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22 Jul 2021

The Great Eight at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

Written by Rachel Mays, Visitor Services Supervisor
A view of the caseroom at Robert Smail's Printing Works. A cloth hammer lies on type of a case of set type in the foreground. In the background are many shelves filled with pieces of type.
In the heart of Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders lies a gem of printing history, a collection which not only tells the story of an industry but of a family, business and the local community.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works is an operational letterpress printers which, between 1866 and 1986, produced newspapers, business cards, stationery, posters and letterheads. The National Trust for Scotland purchased the works in 1986 and has maintained it as a working premises; the printing presses, some of which date back to the Victorian era, can still be seen in action.

Here are eight of my favourite things at Smail’s:

A very large printing press stands on a concrete floor in a printing works. Letterpress printed posters can be seen on the wall behind.
The Wharfedale press at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

The Wharfedale printing press

This is our largest printing press. It was made in the 1880s by Fieldhouse, Elliott and Co. in Yorkshire. The Smails used it to print a weekly newspaper, The St Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser, and it also enabled them to print posters in very large sizes. It was bought for around £100 in the 1880s and is still working today, so was incredibly good value for money. It took six men to carry one side of the press. Wharfedale presses were extremely popular and sold all over the world. I love it because it is the most beautiful looking press. It’s run from a belt and pulley system, which used to be run from the waterwheel before Smail’s switched to gas power. Even just the sound of it is fantastic.

A close-up view of the top half of a page from an old newspaper, The St Ronan's Standard and Effective Advertiser. It shows a series of adverts in black and white text, with no images.
A copy of The St Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser

The St Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser

The Smails were extreme hoarders! They kept all of their machinery and equipment as well as all of their archival material, comprising a copy of every job that came through their printing presses. This is what made the property such a priceless find in the 1980s when the Trust took over. One of the things we do at the property is look through the archive and try to gain an insight into the history of various eras, and one of the best pieces we have to help with that is The St Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser. This weekly newspaper appeared from 1893 to 1916. It was four pages long: one page of advertising on the front, followed by three pages of news. It was set by hand, which meant that every letter and every piece of punctuation had to be put in the right place by the compositor. This process took 13 and a half hours.

An old-fashioned camera stands against a plain grey background. It is mostly made from wood, with red leather bellows in the middle and a brass lens piece.
A Victorian camera at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

Robert Cowan Smail’s camera

Robert was the second generation of Smails at the printing works. It was his father who founded the business in 1866 and, when he died, it was passed on to his three sons. Robert Cowan Smail was a fascinating man, who took the business to a different level. He bought different equipment and machinery as he was an innovator. He began printing the newspaper and he even ran a shipping agency from Smail’s, enabling people to buy liner tickets to emigrate to Canada and America. This wooden and leather bellows camera was called ‘The Swift’; Robert was a keen photographer. We have over 370 quarter-plate glass negatives, offering a literal snapshot of life around him at that time.

A small wooden cabinet has a white cross painted inside a red circle on the front door, above the words First Aid. There is also a small wooden drawer at the top with a brass handle.
The original first aid kit at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

The old first aid kit

This sits at the top of the Caseroom stairs. Working here today, with substances like lead and with heavy-duty pieces of industrial equipment, we have so many regulations to follow. Sitting at the top of the stairs is this 100-year-old first aid kit. On top of that is a first aid kit from the 1980s and then, sitting on top of that, is a first aid kit that we would use today. The printworks have been operating for over 150 years, and in that time we have had relatively few accidents. The Smails kept an accident book, in which they would write a list of any serious injuries. Their ideas about health and safety were quite interesting. For example, if you trapped your tie in the printing press, that was your fault not the Smails’!

A cardboard box is shown against a plain grey background. It features a design of a red devil holding a pen towards a judge-like figure. The words The Devil's Own Pen run along the top.
An old pen in its original packaging

The Devil’s Own Pen

The Smail’s shop ran at the same time as the printing works, and the two businesses were joined together by the same shop front. The shop sold stationery and books and had done so since the 1850s, before the family moved into printing. This little pen is wonderful, a great illustration of advertising at that time. On the package is a wonderful little Scrooge-type character who is using the pen. This was at a time when most businesses communicated by written letters. People would regularly send postcards and letters, so good writing equipment was really important. It was rarely the case of picking up any old pen and scribbling a few lines; people took time and care to select the right kind of pen for the job.

Pieces of wooden type stand in a row, showing a mirror image of the phrase Ah pop!
A selection of pieces of wooden type at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

Wooden type

Here at Smail’s they were predominantly letterpress printers. By that, I mean that the vast majority of printing tended to be set by hand first, before passing through the press. That meant that every single letter was either part of a set cast or had been carved by hand. This wooden piece of type is a wonderful tactile object, which you can hold. We have over 400 cases of type here in our collection! The wooden pieces of type were carved by hand – there is a story that if you were the man who carved the ‘S’, you got the highest wage because it was so difficult to carve a perfect wooden S multiple times and make them all look the same.

A bright green plastic paper holder, shaped like a frog, is displayed against a plain grey background. The paper would slot into its mouth. It has googly eyes on top of its head.
Our cheerful office frog!

The frog paper holder

At least once a week, someone will ask if the frog is original to the property because it is obviously made from bright green plastic, has bug eyes and looks really out of place. I love it because it’s a reminder that the Smail’s office shop was such a long-running business – it was serving people right up until the 1980s, when someone could have bought this paper holder. People love the green frog, and kids love it especially. Smail’s is still remembered in the local community by people who used to visit here as customers, when they came in to buy their Dandy, their Beano or whatever comic they were collecting.

“We focus a lot on the Victorian history of Smail’s, but this little frog is a reminder of how long the business lasted!”
Rachel Mays
Visitor Services Supervisor
A close-up photo of a smiling young woman. She has long red hair and wears a dark narrow scarf around her neck.
A view looking down on a waterwheel that appears to be almost beneath an old building.
The waterwheel just beside Robert Smail’s Printing Works

The waterwheel

The printing works actually ran from waterpower (as did most Innerleithen industries), powered by the Leithen Water (a tributary of the Tweed), which is an incredibly fast-flowing river. From the river they made a lade (millstream) and this powered five woollen mills, a silk mill, a sawmill, an engineering workshop and Robert Smail’s Printing Works. It even ran an electric dynamo, which was used to power the doctor’s house at one point. This power source was carbon friendly and sustainable, long before people widely understood what that meant.

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine.

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