Printing and Printers

A book is more than a simple possession

Without printers the age of mass literature would never have happened. The first mass-produced bible contributed greatly to the Reformation, an historical event that had much influence over the affairs of Belfast.

Early printers James Blow and Patrick Neill settled in Belfast in 1694. Following the death of Neill and a schismatic struggle between wings of the Presbyterian Church, Blow faced a rival in the form of Robert Duncan who set up business in 1713.

James Magee appears in 1744 and was also the town bookseller. The Magees were to be a longstanding printing family in the city. The Joys, who published The Belfast Newsletter for the rest of the century, did the printers of Belfast a favour by opening the first paper mill in Randalstown.

Books at the time were moved from printers to the public not only by what we would understand as bookshops but also by merchants who sold books in addition to their other wares. Travelling chapmen also sold literary works on the road.

Published by HR CarterThe books published were many and varied, including prayer books, spelling books, Bibles, jest books and biographies. The north of Ireland was an extremely literate part of the country, with a relatively large stock of readers who would enjoy the printer’s wares.

In the nineteenth century, the two firms of Joseph Smyth and Simms & M’Intyre dominated the Ulster market. Smyth printed from High Street in Belfast and specialised in cheap editions, bound in a paper cover. Simms & M’Intyre were founded in 1790 by two out of work compositors and, according to Ronnie Adams, author of The Printed Word and the Common Man, ‘were to revolutionise the whole business of publishing cheap fiction, not just in Ireland but also in the English-speaking world’.

Their Parlour Library imprint saw Simms & M’Intyre become Belfast’s first true publishers, who did something other than printing, a fact which they were keen to demonstrate on their flyleaves.

Towards the end of their career Simms & M’Intyre began to commission new works such as The Emigrants of Aghadarra by William Carleton. At the time novels came in three volumes and cost 31 shillings – Simms & M’Intyre began publishing novels priced at 1 shilling and cheap fiction was born.

By John VinycombeAt the other end of the scale Marcus Ward, based in Pottinger’s Entry, originally made a name for themselves by entering the high art end of the market. The company also specialised in educational publications and sold millions of the books they produced in conjunction with the Belfast educationalist Vere Foster.

Their high art material was led by the Newcastle-upon-Tyne illustrator John Vinycombe, whose work was so highly prized that royalty from across Europe employed the Ward Company to produce their heraldry.

Throughout the 20th century, publishing in Belfast was often tied to newspapers, an example being the W&G Baird Group which published the Belfast Telegraph. Large publishing houses dominated the market.

There were, however, exceptions like the Quota Press which published novels, poetry and prose during the early part of the century and HR Carter Press which specialised in printing plays, especially those performed by the Ulster Group Theatre.

The 1970s saw the emergence of Blackstaff Press, launched by Jim and Diane Gracey, a company still in existence today. Blackstaff’s ambition was to publish local material and much of the writing mentioned in this exhibition from the last 30 years was published by the company.

Also launched at this time were Appletree Press and Lapwing Press. The legacy of Carter and Quota Presses has been grasped by Lagan Press which specialises in local poetry, plays and criticism of local literature.

The history of printing in Belfast is part art, part commerce, and many small presses have sunk beneath the bottom line. However, what is not in doubt is the willingness of these publishers to assist in creating a vibrant writing culture and their manifest belief that a book is something more than a simple possession.