Print History: Baptist Mission Press in Calcutta - The Final Decades

A family archive —memoirs, notes, photographs and reminiscences —helps in reconstructing the final decades of an iconic Calcutta printing press

31 Oct 2022 | By Murali Ranganathan

In 1931, when 21-year-old Norman Ellis arrived from England to join the Baptist Mission Press in Calcutta, the printing press had long been a legend in the publishing and printing world. Founded in 1818 by Christian missionaries from the Baptist Missionary Society, it could trace its heritage back to the Serampore Mission Press which was founded in 1799. Located at the original site on Lower Circular Road (now Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Road), the Press was considered a leading printing press in 1930s India and its printing repertoire was one of the widest in the country. Norman Ellis (1909–1987) was joined at the Press by his younger brother Bernard Ellis (1911–1985) a few years later. Except for a few years when they were drafted into the army during the Second World War, the Ellis brothers worked in the Baptist Mission

Press for the next three decades. 
Norman Ellis was the Superintendent of the Press from 1946 to 1960; on his retirement, Bernard Ellis took over that arduous role until 1966, when he also left India. Both the brothers had been trained in the art of printing at the family firm of Ellis and Sons, Printers which was started by their grandfather in the town of Riddings in Derbyshire, UK. Bernard Ellis was also an accomplished photographer who captured the activities of the Baptist Mission Press on film during his long tenure. He also made extensive notes about his time in Calcutta, perhaps in preparation to write a memoir of his printing career in India. It is very rare for a family archive to contain extensive material on an industrial enterprise and even rarer for it to survive half a century and more. 

Norman Ellis, Superintendent of the Baptist Mission Press (1946–1960) and Bernard Ellis, Superintendent of the Baptist Mission Press (1960–1966)

Baptist Mission Press
The Baptist Missionary Society was pleased with the operations of its Press in Calcutta in 1930-31. In its annual report for that year, it noted that:

The Calcutta Mission Press, under the able and devoted management of Mr. Percy Knight, has had a very successful year of work. The output of Scriptures and Christian literature has been very large, and has included books in eighteen different languages. There has also been a large amount of general work which has enabled the Press to afford most welcome relief to the Society’s financial burdens in India. Mr. Norman Ellis, of Riddings, Derbyshire, has been appointed as an associate worker in the Press.

As the new recruit turned right from Park Street on to Lower Circular Road, leaving behind the two large cemeteries which flanked these roads, the sprawling estate of the Baptist Missionary Society would have come into his view on the right. The site on 41, Lower Circular Road included the Baptist Church, a manse, administrative blocks, residential areas for missionaries and staff, and the compound of the Baptist Misson Press which occupied a strategic corner location. Unlike most presses in pre-independence India, the Baptist Mission Press was laid out on a grand scale in a prime neighbourhood of Calcutta. 

A sign atop the main and only gate to access the Press was emblazoned with the words ‘Baptist Mission Press’ in block letters. On either side of the gate were garages and tiny rooms for the servants and security guards who stayed on-site. The main building, which dated from 1820, stretched the entire width of the plot and was set towards the rear. The ground floor contained the reception rooms and offices. Towards the back was the storeroom for paper. An external flight of stairs led to an upper floor which housed the Composing Department.

However, the Monotype department was housed in a separate single-storey structure next to the garages. Another smaller two-storeyed building housed the Maintenance Department on the ground floor. There was a canteen for employees on the upper floor. Next to it was a single-storey structure which housed the Machine Room and the Binding Department. 

The Baptist Mission Press employed three hundred persons when it was operating at full capacity. Traditionally, the superintendents of the press were Britishers, perhaps with a background in printing but certainly with a strong Christian ethos. Many of them were lay preachers or deacons. Though they were technically qualified, they were paid the same low salary as missionaries. The rest of the employees, including all the departmental heads were Indian and had worked at the Press for decades. The Superintendent and his deputy stayed on campus in an attractive block of flats built in front of the main office block. When Norman Ellis became Superintendent in 1946 and the Assistant Superintendent was his brother Bernard, it was essentially the Ellis family home for the next two decades. 

Linotype Department

The Press had two principal revenue streams. The raison d’être of its existence was printing work for Christian organisations and churches. The Press could print the Bible and other Christian tracts in as many as forty-six languages. This work was generally billed at cost or thereabouts to clients such as the British and Foreign Bible Society. It could follow this policy as it was subsidised by a large amount of general printing work for a wide range of clients. These jobs could be books, brochures, bill and receipt books, and periodical publications. 

A publicity brochure of the Baptist Mission Press from the 1930s claimed that:

The B.M.P. marches with the times and is kept up-to-date. 
The B.M.P. is, we believe, the only Press in India
that prints in all the Indian vernaculars. It is equipped to deal with all kinds of scientific, educational, and commercial work both in English and the vernaculars. 
The B.M.P. has a reputation for fine printing at moderate rates, careful attention to customers’ instructions, and expeditious despatch. 

It advised its potential customers to “let good printing to help you to build up your own business, by conveying, in attractive form, an idea of the quality of your products. We can save Authors, Editors, Secretaries of Institutions the worry and vexation caused by delayed and careless proofs. Good work is the cheapest in the end. You need the best!”

A view of the Confidential Department with its head, S K Ghosh on the right

The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a scholarly publication with a global readership, had long been printed at the Baptist Mission Press. The Superintendent of the Press sat on the Publications Committee of the Asiatic Society whose other publications were also printed at the Press. B.I. News, the monthly house journal of the British India Steam Navigation Company, then one of the largest shipping companies of the world and headquartered at Calcutta, was also printed at the Press. Indian Print and Paper, the premier trade magazine for the Indian printing and paper industries, was also printed and published under the supervision of the Ellis brothers at the Baptist Mission Press. Other journals included the Himalayan Journal and school magazines. 

The Ellis brothers complemented each other perfectly. In retirement, Bernard Ellis self-effacingly recalled that, “My own contribution was not particularly brilliant. My brother was the technical expert; he knew letterpress printing inside out, from design to typography, setting at the case, making-up pages, operating machines, simple bookbinding, use of the Linotype, administration, business methods. I could set at the case, distribute type, knew the theory of block-making, not bad on administration, but most of all, I could write. Of the two of us, that was my strength.” As the Ellis brothers settled into their roles, the Baptist Quarterly (July 1951) reviewed the operations of the Press. 

The Baptist Mission Press of Calcutta is now known throughout the length and breadth of India for the quality of its work, for dependable service, and for a sense of craftsmanship and pride in work well done. … This Press has one other claim to fame in that it does work in more languages than any other firm in the east, if not in the world: it prints in over forty different languages, and can print in any of the 225 languages of India. The Mission Press at present employs a staff of 150 or more, all of whom are Indian, excepting only the European superintending missionary and his assistant. For this is still a Mission Press although it now does work for anybody on a strictly commercial basis alongside its commitments for missionary bodies to whom it offers special terms. The Press nowadays does work for anyone and makes the substantial contribution to the finances of the Baptist Missionary Society of £4,000 or £5,000 each year. 

The Press is now equipped with fully automatic two-revolution printing presses, and Linotype and Monotype composing machines. Everything is as up-to-date as in an English printing office—as up-to-date as possible, that is, after six years of war. … many founts of type for Indian languages are still cast in the Press, some of them probably from punches and matrices which were made in Serampore. The latest development is the adaptation of the Monotype machines to cast Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Sanskrit, Marathi, Nepali, Gujerati and Tamil.

Norman Ellis was recognised in Calcutta for his knowledge of the technical aspects of printing. In his essay on ‘Indian Typography’ in the exhibition catalogue of The Carey Exhibition of Early Printing and Fine Printing (1955), Ellis laments the stagnation of typographical design in India. Ellis was also an amateur actor and his credits include a role in Rabindranath Tagore, a 1961 film directed by Satyajit Ray. 

A typical day for a Calcutta printer
From the diary of Bernard Ellis, Superintendent, Baptist Mission Press circa early 1960s

●    Signed clerks’ attendance register.
●    Received order for 400 handbills for a Bible course for Diocesan women, at Puri, Orissa, 400 miles away.
●    Arranged for Gestetner to carry out work on circular letters.
●    Visited every department to check on current work progress: despatch, admin, Monotype, Linotype, composing, machinery, bookbinding, carpenters, proof-readers.
●    Signed orders for new Monotype spare parts.
●    Storekeeper telephoned to say he had fever ¬ off for two weeks.
●    Signed and passed to Labour Officer requests for loans.
●    Outside coolies declined to move paper racks ¬ too hot.
●    Passed 5 pages of ‘Indian Print & Paper’ proofs, to send to customers.
●    Checked and signed daily dockets of proof-readers and compositors.
●    Signed forwarding note for goods to New Delhi (scientific books) by rail.
●    Passed out proofs for B.I. News and Asiatic Society.
●    Signed paying in slips and endorsed cheques for bank.
●    Telephone call from Director of National Library, re bills.
●    Dealt with the mail, signed letter, drafted one letter re fire extinguishers, signed cheques.
●    Replied to a letter from Cuttack, Orissa, re training their Mission Press manager in office routine.
●    Interviewed new commercial artist. Found he knew nothing about preparing finished artwork from roughs. No go.
●    Sent latest deliveries of religious weeklies into bookroom.
●    Passed out proofs, in Assamese and Oriya, for Oriental Bureau, Bombay.
●    Discussed with works manager method of checking ‘revisions’ on machines.
●    Signed letter to Nestles, re work in Gujerati.
●    Gave pay orders on bills checked by accounts dept.
●    Signed daily reports on machine and binding departments. Six machine-men and six coolies absent, ill.
●    Worked on layout for ‘Indian Print and Paper’ pages.
●    Desk work eased, to allow for second tour of departments.
●    Watched and checked on automatics, turning out ‘New Testament’ in Hindi.
●    In office, signed receipt for pile of registered mail.
●    Telephone call re state of lead piping replacement for Monotype machine cooling tank.
●    Receipts on and off desk constantly.
●    Blockmaker in, to discuss cover design for ‘The life and teaching of Jesus Christ’, in Bengali.
●    Signed commercial tax forms.
●    Telephone call from Calcutta School of Printing Technology, re pictures of Carey, Marshman and Ward.
●    Signed letter with information called for by Statistics Dept., Labour Commissioner.
●    Received material for blockmaking for ‘B.I. News’
●    Dealt with workers’ application for leave.
●    Signed goods and parcels despatch records re books, and more letters.
●    Drafted letter re Oriya Bible and dealt with query re proofs.
●    Checked out receipts for supplies of paper and paint.
●    Passed advertisement settings for ‘Indian Journal of Theology’.
●    Passed to dept. order for books and tracts for Tract & Book Society.
●    Dealt with memo of the East Pakistan Baptist Trust Association.
●    Signed leave slips for men going sick with fever.
●    Signed letter to BMS, London, re despatch of Bengal Baptist Union minutes.
●    Passed proofs of several degree diplomas for a University.
●    Passed drafts of letters, requesting payment of Christian literature bills in respect of books sold.
●    Received letter from Bible Society re binding of Oriya Bible, ‘New Testament’, ‘St John’s Gospel’ and ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Tibetan.
●    Signed forms for despatch of goods by rail.
●    Telephone enquiry as to possibility of printing a book on leprosy for the Tropical School of Medicine.
●    Passed pay slips for petty cash.
●    Telephone enquiry from National Cash Register re training a young man in lithography. (We are letterpress printers, but made suggestions).
●    Passed proofs for Santali ‘St Luke’ page proofs, for Bible Society.
●    Signed order for blocks.
●    Passed proofs for ‘The Cable’¬ a house magazine.
●    Passed proofs for Diocesan work that came in during morning.
●    Replied to enquiry from East Pakistan re cost of translation.
●    Signed bill drafts for typing.
●    Revised layout of ‘Indian Print & Paper’ pages.
●    Went into details of Lepcha type history, re a letter from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. This will mean much research and correspondence if taken up.
●    First and only delivery of ordinary mail came in, five minutes before closing time.
●    Letter from Lushai missionary re cost of repairing a Gestetner machine.
●    Letter from Survey of India, unable to supply maps for a job.
●    Disciplinary matters concerning a peon, who declined to carry out an instruction from a clerk.
●    Accountant produces cash and books for checking, at end of day.
●    Leave office at 5.50pm, with two hours confidential proof reading (exam papers) to be completed during evening. These always have to be done out of hours.

A Press within a Press
Besides general commercial jobs and printing for Christian organisations, the Baptist Mission Press had yet another important source of revenue. The Confidential or Security Department of the Baptist Mission Press was yet another thriving business. Its very location was kept a secret from everyone outside the Press and access was restricted even for employees. It was located in the rear wing of the main block and could be accessed by a nondescript entrance. It functioned like a security printing press with all the printing functions contained within it.

The Confidential Department was headed in the 1950s by Suresh Kumar Ghosh who was considered a model of integrity by his bosses. Ghosh had joined the Press as far back as 1916 and was a repository of printing knowledge. The Confidential Department was primarily tasked with the printing of examination papers for a number of Indian universities. It also printed passports for a few countries such as Bhutan. 

The Confidential Department had its own composing and proofing sections. The proofs were read by the Superintendent himself, typically after working hours. The jobs would then be printed on specially assigned machines within the Confidential Department. Every bit of paper which went into the secured area was accounted for. 

Frozen in Time
As the 1970s rolled in, the Baptist Mission Press had been frozen in time for four to five decades. Except for the odd machine or two, it had not seen any fresh investments since the 1930s. If a visitor from the 1930s would have returned to see the press in the 1960s, it would have been as if time stood still. It also did not make any recruitments to its management during this period. The Press was a cash-cow for its principals, the Baptist Missionary Society, who expected it to make significant financial contributions to its coffers. In 1920, the Press had sent £2,500 but by the 1950s, it was contributing more than £10,000 to the operations of the Society. 

After the retirement of Bernard Ellis in 1966, the Society found it difficult to appoint British superintendents. G K Nullis, who had taken over from Ellis, resigned in 1970 and an Indian superintendent had to be appointed. This period coincided with a major transition in printing technology, a factor that could no longer be ignored. The Baptist Missionary Society was faced with two choices: investment and upgradation or cessation of business. They chose the second alternative and the Baptist Mission Press shuttered down in 1972. No efforts seem to have been made by the Baptist Missionary Society to conserve the print heritage of the Press. All its machines and print paraphernalia seem to have been scrapped. The buildings were demolished and modern office blocks were later built on that site. However, the archival records of the Baptist Mission Press have been preserved and perhaps can be used by historians to reconstruct its illustrious print career. 

The author is grateful to Ronald Ellis for conserving and sharing the Ellis family archive on and for granting permission on the website to use the archival material