On an embryo university press

At a conference in York at the weekend, I skipped the Saturday afternoon session to take a stroll around the always-pleasing city centre. Secondhand booksellers have been disappearing from historic centres – Oxford a case in point – but York retains some. My favourite is Minster Gate Bookshop, a stone’s throw the minster. It has several rooms, arranged over several floors, and carries a wide range of good quality stock at decent prices.

In the top room, on  a shelf of books about bibliography, book history, etc., I came across a book I hadn’t seen before: Eyres’ Press 1756-1803: An embryo university press by Padraig O’Brien (Owl Books, 1993).


It was the sub-title that attracted my attention. A dismaying fact of scholarly book publishing is that little attention is paid within the industry to that part of sector that lies beyond university presses. University presses themselves often use ‘university presses’ and ‘scholarly publishing’ unthinkingly as synonyms: they exhibit a huge lack of curiosity concerning commercial presses. (An unwillingness to learn seems an odd trait for university institutions to display, but there we are.) So I was pleased to see an historical study doing something to redress the balance.


A little browsing revealed that Eyres Press, the subject of O’Brien’s study, was based in Warrington. I admit to being a little surprised. I hadn’t associated the town with learning and learned publishing – its image is more rugby league and heavy industry.

Well, what do I know? O’Brien explains at the beginning of his study that

In the latter half of the 18th century, Warrington, a small but ancient market town on the southern border of Lancashire…had four intellectual and academic institutions which gave it a pre-eminent place in English educational Renaissance.

Those institutions were the grammar school, the academy, Eyres’ Press, and the circulating library.


Eyres’ Press 1756-1803 is a short monograph. Having placed Eyres’ press in the context, O’Brien introduces the Eyres family and its enterprises, outlines the story of the press and its workings as a business, provides a survey of its output (from chap books to learned and illustrated volumes).

The author devotes plenty of space to William Eyres’ ‘clients’ (that is, his authors), amongst whom pride of place must go to Joseph Priestley (who taught at the academy). I hadn’t thought of Priestley before as a textbook author, but evidently he was that: Priestley’s titles printed by Eyres included Rudiments of English grammar (1760) and Lectures on the theory of language & universal grammar (1762).

O’Brien seeks to establish a checklist of books printed by Eyres. Other authors included John Howard (the penal reformer) and Anna Barbauld.

Eyres’ Press 1756-1803 is amply illustrated with pages, illustrations, and ornaments from Eyres’ publications. Tipped in is a facsimile title page (Sketches in verse, by Thomas Robinson), produced by the letterpress printing process that Eyres used and printed on a hand-fed treadle press. All in all, the book constitutes an informative and entertaining study of a fascinating piece of publishing history. In short, a delight.


O’Brien provides a chronological analysis of Eyres’ printing. I sometimes get frustrated by how long it takes to build a press, so I felt heartened to find my own company, The Professional and Higher Partnership, is going faster! Eyres printed one title in 1756, two in 1758, one in 1759, five in 1760, and one in 1761 – making ten in six years. If we then grow as Eyres did (e.g. 17 titles in 1774 and 18 in 1777), I’ll be content.


5 Responses to “On an embryo university press”

  1. ‘University presses … often … exhibit a huge lack of curiosity concerning commercial presses’ – very well and bravely said.

  2. Really interesting piece. It is a shame that commercial publishers get passed over by academics. It seems to be quite a conservative field – they go with what they know, what people have done before them etc, rather than trying something new, different and (sometimes) better.

  3. I’ve edited for a non-university scholarly press for years now. It’s certainly a viable option that at least some academics choose. Not sure why those in UPs don’t look more widely.

    • Thank you. Think some university press staff have no alternative experience (plus dose of snobbery). Ironically, the presses that I have worked with that have the strongest quality management are commercial presses (notably Sage).

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