Cox & Wyman was Reading’s oldest printer having been founded in 1777. The Company had a key site located between Cardiff Road and Addison Road in Reading and was the largest dedicated paperback producer in UK at the turn of the millennium, but by 2015 the site was closed and February 2020 saw the buildings begin to be demolished. Before the demolition firms moved in members of BIAG were part of a small party allowed in to photograph the site for posterity. Below is a summary of the Company’s over 200-year history and photographs taken from the visit.
The company later known as Cox & Wyman Ltd started as an enterprise on 19th February 1777 when the founder Edward Cox was made ‘Printer to the East India Company’ operating out of Queen Street in London. In 1798 Edward Cox took this son, John Lewis Cox, into partnership and formed Cox and Son.
Production for the East India Company grew so much that in 1803 they needed to take on a partner, Thomas Baylis, and the Company then became Cox, Son & Baylis; this Company lasted until 1811 when it became just Cox & Baylis. Under this name they continued to print for the East India Company including winning the contract for their books in Sanskrit as they were able to do this cheaper than could be done in Bengal.
Front of Cox & Wyman Works (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Edward Cox died in 1824 and left his business interests to his son, with the Company becoming John Lewis Cox and Son in 1832. By 1834 they had expanded their customer base and were printing the prestigious ‘Lloyd’s Register’. In 1853 with John Lewis’ two sons, John and Henry, in charge after his retirement the firm went in to partnership with Charles Wyman. Wyman had been with the company since 1840 and the partnership became Cox Bros. & Wyman.
By 1858, after complications with insurance and partners moving on, the Cox family ceased to be associated with the printing business and Wyman took sole ownership. During this period of change the firm became Cox & Wyman and then later Wyman & Sons as Charles took total control. At this time their premises boasted just one double demy Napier printing machine but Wyman increased the printing resources to support the relationship with the East India Company which continued until their printing needs were transfer to the Crown later in the 1850s.
With the retirement of Charles Wyman his eldest son Charles took control, while his other son Edward became the commercial and financial head. The younger Charles was heavily involved in the printing industry becoming Chairman of the London Master Printers Association and producing many industry journals and manuals. As well as publishing within their own industry the firm expanded to produce the journals of many other trades.
Through the end of this period the printing business was changing. The Factory and Workshop Act of 1878 brought in inspections and fines which impacted small print works. The ‘Printers’ Register’ gave the description of the average machine room as being in underground cellars and ‘often a place only fit for the storage of coal’. The creation of The London Country Council in 1888 introduced regulation on fire protection and Wyman’s found the need to comply costly with the consequence that they consolidated their premises into Fetter Lane. The time also saw the rise of unionism and in 1889 the newly formed Printers’ Labourers Union demanded wages of 20/- a week and 6d an hour overtime; surprisingly Wyman’s were not approached on wages until five years later and when this did happen Wyman’s chose to ignore the demand with little seeming consequence.
In 1889 Charles Wyman became seriously ill and Wyman & Sons was amalgamated with Macrae, Curtice & Co Ltd, who held the contract for Government publishing, into the Hansard Printing and Publishing Union Ltd. Henry Burt became the Managing Director of the new Company and Edward Wyman was put in charge of managing the Wyman assets. This new company became notorious through the actions of its owner Horatio Bottomley and his financial dealings. When the Company failed in 1891 Burt and Wyman were able to start a new limited liability company based on the original Wyman assets called Wyman & Sons Ltd. Henry Burt became the Managing Director and Edward Wyman retained interest as a shareholder and director, however, by the following year Edward was no longer associated with the company.
Henry Burt was now the controlling force in the company and his policy was to build up the technical resources and gain Government and railway contracts. 1893 saw him obtain the lucrative Great Western Railway contract and as a result he purchased 12 linotype composing machines, five Wharfdale printing presses, installed an electrotyping plant and started sending his keyboard operators to Linotype school. The company also won the contract for producing Parliamentary debates in 1897.
In 1901 a decision was made to acquire a new factory site in Caversham Road area of Reading. This was precipitated by the cost of workers in London and the need to update the London premises to meet fire regulations with only an HQ being retained in Fetter Lane. Building started in Reading in April 1901 and was finished by November when over 3,000 tons of machinery were moved in. Much of the machinery was sent by rail, but barges on the Thames and the Kennet & Avon Canal were also used to transport the standing forms, lithographic stones and type cases. The watery journey took three days. Although rotary press printing from aluminium lithographic plates was in use by this date, lithographic stones were still preferred for short runs due to the better results they gave when artist drew directly on to them. Wyman’s only phased them out when metal plate printing quality improved.
Much of the London work was transferred to Reading; however the town also provided new work through Huntley & Palmers, local government and public services contracts. The Reading site employed a high proportion of women, not only in the traditional areas of finishing, but also on lithographic machine operation and in the composing room.
By 1907 Wyman & Sons Ltd held contracts for more than a thousand railway stations, principally those associated with the Great Western Railway. These contracts would include railway timetables, enamel station and direction plates, pictorial adverts and general advertising. They also held bookstall contracts for the Great Western, the London & North Western, North London and Bakerloo railways, many of which they had won from W H Smith’s.
In addition to the railway work, much of the Reading site was laid out for magazine and periodical printing using rotary machinery specially built for producing half-tone illustration at high speed. The site also had the largest installation of monotype composing machines in England which were used for book printing. Book binding was also carried out on site.
Cox & Wyman - Facade dressed with yellow bricks, terracotta pilasters & banding and terracotta finials (photo: Graham Smith)
The Reading site first appears on the 1913 OS map and this first building would have comprised the four southern-most pitched single-storey workshop bays that were visible from Addison Road. The design of the façade was of a high architectural quality with yellow brick dressed with terracotta pilasters and tiled banding and each bay then topped with an ornamental terracotta finial. It is thought that the materials were provided by S. & E. Collier Ltd, a local brick and tiling manufacturer. The interior comprises a large steel trussed structure with roofing partly glazed to increase the internal lighting, shown in 1908 and in 2020.
Cox & Wyman - Interior c.1908
Cox & Wyman - interior 2020 (photo: Bob Haskins)
To the east of main workshop building towards Cardiff Road a short, pitched, brick structure was built to house the reams of paper needed for the printing. Along the north aspect of Addison Road was a small two-storey red brick building which was for stabling.
Cox & Wyman - Original Storage Building (with later changes) (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Cox & Wyman - Former Stable Bock (photo: Bob Haskins)
The company survived WWI and its impact on staffing levels and by 1919 they could report a profit of £40,253. They carried on in similar style until in 1930 the Great Western Railway decided it would take its advertising and printing in-house which made a big dent in to Wyman’s profits. To fill the void the Company sought to acquire retail news agencies around London and in the run up to WWII Wyman & Sons became more recognised as a newsagent and stationers than as a printer. Wyman came through the war relatively unscathed excepting for the death of Henry Burt in 1940.
The 1930s saw the Reading site expanded towards Meadow Road with the addition of two new bays. They were probably not added at the same time as the fifth bay was consistent in style to the earlier bays, but the sixth bay while sympathetic in design has red brick banding on top of the yellow brickwork rather than the ornate terracotta pilaster of the other bays. The ornate pilaster on one of the original bays and the six bay are shown below.
Cox & Wyman - Original Terracotta Pilaster on Facade (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Cox & Wyman - Facade of Sixth Bay with Brick Facing (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Coming out of the war the company’s policy became the acquisition of small retail newsagents, stationers and booksellers along the Great Western Railway lines notably Devon and Dorset. While the printing continued, on the financial side a large percentage of shares were being taken up by Clarence Hatry and his associates. Hatry had recently served time in prison for company fraud and had come out with an aim to grow a publishing empire. However, he had not noticed that the Cox & Wyman contract with the railways prohibited the company from having a direct interest in publishing, and when made aware he sold his shares. To save the Company Cox & Wyman had to approach the Eagle Star insurance group who insisted that they were given representation on the board.
In 1959 John Menzies & Co Ltd, who had a virtual monopoly of newspaper distribution in Scotland, made an offer for Wyman & Sons to gain a foothold in England. As part of the deal they offered Eric Burt, the son of Henry, and the Eagle Star directors the option to buy out the printing assets of the company. What Burt couldn’t retain with the printing assets was the name Wyman & Sons, but he found that they had retained the ownership of the name Cox & Wyman Ltd so this is the name he chose after a hundred year lapse.
The Company proceeded to transform into book printers by purchasing specialist paperback machinery for the Reading site. The company made reasonable profits and in 1969 attracted the Thomas Tilling Group who took them over as a conglomerate with Heinemann and Bookprint Ltd.
By 1971 there were 37 million paperback books per year being produced for the seven leading British publishers, which comprised an average weekly production of 30 titles and a daily delivery of books to publishers of around 30 tons. To achieve these high production rates the process became highly mechanised. On receipt of the manuscript they would calculate the number of printed pages it would require and once costs were agreed with the publisher the text was set by keyboard operators who produce punched tape from special perforated keyboards. The tape would contain codes for the letters, spaces and punctuation and would then be processed by a computer into a new tape for the typecasting machines. This computer processing would add the information needed by the caster to ensure that the lines on a page were justified and that hyphenated words were correctly handled. Where the book layout was especially complicated then the casting was still done manually. Once the type was set it was manually checked before a Bakelite mould was made and from this a flexible plastic printing plate produced. The flexible plate allowed the type to be wrapped around the printing cylinders of the rotary press. The four web-fed rotary letterpress machines they purchased could print and fold 64 pages at once and would run at about 16,000 copies per hour. Later the presses were upgraded to produce 25,000 copies per hour. Once printed, the folded sections were transferred to the bindery where there were two fully automatic binding lines. Sections were placed in separate hoppers in the gathering machine to make the full book. The binder then sawed off the fold at the spine and added adhesive and the already printed covers. Finally the books, which were bound in pairs, were separated by a band saw and trimmed.
Cox & Wyman - Reading Plant c. 1970 (photo: Cox & Wyman)
Cox & Wyman - Entrance on Cardiff Road (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
The 1971 OS map of the area shows the Reading site now filling the space between Addison Road and Milford Road, with the main entrance moved from the east side to the south side on Cardiff Road. The new entrance was a two-storey brick structure with stone capped parapet and flat roof.
August 1999 saw Cox & Wyman Ltd sold to the French printing group Chevrillion Philippe Industries (CPI) having previously belonged to Rexam plc. Even with Cox & Wyman being the largest dedicated paperback producer in UK with sales of £12 million per year the Graphical Paper and Media Union (GPMU) expressed concern for the continued employment of its 170 represented workers at the Reading plant.
Six years later in 2015 the Union’s concerns were realised when, despite a large earlier investment in equipment of over £500,000 the contract with its main paperback client, Penguin Random House, was lost bringing the company insurmountable financial problems leading it to be voluntarily dissolved on 25th August 2015.
Until their final days Cox & Wyman in Reading continued to focus on paperback production and were producing around 50 million books per year. It had most of the principle UK publishers as customers and was one of three major mass production book printers in the country. As a printer they covered a wide range of topics, but may be best remembered for printing every copy of E. L. James’ Fifty Shade of Grey and after the 1960 trial of the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover quickly producing an extra 300,000 copies to meet demand.
Having sat dormant for a few years Reading Borough Council gave permission in 2019 for the site to be converted into 96 flats and houses. The site had never been recognised as a heritage asset, either nationally or locally, and the Heritage statement published in 2017 stated that:
“the historic development and current condition of the former Cox & Wyman publishing works has identified that some elements of the site hold low heritage significance, while there is considerable evidence of historical alteration, expansion, and later stripping out of historic machinery and other evidential features”
This meant that there was no heritage-based reason given to preserve the site, although we understand that some of the original finials are to be included in the new developments design.
Hence the bulldozers arrived in February 2020 and the site is starting on a new history.
Cox & Wyman - Interior (photo: Bob Haskins)
Cox & Wyman - Interior (photo: Bob Haskins)
Cox & Wyman - Interior (photo: Bob Haskins)
Cox & Wyman - Interior (photo: Bob Haskins)
Cox & Wyman - Exterior Milford Road (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Cox & Wyman - Exterior Cardiff Road (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)
Sources and Credits:
- Cox & Wyman Ltd: A Company History by James Moran. Publ. Cox & Wyman 1977
- Made and printed in Great Britain by … an introduction to the printing and book binding services available from Cox & Wyman Ltd. Publ. Cox & Wyman 1977
- Paperback production methods at Reading – The Reading Evening Post (2nd August 1972)
- Union fears over sale of book firm – The Reading Evening Post (11th August 1999)
- Phenomenon – The Reading Chronicle (12th February 2015)
- Historic printing factory to close – The Reading Chronicle (29th January 2015)
- Heritage Statement – Former Cox & Wyman Works, Cardiff Road, Reading, RG1 8EX by Iceni Projects Limited on behalf of Thames Properties Ltd (October 2017)
- Cox & Wyman demolition expected to start in November – Bell Tower Community Association
- Reading Borough Council Planning Application 171814 Cox & Wyman Ltd Cardiff Road Reading
- Companies House: CPI Cox & Wyman