The Independent Archive: 6 April 1989 - Closing chapter in a 500- year print run

Nicolas Barker deplores the passing of the printing house which was integral to the history of the Oxford University Press
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NEXT MONTH the University Printing House, the oldest part of the Oxford University Press, will cease to exist, apart from a small unit for domestic printing. OUP now stands for a great publishing business, but printing has been part of the university since the first printer came to Oxford (if not to stay) in 1478. Two centuries later Bishop Fell really set up the business.

The foundation of the OUP ranks with the foundation of the Royal Society as one of the intellectual achievements of Restoration England. Clarendon's History of the Rebellion gave the press its first best-seller, and a name, attached to the new building paid for with the profits.

At the end of the 18th century, demand for bibles multiplied. The press put in new equipment, pioneered the stereotype process, and introduced steam-driven machines. It branched out into classics, Oriental texts, Keble's The Christian Year, Stubbs's Select Charters, Liddell and Scott's Greek lexicon.

The great figure of the 19th century was Bartholomew Price. He turned the press to educational publishing, English literature, and took on James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. He set up the bible warehouse in London, near St Paul's. "OUP" had now become a triad: the learned Clarendon Press and the Printing House at Oxford, with the "London Business" at Amen House. The printing house flourished. The "Revised Version" of the Bible was printed: on the day the New Testament was published, 17 May 1881, a million copies were sold.

Clerk Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) was the first of many great scientific works. Jowett's Plato, Skeat's Chaucer, Oxford Classical Texts, made OUP a household word to scholars all over the world. Fowler's Modern English Usage, the 1900 Oxford Book of English Verse, the first of many "Oxford Books", the "World's Classics", most pocketable of reprint series, added to its reputation in the 20th century. The press spread overseas.

How is it that, with no early warning signal, the Printing House, the nucleus of a world-wide dominance of printing, should be closed? The causes go a long way back. They are not fools or philistines at Oxford, though hard pressed by the government blitz on higher education. What has driven them to destroy as vital a part of the country's heritage as the Rolls- Royce, the Tower of London or Bath Oliver biscuits?

Perhaps it really began in the Fifties, when the US government was investing huge sums in higher education and universities were springing up like mushrooms. OUP and its Printing House in particular was pounding out academic monographs and school texts as hard as they could. Then came the terrible early Seventies. The Americans cut back: inflation went into double figures, there was a paper famine and prices trebled in 18 months, and - worst of all - Retail Price Maintenance. OUP had no capital to face this barrage: cut-back was essential.

All branches of OUP suffered, but the Printing House worst. A lot of business had been driven elsewhere, notably the Far East, where prices were far cheaper. Photo-lithography brought a decline in letterpress printing which was killed by the rise of metal prices in the Sixties. The Printing House's unique skill in complex setting, whether Chinese or pure physics, did not take kindly to the new technology. Its business shrank from 13 per cent of the OUP turnover of pounds 15m in 1970 to 7 per cent of pounds 100m in 1988. In 1970 there were 930 employees, in 1988, 250. The will to survive went, too; it spread from the top downwards.

Loss of morale tends to be accepted as inevitable, but was this inevitable? Professor York Powell said a century ago that a university consisted of a library and a press. Oxford has lost its press, and can barely support the Bodleian. What if the OUP should shrink to an agency, buying print elsewhere and with no more hardware around than desk-top VDUs for text-processing? If so, it will have sold its birthright and lost all reason for existing.

From `The Independent', Thursday 6 April 1989