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They were everywhere and then they were gone: the answer to a prayer at small town and regional newspapers.

Introduced in 1903 - by which time Ottmar Merganthaler's Linotype was moving on from 'novelty' status - the flatbed rotary Cossar newspaper press was a 'new technology' solution for publishers with circulations too large for sheetfed printing and too small for rotary letterpress.

From rolls of newsprint, it printed sections or complete newspapers from formes of hot-metal type, without the need for the semicircular stereo plates required by 'high speed' rotaries. Not only was casting equipment and the obligatory pot containing four or five tonnes of molten lead done away with; no need either of 'specialist' staff who frequently belonged to a different union.

Despite having been built in Yorkshire, England, to the design of a Scotsman, the Cossar had a special place in the hearts of New Zealand newspaper publishers, one of whom bought the first press in 1903. A radical new model introduced in 1915 was also popular and two of the last four known to exist in the world are still in working order in the country's North Island.

The story goes that after each run of the Govan Press, Tom Cossar would strip parts of the two-feeder Dawson press used to print his parents' paper and experiment with systems to handle a continuous web.

His Scots father John had been a printer and publisher of the Govan paper, and had invented a folding and glueing machine, but died when he was only 49. His widow, born Jane Brown, continued and developed the business, adding two new titles and taking a leading role until her death aged 83 in 1926. She and her husband are commemorated in busts over the building they had occupied in Govan.

One of two sons, Tom had been apprenticed to a local shipyard and pursued his interest in engineering when he returned to the family business. He took out a patent on the new reel-fed press in 1899, and while brother Andrew stayed with and was later to run the business, Tom accepted an invitation to join Wharfedale maker Payne & Son in Otley, Yorkshire and supervise the manufacture of the press which was to take his name.

The first complete press - capable of printing and folding an eight-page newspaper - was shipped to New Zealand in 1903. It took over the printing of the Wanganui Chronicle the following year on February 29, an editorial bursting with pride in its technology, "selected by our J.A. Young from the best and latest machines from builders in the Old Country".

Indeed, when Young visited the Otley works, he found "the firm's experts were experimenting with a rough, but finished, model", and stayed in town to see it in production tests: "This, we need scarcely say, proved thoroughly satisfactory," the paper reported.

Within a couple of years, Cossar had developed a two-cylinder version capable of 16-pages, and 50 or more of these were built, many going for export. A local installation in July 1907 at the Strathearn Herald in Crieff, Scotland, was still in use until 1991 and is now in the national museum collection. This video of it was shot shortly before it was dismantled and uploaded to YouTube by David Hughes:

A month after the Crieff press was commissioned, another early adopter was the Poverty Bay Herald - launched as a biweekly in 1874 and continuing today as New Zealand's proudly privately-owned Gisborne Herald.

The first of two Cossars used between 1906 and 1943 was the most modern press in Australasia and a source of "great excitement". The latest in a succession of equipment which included hand Albion, Lily and gas-driven Wharfedale presses, it could print eight pages in one operation, and was described by English installation engineer W.H. Hargreaves as "the largest, latest and best Cossar flat-bed machine turned out".

Powered by a new 17 horsepower Crossley gas engine - and with more than 2000 parts, "some very heavy castings" - it would produce 3000 copies an hour.

Cossar was described as a perfectionist, and despite what author Bernard Seward called "the unique pulsating roar and clatter" of the press, one user reported the ability to balance a penny coin on its edge on the frame of a press running full speed.

The first presses were designed so that the paper path was constant, with the flatbed formes of type oscillated up and down, printing in both directions in the same way as a two-feeder Wharfedale. Single-cylinder machines printed on only one side of the web, which was then fed back in to perfect it, and it appears most of the early two-cylinder Cossars - which printed four, six or eight page newspapers - went to Australia and New Zealand.

Change was afoot, however, and after a major redesign a first Type II press was installed in eastern England in 1915. It had stationary type formes, with the ink rollers and impression cylinders moving across them, and used rollers at the reel end to ensure constant web speed, with 'looping rollers' at each deck compensating for the movement of the impression rollers over the type formes.

A variety of models were available, some for larger page formats and with cylinders arranged to provide for extra webs and provision for reels to be preprinted and included on edition.

The intervention of World War I meant no more were built until 1918, by which time the maker company had evolved to become Dawson, Payne & Elliott.

The Cossar was not the only press to combine flatbed and reel-fed production - another was the American Duplex, which appeared in 1889 - but was by reputation the most user-friendly and delivered the best quality, especially on halftones.

Initially, the US competition was domestic: The Duplex invented by Paul Cox in 1889 and built in Battle Creek, Michigan, was soon confronted by the Multipress, invented by Walter Scott of Plainfield, New Jersey, the latter passing into what was to become the UK's Linotype & Machinery.

Cox's press was also built from 1896 by Otley rival Dawsons as the Cox-Duplex, and later by Buhler, the Swiss maker of pasta and food processing equipment from 1907 to the early 1960s. Examples of the 'Swiss Duplex' also found their way to Australia and New Zealand. One found its way to the Taihape Times, where Steve Carle of the Pahiatua Bush Telegraph recalls seeing it running.

Another competitor was Coulthard's Preston-built Lancashire of 1898.

Eventually mergers were the Cossar's downfall: George Mann & Co of Leeds started building the Buhler machine, and when both Manns and Dawson, Payne & Elliott became part of the Vickers-owned RW Crabtree, the death knell was sounded. While the owners decided in 1968 that the Duplex had "better market potential", the reality of course, was that by then neither had a future.

'Cold' typesetting promised a different future, populated by small web-offset presses such as the Goss Community, Harris V15 and Color King, with the transition enabled by paper paste-up.

And while letterpress rotaries gained a stay of execution with saddles and photopolymer plates, the Cossar was quite simply, out the door.

The number of people with firsthand experience of the press is fast diminishing and so far as we can establish, only two presses remain in the world: In Scotland, the Crieff press - currently in working order in store in Govan - and a twinned press given by APN New Zealand to Wellington's Printing Museum but still in the care of the Bush Telegraph.

You can see video of the Bush Telegraph press running on the SWUG New Zealand website, via this link.

Recollections... and Mt Gambier's oilcan incident

Two surviving presses at the Bush Telegraph at Pahiatua, New Zealand, are a 1926 Cossar from the Grey River Argus and a 1970 press first installed at the Kapi-Mana News and Thames Star, given to the Wellington Printing Museum (formed as the Bedplate Press in 1984) by APN New Zealand in 2008.

Museum secretary Bill Nairn tells us they are still hoping to put the Pahiatua presses on show, despite "long endeavours" to secure premises for them. "Currently we are negotiating with Wellington City Council and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and these have been positive," he says.

Nairn says Cossar presses were very popular in New Zealand, with the very first being installed in 1903. "More than 20 provincial newspapers used these presses over the next 80 or so years, the last one in use in 1993 at the Northland Age in Kaitaia."

Other New Zealand users included Franklin Press (Pukekohe), Hawera Star, Bay of Plenty Times (Tauranga), Wairoa Star, Martinborough Star, Wairapa Times-Age (Masterton), Viscount Press (Palmerston North), Hutt News (Lower Hutt), Sentinel Newspapers (Wellington), Marlborough Express (Blenheim), Evening Star (Greymouth), Timaru Herald and the Oamaru Mail.

In Pahiatua, in the south of New Zealand's North Island, Steve Carle, former proprietor of the Bush Telegraph still turns over the presses - used until the late 1980s - for visitors. One installed around 1923 at the Grey River Argus - one of the last Labor-owned newspapers in the country - was later moved to Viscount Press in Palmerston North, where it printed a variety of newspapers including the Telegraph under contract. When Viscount switched to offset, Carle says he decided it was time for the family-owned newspaper to print its own title again... and acquired the press.

A rewind unit and a second Cossar - a lightly-used late 1960s model, possibly the second-last made - came from the Kapi-Mana Argus and were added to the first, along with a heavy-duty P-type folder. It is this press which the Printing Museum seems likely to preserve. The future of the older press is not certain.

The Telegraph team linked the two presses using a duplex chain - timed half a revolution apart to moderate the load on the drive - printing larger papers or spot colour, the latter with a turner bar and modifications to the gantry. In tandem, the presses would print a 32-page tabloid.

Extra pages were pre-preprinted with the webs rewound and inset using a novel device which registered a triangular punch hole using air pressure and eight pins (four to advance or accelerate the drive and four to retard it).

Another Printing Museum committee member, Terry Foster recalls seeing a Cossar in production at the Hawera Star "some time up to the late 1980s - later scrapped except for its motor - while his brother Ken, a retired printer, recalls machines in the Morrinsville/Matamata area, around the same time. "They were a truly magnificent machine to see in operation," he says.

At the 140-year-old Gisborne Herald (see main story), managing director Michael Muir told us of the two Cossars, used between 1906 and 1943. The second - this time with a 15 hp electric motor - was installed in March 1924, and printed up to 4500 copies an hour. This had 'double-decked' stationary type formes, and a rewinding apparatus enabling it to have three reels of newsprint running through the press simultaneously.

Graeme How at Wairoa Star recalls helping run the 18-ton Cossar B16 acquired from Auckland and later sold to the Opotiki News: "I was 16 years old when I first started operating the press, and as a small country newspaper, we did everything. I had to operate the press, work as a compositor and an Intertype operator, and I'm still here 45 years later operating the latest Adobe prepress systems."

How - also a contributor to the www.metaltype.co.uk website - says the most-hated job on the Cossar was walking round with an oil can trying to find a squeak. "There must have been at least 200 oil holes and I used to climb all over that press while it was printing," he says. "What would the OH&S people say today if they saw that?

"Loading the newsprint reels and threading the web through to the folder was a job everyone avoided, so being the youngest, I got the job.

"The formes of metal type containing two tabloid pages were carried to the press by hand from the stone (no trolley) and I was not very popular when I dropped one once, spilling type all over the floor. It was quicker to reset those two pages than try to sort out the mess, but needless to say the paper was late that day."

Graeme How recalls stopping the press when his first son was born to go to the hospital, again making the paper late. Expecting to get fired when he returned and was called into his office, "the manager instead produced a bottle of whisky, poured two glasses and offered me his congratulations".

"I enjoyed operating the press to get a nice clean paper, and working on the process from Intertype to printing the paper was interesting and challenging... I try to explain it to my grandchildren, but they show no interest."

Michael de Hamel of the Akaroa Mail and Kaiapoi Advocate recalls "watching with fascination" the Cossar that the Clutha Leader was still using in Balclutha, South Otago, in the 1970s. "Cheerful noises," he says.

Less is known about installations in Australia - or elsewhere in the world, for that matter - but Goss regional sales vice president Peter Kirwan told us of six newspapers where Cossar were replaced by Goss Community web-offset presses during the 1970s and early 1980s. These are the Warnambool Standard (Victoria), the Border Watch in Mount Gambier, the Port Lincoln Times, Renmark Murray Pioneer (all in South Australia), the Geraldton Guardian (WA) and Barrier Daily Truth in Broken Hill, NSW.

Ian Pech, a former general manager and now chief sub-editor of the now Fairfax-owned Warrnambool Standard on Victoria's western coast, sent me a cutting from the paper detailing its history with two Cossar presses - the first "revolutionising production" from 1912-1938 and the second until 1965 (then sold to the Herald & Weekly Times-owned South Pacific Post in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea). The Standard switched to a six-unit letterpress rotary.

Graham Greenwood helped run a Cossar at the then-triweekly Border Watch as an apprentice, later working as a reporter and becoming the paper's editor. Installation of the "latest model" B16 press in 1959 - to replace a Duplex installed in the early 1900s - was only just complete when an oilcan was pulled into it and the UK-based engineer had to come out again for repairs. Greenwood says foreman Col Gladigau was oiling parts of the machine while it was in operation when the flexible tip of an oilcan was caught and dragged into the gears of one of the impression cylinders which then came to a grinding halt.

"Staff coming into the pressroom the following morning were greeted with the sight of large cylinders hanging by rope from the rafters, with pieces of broken machinery lying about the pressroom," he says. For the next six weeks, the letterpress formes were driven the 140 km to the Hamilton Spectator for printing.

Gladigau survived the incident, serving out his time as foreman until 1975, but never lived down the day the brand new press was ruined; workers would quip for years, "it was the oilcan's fault".

Following a change of ownership, the Cossar was replaced by a Goss Community in 1978 and sold to a Bunbury publisher.

Among others with recollections of the Cossar, David Page - who runs advertising software MediaSpectrum's Asia-Pacific operation - recalls a Cossar at the Kentish Gazette in Canterbury, UK, where he began his newspaper career. "It had two main printing units plus a re-roll unit, enabling it to print 16 pages at a time with two four-page impression areas per unit one upper and one lower.

"Using the re-roll facility, it could produce a 32pp broadsheet with the additional pre-printed sections integrated into the section being printed at the folder."

The press was "very particular" about newsprint, working well on Bowaters, but suffering numerous web breaks if fed the Reed product.

"I can't remember the output speed, but it was slow: The Gazette's 25,000 print run used to take most of Thursday night and if it was late to press, the guys would still be there when I used to come in at 5.45 am," he says.

The two main printing units plus a re-roll unit were later sold and added to a press in Watchet in Devon.

• A revolution in its time, we reckon the Cossar is worth preserving: Both the Scottish Printing Archival Trust - which dismantled the Govan press and put it into store - and the Printing Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, need support to display their presses working.

You can see a video of the Crieff press - shot before production of the paper was moved to new owners Trinity Mirror - on YouTube, and there is footage of the Bush Telegraph B4 and Dean Forest Mercury's B8 model press in the UK - which ran until 1995 - on the SWUG New Zealand website, using the links here.

SPrAT is still looking for contributions towards its £15,000 ($26,700) target for the removal, rebuilding and refurbishment (in Govan) and a planned move to the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Appeal links are on our website.

UK website www.metaltype.co.uk is also a huge resource for those interested in letterpress printing and has various accounts of Cossar installations including a picture of the Wairoa Star's (New Zealand) Cossar B16 capable of printing up to 16 tabloid pages in run, with a rewind section enabling another eight pages to be added. The press was retired in 1976 when the Wairoa Star changed to offset.

See also James Moran's book, Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century, accessible at Google Books.

• Our thanks to all who contributed to this; more stories would be welcome.

Britain cherishes 'oldest' press

The Scottish press was installed at David Phillips Printers in Crieff in July 1907 - under the supervision of Tom Cossar - and printed the Strathearn Herald weekly from then until March 1991, following the sale of the newspaper to Trinity Mirror. Fearing the press would be scrapped, the third-generation David Phillips got the Scottish Printing Archival Trust involved and in March 2012 it was removed and stored in Govan, where it is back in working order but as part of Scottish National Museum collection. Fundraising by SPrAT to cover the costs of removal, rebuilding and transport continues, and secretary Helen Williams says it is hoped to display and demonstrate the press.

"There seems to be fairly general agreement that there are very few of any kind left working, and that most have been scrapped," she says. "I came across a reference to some still working in south Asia and east Africa in the 1990s, but they may also have gone by now. We believe ours is the last working model of the original design and have been calling it the 'oldest working newspaper press in Britain'."

As for newer presses, we'd like to hear more: Helen Williams writes of a working Cossar B32 in Somerset which printed the Dean Forest Mercury until 1995, and this features in one of two videos on the SWUG New Zealand website. But engineer Colin Giles says he has no idea what happened to the Dean Forest Mercury press, and that the two Cossars in Williton in Somerset came from Canterbury in Kent, from which he moved them around 1975, "and nearly had a nasty accident and ended up in hospital". Which, he says, is another story.

UK National Printing Heritage Trust correspondent Paul Nash confirmed the existence of "the Williton Cossar", which he says is not currently in working condition. Cossar enthusiast Bernard Seward - "the man who has been instrumental in preserving the machine" - has not (yet) responded to an email enquiry from GXpress Magazine.

We'd love to hear... and from anyone who knows of other presses in the world.

SPrAT pictures with permission from National Museums Scotland/Scottish Printing Archival Trust

Wairoa Star pictures courtesy of Graeme How

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