Street View: 84
Address: 14, Charing Cross

elevation 14 Charing Cross

Although John Tallis described and depicted hundreds of shops and businesses in the major streets in London, for some firms the result did not do justice to the reality. A case in point is 14 Charing Cross where just a small part of the extensive Clowes printing establishment was based. It had all started in 1802 when a young man from Chichester arrived in London. Clowes had been trained as a printer in his home town under Joseph Seagrave and William soon found work as a compositor in Henry Teape’s print shop. Just when he was about to give up after a year of dreary work, he met William Winchester, a cousin of his mother, who had become the principal contractor to supply the government with stationary and printing. Considering William a good candidate as a potential supplier for his contract, he lent William some money which, together with a gift from his mother, was used to set William up on his own in Villiers Street.

dust cover

dust cover of W.B. Clowes, Family Business

He started small, producing the government forms Winchester ordered, but as soon as he could, he branched out into other printing work. The first book that came off William’s press was one he printed for his former master Seagrave and Longman & Rees, the fifth edition of A full an Genuine History of the Inhuman and Unparalleled Murders of Mr. William Galley, a Custom-House Officer, and Mr. Daniel Cater, a Shoemaker, by Fourteen Notorious Smugglers. Longman was impressed by the result and became one of Clowes regular customers. William and Winchester’s son, Henry, became great friends and through him he met his wife, Mary Winchester, a cousin of Henry’s. William and Mary were to have eight children: William, Winchester, George, Edward, Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary (later to marry George Halfhide junior) and Ann. With Mary’s dowry he expanded the business in Villiers Street, but in 1807, the firm had grown to such an extent that he had to find larger premises. He rented a house in Northumberland Court, which can be seen in the map below between Northumberland House and Northumberland Street.

Northumberland Court. Detail of Edward Weller's map of 1866

Northumberland Court. Detail of Edward Weller’s map of 1866 (Source: mapco.net)

He lived in the upper part of the house and the business was downstairs. In addition to the printing element of book production, Clowes also organised the in-house binding of the books. Most of his government orders still came through Winchester, but he was also dealing directly with some departments. One of his customers was Wellington’s army who needed a constant supply of mess and court-martial books, and all sorts of return forms. In 1815, Clowes opened a military bookshop at 14 Charing Cross where, besides books, he sold maps and military stationary. It was from this address that Richard Cannon‘s Historical Records of the British Army were issued. Historical Record In the Tallis Street View elevation, the number 14 is not shown, but I assume it is the entrance on the left-hand side of number 15 that runs to Clowes’s premises.
Also in 1815, disaster struck when a fire broke out at the Northumberland print shop and the Clowes family had to escape over the roofs. The business was quickly rebuilt, but he removed his family to Parliament Street. In 1823, Clowes installed a steam powered press, designed by Applegarth and Cowper, which speeded up the printing process considerably. Clowes neighbour, the Duke of Northumberland objected to the machine as the vibration allegedly caused the plaster to come down from his ceiling and the noise and soot it produced disturbed him greatly. The duke brought an action against the printer, but Clowes was brilliantly defended by John Copley, later to become Lord Chancellor and 1st baron Lyndhurst, and the judge ruled in Clowes favour. Eventually the duke paid Clowes a substantial amount of money to remove his print shop and in 1827, the business was transferred across the river to the corner of Stamford Street and Duke Street (now called Duchy Street) to premises that had belonged to Applegarth and Cowper. At that time, the new factory formed the largest printing establishment in the world and was extensively described in George Dodd’s Days at the factories. In the 1840s, there were twenty-four steam perfectors at work in Duke Street as well as the same number of ordinary hand-presses.

Applegarth and Cowper press from Days at the Factories

Applegarth and Cowper press from G. Dodd, Days at the Factories

The Penny Magazine 1845

Clowes believed that if books could be produced more cheaply, demand would increase. This conviction brought him into contact with Charles Knight, one of the leading figures in The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and probably best known for The Penny Magazine which ran from 1832 to 1845 and was printed by Clowes.

Three of William’s sons, William jr., George and Winchester all joined the business which became known as ‘William Clowes and sons’. George read law for a while, but gave up the idea of becoming a lawyer and joined the firm. Winchester did not like London very much and left the business to live in the country. Edward, the fourth son, joined and later became a partner of Lamb and Co., a wholesale stationers’ firm on Salisbury Square. William sr. died on Tuesday 26 January, 1847, “after a short but severe illness”(1) and was buried at Norwood Cemetery. An obituary notice stated that “Rightly was he called by the members of his craft ‘The Prince of Printers'”.(2) The sons and after them, the next generations continued the business with an offshoot in Beccles, Suffolk, which, over time, became the main factory and which still exists as part of the CPI group.

portrait of William Clowes from the William Clowes Museum of Print, Beccles, now dissolved. Portrait reproduced in DNB, but present whereabouts unknown.

portrait of William Clowes from the William Clowes Museum of Print, Beccles, now dissolved. Portrait reproduced in DNB, but present whereabouts unknown.

The above is mainly compiled from the information given in the Dictionary of National Biography and in W.B. Clowes, Family Business 1803-1953.

(1) The Standard, Wednesday, January 27, 1847, issue 7010.
(2) Obituary quoted in W.B. Clowes.


<– 13 Charing Cross 15 Charing Cross –>