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The London Bookbinders

The London Bookbinders 1780 - 1806 by Ellic Howe was the last book that Gwen Raverat was to illustrate with chapter-heading wood-engravings in 1952

Ellic Howe’s ‘The London Bookbinders 1780- 1806’ has a legendary place in bookbinding A history. It also has a place, not less important because neglected, in the annals of fine printing in this century. The London Bookbinders was the first major work on the history of bookbinding to be based not on the description or correlation of examples of bookbinding, but on the life and work of the binders themselves. Its source was an extraordinary survival, ‘a fascinating collection of scrap books, account and minute books, and memoranda made or written by John Jaffray, a journeyman bookbinder’, about 1840- 60. The material itself is often older, in some cases far older, going back to the days when the invasion of the craft by foreign craftsmen had hardly begun; before, too, the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath which saw the beginning of ‘unionization’ in the trade, the combination of men against masters (and vice versa) to secure commonly understood and agreed rules for working practices and wages.

All this is the mainstay of Jaffray’s collections. But there is a host of other material as well, frivolous as well as serious, that paints the most vivid picture of what it was to be a bookbinder at a time when some of the greatest bookbinders in England, from Roger Payne to Charles Lewis, were at work. The preservation of these papers was one of the achievements of the book trade unions, and by the last war they had come to rest with the London branch of the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers. How Ellie Howe arranged for their rescue from the perils of war and for their subsequent publication is a romantic story, told in the ‘preface’ to The London Bookbinders. Suffice it to say here that the result was not the largest, but one of the most elegant products of Lord Kemsley’s Dropmore Press, the last great private press. The en­gravings by Gwen Raverat have all the characteristic strength, humour and charm of her work.

Ellie Howe is undoubtedly the doyen of book trade history. It is now a fashionable subject, practised in universities as well as by a few furtive bibliographers. Howe was the first person to realise the importance of documentation, the few scattered memorials on paper of what had been mainly handed down by oral tradition. His pioneering work on the Le Be family in Signature, his study of The London Compositors as well as ‘‘The Society of London Bookbinders 1780-1851’ (1952), have led the way for all subsequent historians. This is the earliest (and rarest) of his works, long in need of reprinting.


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