A Brief Introduction to England’s Secret Printing Presses

Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our new “Brief Introduction to” series provides the launchpad for those wanting to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our  knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.

In about 1450, Johannes Gutenberg brought the written word to the masses by inventing the world’s first printing press with mechanical movable type. Threatened by its power to broadcast free speech and revolutionary ideas, many state and religious leaders banned presses and imprisoned printers.

Hidden away in historic listed buildings across England is evidence of printers who attempted to break this censorship. Highly guarded in their day, we can now reveal their stories…

An etching of a 16th century printing press © Wikimedia Commons license
An etching of a 16th century printing press

Satirical Protests: The Priory, Warwickshire

Some of the ‘Martin Marprelate’ tracts, which attacked the authority of the Anglian church and called for religious reform in the 1580s, were printed illegally at The Priory in Wolston, Rugby. John Penry – considered to be the man behind ‘Martin’ – was a Welsh preacher and passionate protester against England’s post-Reformation Church. This Grade II* house – fronted in red sandstone ashlar and incorporating earlier 16th-century timber framing inside – was one of a number of sites where Penry set up secret presses to print his satirical pamphlets.

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A river-side view of Birchley Hall in Lancashire © Historic England

Polemical Publications: Birchley Hall, Lancashire

England’s first known post-Reformation Catholic printing press is recorded at Birchley Hall in St Helen’s, Lancashire. Now a Sue Ryder home, it was built in 1594 as a grand three-storey, five-gabled Tudor hall and is listed at Grade II* for both its impressive architecture and its secretive interiors. Birchley Hall was used by its owners, (the Andertons) to run a clandestine press between 1620 and 1650. Around 19 polemical anti-Protestant works were printed, written by a cousin who published under the pseudonym ‘John Brereley, priest’.

Brantwood House with William Linton's stone outbuilding to the right © Terran Brown
Brantwood House, Coniston, with William Linton’s stone outbuilding to its right © Terran Brown

God and the People: an Outbuilding in Cumbria

The wood engraver and socialist William Linton started his revolutionary press in a stone rubble outbuilding near Coniston in Cumbria in the 1850s. Actively engaged in republican propaganda in the 1830s, here Linton printed the periodicals English Republic and Northern Tribune, which promoted (then) unlawful, radical ideas of universal suffrage and cross-class citizen solidarity. This building, in front of John Ruskin’s house and museum Brantwood, is listed at Grade II today because of its historic interiors: painted slogans such as ‘GOD AND THE PEOPLE’ survive inside.

Old Water Works Iford EH NMR image 2002
The Old Water Works and Superintendent’s House, Iford, Bournemouth © English Heritage Images

Dissidence in Bournemouth: the Old Water Works Pumping Station, Kent

The only hint of a rebellious past at the Old Water Works in Bournemouth is a small blue plaque. From 1900 – 1913, the Grade II house attached to the disused Victorian station was rented by artisan émigrés from Russia, led by Count Vladimir Tchertkoff. A friend of the author Leo Tolstoy, Tchertkoff set up the exiled colony’s ‘Free Age Press’ to print unabridged editions of Tolstoy’s works and smuggle them back to Russia, as they had been heavily censored by the Russian state. More on this fascinating story can be found here.

The plaque attached to the water works recounting the story of Iford's secret press © Creative Commons
The plaque attached to the water works recounting the story of  Iford’s secret press © Mike Searle

Further reading: 

These examples just scratch the surface: why not find out about England’s first printing press set up by William Caxton in 1476, or the bizarre publications of Philip Thicknesse, the eccentric governor of Landguard Fort in the 18th century?

As well as secretive presses, Historic England has protected over 30 examples of printing presses – historic and contemporary – across England: you can find out more by searching our National Heritage List for England.

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