Catalogue description Cowells, Printers, Ipswich.

This record is held by Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch

Details of HC439
Reference: HC439
Title: Cowells, Printers, Ipswich.

The archive falls into two distinct parts: documents deposited by the Company in April 1991 and April 1993 (Accessions 8,916 and 10,268), which remain in Company ownership; and documents purchased outright by the Suffolk Record Office from an antiquarian bookseller in November 1993 (Accession 10,445).


The first part (section A of the catalogue) comprises, mostly but not entirely, the main series of the Company's records, although the Share Registers and Ledgers and the Minutes of the Board of Directors have been retained by the Firm. The second part (section B of the catalogue), while it overlaps the first to some extent, contains chiefly, but not exclusively, items which were preserved in the Company's 'Museum', primarily to illustrate the history and activities of the Firm.


There is comparatively little material from the early years of the business, but it becomes more plentiful in the late nineteenth century. The great bulk of material, however, relates to the period which began with incorporation in 1900 and closed with the end of family involvement in 1970.






HC439/A/A1 Memoranda and Articles of Association


HC439/A/A2 Share registers and ledgers (RECORDS RETAINED BY THE COMPANY)


HC439/A/A3 Capitalisation and reorganisation


HC439/A/A4 Board of Directors' minutes (RECORDS RETAINED BY THE COMPANY)


HC439/A/A5 History and description of the Company


HC439/A/A5/1 Typescript notes compiled by Eric H Hanson


HC439/A/A5/2 Printed works




HC439/A/B1 Statements of account


HC439/A/B2 Private ledgers - No 1 Account


HC439/A/B3 Private ledgers - No 2 Account


HC439/A/B4 Private ledgers - No 3 Account


HC439/A/B5 Other private ledgers


HC439/A/B6 Balance sheet books


HC439/A/B7 No 1 Sub-private Account 'A'


HC439/A/B8 Impersonal ledgers - No 1 Account


HC439/A/B9 Impersonal ledgers - No 2 Account


HC439/A/B10 Other financial records




HC439/A/C1 Files


HC439/A/C2 Plans and drawings


HC439/A/C3 Evidences of title


HC439/A/C4 Photographs




HC439/A/D1 Wages books


HC439/A/D2 Apprenticeship




HC439/A/E1 Catalogues and price lists


HC439/A/E2 Calendars


HC439/A/E3 Other publicity


HC439/A/E4 Specimens of printing work produced


HC439/A/E5 Internal reference material










HC439/B/A1 Structure


HC439/B/A2 History








HC439/B/D1 Directors


HC439/B/D2 Individual employees


HC439/B/D3 Wages and conditions


HC439/B/D4 Works Council


HC439/B/D5 Staff welfare


HC439/B/D6 Staff - social


HC439/B/D6/1 General


HC439/B/D6/2 Cowells Athletic Club


HC439/B/D6/3 Sea Horse 25 Club




HC439/B/E1 Correspondence


HC439/B/E2 Registration of products


HC439/B/E3 Publicity and advertising


HC439/B/E4 Specimens of printing work produced



Date: 1802 - 1974
Related material:

The full typescript monograph on the history of the Company by Eric H Hanson, its former Managing Director is included in the archive under the reference number HC439/A/A5/1, and is essential reading for students of the Company's history.

Held by: Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

W S Cowell Ltd, Ipswich, Suffolk, manufacturing stationer and printer

Physical description: 38 Series
Immediate source of acquisition:

Documents deposited and purchased, 17 April 1991 - 1 November 1993


Acc Nos 8,916, 10,268 and 10,445

  • Cowell, Samuel Harrison, fl 1818, printer and stationer, of Ipswich, Suffolk
Administrative / biographical background:

W S Cowell Ltd was incorporated in 1900 to take over the businesses previously carried on by Walter Samuel Cowell in the Butter Market, Market Lane and Falcon Street, Ipswich. The principal business was that of a printer and stationer, but for most of the first hundred years it was mainly styled as a 'manufacturing stationer and printer'. There was also a separate wine and spirit business, to which was attached, rather incongruously, a 'rag' business.


The printing and stationery business dated from 1818, when A K Cowell established his son, Samuel Harrison Cowell (Walter's father) as a printer and stationer at No 10 Butter Market. By 1900 a wide range of printed matter was being supplied to the principal firms in Ipswich as well as to many in the Eastern Counties, and there was also a London sales office. In addition an extensive trade took place in stationery and related products, such as paper bags and wrapping paper. The stationery trade included the manufacture of account books in all shapes, sizes and bindings, and containing specially ruled sheets, in many cases with specially printed headings, all made up to meet the needs of individual customers; a wholesale stationery trade selling to retailers throughout the Eastern Counties; and a retail shop in the Butter Market.


Between 1826 and 1830 the business acquired additional premises in Market Lane, together with the two concerns carried on in them - a tea, coffee and spice merchant and a wine and spirit merchant. The tea business seems to have operated up to the time of the rebuilding of the Butter Market premises in 1893. In 1895, the acquisition of the old Falcon Brewery premises (with their considerable cellar and bottling areas) provided the opportunity to expand the wine and spirit side of the business. The start of the 'rag' business can be traced back to 1885, when it was an ancillary to the printing operation. At that time a large tonnage of paper having a significant cotton rag content would have been used in the manufacture of account books.


Although the period 1900-1945 included the two World Wars and the great slump of the 1930s, considerable development of the Company was achieved. The redevelopment of the works premises in 1900 offered considerable scope for growth on the printing side. The introduction, soon after its invention about the turn of the century, of the 'Monotype' system of composing and type-casting provided a base for an enormous increase in output which was matched with additional machinery and bindery capacity.


Much of the work produced by letterpress was high quality catalogues, many with illustrations in full colour. On the litho side, labels, in a wide range of designs and shapes, were a speciality.


The trade of the wholesale stationery section included paper bags and wrapping papers for a wide range of businesses, especially grocers and butchers, as well as stationery for resale to smaller stationers. The trade extended throughout Suffolk, North Essex and beyond. The turnover was steady but not spectacular. A reorganisation in 1936, when the rag warehouse was taken over and a new paper bag factory built to connect with it, resulted in greater efficiency rather than an expansion of trade. At this point the section was renamed the Merchanting Department.


Although by 1939 conditions of service at all levels were much improved compared with those of the nineteenth century, they still left much to be desired. A sick and accident club, sponsored by the Company, helped to alleviate distress when, as was often the case, pay ceased through inability to work. In 1938 the first steps were taken to provide for pensions when a Provident scheme was started.


On the outbreak of war in 1939 there was an immediate reduction in staff when all reservists and territorials were mobilised, followed by a steady erosion as the call-up for the services and other essential war work continued. Paper, like food, clothing and practically everything else was strictly rationed and could only be used for essential purposes, and as it contained a high proportion of recycled material it was of very poor quality. Publications of all kinds were reduced in size and scope and many ceased altogether. Books had to conform to authorised economy standards.


At this point the Company became involved in the production of Tombola (later known as Bingo) tickets, which was to become a large and profitable activity. Reports reaching the Admiralty had stated that it had been found that the playing of Tombola by naval ratings of the Mediterranean Fleet kept them relaxed during periods of boredom, yet alert should a period of intense activity arise. But there was an acute shortage of tickets, which the facilities in Malta could not meet. Bernards of Harwich, the naval outfitters, for whom Cowells had previously undertaken much work in printing catalogues and the like, acquired the copyright of the numeric combinations through their branch in Malta. They then placed the printing of the tickets with Cowells, who were able to obtain sufficient paper for the purpose on the sponsorship of the Admiralty. This essential work continued throughout the war, though the size of the tickets had to be drastically reduced to eke out available supplies in order to produce sufficient tickets to meet an ever-growing demand throughout the navy.


In spite of very difficult conditions and price controls, the existence of a seller's market meant that it was relatively easy to operate profitably. At the end of the war the Company was essentially still in good shape, and ready to take advantage of the opportunities which would arrive after the cessation of hostilities.


By the beginning of 1945 it was already apparent that the revival and enlargement of the export trade of the country would be a great national priority and that the wide dissemination of printed matter would be a vital precursor of this. Direct exports of educational and other books in English would help to provide an excellent base for a favourable reception of British goods and services; and printed matter in many forms, such as catalogues and other promotional literature in English and foreign languages would be essential aids for exporters in securing business. Cowells set out to secure a large share of this important work, the emphasis to be on first class design and the highest quality. This would involve greatly increased production facilities. As the main part of the existing factory was nearly fifty years old and quite unsuitable for modern presses, the minimum need was for the first part of a new factory to be built at the earliest possible moment.


In the spring of 1945, as a first step in the implementation of these plans, F S Snow and Partners, a London firm of structural engineers, were commissioned to prepare preliminary plans for the new building. Also a booklet entitled Your Post-War Job, outlining the Company's post-war plans for the printing department, was prepared and sent to all pre-war employees, wherever they were serving throughout the world. As well as previous employees being welcomed back, others were invited to apply for vacancies which were expected to arise. By this means an efficient workforce was got together on which the plans for future expansion could be based.


By the end of 1948, the litho and letterpress machines had all been re-located in the new building which, in 1950, was completed by the addition of third and fourth floors. The litho origination department and the composing room were removed to the third and fourth floors respectively, thus enabling the old works on the east side of Market Lane to be completely rearranged to provide for a greatly expanded finishing department.


During the 1950s and 1960s a great volume and variety of work was produced, much of it in full colour. After the war the first priority was to meet educational and exporters' needs, but later a wider range of illustrated books and commercial works for industry were produced. In the educational field one of the early productions was a series of English readers for primary education in Africa, published by Oxford University Press. Commercial work covered a very wide field and included, for instance, brochures for Rolls Royce and other motor manufacturers. In quite a different category was the production of Tombola (Bingo) tickets referred to above. Another quite different activity, introduced c. 1965, was security printing. Initially this consisted of building society pass books and passports, but after 1970 it was expanded into other fields.


Factory production had to be geared to match the orders flowing in on an ever-increasing scale. Methods had to be frequently updated and additional capacity provided. The Company, with its long experience in lithography, was in a particularly favourable position to take advantage of the new methods of production by that process, which was gradually replacing letterpress. But large-scale introduction of computers, which were to affect most aspects of printing production and eventually render the letterpress process virtually obsolete, did not occur until the later 1970s.


About 1960 the subject of management succession had to be considered when the nephews of Eric Hanson and Geoffrey Smith, the 'family' directors of Cowells, who had earlier joined as trainees, both decided that their future lay elsewhere than with the Company. It would not have been sound to leave the considerable capital investment of the family without any active family control over it, so the best way in which this investment could be realised had to be addressed.


The wine and spirit business had already been sold in 1959 to John Harvey and Sons Ltd of Bristol, on condition that they vacated the premises in Market Lane within three years.


It was now decided that the retail shop, which over the years had gradually been built up as a separate business, should be completely detached. In 1950, as supplies became available, the shop had been refurbished and had returned to pre-war operation as a stationery shop, with sections for travel kit, fancy goods and toys. A subsidiary company, called Cowells Store Ltd, was formed in 1954. It became a separate operating company in 1957, and a completely independent enterprise in 1963. In 1969 the premises were sold to Legal and General Assurance; lease-backs were arranged to Cowells Store Ltd and to Youngsters, a chain which took over the toy section of the business. About the end of 1970, Cowells Store Ltd was sold to Wallace King Ltd, a family business of home furnishers based in Norwich.


Meanwhile, in 1963, Grampian Holdings Ltd, an industrial holding company based in Glasgow, acquired the whole of the Ordinary Share capital of W S Cowell Ltd (the printing business). A feature of this arrangement was that the existing directors of W S Cowell Ltd would continue to manage the Company for five years.


Thus, when Geoffrey Smith and Eric Hanson retired from active management at the end of 1970, four distinct businesses had been disposed of as separate going concerns. The family connection then ceased.


The wine and spirit shops ultimately became branches of the Victoria Wine Co Ltd, and were closed down when the trade transferred to the company's other branches in the town. 'Youngsters' continued to trade for some years, but eventually closed when it could no longer trade profitably. The home furnishing business (Cowells Store Ltd) traded successfully from the Butter Market shop until 1988, when the lease expired. It was then transferred to a modern retail furnishing warehouse in Ranelagh Road, where it continued to trade under the name of its parent company, Wallace King Ltd, until 1992, when it went into receivership and closed down.


By the early 1980s the printing business had become unprofitable as foreign competition adversely affected the book and colour printing sections. The Company was then acquired from Grampian Holdings Ltd by a holding company, the shares of which received unlisted security status on the Stock Exchange in 1985.


In 1986 the remaining town centre premises were sold by W S Cowell Ltd for redevelopment and the remaining activities there were removed to newly acquired premises in Lovetofts Drive. In 1988, following a merger with San Serif Ltd, control of the holding company passed to a Mr John Pryke. A little later the book and colour printing activity was discontinued. When in 1992 the Bingo activity was disposed of, there was virtually nothing left which could be identified with the activities of the earlier family business.

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