Blotchy, Blotted and Blurred: The Truth about the Copy Press

The Counting House of Quarry Bank was added to the Mill in the 1820s. Volunteer room guide, Steve Dolan has spent a lot of time sharing the stories of this room with visitors and has one story in particular that he wants to share with you here…

Inside the Counting House there stands a sturdy, clunky, metal device known as the ‘Copy Press’.

copy press 1

I have been a Room Guide in the Counting House for nearly seven years and in that time the Copy Press has caused me embarrassment on more than one occasion! I confess that I have even been known to lean against the desk upon which it is displayed in the hope of concealing the object from visitors and hence avoiding the question ‘What does that do?’!

The standard description should go as follows:

‘Following the invention of a synthetic copying ink in the 1850s the Copy Press was developed. If a copy was known to be required, a clerk would write with this special copying ink before taking his document to the copy press where he would need to wrestle with the double handle to unscrew the heavy metal top. With the top removed, the clerk would then need to place the document onto the base of the device and top it with a piece of dampened paper and a square of cardboard. The top would then need to be reattached and left for a few minutes. Again the screws would need to be loosened, allowing for the letter to be removed. The damp paper would have encouraged the ink to leach into it from the original copy – therefore creating a copy.’

 At this point most visitors point out that the copy would surely be back to front, leading the room guide into their big finale…

‘Ah yes, but the copy paper was so thin that when it was dry you could turn it over, hold it up to the light and read it as normal. Those clever Victorians!’

Personally, I wasn’t convinced and so I would pour scorn on the whole idea, pointing out that surely the wet paper would make both the letter and the copy blotted, blotchy, and blurred. I sincerely doubted that a professional clerk would send out such a messy letter.

copy press 2


Several months ago, I had a small party of American visitors in the Counting House and they spotted the Copy Press. Along came the dreaded question ‘What does that do?’

I promptly gave them the full ‘spiel’, finishing up with my smug doubts on the matter. Then one of them said ‘That’s absolutely correct, you’ve described it perfectly – I’m a paper conservator and I collect these letters and their copies. Everyone was used to receiving blotchy letters.’

Well! You could have floored me with a damp tissue!


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