Leslie Fleming


An Octogenarian









Leslie Fleming


Born  on 23rd December 1805

Libberton Wynd









This book was re-styled by his great-great-great grandson

Glynn Roe


Leslie Fleming was born in Edinburgh on 23rd December 1805, the son of William Fleming and Grizel Bell. He married Janet Bell on 18th May 1828 at the Parish Church in Edinburgh.


His second son, also Leslie, was born in 1833 in Edinburgh and he married Eliza Lauder on the 25th August 1858 at the Parish Church.
In late 1861 or early 1862 Leslie and Eliza moved to London after the birth of their second son. In London they had two more child one of whom, John William Fleming, my great grandfather was born in 1862 at Clerkenwell.


John and Elizabeth Mary Brown married on the 27th March 1882 at St Thomas Church, Bethnal Green, London. They had ten children, one of the youngest, Robert Redvers George Fleming, my maternal grandfather was baptised on 23rd March 1900 at Holborn, London within the sound of Bow Bells.


Robert married Sarina May Dickinson on the 30th May 1925 at George Street Chapel, Manchester. They had three children, two boys and a girl, Joan Fleming, my mother who was born on 21st November 1925.


Joan Fleming married Albert Arthur Roe on 31st August 1946 at Platt Chapel, Manchester and they had two children, Glynn and Hazel Roe.








IT is not without some diffidence that I venture to place these “Recollections” before the members of the printing trade in Edinburgh; but as the Edinburgh Branch of the British Typographia, before whom the paper was read, have decided to issue it in this form, I cannot feel otherwise than gratified at the honour thus done me.


            While trusting that the glimpses of bygone days in the Scottish capital herein contained may give pleasure to some and offence to none, I would ask the kind of indulgence of the readers of these pages for any defects or want of continuity in the narrative. I had but few notes to assist me in its compilation and consequently had to trust much to memory, which, at my advanced years, may be pardoned for its lapses.


            I beg also to acknowledge here the kindly and valuable assistance rendered me by Mr JOHN LINDSAY (Messrs Wm. Blackwood & Sons’) in the arrangement and revision of these “Recollections.”


                                    LESLIE FLEMING.


Glenluce, Wigtownshire,

              May 1893.



I may preface these random recollections of a life now protracted even beyond the long span of  fourscore years by remarking that I belong to a family of printers. My father was not only a printer himself, but all his five sons, of whom I was the fourth, followed his example, in this respect at all events. In continuation of this example, three of my own sons have cast in their lot with the trade, while several of their sons, again, are pressing into its ranks. I have thus good reason to believe that the family will long continue to be represented in our honourable craft.

I was born on the 23d of December 1805, in Libberton’s Wynd, at one time a well-known part of the Old Town, and the birthplace, about the middle of last century, of Henry MacKenzie, author of the “Man of Feeling.”

In 1827, however, this wynd was swept away, with various other buildings, to make room for the construction of Melbourne Place and George IV. Bridge, and the present generation hardly knows the fact of its former existence. I was called by the surname of my paternal grandmother, her Christian name being the rather peculiar one of Mara.

In Scotland at the beginning of the century, and probably for long before, it was customary for married women to be known familiarly by their maiden name, and my grandmother was always spoken of as Mara Leslie. Now, as the century is nearing its close, there is a plentiful crop of both “Leslies” and “Maras” among the numerous male and female descendents of the family. I was baptized on February 2, 1806, by the Rev. William Gould, minister of the Cameronian Church in Lady Lawson’s Wynd.
        A congregation in Loanhead was also in connection with this “Wynd” church, and every third Sunday the minister conducted service there, until in 1818 the Loanhead congregation called a minister for themselves. Dr Gould of the Free Martyrs’ Church, George IV. Bridge, was ordained as colleague and successor to his father on October 6, 1840, and on his father’s death in 1844 became the sole pastor. I may here be permitted to state that I very early became a manager of this church, and continued to hold that office till the Reformed Presbyterian Church amalgamated with the Free Church in 1876.

My father’s house, and where I lived until twenty-two years of age, was half-way down Libberton’s Wynd, on the west side, and some three tenements below the famous Johnnie Dowie’s Tavern.

Still farther down the wynd, on the same side, resided another celebrity, Ebenezer Wilson, brassfounder, who rang the Tron Church bell, being bell-ringer from 1788 till his death in 1823. He was a well-known character, from his continuing to wear the old-fashioned three-cornered cocked hat, knee breeches and shoes with large buckles. I often accompanied him at night, during my boyhood, at the eight o’clock bell-ringing, and have frequently seen the clockwork and the bells in the old steeple.

The small bell was the one used for ringing, while a hammer struck the hours on the large one: though this latter bell was hung for ringing also, it was never used for that purpose, lest it should injure the steeple. This old wooden steeple was burnt in the great fire of November 1824, and was rebuilt in 1828, the principal bell being recast, and again hung. I have never notice any statement in print to the effect that there were two bells in the old steeple, but having seen them so often, I feel confident in the matter. The short biographical sketch of Ebenezer Wilson, or “Eben,” as he was usually called, which is given in Kay’s ‘Edinburgh Portraits,’ is very correct, and I am tempted to extract from it an anecdote about the old bell-ringer. “Although in general very regular,” it is stated, “Eben committed a sad mistake on one occasion, by tolling the curfew at seven o’clock in place of eight. The shops were shut up, and the streets consigned to comparative darkness, when the clerks and shopboys discovered with delight that they had gained an hour by his miscalculation. This occurrence afterwards proved a source of great vexation to him – ‘It’s seven o’clock, Eben, ring the bell!’ being a frequent and irritating salutation on the part of the laddies.”

At the back of my father’s house in Libberton Wynd was the Sheriff Court-house, a large building, with garden-ground attached, in the centre of which stood, oddly enough, a figure of Fame, on a pedestal, sounding her trumpet. Farther west, in Old Bank Close, were the premises of the Bank of Scotland. Adjoining this building, on the east side of the close, the ‘Scotsman’ newspaper, begun in January 1817, was printed by Abernethy & Walker, before that firm split partnership. The Old Bank Close was a very quiet and genteel locality, well paved, and of no great length – not going even half way down to the Cowgate, to which most of the closes in this neighbourhood descended with a very steep slope. Robert Gourlay’s house, familiar, at least by name, to all who are acquainted with the traditions of our city, stood at the head of this close. Here the Regent Morton was kept for two days before his execution; and here the Marquis of Argyll is said to have spent his last hours on earth. Here too, that terrible tragedy was enacted in 1689, when Sir George Lockhart, President of the Court of Session, who had come into possession of the house,
was shot at his own door by Chiesly of Dalry, an unsuccessful litigant. These are matters of history, and I only refer to them here to show that much of the old life of the city was identified with these spots, familiar to me in my boyhood, and of which there is not a trace now left. At the foot of the Old Bank Close Robert Gourlay’s son, John, built a house which afterwards became the premises of the Bank of Scotland, and where the business of the Bank was conducted from 1695 till 1805, when the present building at the top of the Mound was erected.

It was at this latter date that the old Bank premises became the University Printing-Office of which I shall have somewhat to say presently. Meantime, permit me to refer in a few words to some of the more noteworthy buildings in this locality, as I remember them in my boyhood and youth.  The first I would notice is Johnnie Dowie’s Tavern, in Libberton Wynd, already mentioned, and which is thus well described in the biographical sketch of Johnnie to be found in Kay’s ‘Edinburgh Portraits’: “The principal room,which looked to the wynd, was capable of containing about fourteen persons, but all the others were so small that not above six persons could be stowed into each; and so dingy and dark that even in broad daylight they had to be lighted by artificial means.

Yet in this unseemly place of entertainment many of the respectable citizens and several remarkable persons of last century were in the habit of meeting nightly, and found in it no ordinary degree of social comfort and amusement.” All this agrees perfectly with my own recollections of Johnnie Dowie’s, as it was in my early years. One room went by the name of “the Coffin,” and a most uncomfortable coffin it was. In the principal room above described, Burns, when he lived for six months in Edinburgh, used to “forgather” regularly with a small band of cronies, including William Nicol and Allan Masterton, the “Will” and “Allan” of the poet’s well-known song. Only Younger’s ale, from the brewery at Croft-an-righ, was kept by Johnnie, and charged at 2.5d. and 3d. a bottle, according to quality. A long poem in praise of “ Johnnie Dowie’s Ale,” printed privately and circulated among his customers, was said to have been written by Burns, but was really the production of Mr Hunter of Blackness, in imitation of the Bard’s style. Two of the  verses of this rather clever jeu d’esprit ran thus :-


                         “ O Geordie Robertson, dreigh loun,

                           An antiquarian Paton soun’,

                           Wi’ mony ithers I’ the toun,

                                    What wad come o’er ye,

                           Gif Johnnie Dowie should stap doun

                                    To the grave before ye?


                        “ Ye sure wad break your hearts wi’ grief,

                          An’ in strong ale find nae relief,

                         War ye to lose your Dowie – chief

                                   O bottle keepers;

                         Three years at least, now, to be brief,

                                   Ye’d gang wi’ weepers.”



     I remember seeing Johnnie, one dark night, standing before his door and holding up a lantern to get a sight on the sly of the preparations then making at the top of the wynd for the erection of County Hall, - shaking his head the while, as if aware that his own house was also doomed. ,/.


          But though the County Hall was finished in 1817, the year in which Johnnie Dowie died, his tavern remained till the wynd was completely demolished in 1834, with a sign latterly above the door, “Burn’s Tavern, late Johnnie Dowie.” At Johnnie’s death it was found that he had left a fortune of some £6000.


In my early years the Tolbooth, Creech’s Land, and the Weigh House were all in existence. The Weigh House stood at the head of the West Bow, Creech’s Land opposite Warriston’s Close and Writer’s Court. And the Tolbooth at the north-west corner of St Giles’. The entrance to the Tolbooth was on the south side, up a narrow spiral stair, and near to where the heart is now placed on the footpath. The ground-floor on the north side was occupied by the City Guard; and I recollect the drummer going his nightly rounds at ten o’clock – up the Lawnmarket, down the West Bow, along the Cowgate, up St Mary’s Wynd, and back to his quarters in the Tolbooth. The roof of a house at the west end of the Tolbooth served as a platform for carrying out the death-sentence. The beam was hoisted up, and one end fixed in the gable of the prison. After the Tolbooth was removed, the first execution that took place was in 1819, on the west side of St Giles’, facing the newly built County Hall


It was intended that the execution should take place in front of the Calton Jail in Waterloo Place, but the residenters there would not have their new street polluted by such a grim spectacle.                                                                            

 Unfortunately, the machinery on this occasion did not work properly, and the culprit was strangled. The crowd sent a volley of stones after the officials, who forthwith fled, and the man was cut down from the gallows by some of the bolder spirits in the mob, and carried off. Military assistance was soon procured, and the culprit was again in the clutches of the law, and hanged successfully. After this, executions took place at the head of Libberton’s Wynd, until public spectacles of this nature ceased. The spot where the gallows was erected at this period is now marked by three reversed stones in the causeway at the corner of the County Hall. I remember perfectly the hanging of the infamous Burke at this place, and of the great public excitement on the occasion; but I always had a great horror of looking on at these spectacles, and preferred to go a mile out of my way to avoid them.


The Parliament Square had shops all round to the Parliament House: Bell & Bradfute, publishers, were in the south-east corner. There were several booksellers’ shops here at this time: so numerous were they, in fact, as to form quite a feature of the place, making it a kind of Scottish Paternoster Row, though in this case there were also numerous printing-offices within a short radius. Indeed, in this locality may be said to have been the cradle of Scottish printing, the first printing-offices in the kingdom having been established in the vicinity.


One of the shops in Parliament Square was that of John Kay, the well-known caricaturist and engraver,already mentioned.  His print-shop was on the south side of the square; and here a crowd might often be seen round his window, examining with great apparent interest and amusement the latest production of his pen – some Lord of Session, or lawyer, or city official, it might be. Kay’s shop was burnt down, like so many other buildings, in the fire of 1824; and he himself died in February 1826, at 227 High Street, in his 84th year. His clever etchings of Edinburgh “characters,” of a time peculiarly prolific in such, still continue to delight many of our worthy townsfolk.


There were a few shops erected against the south side of St Giles’ Cathedral, and also several petty stalls or toy-shops on the north side, between the Cathedral and Creech’s Land, the latter known as the “Krames.”All these buildings, however, were removed before the year of the great fire, but that catastrophe cleared outmany of the other buildings I have mentioned, and burnt its way far down towards the Cowgate.


I must now take up the thread of my own life-story. My schooling commenced on the Calton Hill. At that time there were no buildings on the hill except Bridewell, the old observatory, and Nelson’s Monument, which last was newly built. The entrance to the Hill was by the steep declivity at the bottom of Leith Street. The school stood between Bridewell and the  Calton Burying-ground, where the new Jail now is. The infant class in the school was known curtly as the “sand-desk,” from the way in which it was taught. This contrivance was a flat desk with a ledging round it, and having its top filled with sand. Across this sand a smooth piece of wood was passed, and then the pupils, with their forefingers, drew the letters of the alphabet from a printed sheet set up in front of the desk. I was only a few years at this school, as a new road was projected along the side of the Hill, in a line with Princes Street, which necessitated the cutting through of the burying-ground as well as the removal of the school. The operations were begun in 1815, and in 1819 the new street was opened by Prince Leopold. Most of the scholars who had attended the school on the Calton Hill had by this time gone to the Lancasterian School in Davie Street, and there my own school-days came to an end.

I commenced my apprenticeship as a compositor in Blair Street, in 1818, my brother William and another constituting the firm. The business lasted only eighteen months, and I was then transferred to the University Printing-Office in Old Bank Close, owned by a Mr Charles Stewart, who had removed here, to the vacant premises of the Bank of Scotland, from Forrester’s Wynd. My father was at this time also in Stewart’s employment as a compositor. This printing-office, it may easily be believed, was both substantial and commodious. A long dark staircase led down to the under premises, which were all arched with stone, and the rooms fitted with strong iron doors, having been thus constructed for the safekeeping of the cash and other valuables of the Bank.
 It was in one of these dark, grim, underground rooms that stereotyping was at first done in Stewart’s – generally at night, when all the other workmen had left. In the press-room of this office, occupying the first floor, there were four wooden presses, a French press, and a Rutliven press. The wooden presses required two pulls; and ink-balls for inking the type were used for all the presses alike. There was also a press in the case-room, used for pulling proofs, which had a somewhat notable history, having been carried about with the Pretender’s army in the ’45, for the purpose of printing gazettes, manifestos, &c. The small amount of stereotyping done in this office had its origin in this wise. The manager – called Charles Stewart, like his master – had been sent to London in order, if possible, to find out the process, which was then kept a profound secret. Stewart soon picked up in some way or other sufficient information regarding the modus operandi of the process to enable him, with the help of a compositor, to cast stereotype plates himself, on his return. I would conclude from this fact that stereotyping had completely fallen into disuse in Edinburgh after Ged’s death in 1749: indeed it was so entirely a lost art that it had to be rediscovered, this honour being due to Tilloch of Glasgow, in 1779, by whom it was carried to London and there further perfected. I may here mention that there is to be seen in the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art a copy of ‘Sallust,’ printed from Ged’s plates in 1739, these plates now the property of the Faculty of Advocates. The first or 1734 edition of this little school-book is said to have been the earliest perfect work printed from these plates. The pans at first in use were very small, not taking in more than a foolscap octavo or small 12mo page: some of these pans are still kept as curiosities in Stevenson’s Foundry in Thistle Street.


The work done in Stewart’s office was mostly classical, in the shape of grammars,lexicons, class-books, &c. A good deal of Gaelic was also done, and I remember two Gaelic dictionaries being set up. A fellow-workman, Pringle Galloway, afterwards reader in the King’s Printing-Office, and myself, got the composition of some Greek plays, which I still fondly look back upon as a very “fat” job. Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, and German were also done,so this University Printing-Office was a rather learned establishment. A “drawback” was allowed on the paper used in the printing of all classical books, and on such occasions the excise-officer was sent for, the paper for the job was weighed out in his presence, and the duty deducted, which sum was enough in some cases to pay the expense of the printing. Charles Stewart, the University printer of this period, was proprietor of Coates House and Gardens, where Coates Crescent is now built. He took great pleasure in cultivating his beautiful garden. He was a most amiable man, and highly respected by every one. A work of his, in two volumes, entitled ‘Elements of Natural History,’ was formerly used in the University, I understand, as a class-book.

I was nearly half through with my apprenticeship when Charles Stewart died – on April 27th, 1823, - and his business was taken over by Mr Duncan Stevenson, who had come to Edinburgh about the beginning of the century. Mr Stevenson belonged to Argyllshire, where he was born in 1776, his father being the proprietor of the slate quarries at Ballachulish, and also owning the estate of Glenfeochan, near Oban. At his father’s death, Duncan Stevenson, as heir, disposed of the whole estate, and with part of the proceeds joined the firm of Mundell & Doig, printers and publishers in the Royal Bank Close. I possess a copy of Campbell’s ‘Pleasures of Hope,’ bearing the imprint “Mundell, Doig, & Stevenson, 1812.” Stevenson afterwards began on his own account, however, as a law and general printer, in what was known as “the Back Stairs” in Parliament Square.
 Though unknown to the present generation of printers, Duncan Stevenson’s figure was a familiar one in our Edinburgh streets for many years after this; and this stereotyping business which he carried on so long is still in existence. In November 1824, when the first disastrous fire occurred, Stevenson’s office in Parliament Square was burnt down, and what was saved of his plant was removed to Stewart’s office in Old Bank Close, which Stevenson had been working in the meantime as a separate concern. Of this fire, which I have already had occasion to mention oftener than once, I have a very vivid recollection, having nearly finished my apprenticeship when it occurred. A few lads like myself got hold of a wheelbarrow, and commenced to try to save some of the stock in one of the booksellers’ shops in Parliament Square, but the heat was so great that we had to make a wide circuit every time we returned with the barrow.

My brother William, who had married shortly before this, came for me at an early stage of the fire, to see if I could render assistance in saving his furniture, and we proceeded together to the Royal Bank Close, where he lived, but could not even get up the stair for the flames. Needless to say, he lost everything he possessed except the working clothes he had on. He then took up house a second time, a little farther down the street,
in Old Assembly Close, and six months after was again burnt out, though on this occasion he was able to remove his furniture. These were very trying times for many of the working-people who lived in this densely populated locality. By the way, the well-known equestrian statue of Charles II. In Parliament Square fared badly in the fire of 1824. The king was unhorsed, and lay for some considerable time in the Square, from which he was removed, wonderful to relate to the Calton Jail, where he remained till 1836, when he was again elevated to his former position, on a new pedestal.


Stereotyping began to increase about this period – namely, about 1824 – in the University Printing-Office. Unfortunately the manager, Charles Stewart, was seized with cholera, which had broken out in the Old Town. One Saturday forenoon, after being at the Bank for money to pay the wages, he sent for my brother William, and told him that he was afraid he had caught the infection. My brother took him home, and was with him all night, but he died about eight o’clock on the Sunday morning; and such was the popular dread of the disease, that he was hurriedly buried the same afternoon in Greyfriars churchyard. My brother then took charge of the stereotyping department, which post he held through many vicissitudes until his death in 1854. But this is anticipating.

I ought ere now to have noticed the visit of George IV. to Scotland in 1822, when the printers of Edinburgh filled a prominent place in part of the proceedings. The nobility, gentry, and civic dignitaries walked in procession on the occasion from Holyrood Palace to the Castle by way of the Canongate and High Street – the regalia, which had been discovered in an old chest a short time before, forming a principal feature in the show. On the evening previous to the great event, while I was lingering near the Castle esplanade, I saw Sir Walter Scott bustling about, busily engaged in superintending the removal of the regalia from the Castle to the Palace.

Next day the various trades with their flags lined the streets. The printers bought two new flags for the occasion, and I joined the Printers’ Society in order that I might have a share in the day’s doings. The Printers’ Society at this early date, I ought to mention, was not a trade society as we now understand that term, but rather what is now called a “benefit society.” The place assigned the printers was near the head of Carrubber’s Close; and I can testify that they dutifully evinced their loyalty, like the ancient and honourable craft they were, on such a memorable occasion.


About this time the Highland and Agricultural Society conferred a great boon on benefit societies by gathering information from many sources as to the proper conducting of such associations, including sickness and funeral rates, sliding-scales of payments by members, &c., these being all tabulated in an elaborate report printed by Neill & Co. Mr Fraser, the manager of that firm, was himself a member of the Printer’s society, and issued at his own expense a report specially applicable to it. This report was very widely circulated amongst the members of the Society, and various reforms were proposed. Unfortunately, the press department was unwilling to move in the matter, not desiring any change on the old rules; and several influential men amongst the compositors at length started a society for themselves on the new lines. The first meeting was held in a Masonic Lodge in Advocates’ Close in June 1824.


 I left the old Society, along with a number of others, and joined the newly founded Compositors’ Society. This Society had a good many difficulties to contend with at first, and at one time was even threatened with bankruptcy, when several heavy claims had been made on its funds; but by the reduction of sick allowances and other means the difficulty was tided over, and soon a surplus accrued, when the benefits resumed their normal state. Nearly £1300 have now been divided in bonuses alone to the members of the Edinburgh Compositors’ society, and its funds are very large and safely invested. Since 1824 I have served on several of the committees of this Society, have been twice elected President, and was a trustee till 1887, when I resigned that office owing to increasing years and failing health. I received at that date from the Secretary an extract minute, thanking me for what were kindly termed my “long, numerous, and ungrudging services to the Society.” This unexpected recognition of what I had been able to do in this connection I value very highly.


I attended the School of Arts in 1826, when Mr Lees lectured on Mechanical Philosophy and Dr Fyfe on Chemistry. The lectures on hydraulics, pneumatics, and the laws that govern matter were all beautifully illustrated by working models, and the chemical lectures by experiments. The great power of the hydraulic press was exhibited by what was called “the hydraulic bellows.” These lectures made such a deep impression on my mind that I commenced reading Paley’s ‘Natural Theology,’ as well as his ‘Evidences of Christianity’ and ‘Horæ Paulinæ,’ and also Butler’s ‘Analogy of Religion.’ These works were very popular when I was a young man, but I am afraid they are not much read nowadays, except perhaps by students or theologians. In such subjects I then took a keen interest. A knowledge of the Creator’s laws, physical as well as moral, is a most valuable acquisition for every one, and especially for those starting the journey of life, if they would make that life both lengthened and happy. Indulgence in any form is certain to injure health, making the individual a burden to himself as well as to his friends, and bringing his existence to a premature end. In 1827 I made my first trip to London, paying a visit to my eldest brother, who was then working there as a compositor. I went by one of the Leith smacks, making the journey in three days, which was at that time considered very good sailing.  I had several letters of introduction to publishers and printers in the big city, but though very kindly received by some of these, I did not consider the inducements sufficient to cause me to accept a situation at that time. I visited many parts of the city, and went one day to the House of Lords, where I saw Lord Brougham, while engaged as junior counsel in a law case. Some years afterwards I heard him speak in Edinburgh at a great political meeting in the old theatre in Nicholson Street. On this visit to London I saw London Bridge with its many arches, while the new bridge was in the course of erection. After a stay in London of some three weeks, I returned home by the same way as I went.

As already stated, Duncan Stevenson succeeded Charles Stewart as University printer on the death of the latter in 1823. My father was a reader in this office up till the time of his death in July 1835. I may here mention, also, that he was one of the three representatives chosen by the compositors to carry the wage question through the Court of Session in the years 1804-5, when Lord Islay Campbell’s Interlocutor, then issued, ruled the compositors’ scale for nearly sixty years. As Mr James Wilkie did yeoman service when the scale was again under review by a joint committee of masters and workmen, I thought him a fitting and proper person to receive the old session papers in my possession in connection with the case at the beginning of the century, and accordingly handed them over to his custody a few years ago. They contain a deal of information about the offices and workmen of that early period.


From 1830 to 1840 I was employed in the office of Andrew Shortrede, Thistle Street Lane, on the composition and making-up of two editions of a Bible in diamond type, three columns to the page, and with notes and commentary by a clergyman named Stebbing. These two Bibles, as well as a Prayer-Book and an edition of Shakespeare, were all stereotyped during this period by Duncan Stevenson, who had removed from the Old Bank Close in the High Street to Thistle Street. No licence had been taken out for the Bibles, this not being thought necessary, as they contained also other matter than text; but after a considerable number of copies had been sold, the newly instituted Bible Board for Scotland took the matter up, and the plates were hurriedly packed and sent off to America. Shortrede ultimately fell into bad health, and went to China, when Mr Slymand, his manager, tried to carry on the business on a similar scale in the Old Town, but was unsuccessful. He then assumed the management for a short time of Wm. Blackwood & Sons’ office but what afterwards became of him I do not know.


In 1840 I again entered Duncan Stevenson’s employment, but this time it was in the stereotyping department that my duties lay. About this period some improvements were made in stereotyping by John Howell, “polyartist,” as he was termed – a person who seemed to know a little of everything; yet failed in most of his inventions. He was the author of a life of Alexander Selkirk, the original Robinson Crusoe. He wrote on the Roman war-galleys, and made a model of one which was beautifully finished. He also contributed some stories to Wilson’s ‘Tales of the Borders.’ He at one time tried the experiment of flying, and took his start from somewhere about the foot of Ramsay Lane, finishing in the Nor’ Loch.


      This was found to be too dangerous to be repeated. He next tried by mechanical means to walk on the water, but this was seen to be equally dangerous. He was occasionally employed in taking casts of the features of dead persons. I recollect Lord Cockburn one paying him a visit at the Foundry; and I understand that Sir Walter Scott also visited him. He made an ingenious model of Edinburgh, now kept in Stevenson’s foundry, for which he got a few shillings after he had left Stevenson’s employment, being in very straitened circumstances. He was employed in the Foundry for a lengthened period, and while there originated a process of moulding by means of dry stucco which was a great success, enabling us to cast very large pages without any risk of the moulds cracking, as they were so apt to do by the wet process. Howell’s method of moulding was carried on at Stevenson’s for many years secretly, under lock and key. I visited Howell several times during his last illness, and he was always very pleased to see me. He was really a wonderful character, having the making of a genius in him, but somehow stopping short. What I have here written of him is perhaps his only biography.


          In 1846 Duncan Stevenson’s premises in Thistle Street were burnt down, but were soon rebuilt. Ten years after, however, in 1856, he sold his printing business to William Blackwood & Sons, who then removed their plant from their original office, at the back of their publishing and bookselling premises in George Street, to the place which they still occupy. Stereotyping had already been done by Stevenson for nearly all the large firms in Edinburgh, including Messrs Nelson, A & C. Black, Oliver & Boyd, Blackwood & Sons, constable, and others. While he was University Printer, Stevenson also produced many valuable works, as Jameson’s ‘Scottish Dictionary,’ several editions of the Waverley Novels, the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ &c. I may remark here, in a parenthesis, that a paper on the history of the University Printing-Offices in Edinburgh, including short biographical sketches of the various persons who have had the honour of being University printers, would form a most interesting record for the members of this branch of “Typographia.” I have myself gathered a good deal of information about Mr William Smellie, a University printer of an earlier date, and “the most learned printer of his day,” as he has been called; but these “Recollections” have already bulked out too largely, and I can only refer to him here in a few sentences. The first edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ in three quarto volumes published in 1771, was produced by William Smellie – the whole being arranged, and many of the articles written, by his own hand. He was also one of the founders of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, and for a time its secretary. His printing-office was at the foot of Anchor close; and in the same locality was Daniel Douglas’ Tavern, the headquarters of the convivial club known as “The Crochallan Fencibles,” of which club Smellie was a leading member. In January 1787 Burns was introduced to this club by Lord Newton, of the Court of Session, and Mr Smellie. The poet’s lines which he composed on the occasion are to be found in most editions of Burns’s works. In these lines the learned printer, who the occupied the distinguished position of “hangman to the corps,” comes in for a rather severe castigation, though in a bantering vein. Smellie is also immortalized in Kay’s ‘Edinburgh Portraits.’

  To return for a little to Duncan Stevenson, the University printer with whom I was so long personally concerned. His connection with the ‘Beacon’ newspaper is still remembered on account of the serious denouement of which that somewhat satirical Tory production was the primary cause. Amongst those who had been pilloried in its columns was a well-known Whig, Mr James Stuart of Dunearn. For lack of other satisfaction, Stuart one day, meeting the publisher of the paper in Parliament Square, attacked him with a horse-whip. Mr Stevenson defended himself with a cane, which, like most gentlemen of that time, he was in the habit of carrying, and from being assailed became the assailant. This cane he afterwards had mounted in silver, and I have often seen it in his hands. A challenge from the insulted publisher followed in due course, but was declined in an offensive manner by Stuart, who was forthwith “posted” through the town. I have a distinct recollection of the handbills in which Stuart was characterized as a “coward” and “scoundrel”. Soon after this the ‘Beacon’ ceased to exist, but its mantle fell on the ‘Glasgow Sentinel,’ where the attacks on Stuart continued. The most serious part of the affair was now to follow, for, learning that Sir Alexander Boswell, the son of Dr Johnson’s biographer, was the author of these personalities, Stuart challenged him, when, as is well known. Boswell fell, mortally wounded, at the first shot. Such were some of the incidents in the political life of that time, when party feeling ran high, and tempers were hot. Duncan Stevenson had been retired for a number of years when he died on August 29, 1867, in his 92d year, - his death being caused by a fall in the street, from the timidity of age, in crossing a thoroughfare. I cannot cease to revere his memory. He lived in stirring times, and had stores of information about such of his contemporaries as Lord Cockburn, Jeffrey, Sir Walter Scott, and Lockhart, as well as of Nelson, Wellington, Pitt, Canning, and others. In his earlier years he was owner and printer of the ‘Edinburgh Chronicle’ and ‘Edinburgh Correspondent,’ the very names of which are now forgotten, but which filled a very important place in the time of the Peninsular War, and when news were eagerly sought of Wellington’s movements. I have been told that often, on the eve of going to press, he would ride out on horseback to intercept the London mail, which entered the city at that time by Leith, and return in haste by a shorter route, in order to give the latest intelligence from the seat of war in his newspaper. So early as 1807 he had become a burgess of Edinburgh, and thus shared in the active life of the city for more than half a century. I trust I may be pardoned for endeavouring to raise this humble cairn to his memory.


In the end of 1885 I retired from active life and from my duties in Stevenson’s foundry. Mr Ralph Common had already succeeded me in the management of the Foundry in 1868. Previous to this my brother Charles and I held the joint management, but he fell ill, and though able for some time to keep the books right at home, eventually ceased to have any connection with the business, and died in February 1873. Then there occurred a scarcity of work, owing to several large firms having commenced stereotyping on their own account. There was some talk of closing the Foundry altogether, - Mr John Stevenson, who was by now at the head of his father’s business, being besides in poor health. I could not advise this step, however, as I had no doubt that trade would revive. The late Mr William Nelson proved a good friend at this crisis, as he was to many others in similar difficulties; and with his help, and the judicious management of Mr Common, things gradually began to improve.


          I was perhaps the last in Edinburgh to use the old stucco process in stereotyping. The papier maché process we had already got from patentees, but failed at first in working it, and it was put aside for years, till, after repeated attempts, we at last succeeded in carrying it on. This process and electrotyping together have quite revolutionized the old art of stereotyping. No less have been the improvements effected in printing, from the somewhat rude presses of my own early years to the splendid printing-machines now found in all our large offices. During my apprenticeship, and for several years afterwards, wooden presses, taking two pulls for each impression, and balls for inking the type, were universal. The roller, on its introduction, was hailed as a great improvement, the ink-balls requiring both care and considerable strength in their manipulation. Such a thing as a self-inking roller, however, was still in the future. In Shortrede’s, between 1830 and 1840, there were three or four Columbian presses in a row, with an ingenious mechanical arrangement at the back for keeping the rollers in motion. One man could keep the whole going, but he had frequently to rest, as the labour was very fatiguing.

      Another great improvement in printing-offices nowadays, as well as in our homes, and one which the present generation cannot properly appreciate, is lighting by gas; and in all likelihood, in the near future, even that may be superseded by electric lighting. Before gas was introduced, twopenny candles were given out in the printing-office of an afternoon, when needed. The candlestick was simply a small round piece of tin, loaded with lead to keep it from being capsized. This candlestick was set on a piece of flat wood having two feet in front, known as the “horse,” and placed over the “e” box, the feet resting on the two small boxes at each side. This is only one example of the difficulties printers had to contend with when the century was young. The contrast between such rude appliances and the inventions of the present day is almost like that between semi-barbarism and civilization. Yet some good work was done at that time, and even long before, by our Edinburgh printers, which will yet bear inspection. What may the printers of the present day not accomplish, with the numerous advantages they possess? That they are progressing is very evident; and I consider the existence of such an Association as this, where methods can be discussed and practical hints given, to be a remarkable example of such progress, as well as a stimulus to further effort. I can only hope and trust, in conclusion, as I do with all my heart, that the present generation of printers may prove themselves to be better men – morally, socially, and intellectually – as well as more skilful printers, than their predecessors were.




 Restyled by Glynn Roe

December 2002