William Langford, a chemist situated in Bath Street, established a small printing business in 1845. An outbuilding in Mansford’s Yard (next to the Wheat Sheaves public house) previously used as stables, housed the press. Initially set up for his own printing needs, such as for medicine labels and advertising leaflets for the latest pharmaceutical preparations; the press’s output was soon expanded. He had been joined in business a year earlier by his friend, William Butler and the firm named Langford and Butler. It was this enterprise that became the forerunner of the Butler and Tanner partnership.
It was on their presses that the first Frome Almanack was produced at the end of 1846. Just two years later Langford had retired from the printing side of the business and Butler was running it alone. In 1853, William Butler moved the printing press to a new stone building at the end of his garden at Castle House, where he continued to develop the printing business. He called the enterprise, the Selwood Printing Office.
Around 1857 he purchased a small steam engine to power the press and renamed the business ‘W.T. Butler’s Steam Printing Works’. In September 1863 Butler was joined in partnership by Joseph Tanner, their combined business described as ‘General Letter Press Printing and Stereotype Founding’.
Over the following years the partners, keen to expand the firm, bought up a good deal of property in the Trinity area of the town. Once demolished, these properties allowed for a vast site, upon which an enormous factory was built. Butler set up a London office to allow him to concentrate on the sales side of the business whilst Tanner ran the print works in Frome.
Joseph Tanner invested in new machinery to speed up production and to be better able to produce high quality of printing. Speedier production meant lower prices to both established local customers and for the new trade being brought in from the London publishers.
The partnership between Butler and Tanner was dissolved in 1868 but their association not terminated until 1879.
Joseph continued to expand the firm, purchasing new machinery and enlarging the factory. By 1895 the factory was an impressive building rising four storeys high. Two steam beam engines powered a total of 38 presses printing 13.5 million sheets each year. Several hundred employees worked a fifty hour week during this period.
In March of 1895 Joseph retired and he passed the business to his sons, Russell and Lanfear.
During his years in charge, Joseph had built up a fine business printing books for such publishers as Chatto & Windus Ltd, Ward Lock & Co. Ltd, George Bell, F. Warne & Co. Ltd, Sonnenschein & Co, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd , the Sunday School Union, the British Gospel Book Association, the Salvation Army and Dr Barnardo.
Joseph Tanner died in April 1896, aged sixty.
Russell and Lanfear’s biggest problem was a lack of space. Their existing site, situated so closely within the confines of the town could not be expanded any further and, in 1907 they bought land in the town’s Adderwell area.
In 1910, they purchased a huge reel-fed perfecting rotary press from the German company Koenig & Bauer. Known affectionately as the ‘Dreadnought’ because of its enormous size, the press had a capacity of 224 pages per revolution. This mighty machine was to provide many years of service, running ‘virtually day and night’ until 1972.
Lanfear Robson Tanner died in 1921 and the partnership made a limited company in 1923. Russell was appointed Chairman, whilst Humphrey Russell Tanner and cousin Donald Vaughan Tanner became joint Managing Directors. Soon, however, Humphrey became sole Managing Director when Donald, a keen aviator, was killed in an air crash in 1928. Russell Robson Tanner had died in 1927.
Humphrey headed the firm through the difficult years of the Second World War. He faced many challenges including a shortage of paper, loss of staff to H.M. Forces or other war work, lack of orders due to loss of confidence in the market from customers, the requisitioning of their premises and transportation problems. However, they pulled through and after the war built up the business once again.
When ill health forced Humphrey to retire the role of Managing Director was undertaken by Captain C.C. Flemming.
Investing in the latest technology and with a highly skilled and competent group of workers, Butler and Tanner became established as one of Britain’s finest book printers. Many publishers chose the firm for the printing of high quality coloured books.
The last member of the Tanner family to run the firm was Joseph Russell Tanner who became managing director in 1964. He was universally well liked and took a great personal interest in his employees. Known affectionately as Mr Joe he continued the investment into both machinery and expansion of the premises until his retirement.
The early 1980s were an extremely difficult period for the British printing trade. With the country suffering from economic recession, around forty per cent of British printers went out of business during the period. Butler and Tanner managed to survive and also the recession of the early 1990s.
Gaining many print awards and receiving some high profile printing contracts during the mid-1990s, Butler and Tanner enjoyed a successful period for a few years, even acquiring other print-related companies.
Finally, however, facing financial difficulties the company went into administration in 2007 with the loss of many jobs and was subsequently bought by Media and Print Investments but again went into administration in 2008.
A benefactor, Felix Dennis of Dennis Publishing, bought the firm at the eleventh hour saving as many jobs as possible. His investment allowed the firm to continue until 2014 when, unfortunately, it closed for the final time. However Dennis Maps continues to print Ordnance Survey Maps employing about 20 former Butler and Tanner employees.
A book documenting the history of the firm, The Butler and Tanner Story written by Lorraine Johnson has been published by the Frome Society for Local Study price £12. Lorraine has worked in the publishing industry for some twenty years, including five years as a managing editor. The book is available from Frome Heritage Museum, Hunting Raven Books in Cheap Street or direct from the Frome Society for Local Study