The story of the Cossar Press

As report­ed in the Strat­hearn Her­ald of Sat­ur­day July 6, 1907, the Cos­sar press was:

so named after its paten­tee, a young Scots­man, with a genius for mechan­ics, Mr T Cos­sar, Gov­an Press […] embod­ies the lat­est improve­ments in print­ing off a flat bed of type, and with a roll of paper instead of cut sheets. The paper after being print­ed is cut off the reel, fold­ed and deliv­ered ready for sale at a speed of 4000 to 5000 per hour.

The ‘Cos­sar Patent Flat Bed Web News­pa­per Print­ing Machine’ was built into the premis­es of David Philips Print­ers, Com­rie Street, Crieff, under the super­vi­sion of its Scot­tish design­er in 1907. It is thought to be the last remain­ing exam­ple of the orig­i­nal design in the world, and the old­est reel-fed flatbed news­pa­per print­ing press in Britain still in work­ing order. It was used to print the local week­ly news­pa­per, Strat­hearn Her­ald, every sin­gle week from the orig­i­nal instal­la­tion of this machine until 28 March 1991, when the title was trans­ferred to Scot­tish and Uni­ver­sal News­pa­pers (now part of Trin­i­ty Mir­ror plc). The Crieff Cos­sar is an impor­tant part of the Scot­tish print­ing industry’s tech­no­log­i­cal and indus­tri­al her­itage: the Scot­tish Print­ing Archival Trust lob­bied for it to be saved from scrap, and led the fundrais­ing effort to ensure its future. The Trust is grate­ful for the gen­er­ous sup­port from the Nation­al Print­ing Her­itage Trust, the Scot­tish News­pa­per Soci­ety, Unite the Union, the Oxford Guild of Print­ers and indi­vid­ual donors.

Because of the con­straints on access, it could only be Cossar-move-15-(24)removed from the premis­es in Crieff as it was installed — in pieces. It has now been rebuilt and remains in tem­po­rary stor­age in Gov­an, near its inventor’s child­hood home. It will move to the Nation­al Muse­ums Col­lec­tion Cen­tre in Edin­burgh once cur­rent devel­op­ment plans are in place. It is hoped that the rebuilt and refur­bished press, now returned to full work­ing order, can be used for demon­stra­tions in the future. A ‘Cos­sar Club’ has been estab­lished to bring togeth­er indi­vid­u­als inter­est in the press, and to sup­port its future use for print­ing demon­stra­tions.

In the 1890s, Tom Cos­sar was exper­i­ment­ing with adap­ta­tions to the ‘Wharfedale’ flat-bed press­es used in the fam­i­ly busi­ness, John Cos­sar & Son. The firm had its ori­gins in the 1870s, as a gen­er­al print­er, and lat­er became the pub­lish­er of the Gov­an Press. Its founder, John Cos­sar, was born in Lanark­shire in 1841, and appren­ticed as a print­er in Big­gar. After a peri­od in busi­ness on his own account in Car­luke, he moved to Glas­gow where his busi­ness grew. He was the inven­tor of a fold­ing and past­ing machine, but took out no patents. Mr-MrsAfter var­i­ous moves, new premis­es for the firm were built on the cor­ner of Gov­an Road and Burndyke Street: the façade of the build­ing still stands, with the busts of  Cax­ton, Guten­berg (mis­spelled as Gut­ten­berg), Robert Burns, Sir Wal­ter Scott and Mr and Mrs Cos­sar them­selves.

John Cos­sar died 1890, aged 49, only six months after the firm moved to Burndyke Street. His wife took over run­ning the busi­ness, and in 1891, added Clyde­bank Press and Ren­frew Press to the oth­er two titles pub­lished, Gov­an Press and South­ern Press. Mrs Cos­sar remained an impor­tant fig­ure in the busi­ness until her death in 1926 at the age of 83. The cou­ple had two sons, Thomas and Andrew, and it was the lat­ter who even­tu­al­ly took charge of the busi­ness. Thomas, who had ini­tial­ly served an appren­tice­ship in the local ship­build­ing yards, returned to work in the fam­i­ly busi­ness. He con­tin­ued to use his engi­neer­ing exper­tise, exper­i­ment­ing on the firm’s Daw­son two-feed­er ‘Wharfedale’, suc­cess­ful­ly con­vert­ing it into a reel-fed press. Accord­ing to the Pover­ty Bay Her­ald of 10 August 1907 ‘Every week, after the paper had been issued, he would pull a por­tion of their own machine down and exper­i­ment’. The first patent on Cossar’s new machine was tak­en out in 1899.

Payne & Son of Otley invit­ed Tom Cos­sar to  in York­shire to super­vise the build­ing of these machines, and in 1903, the first com­plete machine was shipped to New Zealand: on 29 Feb­ru­ary 1904, the Wan­ganui Chron­i­cle report­ed:

This morn­ing, for the first time, the Chron­i­cle is print­ed on the Cos­sar Patent Flat Bed Web Machine, which recent­ly came to hand from the mak­ers, Messrs. Payne & Sons, of Otley, York­shire. This machine was spe­cial­ly select­ed by our Mr J A Young, after a care­ful and prac­ti­cal inspec­tion of all the best and lat­est machines suit­able for print­ing a paper like the Chron­i­cle, which the best known builders of the Old Coun­try had to offer. It is, indeed, the first machine of the kind per­fect­ed.

Read the full arti­cle here.

This was a sin­gle-cylin­der machine which print­ed an eight-page news­pa­per in two oper­a­tions, and was fol­lowed with­in two years by a two-cylin­der ver­sion, the first of which was installed in a Scot­tish news­pa­per office. Around fifty machines of this kind, includ­ing the press installed in Crieff, were pro­duced before a new mod­el was devel­oped in 1915. Soon after this Payne & Sons became part of the firm of Daw­son, Payne & Elliott. Fur­ther improve­ments to the design were made to allow for the print­ing of larg­er news­pa­pers.

Some idea of the com­plex­i­ty of this task can be seen from anoth­er arti­cle in the New Zealand press, report­ing the instal­la­tion of a new press at the Pover­ty Bay Her­ald in August 1907, almost exact­ly con­tem­po­rary with the instal­la­tion of the Cos­sar press in Crieff:

  • … the machine installed at the Her­ald works con­tains over 2000 parts, from very heavy cast­ings to the fin­er pieces.
  • … the frame­work alone is five tons weight
  • … the two cylin­ders weigh one and a half tons
  • … thir­ty steel and com­po­si­tion rollers are used for receiv­ing the ink from three sep­a­rate ducts reg­u­lat­ed by a series of screws.

The whole arti­cle includes a descrip­tion of the prin­ci­ples on which the machine works, and you can also see the Strat­hearn Her­ald’s machine in action.  You can also watch the lat­er mod­el B8 and B4 machines in action in New Zealand.

S J Payne worked along­side Tom Cos­sar: he is quot­ed in Print­ing World quot­ed as say­ing that:

it was to his ben­e­fit when vis­it­ing news­pa­per offices after the war the the Cos­sar press was held in such high esteem. News­pa­pers pur­chased the machine not only because of its reli­a­bil­i­ty but also because of the per­son­al atten­tion which had been giv­en to cus­tomers by the late Mr Cos­sar.
Mr Payne adds: ‘I had the good for­tune to work under Mr Cos­sar. He was a per­fec­tion­ist and expect­ed a sim­i­lar stan­dard from all those who worked with him.’

Accord­ing to Bernard Seward ‘the unique pul­sat­ing roar and clat­ter of the Cos­sar came to be heard on qui­et evenings echo­ing down the lanes and pas­sage­ways lead­ing to the premis­es of hun­dreds of small town week­ly news­pa­pers.’

The machine was so pop­u­lar because the local print­er in every small town, in addi­tion to job­bing work, would usu­al­ly print a local news­pa­per on the equip­ment avail­able, which would involve print­ing the first side, print­ing the sec­ond side, fold­ing, trim­ming and col­lat­ing the sec­tions. This was a labo­ri­ous way to pro­duce a news­pa­per, but the effi­cien­cies of the large rotary press­es used for the pro­duc­tion of nation­al and region­al dai­ly papers were out of reach of the small pro­pri­etor: not only were the press­es cost­ly, they required the pro­duc­tion of curved stereo­type plates, which led to fur­ther costs. Cossar’s inven­tion — a devel­op­ment of the indus­try stan­dard stop-cylin­der ‘Wharfedale’ flatbed press — rev­o­lu­tionised the pro­duc­tion of local, and oth­er small cir­cu­la­tion papers. It com­bines the sim­plic­i­ty and econ­o­my of a flatbed press, with the con­ve­nience of print­ing direct from type onto a reel of newsprint. It used the exist­ing skills and type­set­ting equip­ment avail­able in every let­ter­press print­ers, but was reel- instead of sheet-fed, and used a sys­tem of com­pen­sat­ing rollers to solve the prob­lem of com­bin­ing an inter­mit­tent print­ing action (the impres­sion cylin­der stop­ping after each impres­sion to allow the rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing print­ing bed to return) and con­tin­u­ous web con­ver­sion (fold­ing, slit­ting). The machine’s tech­nol­o­gy was ahead of its time and remains a star­tling and unusu­al solu­tion to the prob­lem. It made small cir­cu­la­tion local papers viable with a tech­nol­o­gy which remained unchal­lenged for fifty years: they were pro­duced until 1968 by Daw­son, Payne and Elliott