The University of Cambridge: The University Press

Pages 321-324

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.



The first date in the history of Cambridge printing is 1521, the year in which John Lair of Siegburg, near Cologne, commonly known as John Siberch, printed the first Cambridge book. Siberch was associated with a number of Renaissance scholars including Erasmus and Richard Croke, lecturer in Greek in the University and afterwards the first public orator. Siberch had printed a Greek textbook for Croke in Cologne, and through his influence received an advance of £20 to set up a press at Cambridge in a 'space between the gate of humility and the gate of virtue' of Gonville and Caius College. The first product of this press was the Oratio of Henry Bullock in honour of Wolsey's visit to the University, and among the other nine works printed by Siberch were Augustine, De miseria ac brevitate vitae (the first English book to include Greek type), and Linacre, Galenus de temperamentis.

Siberch printed cum gratia et privilegio and once described himself as Cantabrigiensis typographus, but he was simply a private printer enjoying the patronage of a group of Cambridge scholars, and the next landmark in the history of Cambridge printing is the charter of 1534. In that year Henry VIII granted to the University the right to elect 'three stationers and printers, or sellers of books . . . to print all manner of books approved of by the Chancellor or his vicegerent and three doctors, and to sell and expose to sale in the University or elsewhere within or without the realm, as well such books as other books printed within or without the realm, and approved of by the Chancellor or his vicegerent and three doctors'. (fn. 2)

It is clear that this charter was designed not for the encouragement of the art of printing, but for the suppression of heretical treatises and to secure to the University its independence of the exclusive licences granted to London printers. In particular the University insisted, and has always continued to insist, upon its rights as a privileged printer of the Bible and afterwards of the Prayer Book. The University has no specific patent to print the Bible, as the Queen's printer has. What it insisted on through the centuries was that its charter of 1534 (confirmed in 1628) made it independent of the licences granted to individual printers in London. The Authorized Version and the Prayer Book remain perpetual Crown copyrights, and so Oxford and Cambridge still maintain their right to print them notwithstanding the patent granted to the Queen's printer. Although three 'stationers and printers of books' were appointed immediately after the grant of the charter of 1534, no books were actually printed in Cambridge for another fifty years. Two of the printers appointed in 1534 (Nicholas Speyring and Garrett Godfrey) have left examples of their work as binders, but it was not until 1583 that there was a university printer who in fact printed books— Thomas Thomas, fellow of King's College. Thomas's press was no sooner established than it was forcibly seized by the London stationers. The University appealed successfully to Lord Burghley and Thomas went ahead with his work, printing at least twenty books before his death in 1588 at the early age of 35. (fn. 3) He was a scholar as well as a printer, and his most notable achievement was the compilation and printing of his Latin Dictionary (1587), which reached its tenth edition in 1610.

Under Thomas's successors, John Legate and Cantrell Legge, the dispute between the University and the London stationers raged violently. The stationers prosecuted Legge for printing Lily's Grammar, while the University complained of the high prices charged by the stationers. Legate rented a shop in the parish of St. Mary the Great from 1591 to 1609, when he left to work in London; he probably occupied the house in Regent Walk (opposite the west door of Great St. Mary's) in which Thomas had lived. Between 1588 and 1625 there was a steady output of Cambridge books, including the voluminous works of William Perkins; (fn. 4) Giles Fletcher's Christ's Victorie and Triumph (1610); and The Whole Booke of Psalmes . . . with apt notes to sing them (1623), the first Cambridge book to contain music.

Thomas Buck of Jesus, afterwards fellow of St. Catharine's and esquire bedell, was appointed University Printer in 1625. His printing-house, originally part of the house of Austin Friars, was 'just behind the east end of St. Benedict's Church and Corpus Christi College'. There, with a succession of partners (notably his brother John Buck and Roger Daniel) with whom he constantly quarrelled, he produced some famous books. A charter of Charles I (1628) had confirmed the University's right to print and sell all books approved by the Chancellor, and in the following year there appeared the first Authorized Version to be printed in Cambridge. There were famous names, too, amongst Buck's authors: George Herbert's The Tempest (1633), Richard Crashaw's Epigrammata (1634), John Donne's Six Sermons (1634), Obsequies to the memorie of Mr Edward King, containing the first edition of Lycidas (1638), Thomas Fuller's Historie of the Holie Warre (1639), Lancelot Andrewes' Sermons (1641), and William Harvey's de Circulatione Sanguinis (1649) are evidence of the vitality of Cambridge printing in the period preceding the Civil War.

John Field became University Printer in 1655. He built a printing house on part of the land now occupied by the Master's Lodge of St. Catharine's College, and this remained the university printing-house until the early nineteenth century. Field was in close touch with the Parliamentary party, and, during the Protectorate, styled himself 'one of his Highness's Printers'. One of the most important products of his press was his folio bible (1660), and John Ray's Index Plantarum was published in the same year. Field was succeeded in 1669 by John Hayes, who printed many editions of classical authors as well as Crashaw's Steps to the Temple (1670) and Ray's Collection of Proverbs (1670).

It was at the end of the 17th century that a new spirit was infused into Cambridge printing, and an attempt was made to create a press which should be under the direct control of the University. Under the conditions of the charter of 1534 the University had simply licensed tradesmen, who might or might not be members of the University, to print and sell books, and consequently the fortunes of the Press were dependent upon the capacity and temperament of the individual printer. The moving spirit in the reform was Richard Bentley, and the formal initiative came from the Chancellor, the Duke of Somerset, who with the help of 'some publick-spirited men' raised a fund, and submitted a scheme of renovation to the University in 1696. The University accepted the proposal, and gave Bentley a free hand in procuring new types and reorganizing the conditions of printing. Cornelius Crownfield ('a Dutchman . . . and a very ingenious man') was appointed Inspector of the Press and a body of Curators (afterwards called the Syndics of the Press), consisting of the heads of colleges, the professors, and other masters of arts, was appointed to control the Press on behalf of the University. Elaborate rules were made for the conduct of business, and year by year Crownfield presented to the Curators a statement of work, of expenses incurred, and of cash received.

Most of the books were printed to the order of the author or of the bookseller responsible for publication, but in one instance the University plunged into the responsibilities of publishing with disastrous results. This was an enterprise promoted by Bentley, who invited Ludolf Kuster, a Berlin professor, to take up residence at Cambridge with a view to the printing and publication of his edition of the Suidas Lexicon. Originally the expense was to be undertaken by John Owen, an Oxford stationer, but Owen unfortunately became bankrupt, and a new contract was made for the work to be completed at the joint expense of the University and Sir Theodore Janssen, a London merchant. The three volumes of the lexicon were published in 1705, and, in the words of Bentley's biographer, 'excited public admiration at the spirit and liberality of the University of Cambridge in undertaking so magnificent a publication'. But the Curators found it more difficult to sell the volumes than to print them, and many years later were still struggling with the problem of disposing of the stock at greatly reduced prices.

Meanwhile the typographical standards of the Press had been notably improved. Bentley's own edition of Horace was published in 1711; the second edition of Newton's Principia in 1713; and Sir Thomas Browne's Christian Morals in 1716. These and many other books brought great credit from the scholastic and typographical points of view, but the Curators failed in their control of the Press as a business. In 1737 it appeared that a heavy loss had been incurred, and a syndicate was appointed with plenary powers over the Press for three years.

Crownfield retired in 1740 and was succeeded by Joseph Bentham, who printed The History of Ely Cathedral by his brother, James Bentham, Christopher Smart's Prize Poems, William Mason's Odes, and many other works; but the most famous name in Cambridge printing in the 18th century is that of John Baskerville, a Birmingham printer, whose ambition was to print an octavo Common Prayer Book and a folio Bible. With this object in view he applied to the University, and in 1758 an agreement was made by which Baskerville was given leave to print a bible and two prayer books, and was elected 'one of the Stationers and Printers' for ten years. In fact, he printed four prayer books in 1760, and the folio bible of 1763 has maintained its reputation of being 'one of the most beautifully printed books in the world'. The University, mindful perhaps of its earlier misfortunes in publishing, drove a hard bargain with Baskerville. Financially, the Bible involved a heavy loss and Baskerville printed no more in Cambridge after 1763. After his death twelve years later his types were bought by a French society, and after many vicissitudes the punches were eventually restored to the University Press in 1953.

Up to 1781 the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had had the privilege of printing almanacks; but, in view of a ruling of the Court of Common Pleas that the printing of almanacks was a common law right over which the Crown had no control, an Act of 1781 granted to each university a perpetual annuity of £500 in compensation. This sum was placed at the disposal of the Syndics of the Press for the publication of unremunerative works of learning, and is the only subsidy which the Press receives from an outside source. Under the printers of the later 18th century (John Archdeacon and John Burges) the principal trade of the Press was in bibles and prayer books, but a notable piece of typography was Thomas Kipling's facsimile edition of the Codex Bezae (1793). Earlier in the century, experiments had been made in the use of stereotype plates and in 1803 the University received an offer of the secret of the stereotyping process. The inventor was the third Earl Stanhope, and the offer came from Andrew Wilson, the London printer employed by him. After much negotiation an agreement was made with Wilson, and the new process, especially valuable for bibles and prayer books, was introduced.

Meanwhile the Press buildings were growing. A new printing house built on the south side of Silver Street in 1804 soon proved to be inadequate, and in 1827 the buildings which still stand on the west of the Press courtyard were completed. A more famous addition was that associated with the name of William Pitt the younger. The Pitt Memorial Committee, having a large surplus after defraying the cost of the statue in Hanover Square, London, offered to the University 'a considerable sum of money for the erection of an handsome building connected with the University Press'. The University accepted the offer, and bought the Trumpington Street frontage between Silver Street and Mill Lane. The Memorial Committee approved the designs submitted by Edmund Blore, and the Pitt Press was completed in 1833 at a total cost of £10,700. (fn. 5) One of the most striking features of the building was the lofty room with an immense oriel, designed for meetings of the Press Syndicate. For many years this was in fact used as the registry of the University.

Richard Watts, University Printer from 1802 to 1809, had been succeeded by John Smith, and, apart from bibles and prayer books, his most notable books were the editions of classical authors set in 'Great Porson Greek', the type designed under Porson's direction. In 1827 the Syndics of the Press, feeling dissatisfied with Smith's business capacity, engaged John William Parker, a member of the London firm of Clowes, to act as Superintendent of the Press. Parker infused new life into the business: he improved the accountancy, bought new types and hydraulic presses, and established a depository for the sale of bibles and prayer books in London. Steam presses were introduced in 1838. In 1852 the condition of the Press was surveyed in detail by the Royal Commission on the University, and the Commissioners reported their view that 'it is only by associating printers or publishers in some species of co-partnership with the University, or by leasing the Press to them that any considerable return can hereafter be expected from the capital invested in it'. They were satisfied, they said, 'that no Syndicate, however active and well chosen, can replace the vigilant superintendence of those whose fortune in life is dependent upon its success'.

Accordingly, on Parker's resignation in 1854, the Syndics recommended that the University should enter into partnership with George Seeley of Fleet Street, London, bookseller, and Charles John Clay, M.A. of Trinity College and of Bread Street Hill, London, printer. Seeley retired two years later and C. J. Clay, having entered into a fresh agreement with the University, dominated the Press for the next 40 years. Primarily, he was University Printer, and at the end of his first ten years it was estimated that he had at least quadrupled the turnover of the printing house. This increase demanded larger accommodation, and new machine rooms, warehouses, and a foundry were built between 1863 and 1878.

While the printing business thus rapidly developed, the publications of the Press, apart from bibles and prayer books, were almost negligible, consisting in 1860 of about 30 books of an academical character. Up to 1872, the sales of these publications were managed by London agents, but in that year the Syndics, on Clay's advice, took the important decision to conduct their London business in an office of their own in Paternoster Row. This was, in fact, the beginning of Cambridge publishing in the modern sense, and the catalogue of books published, as well as printed, at the Press steadily grew. The Revised Version of the Bible, published jointly with the Oxford University Press, the Cambridge Bible for Schools, and the Pitt Press series, originally designed to meet the needs of candidates for Local Examinations, were among the most important enterprises inaugurated in the seventies. In the following decade many notable works (including Maitland's edition of Bracton's Note Book, Jebb's Sophocles, and Doughty's Arabia Deserta) were added to the Syndics' catalogue, and in 1891 it was found necessary to appoint a permanent Secretary to the Syndics, with the particular duty of controlling negotiations with authors. The first holder of the post was R. T. Wright, formerly fellow of Christ's, and a separate building, containing syndicate and secretarial offices, was built on the south side of the Press courtyard in 1893. In the following year C. J. Clay retired, leaving his elder son John Clay in charge of the printing business and his younger son C. F. Clay as manager of the London publishing house, which had been moved to Ave Maria Lane in 1883.

The most important project inaugurated by R. T. Wright was the Cambridge Modern History, the first of a long series of volumes planned on the basis of co-operative authorship and probably the first work to make the Cambridge publishing imprint well known throughout the world. (fn. 6) In 1905 the Syndics acquired new and larger premises in Fetter Lane and their catalogue of published works continued to expand. Wright was succeeded as Secretary by A. R. Waller in 1912 and on the death of John Clay in 1916, J. B. Peace, fellow of Emmanuel, was appointed University Printer. During Peace's tenure of office, the distinguished American typographer, Bruce Rogers, came to the Press for two years as typographical adviser and inaugurated a most valuable reform in printing design. In 1922 Waller was succeeded as Secretary by Mr. S. C. Roberts, and on Peace's sudden death in the following year Mr. Walter Lewis, a printer of great experience, was elected in his place. With the assistance of Mr. Stanley Morison as typographical adviser, Mr. Lewis secured the Press in its position as one of the most distinguished printing houses in the country. On his retirement in 1946 he was succeeded by Mr. Brooke Crutchley.

By the outbreak of war in 1939, the University Press had not only enlarged and modernized its printing house and its machinery, but had eventually built a London publishing house adequate to its needs. In 1937 Bentley House was completed as the centre from which Cambridge books are distributed all over the world. (fn. 7) Its manager, Mr. R. J. L. Kingsford, succeeded Mr. Roberts as Secretary to the Syndics in 1948 and his place was taken by Mr. R. W. David. In 1948 an American branch of the Press was established in New York under the management of Mr. F. R. Mansbridge.

Such, in the last hundred years, has been the expansion of a university printing house with the privilege of printing the Bible and the Prayer Book into a printing and publishing business of large dimensions, but still under the direct control of the University.


  • 1. The following are the chief sources used: R. Bowes, 'Biographical notes on the University printers', C.A.S. Comm. v (1880–4), 283–352, and Catalogue of Cambridge Books (1894); Cooper, Annals; E. A. Crutchley, History and Description of the Pitt Press (1938); J. Dreyfus, The Survival of Baskerville's Punches (1949); E. G. Duff, The English Provincial Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders to 1557 (1912); E. P. Goldschmidt, The first Cambridge Press in its European setting (1955); G. J. Gray, The earlier Cambridge stationers and bookbinders and the first Cambridge printer (1904), and John Siberch (1921); S. C. Roberts, A History of the Cambridge University Press (1921), and The Evolution of Cambridge Publishing (1956); R. Straus and R. K. Dent, John Baskerville (1907); Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist.; C. Wordsworth, Scholae Academicae (1877); A list of books printed in Cambridge at the University Press, 1521–1800 (1935).
  • 2. See above, p. 170.
  • 3. See above, p. 186.
  • 4. See above, p. 186.
  • 5. See above, p. 235.
  • 6. See above, p. 280.
  • 7. See above, p. 298.