Die-sinkers, envelope makers and specialist printers: the Baddeley Brothers

The story of Baddeley Brothers, a 200 year old London family business of Specialist Printers and Envelope Makers is wonderfully told in a visually sumptuous new book. This is far more than just a dry account of some obscure company however, as the Baddeley story includes dramatic twists in fortune and disruptive advances in technology, threatening their very existence.

The story begins in the aftermath of the English Civil War with Phineas Baddeley signing on as a clockmaker’s apprentice in 1652 and enrolling in the Clockmaker’s Company in the City of London in 1661. He set up in business in Tong, Shropshire, in what was to become the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. In the next century the range of skills developed by craftsmen such as Phineas was typified by the artist William Hogarth and type founder William Caslon, apprenticed as a silver engraver and gunsmith respectively. In 1818, during the depression after the Napoleonic Wars, John Rock Baddeley set up as a die-sinker in Clerkenwell, while his brother Thomas worked as an engraver. Die-sinking involved taking a piece of half-inch thick bright mild steel, cutting it, warming the dies, forging them on an anvil, filing, polishing and engraving them – all by hand in the early days – and hardening and tempering them with cyanide before they could be used in a press to stamp or emboss a pattern into paper. With the introduction of the postage stamp in 1840, demand for envelopes exploded, especially when Edwin Hill and Warren de la Rue invented a machine for envelope-making. These envelopes replaced the infamous Mulready stationery, ready-shaped wrappers for letters printed with an extremely twee design that became the butt of satire. The idea of decorating the envelope persisted, however, and Baddeley’s soon became involved in producing personalised envelopes, decorated with crests and monograms, using their existing skills.

At this stage Baddeley’s were one among a host of small craft workshops operating in this part of London, companies with names and products like Kidd’s ‘Embroidered’ mirrors, Pierce’s ‘Pyro-pneumatic’ stoves and Baxter’s gout and rheumatic pills. It was a period of ruthless exploitation dressed in paternalistic prose, people with incredible skills labouring in squalid conditions, and the Baddeley story soon turns into something like a cross between a Dickens novel and Samuel Smiles’ moralizing hymn to Victorian capitalism, Self-Help (1859). JJ Baddeley, John Rock’s grandson, grew up as one of thirteen children in Mare Street, Hackney, and joined his father’s workshop at the age of 14. His father had become entrapped by Griffith Jarrett, the inventor of an embossing press shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Jarrett forced John Baddeley to work exclusively for him, and continually cut his prices, reducing the family to poverty. In 1865 JJ escaped to set up independently as a die-sinker, and by 1885 had a six-storey factory with over three hundred staff, rising to become Lord Mayor of London by 1922!

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Despite this dramatic transition from an artisan craft to an industrial process, the company remained rooted in 19th century work practices. They just about survived the Depression, but in December 1940 the factory was flattened by German bombing. Following the war, David Baddeley rebuilt the company, setting up two new factories – although there was no phone connection between them for decades! By the 1960s the company was flourishing, but the technological changes of the 1970s gradually led to it entering administration in the 1990s. In 2005 Charles and Chris Pertwee, direct descendants of JJ Baddeley, bought the business back and are currently riding the wave of interest in all things bespoke and hand-crafted, still producing envelopes by hand, letterpress printing, die-stamping and foiling in a factory full of the smell of glue and ink and the rattling roar of complex machinery running at full tilt.

The book itself features a stunning mix of die-stamping, litho, foiling, debossing and gilding techniques on a variety of papers from 170gsm Munken polar smooth crisp white to Vanguard red, deep blue, raspberry and daffodil. This is complemented by David Pearson’s knockout design, using many of Baddeley’s own products in a limited palette to create a genuine feel for what the factory produces. It is more than appropriate that the book is set in various versions of Caslon throughout, echoing the emphasis of the text on craft and tradition. We are brought into the sounds and smells of the works itself by the words of the Spitalfields Life blogger, ‘The Gentle Author’, while Lucinda Roger’s drawings make us feel as if we have met the staff. There is a palpable sense of pride and love of the crafts bursting from every page, accompanied by a keen awareness of the historical significance of this type of business in the making of London and its precarious survival in the contemporary world.

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