What links W.H. Smith, Rudyard Kipling, Edward VIII, and Harold Macmillan? A Special Guest Blog by Ian Gadd
This blog post has been written by guest blogger Ian Gadd. Ian Gadd is a Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University.
What links W.H. Smith, Rudyard Kipling, Edward VIII, and Harold Macmillan? They were all members of the Stationersâ€™ Company, the 600-year-old London livery company whose records have just been digitised by Adam Matthew as Literary Print Culture: The Stationers' Company Archive, 1554-2007.
The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, to give its official name, is historically one of Englandâ€™s most important cultural institutions. It can date its origins to 1403, when Londonâ€™s authorities formally allowed the â€™textwritersâ€™ (scribes who specialised in producing non-legal documents), â€˜limnersâ€™ (who illuminated manuscripts), and those who bound and sold books to create a single organisation to regulate their trades. Within a few decades, the body was known as the Stationersâ€™ Company, and in 1557 it was incorporated by the crown, which granted it further powers. For the next 150 years, practically every important printer and publisher in England was a member, and even during the 18th century when its authority had waned, many of the key figures of the trade were members. In the 1930s, the Stationersâ€™ Company merged with the newly created Newspaper Makersâ€™ Company, and in 1937 it was granted a charter in its new name. Stationersâ€™ Hallâ€”which houses its archivesâ€”has been located just off Ludgate Hill in central London since the early seventeenth century, although it was rebuilt after the Great Fire and restored after bombing damage during World War II.
Until the late seventeenth century, the term â€˜stationerâ€™ did not mean someone who specialised in paper and writing materials; instead, it was a generic term that could apply to anyone in the book trade. The word continues to be used also to refer to members of the Company, even if they werenâ€™t involved in the book trade: of the four â€˜Stationersâ€™ mentioned above, for example, only two of them worked in the tradeâ€”and in the case of Macmillan, he left the family firm for a rather more famous career as a politician.
When printing arrived in England in the 1470s, no London livery company had any specific right to regulate it: William Caxton, Englandâ€™s first printer, was in fact a member of the Mercersâ€™ Company and not the Stationersâ€™ Company! It took until the Companyâ€™s incorporation in 1557 for it to secure oversight of printing: no one outside the Company was allowed to print unless they had special dispensation from the monarch, a restriction that, more or less, endured until the end of the seventeenth century. 1557 also saw the Company establish a system, later known as the Stationersâ€™ Register, to manage its membersâ€™ publication rights. Early publishers, including those of William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Thomas Hobbes, used it to protect their works from unauthorised publications. The Register was crucial in shaping what we know understand as copyright; it was cited as the document of record in the 1710 act that established statutory copyright in Britain, and it remained an important part of the copyright system through to the early twentieth century.
The records of the Stationersâ€™ Company survive almost intact from the mid-sixteenth century to the present day, and are an invaluable resource for literary scholars, book historians, and anyone interested in the history of printing, publishing, bookselling, or copyright. They are also of interest to scholars working on trade practices or London history more generally.
Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.