Charles Benson: The Dublin Book Trade 1801-1850 (2021)

Review by Robert Laurie

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London: The Bibliographical Society, 2021, pp. xvii, 157, ISBN 978 0 948170 25 6
Available to non-members from the Lilliput Press, Dublin, price 30.00 Euros.

Despite its title this book deserves notice in Scotland. It is a lightly edited and posthumously published version of a 2000 Trinity College Dublin PhD thesis, shorn of its original weighty appendix, a directory of individuals involved in the trade. About half the book is devoted to journeymen printers and bookbinders and their unions which had interesting relations with their British counterparts.

As with many such studies the term “book trade” is a very generous one. It covers not just the production and distribution of actual books, but of all types of printed matter including railway tickets and newspapers. At this time printing, publishing, binding and retailing were often undertaken within the same business.

The period covered by the study was not a good one for the Dublin book trade. In the previous century a large book trade had grown up by producing (in modern terms pirated) cheap reprints for the local market and export to America. This declined as a result of paper shortages during the Napoleonic wars before the 1801 Act of Union finally put a stop to it when Ireland came under the Copyright Act. London and Edinburgh publishers were thus able to prevent unauthorised reprints of their more popular works. The Act of Union also brought to an end to Parliamentary printing in Dublin.

The industry which remained afterwards was aimed at the local (largely English language) market. One notable exceptions was the publication of Catholic material, especially schoolbooks which had a substantial niche market across the Irish Sea. While local printing declined the bookselling side of the business simply switched to reliance on imports. From the 1820s onwards recovery slowly took place, hastening from the 1840s as a result of growing Irish nationalism which boosted newspapers, polemical and literary publishing.

The period was also one of technological change, both in printing and the in the separate art of bookbinding. Steam powered presses were introduced in England in 1810, The Times starting using them in 1814, but they were uneconomic for the comparatively short runs of Dublin newspapers which did not adopt the technology until 1834.

The chapter on the journeyman printer offers much data on the rates of pay for printers for various types of work, this is most detailed for the 1840s. This chapter also includes the often difficult history of the Dublin Typographical Provident Society (DTPS), founded in 1809 which was the mainstay of print unions in Ireland. As with many such unions at the time one of its functions was to support unemployed members “on the tramp” in search of work and those emigrating, which meant it had to ally itself with tiny unions elsewhere in Ireland, and, more productively with British based print unions. Journeymen often complained about employers taking in too many apprentices, for which they were berated by Daniel O’Connell. The union was effective in securing gains by both negotiation and on occasion by strike action, despite seasonal unemployment.

Speedier technological change came in bookbinding with the introduction of publishers’ case bindings from the 1820s. This meant imported books rarely needed local binding to the customer’s specification, except in the small luxury end of the market. The mechanisation of binding in Dublin also reduced demand for workers despite an expanded market for print. Very few newspapers and no railway tickets need binding.

In 1845 the Dublin Journeymen Bookbinders’ Society claimed there were “88 good men and 17 rats” working in the city’s trade, a fall from the 213 men and 213 women in 1801, clearly bookbinders did not benefit from the general expansion of the print trade and wages stagnated. The number of women in the trade is mentioned on several occasions, but not being union members they are not discussed.

Despite high unemployment, Dublin’s bookbinders were sufficiently strong enough for employers to frequently condemn them for deciding who could work at the trade. As with the printers a common complaint concerned employers taking on too many apprentices. For a while, between 1843 and 1848 the headquarters of the United Kingdom wide Consolidated Union of Bookbinders was based in Dublin before allegation of financial fraud caused a move to Liverpool, a squabble which did much to lessen support for trade unionism among Dublin binders. In 1846 the Dublin binders found themselves being rebuffed after asking Edinburgh binders for support in a dispute because Edinburgh men on the tramp in earlier years had not been welcomed in Dublin.

Robert Laurie (East Kilbride) is Treasurer of the Scottish Labour History Society.