The story of The Thanet Press starts not in Union Crescent, but at 4 Queen Street, the home of Margate stationery store Robinson & Co. 

A door away from Robinson’s was a drapery business, Smeed’s – on the corner of High Street and Queen Street. The business had been established in 1869. 

In 1887 Frederick J Bobby, who had been running a small store in Bedford, moved to Margate. A cousin opened ‘The Margate Music Store’, which became Thornton Bobby (in 2019, still trading on Northdown Road), and Frederick took over Smeed’s with his wife Jessie.

From the Thanet Press Archive

In 1890, Margate enjoyed one of its busiest years and with business booming, FJ Bobby’s acquired more shops on High Street and Queen Street.

By 1900, FJ Bobby was also manufacturing furniture, from a factory just round the corner in Princes Street.

In 1907, he bought Robinson & Co, with their shop and a small printworks at 4 Queen Street, and a year later moved their print works to Well-Close Square, which (in 1900) were listed as the business of G Denne. Bobby was now – among other things – a printers. 

The furniture factory, which had occupied a single building at No 8 Princes Street, expanded around the same time. In 1908, they acquired ‘a range of buildings’ adjacent to their factory, which at the turn of the century had included a carpenter, a yard for J Wales the builder, and a ‘carriage proprietor’. Bobby were now able to expand, opening larger furniture workshops and a display showroom. 

In 1909, Bobby & Co issued £100,000 of shares in a business which included stores in Margate, Folkestone and Leamington Spa, and factories and workshops in Margate. These included workshops and stables in Princes Street: shops, stores and garages in Union Crescent: and their print works in Well-Close Square. The company employed 370 staff.

The print works had ”recently been removed to larger premises and modern machinery added to the plant’. It was producing print for Bobby & Co stores, but also “for customers in London and across the country”.

In 1909, and perhaps providing a reason for the share issue, Bobby had demolished the old Smeed’s building, and the other shops he had acquired, to build Margate’s first department store, which would trade until 1972. The buildings still stand, although divided into smaller shops and residential apartments. 

In 1913, the Bobby’s printworks were moved from Well-close Square to a new, purpose-built factory in Union Crescent. In 1915, an advert in the local papers calls for “Platen Hands and Machine Minders to fill vacancies caused by enlistment” at Bobby & Co in Union Crescent.  Printing continued in Well-Close Square, but by 1911 the company was called Standard Printers and by 1929, Standard Printers were joined by Lane, Gentry & Co in Well-Close Square.

The 1913 Union Crescent works occupied the range of buildings to the south of the current site, adjacent to the listed Georgian terrace. The Crescent Printing Works were built for print, and would have represented a huge investment. It still stands as one of the finest-quality purpose-built print works in the UK. It features large windows, essential for workers still laying out lead type letter-by-letter, and fine architectural details. The name – Bobby & Co Crescent Printing Works – still exists on the frontage, but painted over.

Crescent Print Works, Union Crescent c1930 by kind permission of S Hickson

 

By 1915, the furniture factory had turned from Princes Street, to become the Union Crescent Cabinet & Bedding Factory. It occupied the range of buildings adjacent to the print works.

Bobby & Co stores did well through the first half of the 20th century, and in 1927 were taken over by The Drapery Trust, which would eventually become Debenhams. 

Designer F Gregory Brown had started producing posters for the London Underground in 1914. In 1925, he had won the Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts for his textile designs. Through the 1920s, he designed posters for the Empire Marketing Board, Railway Companies, ICI, Witney Blankets, Derry & Toms – and Bobby & Co. The colourful designs, printed in Union Crescent, are held in the archives at the V&A.  

In 1939, Bobby & Co were running both their cabinet factory and a printworks in Union Crescent, with the cabinet factory also being listed in Princes Street so presumably straddling the whole site. Back in Well-Close Square, only The Standard Press were still in action.

War broke out that year, and for the next six years Margate was a frontline town. By 1945, 9170 of the 14,000 buildings in the town were damaged and 268 had been destroyed. The population fell from 40,000 in 1939 to 9000 people. But – Bobby & Co Ltd kept their works open, and continued to print (although the quality of typesetting in some of their wartime print suggests more experienced workers had again been enlisted.

Their furniture factory was almost certainly closed by the war, though: the 1200 firms that made furniture before the war were reduced to 170 units making utility furniture, as thousands of workers were moved to war work.

One of Bobby & Co’s customers was a Bognor Regis-based publisher, John Crowther Ltd. They produced a range of wartime gardening guides, books for children about wartime experiences like evacuation, and ‘What’s The Dope?’, a guide to slang used in the services. Many were written by CS Goodsman.

Detail – Jim and Joy in the Country, published by John Crowther Ltd, printed by Bobby & Co Ltd, Printers, Margate. Thanet Press Archive

 

In 1944, Bobby & Co’s Margate printing business was sold to John Crowther and Goodsman Ltd.

By the time Margate’s first post-war tourist guide was printed, for the 1946 season, the printworks were using a new name, The Thanet Press.

In 1947, Eyre & Spottiswoode took over the printworks and the old Bobby & Co furniture factory. Their three London printworks had all been bombed, leaving them with a three metre deep pool of lead in the basement, so they moved their works to the Margate site, where they had 90 staff.

In 1939, Princes Street lists a number of residential properties and the Bobby & Co furniture factory. By 1948 nearly all the residential properties were gone, replaced by ‘Thanet Press, The, (Eyre & Spottiswoode proprietors)’. They had bought up old properties to develop a new, modern printworks. All except No 9 Princes Street, at the southern end of the range – the residence of Chas Horsley – who seems to have refused to sell, so Eyre & Spottiswoode built their new works around him! 

And by 1948, printing had ceased in Well-Close Square, too. 

In 1953 Eyre & Spottiswoode built a new bindery, on the end of Princes Street towards Cecil Square. In doing so, they closed the old road running up from Pump Lane, creating the site as it is today. In 1958, a second floor was added. In 1962, with Chas Horley gone, a new three-storey extension was built, on Princes Street behind the original Crescent Print Works. 

The modern works gave the Thanet Press almost 4500 square metres of floorspace. By 1977, they had over 260 staff.

It included a basement paper store, three machine rooms, offices, a bindery over two floors, staff canteen, and a modern composing room, where type could be set.

Garages, and an additional type store in a crypt, were in nearby Upper Grove Road. By 1972, the firm also had a warehouse in St Johns Street and in 1974, added another warehouse in Addiscombe Road.

Throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century, the print industry was to see a series of radical changes. Letterpress was replaced by lithographic printing which was replaced by digital. In 1981, Thanet Press sold their letterpress equipment, some to North Foreland Press, and scrapped what was left.

From the 1950s through to the 1980s, Thanet Press built a reputation for high-quality printing. A special secure unit attracted niche clients like exam boards, and enabled the works to print government papers. The company produced specialist academic and medical journals, as well as completing commercial work for Procter & Gamble, Estee Lauder, Wedgwood and others.

 

Part 2 to follow

 

This history is accurate as far as our research to date shows, but we are uncovering information as we sort the Thanet Press Archive and will be adding to the history as we discover and verify more.