|Henry Wills & William Hepworth
| Henry Wills was born in Narborough in 1850. He was one of eleven children to a schoolmaster who ran the Auburn House School for boys.
While Henry Wills was growing up in Narborough, John Henry Gray was learning the printing trade from William Sunstead in premises in Swan Street, eventually taking over after Sunstead retired.
When he decided to expand his printing business, Angel Yard in Loughborough, just off the Market Place, was the site chosen by Gray. It was in his new premises in Angel Yard that Gray began to publish the Loughborough Monitor in 1857, selling the newspaper to his assistant, William Rollings Lee in 1862.
|The Angel Press was Wills & Hepworth's first commercial property
| Gray did not enjoy good health and the strain of weekly publication of a newspaper had proved too much. Eleven years later, in 1873, he sold the whole business at Angel Yard to the young Henry Wills.
Henry Wills was twenty-three years old when he bought the Angel Press and the stationers shop and it was around this time that he married Kate Webb from Bath, and in the early years of their marriage they lived over the shop at 4-5 Market Street.
Henry was a master printer who, in 1881, was employing 21 people. At this time, there were still only four printers in Loughborough, including Henry. He, like the others, diversified. As well as being a stationer and bookseller, he was a print-seller and a picture framer and he did a wide variety of commercial printing. He also ran a branch of Mudie’s Lending Library and, for a short time, his premises housed the newly opened telephone exchange.
He entered into partnership with William Hepworth around 1903, and shortly before he retired in 1905, sold
out to Hepworth.
William Simpson Hepworth was only 27 years old when he took over the business of Wills and Hepworth but he was experienced in the stationery business.
Born in Hartlepool on 24 June 1877, he was the son of William and Mary Hepworth. The elder William Hepworth was also a stationer and by 1879 he had moved his family to Kidderminster where young William Simpson followed in his father’s footsteps.
It is not clear how Henry Wills and William Simpson Hepworth met or how their partnership came about but certainly they were partners by 1904.
After Henry’s retirement, when William owned the business, it still retained the name of Wills and Hepworth, even after becoming a limited company in 1924.
Hepworth had little involvement in the day to day running of the company although he kept overall control until his death in 1961. At some time during the late 1930s, and before 1943, Hepworth retired to Maidenhead but it was under his ownership that the
Ladybird books were created, initially as a measure to keep the printing presses running throughout the First World War.
The Ladybird story first began as war threatened in 1914. A decision was made to publish children’s books in order to keep the presses running and in working order. So it was that the first Ladybird books, including 'Tiny Tots Travels' and 'Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales', were published.
These early books, of which most carried the words 'A Ladybird Series', were larger than the Ladybird books we are familiar with today. They were annual-size and the 3 colour printing and text was on sugar paper (a thick cheap paper). A few of these early books were made from 'untearable' paper cloth and printed in higher colour.
The trade name Ladybird was registered in 1916 but after the war ended, the emphasis returned once more to commercial printing at Wills and Hepworth and the publishing of children’s books was allowed to lapse.
. In 1924, Wills and
Hepworth became a limited company but Hepworth retained personal ownership of the freehold of the property in Angel Yard and Market Place. The new company concentrated on commercial printing until history repeated itself in 1939.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, a decision was made to publish Ladybird children’s books again. The company already possessed some water-colour drawings and a few lines of suitable verse by artist A J MacGregor, so they decided to publish their first standard-size Ladybird book, Bunnikin's Picnic Party (1940).
The other important decision that was made was to design the Ladybird books around the printing plant that was already available and especially to make the books as small as possible, each one being made out of a single sheet of paper. This format was to become the standard for Ladybird books over the next sixty years.
The other change that took place around this time, possibly during the late 1930s, was the movement of the
stationer’s shop, after so many years at 4-5 Market Place, to new premises at 60 Market Street, around the corner. The printing business and offices remained in Angel Yard.
After the Second World War, as in 1919, there was controversy within the company over the publication of the children’s books. Some directors within the company wanted the emphasis to return to commercial printing, although during the 1950s, the company continued to publish Ladybird children's books, including their first educational series of books, written by Uncle Mac of Radio fame.
Throughout the rest of his life, William Hepworth refused to take sides in the conflict between the publishing of Ladybird books and commercial printing. It was only after his death that the issue was resolved.
As well as fairy tales and the familiar children’s stories, Ladybirds developed to include non-fiction and reading schemes and in 1971 the name of Wills and Hepworth finally changed to Ladybird Books Ltd. Two years later in 1973, a century after Henry Wills had taken over the Angel Press, the company moved into new premises in
Windmill Road in Loughborough with offices in Beeches Road.
Concentrating on the publication of Ladybird books, the company went from strength to strength over the next 25 years. They were so successful that in 1988, a sign was erected on Loughborough station announcing that the town was the home of Ladybird Books.
Unfortunately this success was not to last. Ladybird Books Ltd had become part of the Pearson group and
in 1995, Pearsons and Ladybird became part of the Penguin organisation.
Only three years later, after the company had failed to reach its sales targets for 1998, the decision was taken to close the printing works. So it was that over ninety years after William Simpson Hepworth became the partner of Henry Wills, and eighty years after the publication of the first Ladybird books, the company closed down the printing works in Loughborough. It was a sad day for the workforce, for the town and the end of an era.
Angel Yard is still there, in the Market Place at the side of Barclay’s bank, although much of it has disappeared under modern development. There is no sign on the wall and no trace at all of the Angel Press.
List of Sources
Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland
White’s Directory, 1846
Kelly’s Directory, 1881,1991,1900,1904
Bennett’s Business Directory, 1901-2
Ordnance Survey Map, XVll.8, Loughborough, 1886
1881 Census Person’s Index
1881 Census, Loughborough
1891 Census, Loughborough
1901 Census Index
Hartlepool Register Office
W. A. Deakin, 19th Century Loughborough A review of the past
century, (Loughborough, 1974)
Leicestershire Historian 2004
Ordnance Survey Map, 1886, showing Angel Yard, Market
Place, Loughborough (O.S.XVll.8, Record Office for
Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland)..
Presenter of radio's Children's Hour, Derek McCulloch, otherwise known as Uncle Mac, 'lent' his name to the first factual series of books - series 455.