Thursday, 31 March 2011

Rowley Atterbury - Printer

© Granville Davies
Rowley Atterbury, founder of the Westerham Press, has died this week aged 90.

I was fortunate to have met Rowley a few times at the start of my career in the paper/printing industry and I enjoyed our meetings and still have a letter he wrote me (about "bottom liners" ... he derided printers that sold too cheaply)

Many of you reading this may be wondering why I am writing about this person who many of you will never of heard of. Quite simply, he was one of the most important people in printing, design and typography in the last sixty years.

Rowley Atterbury served in the RAF in WWII and after a short stint at publisher Faber & Faber, he set up the Westerham Press in 1950. I remember him telling me that he set up in the building that had been the old sergeants mess at Biggin Hill aerodrome (but I may have got that wrong).

Beatrice Ward 1932
Rowley was passionate about printing and of course back in those days printing meant letterpress which was hot metal and therefore print and type (and design) were much more closely linked. He was an advocate of quality and worked and corresponded with the outstanding designers and typographic designers of the time including Beatrice Warde, David Kindersley, Robert Harling, Ruari McLean, Jan Tschihold name but a few.

In those far off days of the 1950's, Letterpress printing was virtually the only print processes and the way in which all books, newspapers or any other kind of print could be put together. The transition to electronic type generation was complicated and, at the outset, very difficult. It came about not least because of Rowley Atterbury's pioneering attitude.

He became involved with a US based company called Rocappi (Research on Computer Applications to the Printing and Publishing Industries) Inc. which was researching into computerised data processing. Rowley Atterbury was a director of Rocappi along with mathematician Colin Barber and through the British Printing Corporation (BPC) they developed computer generated tape which was the first step on the road to automated typesetting and data processing.
An exhibition catalogue for the Goldsmiths' Company in 1965 was the first publication set using the Rocappi system ...the computer-generated tape making it possible to output three columns of type simultaneously without intervention of human hand (as opposed to one column by hand).

In 1965 Westerham Press moved into a state of the art, purpose-built factory in Westerham. There's a chapter in Rowley's book "A good idea at the time?" about the design of the factory being formulated around three core requirements:

  • An office to organise and control the output of the factory
  • An air-conditioned unit in which computers, cameras, scanners and filmsetting devices could operation in suitable conditions
  • A large open-plan machine shop, tall enough for a web offset press with a gas dryer, for the process of printing on paper and finishing the work with various binding production lines. This area to be air-conditioned and humidity-controlled.
Each of these three areas to be independent and capable of development and expansion as techniques changed, without affecting the other two units. How many printing companies would formulate such a grand plan today?
It was not until the late 1960s, when the price of lead became very high, that letterpress printing became obsolescent  and Westerham Press invested heavily in offset litho ( a factory designed for letterpress printing but with the versatility to change over to Litho)

He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)  and in 1984 he was awarded the Bicentenary Medal, which over the years has also been awarded to such luminaries as Terence Conran, Wally Olins, Deyan Sudjic, Christopher Frayling, John Sorrell et al. This alone gives some indication as to just how important to our industry he was. He was also a member and one-time president of the Double Crown club and was involved in a huge number of bodies and organisations in the design and printing industry. He wrote Ruari McLean's obituary that appeared in The Guardian in 2006.

Westerham Press was acquired by the financial printing group Burrups in the 1980's (I think?) and subsequently absorbed into the St Ives group and still exists as it's own entity within the group. Rowley Atterbury stayed active in print in the 1990's with the Letterpress equipment that he kept along with his son Francis Atterbury. Francis continues the family tradition, running the Hurtwood Press who are consultants in fine art printing.
He was a goliath in our once great printing industry. He will be sadly missed.
Posted by Justin Hobson 31.03.2011


  1. Justin, this is lovely to read. It really made my week in what has otherwise been less than great. As I read and printed Rowley's book I became more absorbed in the history and we talked a lot about the industry. I could see how he and his ilk managed the transition from the industry of Caslon to the one in which we live and work today. With the brief exception of lithography in the late 18th century, there was no real change between 1460 to 1960. Then between 1960 and 1980 there was real and lasting change. Rowley was in the vanguard of that change and reading your article made me feel very proud. Thanks.

  2. Oh, by the way, you are right on most things. However, he set up ROCAPPI UK with Colin (who went on to write dtp programmes for IBM) and I believe it was Lord Forte who declared that there was no future in computers in printing and pulled the financial plug. Also, WP was sold in 1984 and the new factory was designed for offset litho because Biggin Hill (yes, Sargeant's meess) was running prototype multi-colour press and they bought the first four-colour press (a Kolibri) in Europe direct from the Paris show in, I think, 1963. Incidentally, he gave the press to the London School of Printing and asking later, RSA was very irritated that it had been scrapped rather then kept as a piece of history. Actually, that was typical; he was always asking you to return things that you though had been a gift! F

  3. From John Deeks 6th April 2011

    Dear Justin
    I am not sure that we have ever met, but I have just read your tribute to Rowley Atterbury.
    I worked at the Press from 1965-75, so have many memories of him in probably his prime years.
    When I joined, Rowley would have been in his mid-forties, but was still known by everybody as "The Old Man" - no reflection on his age of course, just a recognition that he was the one in charge.
    I guess his managemet style was to keep everyone on their toes by changing everything around within the company on an irregular basis. He certainly attracted the best talent around at the time and we all learnt so much from him. I have long retired from work now, but still can't help talking about him!
    I intend going to the funeral, hope the church is big enough!
    Best regards John Deeks (ex Westerham Press and ex a few other bosses who never quite matched up)

  4. My late father, David 'Conlyn' Davies joined Rowley in the early '60's whilst the press was at Biggin Hill as a sales rep. Over the next 15 years or so he was instrumental to the growth of Westerham Press once they moved into their new premises by bringing in accounts such as British Gas, British Steel, British Coal and Rio Tinto Zinc. I visited the factory with him when I was a girl and well remember the huge litho printing machines.
    I too am planning to attend the funeral because a representative of Westerham Press attended my father's.


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