History made in England’s Otley, with Wharfedales and Cossars

Mar 09, 2023 at 12:35 am by admin

Happen I’m in Otley, Yorkshire, where mid-nineteenth century furnaces fired up a revolution in print – and later newspaper – production.

Not as you’d know, mind.

Half a dozen brown plaques around the UK town mark the locations where David Payne and William Dawson developed the stop-cylinder Wharfedale flatbed letterpress in response to a request from a local printer… if you can find them.

Some are in obscure and inaccessible positions, viewed only from the middle of a busy road.

The local Otley Museum – where I met volunteers Margaret Hornby and Jill Allman (pictured) – has a wealth of documentation, which you can view by arrangement, but none of the groundbreaking hardware, which broke the 1000 copies an hour barrier.

The plaques tell a story of partnerships and break-ups, technical evolution, and the parties’ naivety in not protecting their intellectual property. Dawson – a joiner who made wooden tools for printers – is credited with making the first Wharfedale in 1858, as it happens the year in which the newspaper I was introduced to as a child – when my father came as manager and later owner of the Sheerness Times-Guardian – was established (and later printed on a gas-powered Wharfedale)

The design was based on Stephen Soulby’s patented ‘Ulstonian’ press (with permission) which had been produced three years before. Payne’s improvements, and castings from Robert Elliott’s foundry helped, but it took until the arrival of the railway for the three-ton press to take off.

And so it did, though the Payne-Dawson partnership broke up – to be remade later as the familiar Dawson Payne & Elliott – and success followed, despite competition from numerous former workers and associates including Samuel Bremner. At one time seven sites were producing the Wharfedale and derivatives.

Crossfield’s foundry, now the bus station, has a place in this history, producing a machine called the Reliance, also has a plaque, though I was unable to find anyone there who knew where it was.

For newspaper publishers, of course, early advances in sheetfed production speed were eclipsed by the invention of the Cossar press, which Scotsman John Cossar was reputedly inspired to invent after staring long and hard at the Wharfedale.

Using reeled newsprint, from which a web was guided across and between cylinders and flatbed forms, before being brought together, folded and cut, it produced a multi-page newspaper without the complications of curved metal printing plates cast from molten lead.

For many small, regional – and I was told, colonial – newspapers, this was the breakthrough that made timely local production possible, and it was marketed (by the reformed Dawson, Payne and Elliott) well into the post-war years. Alman notes that Crabtree Vickers took over and eventually the last factory was closed in 1983.

Google ‘Cossar’ and you’ll find dozens of stories of newspapers which were transformed by the installation of a Cossar, but this particular breakthrough – which rates a brand listing mention only in the museum’s ‘Otley & the Wharfedale Printing Machine’, author Paul Wood perhaps not realising it was anything more.

Nor has time been kind to the much larger Cossar, only four of which are known to exist in the world (two in New Zealand, and one each in Scotland and Wiltshire, UK). Search ‘Cossar’ on GXpress however, and you’ll see that we have been busy promoting its historic importance!

Peter Coleman

Pictured: A two-colour Wharfedale inside the Ashfield works (Otley Museum); plaques above the Toyland fascia and at the Waitrose supermarket (to the left of our picture), both in Westgate, mark Dawson’s Ashfield, and Payne’s Atlas works; the twin-web Cossar press at Pahiatua, New Zealand


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