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Publishing in Aberdeen

ont face=`arial,helvetica,sans-serif`>Laird of Letters

That Aberdeen received the boon of a press as late as 1622 has often appeared strange to many. But if we consider the rude state of the country, the extreme poverty of the people, the difficulties of carriage, and the small chance of being able widely to disseminate the products of the press, we rather have reason to feel astonishment at the enterprise and activity of its first printer, Edward Raban (Raven). He was thought to have been a native of Gloucester who had served as a soldier, and was employed in printing for a short period, in the Low Countries. Evidence for this is to be found in the similarities between his type, devices and ornaments and those of the Pilgrim Press in Leyden. Details of his career in Scotland, beginning in Edinburgh and moving to Aberdeen in 1622 via St Andrews, can be found in the booklet The Hero as Printer published by Aberdeen University Library. He came north in search of a suitable field in which to exercise his craft. The first town he stayed in was Edinburgh, where, in 1620, he printed at the sign of the A. B. C, in a house at the Cowgate Port. Raban cannot have continued long in Edinburgh, for in the same year, 1620, he removed to St. Andrews. His residence in St Andrews cannot have exceeded 2 years, for he printed in Aberdeen the King's College Thesis, which was to be disputed on the 22nd July, 1622. The business-like approach of the Aberdeen Town Council in its support for the printer was immediately evident. Raban received a salary from the Town Council of £40 (Scots) per annum, this sum being immediately offset by the £40 (Scots) annual rent charged for his house on the north side of the Castlegate. Raban apparently supplemented his seemingly meagre income by the 8 pence he received quarterly from each pupil at the Aberdeen Grammar School, which sum was collected with the school fees. He printed under the sign of "The Townes Armes," and this continued to be the sign-board of the Aberdeen Printers for at least one hundred years. One of Raban's earliest friends in his new home was the Broadgate bookseller, David Melvill who appears to have befriended him from first to last. Many of the books, especially those belonging to what might be called popular literature were printed for Melvill, who though not the first bookseller in Aberdeen, may have been the only one at that period. This trade connection was formed at once, for Melvill?s name is found on several books dated 1622, the books being either printed for, or at the expense of the bookseller. The friendship existing between them is further evidenced by the terms on which Raban rented his house from the Town s authorities Melvill?ss position as a Burgess must have been of the greatest assistance to the newcomer, and we may well believe, from what we know of Raban's subsequent history, that without his cautioner it would have been often impossible for him to carry on his trade in the town. The house occupied by Raban as a printing office was on the north side of Castle Street^ and was a two-storied edifice. It is described as the * toun s fortuitous abode the meal mercat," and is also spoken of as a new house. The building (of which the lower part was the Meal-market) into which Raban entered in 1622 was built in 1613-14 by Thomas Mar, mason. The Town Council paid the first week's wages of the masons and barrowmen at work on " the new flesh hous and meillmercat " on 20th August, 1613. Although we cannot positively assert that Raban's occupancy of this house began immediately on his coming to the town, yet, we find his friend David Mehill pay'ing for rent in the same year. His tenancy of the new fortuitous house at all events, commenced during the 2nd year of his residence in Aberdeen. In this printing office, above the Meal-market, Edward Raban was in the heart of things in many ways. To the front of that house the "jougs" were attached ? the iron collar, or yoke, that served as the public stocks in many places in Scotland for ages. In front of it, too, the gallows was erected in Raban's time, which matter affected him in a way that could hardly be imagined by a printer of our time, for it was part of Raban's duty, as Town's printer, "to print the papers that is prined (preened) on the bristis of thes that stand on the scaffold. " If Raban lifted his eyes a little, he could see in the middle of the Castlegate, in front of his printing office, the Market Cross ? the old cross, then becoming ruinous, and demolshed in 1686 - at which took place all the chief spectacular events, punishments, proclamations, rejoicings, and other public official acts that affected in many ways the intimate life of the community. That his relations with his superiors were always smooth, is not to be expected; not even in those old times could repairs be got executed without haggling and bargaining. The new house in the Castlegate had fallen into disrepair. Ten years had left their traces on the building. The seams of the masonry were all open, and wet percolated the walls of the printer's dwelling. A petition to the owners of the property was considered at a meeting on 2nd May, 1632, when the guardians of the Town's interests drove a somewhat hard bargain with their tenant. The life that Raban led must have been an industrious one, as is evidenced by the number of publications that came from his press; and, although we know that he received some assistance in discharging his duties as printer, yet, as his servant is generally spoken of in the singular, we have every reason to believe that it was with the help of one workman the printing establishment was conducted. The time of Raban's arrival in the town was the beginning of a period of savage ecclesiastical strife, the real inspiration of which, either on the one side or the other, it is hardly possible now to discover. It was a quaint effect of the Puritanical feeling of that tempestuous period that the Town Council in 1623, following the practice of certain other towns, resolved that the members of the Council should be dressed in honest (black) gowns when attending public meetings and at church, and that the Council meetings should be opened and closed with prayer, the Provost to officiate. But Raban saw many a sad sight, the outcome of those religious contentions, before he ceased to be Town's Printer in 1649. The "Troubles " were just breaking out when he arrived. In the succeeding years he saw the public mind harassed by the fierce and venomous disputes, and himself helped (professionally) to inflame feeling by the printing of many dialectical productions of the time. Ultimately, he saw, as one of the consequences of those contentions, the outbreak of the great Civil War, the first actual engagement of which was fought at our own doors, the Battle of the Bridge of Dee, 1639, in which the Aberdeen forces, having their commander disabled, had to flee for their lives. And in that black 13th of September, 1644, he saw the frightful Crabstone Rout, in which, for the 2nd time in pitched battle, Montrose overwhelmed the town. But Raban saw more peaceful and pleasant things as well. He had only recently become Town's Printer, above the Meal- market, when he saw erected, close by his printing office, the square tower of the Tolbooth, which is still the "Old Tower" of the Town House near Lodge Walk.^ We do not actually know if Raban, the printer, and John Spalding, the historian, ever met, but we may take it they were both present en those memorable occasions, in July, 1638, in Earl Marischal's Close in the Castlegate, when the Commissioners for the New Covenant attempted to convert the town, but drew on themselves, as a chief thing, the scorn of the " Aberdeen Doctors," a famous group to this day.- But the greatest event of Raban's time, for Aberdeen, was the movement for the great charter of Charles I., of that same year, 1638 - in some respects the Magna Carta of the town, and worthy of being shown in every school in the burgh - in which the ancient rights of Aberdeen as a royal burgh and rights anew, are recited and confirmed to it " as one free royal burgh, to be now and in all time to come called the Burgh of Aberdeen." ^ It was a stirring time in which Edward Raban, the printer, found himself in Aberdeen, far from his native regions, in the 1st half of the 17th century. As we shall see dealing with the man and his work - he left his own mark on the period by his craftsmanship in the town. It is noteworthy that 150 publications (albeit over a period of 27 years) were issued from Raban?s press ranging over a wide field. Of these special mention must be made of his Psalter of 1625, the 1st in Scotland with harmonised tunes. Perhaps of greater significance, however, was his Prognostication or Almanac, 1st published in 1623. It continued to be printed annually and its considerable success attracted other Scottish printers to pirate the work. One incident worthy of mention was the licence taken at that time by early printers. For example, Raban found himself in trouble with the General Assembly in 1640 for shortening the prayer at the end of an edition of the Psalms, printed some years earlier. He was called to account and pleaded shortage of paper, humbly asked for pardon, and was dismissed with a caution. Among Raban?s productions were hornbooks (now rare), a single leaf protected by a thin layer of horn, which were used by children in school classrooms. Conditions in schools at that period were relatively primitive and must cause wonderment as to the treatment school books must have experienced. Generally a single fire was all that warmed the earthen-floor room, but even this was dependent on scholars bringing their peats or faggots so that the fire could be lit. At a higher level at that time, university students shivered in their chambers and on Meal Monday they would return home to collect oatmeal to make their porridge. In 1643 the first mention occurs of Raban having another place of business, besides the printing office in the Castlegate, above the Meal-market At that date, and until the close of his career, he advertised that his books are "* to be sold at his Shop at the end of the Broadgate," he having in all probability taken over the "booth" of David Melvill, whose death occurred early in 1643. Both of these tenements were rented by his successors over a very long period; certainly, until 1736, and possibly later. The death of his old friend, David Melvill, must have embarrassed the printer. It would appear that Raban, not being able to fulfil his obligation to the Town for the sum of 500 merks Scots, his cautioner's son, Robert Melvill, had to satisfy the Council by selling a certain quantity of his father's books to pay the debt. There is very little known of the last years of Raban's life. We cannot even fill up the blank by stating that his press was busily occupied as in former years. The number of publications known which bear his imprint, after David Melvill's death, are so few, tbat the consideration is forced upon us whether or not the press stood idle during the greater part of the time between 1645 and 1649. The unsettled state of the country is shown by the very suggestive entry in the Burgh Accounts, where Raban receives " wool and ane skinn to print the papers that is preened on the bristis of they that stand on the scaffold." Raban continued as printer to the town and university until 1649, and he died in 1659

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Nov 1745 Jacobite Rebellion - James Chalmers has fled for it, refusing to print any more of their declarations. I am afraid we shall have no more of his news schedules.  Probably handbills containing the news of the day. They were succeeded in 1748, by the Aberdeen Journal, printed by Mr. Chalmers, being the 1st newspaper in Scotland north of the Forth.

Poor Chalmers, the printer, is from home, not yet able to walk on his strained leg he got jumping a window to escape the ruffians, Saturday was eight days. This last night they have committed great outrages in his house, breaking open an outer door, when not let in, setting fire to an inner door, and, when let in, scattering his types, searching his house, burning papers, and breaking presses and drawers.

Westburn House was designed by Archibald Simpson and built in 1839. It was a private house and was purchased by the Council in the early 20th century.  The Mansion House, for many years the residence of the Chalmers family, the well-known printers, was acquired by the Town Council and opened to the public in 1901.  The original estate of Westburn extended to 22 acres and was purchased for the sum of £14,000 with subsequent works bringing costs to a total of £18,717. The old house of Westburn was converted into refreshment rooms and the grounds around Westburn House had been formed into a public park with its formal walled garden turned into bowling greens and tennis courts.

John Boyle, bookseller and Burgess of Aberdeen had previously run a printers and stationers at the Broadgate in Aberdeen in partnership with John Bruce, a dyer. This partnership was dissolved in 1769, but they once again formed a partnership to lease the Insch (island) of Stoneywood from James Moir for 115 years to build the papermill.

An advert in The Aberdeen Journal dated 18th February 1771 stated 'John Boyle and Richard Hyde shall give 9d. for every 20lb. of old ropes or unbleached rags and 1/6 for linen or check rags.'  The rags were sorted and processed at the Woodside Rag Mill.


University Press 1840

The history of the Aberdeen University Press dates back to 1840, when the brothers, George and Robert King founded a printing and publishing firm in Diamond Street, Aberdeen. Before their business as printers ceased in 1850, a 3rd brother, Arthur, had begun his own printing concern, also in the city, as Arthur King and Co., and this continued under the King family until 1872, when Arthur's son sold the firm to John Thomson. Under the latter's direction the business expanded rapidly, undertaking much of Aberdeen University's printing and also establishing a reputation among London publishers.

The Aberdeen University Press (hereafter AUP) registered as a Public Company in 1900, was formed to acquire the business of Arthur King and Co., the 1st chairman being Professor (later Sir) William Ramsay, of the Chair of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen. Since then, the press has specialised in diverse and difficult type-settings, including foreign language, mathematical and technical work. By the early 1970s approximately 50 percent of the business of the Press consisted of printing educational books and journals, and 50 percent of general printing and bookbinding; the firm's interest in publishing was marginal, being limited to a few books of specialist or local interest.

In 1932 the business was amalgamated with the Rosemount Press, a firm of general printers which had evolved in 1898 as part of the Aberdeen Free Press organisation; in 1949 the business was acquired of William Jackson (Aberdeen) Ltd, a bookbinding concern begun in 1855 and with premises latterly in Back Wynd, Aberdeen; in 1953 was added the business of John Avery and Co. Ltd, a firm of general printers which owned the Greyfriars Press in King Street, and which had begun printing in the early 1840s, becoming a Ltd company in 1884; and in 1966, the business of Messrs Edmond and Spark, stationers and bookbinders, who had operated in the city since 1807, was merged in the firm.

AUP was itself taken over by the British Bank of Commerce in 1970, of which John Milne, The Central Press (Aberdeen) Ltd, also became, in 1970, a wholly-owned subsidiary, as did G. Cornwall and Sons Ltd and its subsidiary, The White Heather Publishing Co. Ltd , in 1972.

From 1870 to 1963 the Press had its main office and works in Upperkirkgate, and from 1932 it also occupied the works of the Rosemount Press at Farmers Hall. In 1963 the latter factory was extended to house the Press in its entirety. In 1973 the factory was again extended to house the business of the Central Press and Cornwall's.

In 1979 there was a major change of direction at the Press, when it adopted a new policy to develop the publishing side of its activities. Prior to this, the company had concentrated mainly on printing work. In the same year a new Publishing Director, Colin MacLean, was appointed to pursue this policy and the company's publishing activities developed rapidly..

Eventually, in 1988, the printing and publishing activities of the press were formally separated and taken up by 2 different companies. The publishing activities continued under the same name, The Aberdeen University Press Ltd. The printing side of the company became a subsidiary of BPCC Ltd, and traded under a new name, BPCC - AUP Aberdeen Ltd. Sadly the fortunes of the publishing company AUP Ltd became enmeshed with the collapse of Robert Maxwell's publishing empire, following his death in 1992. It was discovered that the AUP owed debts of £1.1M, mainly to its holding company Maxwell Communications Corporation, which was itself, in severe financial difficulty. As a consequence, early in 1992, AUP was put into administration and ceased trading. TAUPIA Ltd (The Aberdeen University Press in Administration) was created in 1993. The company went into formal liquidation in 1993, and was finally wound up in 1996.

A detailed survey of the firm's history is found in Alexander Keith, Aberdeen University Press: an account of the Press from its foundation in 1840 until its occupation of new premises in 1963 (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1963).


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Last modified: 01/09/2013