everything else, so one thing leads to another. I was leafing through an ancient copy of Country Life in the doctor’s waiting room the other day, and was electrified to see a photograph of half an Albion press which clearly had the words on it ‘Harrild and Sons’. Having (to my shame) come across the name of Robert Harrild only a week before, I wisely concluded that Fate was nudging me to have a further look at him …
Robert Harrild was born in Bermondsey, then a village outside London, and famous for its vegetable gardens, on New Year’s Day 1780. According to the ODNB, nothing is know of his parents, but he must have been ingenious and ambitious, because in 1801 he opened a print shop in Russell Street (now Tanner Street), Bermondsey, which he called the Bluecoat Boy Printing Office. This led me to wonder if he had been educated at Christ’s Hospital, but on the other hand the office may have been near a ‘Bluecoat Boy’ public house, of which there used to be many in London (though admittedly I can’t find a record of one in Bermondsey itself).
His business partner was Edward Billing, whose sister Elizabeth he later married.One of their earliest publications, dated firmly to October 1801, was a broadside announcing peace with France.
Another (price sixpence, no date, unfortunately) was the anonymously authored Hengist and Mansford; or the Mysteries of the Castle, decorated with a melodramatic frontispiece and a seemingly irrelevant, Bewick-like woodcut on the title page.
It looks exactly the sort of book which would have appealed to Catherine Morland, as ‘something very shocking indeed’ soon to come out in London.
By 1807, the partnership seems to have been dissolved, as Harrild was working as a sole trader at 127 Bermondsey Street – though the family tie clearly remained strong, as Billing’s nephew Joseph married Robert’s daughter Sarah. (The printing firm Billing and Sons of Guildford survived into the 1990s.) Harrild’s output at this period still contained Gothic novels, but he seems to have specialised in moral tales and educational and improving books for children, at 3d or 6d each.
Clearly prospering, in 1809 Harrild was established in Norwich Street, Farringdon, and by 1819 had moved his works to 20 Great Eastcheap near St Paul’s, in the historic centre of the printing world. As well as books, he was producing handbills and carrying out other jobbing work, including printing cheques for at least one bank. A further move in 1824 took him to Friday Street, and in 1827 to 10 Great Distaff Lane (now part of Cannon Street). The closeness of these two sites led Edward Liveing, who wrote a short biography of the firm in 1949, to suggest that the buildings were physically connected. The previous history of 10 Great Distaff Street had included its use in 1794 by John Macombie, a ‘Scotch factor’, and in 1824 by William Browne, jun., and Co., warehousemen, which perhaps implies a large space?
Space would have been needed, since Harrild’s interest was increasingly moving from printing to becoming a supplier or middleman for anything a printer would need. This began with his perfection of the ‘composition roller’ – an unlikely sounding mixture of glue, treacle and bicarbonate of soda – which spread ink across type much faster and much more evenly than the old leather ink-soaked balls could.
He not only sold these to other printers (after the usual period of resistance to technical innovation), but also serviced and refurbished them, usually for a fee, but occasionally by exchange of goods. He bartered rollers for type with the famous Caslon foundry, but also seems to have swapped goods and services for spirituous liquors on at least one occasion.
Newspaper publisher/printers such as the The Times and the Morning Herald were among his clients, as well as printers like Clowes and Spottiswoode (then the Queen’s Printer). By 1832 the firm had given up printing altogether, and was THE purveyor of necessities and innovations to the printing industry, its name becoming so well known that Rudyard Kipling could write in his poem ‘The Press’:
Who once hath stood through the loaded hour
Ere, roaring like the gale,
The Harrild and the Hoe devour
Their league-long paper-bale,
And has lit his pipe in the morning calm
That follows the midnight stress –
He hath sold his heart to the old Black Art
We call the daily Press.
(The ‘Hoe’ was a rotary newspaper press, named after its American inventor, Richard Marsh Hoe.)
Robert Harrild and Sons manufactured under licence the Albion press designed by Richard Whittaker Cope in about 1820, and the Columbian press, made by American George Clymer, who moved to England in 1817 and died in 1834.
They also dealt in second-hand presses, which they reconditioned, and invented their own machinery, including a address label printer for bundles of newspapers, which they recommended to Sir Rowland Hill (he of the penny post) in the 1840s, and a folding machine so light and easy that it could be operated by a woman (!).
At the 1851 Great Exhibition, the firm (described as ‘inventors and manufacturers’) showed: ‘Improved galley press. Plough cutting machine. Numerical printing apparatus. Composition printing rollers and balls.’ After this success, they moved again, this time to the Fleet Works, 25 Farringdon Street (previously owned by Christ’s Hospital !?!), of which Liveing provides an illustration.
Two years later, Robert Harrild died at home in Sydenham, leaving the business in the hands of his eldest son, Robert, and his youngest, Horton. Sadly, in 1949, the very year in which the firm printed Liveing’s book, which predicted a bright post-war future, it went out of business. (Harrild and Sons on Farringdon Street is now a bar and restaurant.)
There is a great deal more to say about the Harrild family, its association with the development of colour printing, its philanthropy, and not least its relation to the author Richard Jefferies, but I think this can all wait for another blog …
P.S. (June 2018): I have just had a very interesting message from Robin Harrild, a descendant of Robert, giving more information about the family and the firm, and some important and salutary corrections – please see below!