Letchworth History: The story of Dent's printers

Dent's Printers, Letchworth

Dent's Printers, Letchworth - Credit: Garden City Collection

Josh Tidy from Letchworth Heritage Foundation explores the history of world-renowned printers and publishers, Dent’s. 

Joseph Malaby Dent was born in Darlington on August 30, 1849, the 10th of 12 children. His father worked as a painter and decorator, but was a musician in his spare time.

Joseph left school at 13 and worked as a messenger boy before apprenticing as a book printer and compositor. He came to London at 18 and set up his own bookbinding business at a Hoxton workshop, buying new and second-hand books, rebinding them in leather, and selling them back to their publishers.

In 1872, when Joseph was 23, he founded J.M. Dent and Company as a bookbinding firm, then as a publisher in 1888. His first book was an edition of Charles Lamb’s ‘Essays’ edited by Augustine Birrell, followed by an edition of the plays of Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Austin Dobson - both authors had lived at the Temple, and so Dent’s ‘Temple Library’ was born.

His first big success was with the ’Temple Shakespeare’ series, beginning with ‘The Tempest’ in 1894. Sales soon amounted to 250,000 a year, the greatest sale of Shakespeare’s plays since they had been written. Two years later he launched the ‘Temple Classics’ series, aimed at students.

In 1904, he began planning the Everyman’s Library, attractively bound classics aimed at the general public, and priced at a shilling each. To meet demand, he began looking to expand and, after meeting the secretary of the Letchworth Garden City Company, Thomas Adams, at a lecture, he moved the bookbinding portion of his business to Letchworth in 1906.

On August 6, Joseph’s wife cut the first sod on the land of what was to be the Temple Press, which was to hold up to 400 workers, in a field west of Dunhams Lane.

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At the ceremony, Joseph's clergyman son, George W. Dent, came from New Zealand to lead prayers and hymns, and Sir Ebenezer Howard gave a speech. A ladies committee had arranged refreshments across two marquees, and a concert was given at Howard Hall in honour of the occasion.

Joseph wished to house many of the workers himself in Letchworth, and so Temple Gardens was built in 1907, one of the first groups of houses to be built for employees. His workforce included girls from surrounding farms and villages, taught how to gather, sew, and add end-papers to the books.

In their first year in Letchworth, Joseph boasted of his employees’ gardeners’ club comprising of 50 men and 10 women, launching an annual flower and vegetable show in July 1907, and of the success of their sports teams, winning the district trophy for swimming and beating W.H. Smith and Son at football. Dent’s was also the first firm in Letchworth to hold an annual party for its workers.

Group photograph outside Temple Gardens

Group photograph outside Temple Gardens - Credit: Garden City Collection

In 1906, Dent’s published 105 volumes of the Everyman’s Library. By 1909, the Temple Press was producing about 40,000 books a week, up to 60,000 under pressure.

By 1914, 700 volumes of the Everyman’s Library had been published; by the time of Joseph’s death in May 1926, Dent’s had published 762 volumes and sold 20 million books.

The success of Dent’s continued after Joseph’s death. In 1935, Dent’s was one of the first factories to experiment with the five day working week, as opposed to the ‘normal’ five and a half.

By the time of the Press’ Jubilee in 1956, total sales amounted to 42 million – Dickens was the bestseller, closely followed by Shakespeare – and the 1000th volume of the Everyman’s Library was published that same year, Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’.

Also in 1956, Temple Press became the Aldine Press, and changed their logo to a dolphin and an anchor, taking inspiration from 15th-century Venetian scholar-printer Aldus Manutius.

Woman's Department - The Bindery of JM Dent & Sons, Ltd

Woman's Department - The Bindery of JM Dent & Sons, Ltd - Credit: Garden City Collection

Though he did not live in Letchworth, Joseph and his family were heavily involved in its life. Joseph’s wife was on the committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies for the Letchworth District in 1912.

His eldest son, Hugh, lived in Letchworth 1907-1917, and served on the parish council. Another of Joseph’s sons, Henry John, or ‘Jack’, also moved to Letchworth when the Temple Press was built with his wife and son and, along with Hugh, performed with Letchworth’s Dramatic Society.

Although Joseph could not himself spell properly, or speak any other languages, he was passionate about making books accessible to the people – and with his many series, including the Everyman’s Library, Temple Shakespeare, Greek and Latin Classics, Classiques Francaise, and the Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, many of which were bound right here in Letchworth, he surely succeeded.

To learn more about the early shops of Letchworth, and to see some of Dent's Everyman's Library for yourself, come down to the Museum at One Garden City!