Robert Harrild and Sons

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).

This ‘bluecoat boy’ statue stands at the former St. John’s School, Scandrett Street, E1. (Image © Mike Quinn) Although Christ’s Hospital was the original ‘bluecoat’ school, many other charity schools were also given the name. Blue was apparently the cheapest form of dye, and so was used for the boys’ (and girls’) uniforms.

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.

The ‘Peace’ broadside.

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.

Our hero, kidnapped by his evil (and, naturally, bastard) cousin, undergoes strange experiences in the castle.

Detail of the title page, with its irrelevant woodcut.

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.

An interesting tale for the young.

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?

A portrait of Robert Harrild, the frontispiece of Liveing’s book.

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.

An advertisement for the composition roller, transcribed by Liveing.

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.

This 1867 advertisement for the firm show the range of printers’ equipment they could supply, from presses to tape and quoins.

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.)

Harrild’s Paragon press, an image engraved by the innovator of colour printing and son-in-law of Robert Harrild, George Baxter.

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.

A Hopkinson and Cope Albion press. (Credit: the McCune Collection, Vallejo, CA)

A Columbian press, with the characteristic elaborate decoration.

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 (!).

One of Harrild’s folding machines.

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.)

Harrild and Sons today.

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!

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14 Responses to Robert Harrild and Sons

  1. Thanks for a fascinating post- I am researching some of the deceased buried in Ladywell & Brockley cemeteries & George Horton Harrild is buried here – Regards Mike


    • Thanks for you kind words, Mike. That looks like a very interesting cemetery: I’m looking at the moment at Lord Brabazon and his efforts to turn the burial grounds of the East End churches into public gardens, presumably as part of the same movement to close and sanitise overcrowded city churchyards?


  2. Robin Harrild says:

    Dear Caroline, I have just come across your Sept 2017 article on Robert Harrild, which I read with great interest. He was my great*3 grandfather. Picking up on just a few of the points you make.

    Ancestry: Robert came from a family of Thames Watermen. (His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all Thames Watermen as were various uncles and cousins).

    Origin of the name of Bluecoat Boy Printing Office: At the age of 13, Robert was apprenticed to one James Andrews, a printer trading under the name of Andrews and Son and a member of the Clothworkers livery company. The £10 apprenticeship fee was paid for him by a Christs Hospital charity. I suspect that this was how the name was chosen. Thomas Billing (a younger brother of Edward) was apprenticed at almost the same time and they became lifelong friends.

    By way of two small corrections.
    Horton was not Robert Harrild’s youngest son. He was the second (surviving son). Henry was the third – every family has to have a black sheep! And Thomas was the youngest. Thomas would seem to have been a bundle of energy like his father. Instead of joining the family printer’s supply business, he set up his own business as a printer. In his relatively short life (he died when he was 45) he printed hundreds, possibly thousands of books, published books and authored books. It was he and his wife who initially brought up Richard Jefferies (and later his sister Sarah who married Robert Billing).

    The other correction concerns the date that the firm closed down. With all due respects to Wikipaedia, it was not 1949. Instead I believe it was 1956. My father was offered a job with them in 1952 and I know someone else who was offered a job in 1954, but had to defer for 2 years national service only to be told when he finished that the firm was closing!


    • Dear Robin, thanks so much for this very interesting information about your family! I will add a PS to the blog to make sure that any future readers see it.


    • Julie Andrews says:

      Robin, very interested to read your comments. Robert Harrild was my 4 times great grandfather. I am a descendant of Henry the black sheep. I guessed he was as I have done much of the family history but have never been able to find out why he was a ´town traveller’ and not in the business and why his father, Robert, excluded him and the children from his second marriage from his very substantial will. Maybe you could enlighten me. I should be very grateful.


  3. Robin Harrild says:

    I hope I didn’t cause offence to my 4th-cousin-once-removed by characterising your ancestor as a black sheep! Well done for reading Robert Harrild’s will. It is very long and the Victorian handwriting is pretty hard going. But the reward is a mine of family history information.
    Picking up on your two questions, of course I don’t actually know what motivated Robert when he drew up his will, however my speculations are:
    The rift would seem to have happened sometime between late 1837 (in November 1837, Robert Harrild and Thomas Billing, his brother in law and a lifelong friend, were happy to sponsor Henry for Freedom of the City) and 1840 (when no other Harrild seem to have attended Henry and Sarah’s wedding). I would surmise that the family probably didn’t approve of his relationship with his first wife, Sarah Fisher. The Harrild family were deeply religious. They probably weren’t wild about Henry’s choice of a publican’s daughter, but for them to live together before marriage (they gave the same address on the marriage register) might be totally unacceptable and furthermore, their first child, Sarah, would seem to have been born less than 5 months after the marriage!
    Maybe in christening their second child “Robert Horton Henry” Henry was trying to reach out to his father. Maybe there was some amount of reconciliation (hence the fact that young Sarah the only surviving child of Henry’s first marriage was remembered in his father’s will) but then in quick succession, his wife Sarah died, he married again (Susannah was a minor who made her mark in the marriage registry) and he got into debt and spent at least 11 days in a debtors prison. He was only 41 when he died, going out for a walk with his son, Harry.
    As to why he was a “town traveller”, again I don’t know. However the only time I have seen him state this profession was on the registry for his first marriage. In all other instances he seems to have been and “engineer” or “journeyman engineer”.
    Rather a long response, I am afraid. If you give me an email address, then I can, if you like, send you more.


    • Julie Andrews says:

      Very interesting information Robin, much of which I already knew. However, Henry and Sarah Fisher were married on 8th November 1840 and their daughter Sarah was born 12th August 1841 – just about making the 9 months, though living together before marriage was definitely a no no! I would be most interested to hear more. Any idea how I can send you my email address without the whole internet seeing it?


      • Robin Harrild says:

        Re email address, maybe the moderator can help?

        Thanks for the date for daughter Sarah’s birth. I rather hastily assumed an earlier birth based on the fact that she was shown as being 10 years old in the 1851 census (which was on 30 March)


  4. Suppose you both DM me on Twitter? @Prof_hedgehog


  5. Lyn Manning says:

    Hi – Thanks for an interesting article and Robin’s information! I am a descendant of Robert’s uncle Horton Harrild. Did you know that Horton’s mother’s will is available – if anyone wants to delve back further? So many Roberts, Hortons and Henrys it is often difficult to work out which generation they belong to!


  6. David Miller says:

    I can confirm that ROBERT HARRILD was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital school from 1787-1793; i.e.,he was an Old Blue. Source Christ’s Hospital Pupils 1552-1902, Mansell, 2014. According to CH sources this person went on to found a printing business. Must be the same man!!


  7. Thanks so much for this, David!


  8. Ana says:

    Hi! I’m looking for information about the Harrild firm’s business in Argentina, can you contact me with the 3° great grandchild of Robert Harrild? Thank you!!


  9. Hi, Ana, I am sorry, I have no way of contacting these Harrild descendants, short of putting your message up here in the hope that someone will see it!


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