Journeys of an historic handpress

The Albion printing press in the General Library, University of Auckland

The old printing press now in retirement in the General Library started its working life in the colonial Government’s bustling printing office in Auckland.

Built in London in 1863 by V & J Figgins, Hopkinson & Cope No. 4224 is a double demy-sized, Albion-style handpress. The Albion arrived in Auckland on board the Statesman in May 1864. It was part of the original plant bought for the second Government-owned Printing Office, which was operating soon after in Alten Road, off Symonds Street.1 From the basement of the Lyceum building, Government Printer Joseph Wilson and his staff started out printing the Gazette, departmental forms and some parliamentary papers.2

The Government Printing Office shifted to Wellington in March 1865 after that city became New Zealand’s capital. The Albion was still being used there as a proof press in the mid-1950s despite long being superseded by powered machinery. As one worker recalled, `It was a fine athletic exercise running a handpress for hours at a stretch, and there were no fat pressmen.’3

In May 1958, the Government Printer offered to donate the Albion to the University of Auckland after learning that English Department lecturer Bill Cameron needed a hand-operated press. Dr Cameron planned to set up a bibliographic press to teach `old printing techniques’ to students in his MA and Honours paper, `Methods and techniques of scholarship’, and to foster bibliographic research on local subjects.4

Cameron accompanied the Albion on its return to Auckland in August 1958 in a truck carrying props for the Community Art Service Theatre production of Waiting for Godot. It was first diverted to Auckland Museum where it starred in the Pioneer Press exhibition in September-October 1958. To get it working, extra equipment was purchased and missing parts were made locally or donated by the Government Printer, who also supplied type, cases and galleys. During the exhibition, Cameron and some students printed 300 copies of a translated letter from Māori chief Titori Paki to King William IV.5

Judith Musgrove (later Professor Binney) and the Albion printing press at Auckland Museum, 1958-59

Judith Musgrove (later Professor Binney) and the Albion at Auckland Museum, 1958-59. Source: Ronald Holloway typographical collection. MSS & Archives A-24, box 2. Special Collections, Libraries and Learning Services.

On 20 January 1959, it took a truck, crane and a clutch of removal men, academics and students to move and set up the Albion in the basement of Alfred Nathan House on Princes Street. The country’s first bibliographic press was operational that day and was named Mount Pleasant Press, reflecting the building’s earlier incarnation as Mount Pleasant Hospital.7

In April 1962, the Press relocated to the Vaile building, on the corner of Grafton Rd and Symonds St, where a party was held in September 1963 to celebrate the Albion’s centenary.8

By the time Cameron left the University around mid-1964, some 40 students had learned how to set type and work the handpress, including future academics Wystan Curnow and Vincent O’Sullivan and bibliographer Brian McMullin. Under Cameron’s direction, students helped produce bibliographic pamphlets, a series of `Aids to Literary Research’, and bookplates, invitations, Christmas cards and posters.9

Shifted in 1969 to the basement of the newly-opened General Library, the Albion fell out of use at some point, left the University in the 1980s and ended up in Thames. It was returned in 2002, refurbished by master printer Tara McLeod and, following a request by the Department of English, was placed outside Special Collections, just a few hundred metres from its original Auckland home.10

Jo Birks, Special Collections


1 Cameron, W.J. (1963). Centenary of a press : the history in Auckland of an Albion handpress (Hopkinson and Cope no 4224) built in 1863 by V. and J. Figgins and now used for teaching bibliography in the Department of English, University of Auckland. Auckland N.Z.: University of Auckland : Printed on the press itself, pp.2-5.

2 ibid., p.5; Glue, W.A. (1966). The history of the Government Printing Office. Wellington: Govt. Print, p.33; Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1868, D-11, p.3.

3 Glue, (1966), pp.34-36, 43.

4 Cameron, (1963), pp.1-2; Cameron, W.J., Johnson, O.A., & Bergquist, P.R. (1964). Experiments in New Zealand bibliography. Auckland: Printed in the Lowry Room, Mount Pleasant Press, University of Auckland, foreword.

5 Cameron, (1963), p.6; Busby, J., & Paki, T. (1958). [Letter to a King : extract from a memoir submitted by James Busby to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1861]. Auckland: Pioneer Press.

7 Ronald Holloway typographical collection. MSS & Archives A-24, Box 1, Jun 1958-Jan 1959. Special Collections, Libraries and Learning Services; McMullin, B.J. (1977). Bibliographical presses in Australia and New Zealand, Script & Print, 3(2), pp.55-64.

8 Ronald Holloway typographical collection. MSS & Archives A-24, Box 1, Jan 1959-1963.

9 Cameron, Johnson & Bergquist, (1964), foreword.

10 ibid; McLeod, T. (June 2003). The travels of Albion 4224, Association of Handcraft Printers Newsletter, pp.6-7. Auckland N.Z.: The Association.