Exploring the history of Robert Smail's Printing Works


20 May 2016
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Robert Smail’s Printing Works, based in Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders is the oldest working commercial Victorian letterpress printers in the UK and this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works, based in Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders is the oldest working commercial Victorian letterpress printers in the UK and this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Founded in 1866 by Robert Smail, a shoemaker, the Printing Works remained in his family for three generations. Now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland’s team of expert printers, compositors and conservators, it is marking its anniversary year with a programme of visitor tours and events including special exhibitions and talks.

Marking 150 years

Located on the same site in Innerleithen since 1866 Robert Smail’s Printing Works operates both as a commercial printer and as a popular visitor attraction. It is home to a vast social history and print archive that offers a fascinating insight into the life of Innerleithen from a time when every small town in Britain would have had its own jobbing printer. To mark its 150th anniversary Robert Smail’s is inviting members of the public to visit for a guided tour and enjoy a special programme of exhibitions and events.

Back in time

A visit to Robert Smail’s will appeal to any social history enthusiast and begins by passing  through the gift shop and into Robert Smail’s original office. Virtually untouched since the family firm shut up shop in the 1980s the office today houses Smail’s considerable archive. Newspapers, wage books, dockets and ledgers are piled high on the shelves, just as they would have been in the heyday of the business.

 A selection from the property’s collection of 52 giant Guard Books is also on display. These specially bound volumes contain examples of almost every job the company did for over 80 years, complete with dates and number of copies printed.

The main printing works is located to the rear of the office, across a courtyard. In the Caseroom visitors can discover the art of type setting, a meticulous process, as well as the inking and proofing of the type. In the Machine Room, the resident printers (including the UK’s only letterpress printing apprentice, Chris Haig, pictured below) operate the Arab Platen press with a foot treadle, and the automated Wharfedale Reliance and Heidelberg Platen presses, both of which were bought by the Smails.

Searchable archive

For those who can’t visit in person, Smail’s also boasts a fascinating online archive that includes copies of shipping tickets printed and issued by Smail’s for Passenger Liners traveling across the North Atlantic. The records can accessed and searched via the National Trust for Scotland website and more information including a photography archive is due to be added to the site.

Future/past

Highlights of Smail’s 150th anniversary programme include a special free exhibition titled Future/Past is running at St Ronan’s Wells Visitor Centre (near the Printing Works) until October 31st.

The exhibition gives a unique insight into the history of Robert Smail’s Printing Works over the past 150 years, as told through printed archive materials, personal records, belongings and shop goods. It also features a photography element called Images of Old and New Innerleithen and works by Smail’s first ever Artist in Residence, Theresa Easton including specially created  Chapbooks  - small booklets - and Broadsides - typographical prints. 

In July another exhibition, Ink Differently, featuring letterpress posters created by Edinburgh Napier University students and printed on the attraction’s historic presses, will go on show within the St Ronan’s Wells Visitor Centre.

The anniversary celebrations also include a programme of talks, workshops and outreach events on a diverse range of topics from printing and paper making to artefact conservation.

The free Future/Past exhibition will be open at St Ronan’s Wells Visitor Centre, until 31 October, Monday – Friday, 10am – 1pm and then 2pm – 5pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 2pm – 5pm.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works is located on Innerleithen High Street and is open until 31 October 2016 four days a week (Friday to Monday). Full details of opening hours and admission prices can be found on the National Trust Scotland website.