July 12

On this day in 1403, “the reputable men of the Craft of Writers of Text Letters those commonly called scriveners and other good folks citizens of London who were wont to bind and sell books” appeared before the Lord Mayor requesting him to form them into a guild. Permission to organize was granted the following year by the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of the City of London. The stationers thereupon elected a master and two wardens, and found a building in Milk Street from which to run their affairs.

The title of stacionarius was applied during the Middle Ages to university librarians, but by the 14th century stationers were illuminators and “courthand” writers. The actual derivation of the name is lost in obscurity, but by the time the guild was formed stationers probably were the craftsmen who dealt with the work of the scriveners.

By 1542 the group had acquired sufficient prestige to request from the Crown a Charter and from the Cityof London permission to become an official guild or a Livery Company. In 1557 this petition received the royal favor, Queen Mary giving the group the authority to organize the printing and book trades in England under the name of the Company of Stationers. The members were to consist of the booksellers, printers, and bookbinders. By 1560 the Stationers became a Livery Company also. Thus began its centuries’ long domination of the printer’s craft in England, the Charter having forbade any person from practising “the art and mystery of printing” unless he was either a member of the Company or had permission to do so under Royal Letters Patent.

Until almost the close of the 18th century, the Worshipful Company exercised almost complete control over printers of the country. The Charter made it obligatory to register with the Company every book or piece of printing before it would be allowed to leave the press, in effect making the Company rather than its author the copyright holder of a work. The members of the Company were instrumental in the formation of the Decree of the Star Chamber in 1586 which controlled the number of presses, master printers, and apprentices in London, Oxford, and Cambridge (the only allowable locations for printing).

Offenders against these rules suffered the wrecking of their printing presses, fines, and imprisonment, or all three penalties. Although the Court of Star Chamber was discontinued in 1641, the Company continued the old rules and was responsible for a new decree passed in 1643. Within the Company also, complete control was exercised. Members were fined for such minor offences as working on Sunday, using bad language, or binding primers in parchment. It also set itself up as censor of what it thought to be lewd printing. During the 17th century the Company reached its most prosperous period. In 1603 James I granted in perpetuity the right to publish almanacs and prognostications, which presented the Company with the means of obtaining rich returns. At the present time, while this right still exists, the decline of interest in such books has resulted in the publication of but a pocket diary each year by the company.

Leave a Reply