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:
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.
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:
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.
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 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 www.wmcarey.edu and for granting permission on the website to use the archival material