Johnson’s Directory

Johnson’s of Nantwich is one of the oldest still operating printers in the UK having been founded in 1827 by Thomas H Johnson and is still based on Oat Market in the heart of the town. The Almanack and Directory, that they started printing in the late 1800’s, lists the residents of the town by address, along with all public amenities along with their hours of opening, churches and other places of worship and the names of councillors not just for Nantwich but also the surrounding villages. The volumes are also packed with a fascinating collection of adverts and a “classified shopping index”, the title is in quotes at the head of this list, and there are also several articles on various subjects relating to the town. For a local historian this information is clearly invaluable, a genealogist would also find it useful for tracking addresses of people. I was born in Nantwich and can remember a lot of the businesses listed and can track my family moving house around the town as I read successive editions. I remember having copies of the Directory at home in the early 1970’s so as I’ve got older and more interested in local history trying to collect editions has become a challenge. They have never been particularly expensive but due to the ephemeral nature of the book they are surprisingly rare considering most households in Nantwich had a copy. At the time of writing there is only one edition available on abebooks.

According to John McMillan, the current Managing Director of Johnson’s, the 1977 edition that I have is the last year it was published, however establishing the first year is somewhat more problematic. 1977 was the 150th anniversary of the firm so there is a short article in the Directory on its history. This includes the lines:

In 1872 he printed and published the first edition of a publication that has become a household word in Nantwich and district – Johnson’s “Nantwich Almanack”, now known as Johnson’s Directory and Town Guide.

The Almanack, which cost a penny in the days before the First World War, has been published continuously for 89 years apart for a break caused by the production and paper problems of the Second World War.

Immediately there seems to be a problem with this description, this is the 1977 edition so 105 years after the specified first edition but is is also apparently the 89th year of publication. Further confusion is found in my 1938 copy (which says 1939 on the cover but internally describes itself as the 1938 edition and the 63rd year of publication). My next copy is the 1956 edition which is apparently the 68th year of publication, this implies a very long gap for WWII with possible production being 1938 (63rd), 1939 (64th), 1953 (65th), 1954 (66th), 1955 (67th) and then the next copy I have 1956 (68th). However this would fit in with the UK paper rationing period which started on the 1st June 1940 and which didn’t get removed until the Queens coronation in May 1953. It is reasonable to assume that as the Almanack and Directory would not be regarded as essential then Johnson’s would halt it for the entire period of rationing to preserve their paper supplies for other publications.

This clears up most of the sixteen year difference but not all of it. There wasn’t paper rationing during WWI but it is entirely possible that other priorities would mean that there was also a gap in publications during that conflict, until I manage to find an edition from before 1914 to confirm which publication year it claims to be that would remain a working hypothesis anyway. It is that or the recorded first publication year isn’t quite right, and if we take as correct the statement regarding continuous publication then stepping back from 1938 being the 63rd, the first would be in 1876 not 1872.  Enough of the history of publication lets look at some samples starting with my earliest…

1938 – 63rd year of publication

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The example I have has certainly been well used and a loop of string has been attached to the top of the spine so that it could be hung up, this was a book that was clearly referenced a lot and the owner wanted it handy. I really like the over the top cover design but it is when you get inside that it gets really interesting with some lovely adverts some of which can be seen below, click on the image to go to the page for that image and click there to see a larger version.

The book may have been one penny when it started but by 1938 it had risen to three pence, not too big an increase in over 60 years. The contents page gives a good idea of the spread of information available

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The entry for pages 43-45 Bands and Banks definitely catches the eye and is exactly what it suggests with 5 bands and the same number of banks listed. I wish The New Domain Syncopators still existed, they sound ideal for the Nantwich Jazz Weekend. As for the cheese fairs, there are 17 listed for Nantwich for 1938 and they coincided with the Thursday Market. Other entries of note include the social opportunities and I quite like the sound of Ye Olde Nantwich Giant Onion Society which includes a note under its entry that “this society has no connection with any other onion club”

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The directory followed the same format in all the copies I have, listing each street alphabetically and then by house number which business or householder could be found there.

1962 – 74th Year of publication

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Post war the cover changed dramatically and the price doubled to sixpence, where it stayed right through the 1950’s and up to 1967. I chose the 1962 copy from my complete run from 1956 as this is the year I was born, so I can find my parents living on Whitehouse Lane or the Whitehouse Lane Estate as it was called in the directory because these houses were still being built and the lowest house number recorded is 39. Sadly Ye Olde Nantwich Giant Onion Society doesn’t appear to have survived and indeed the number of social and sporting clubs has dramatically reduced. the adverts are still very interesting though.

One fascinating section is the reprint from the 1932 directory called Old Nantwich which takes the form of an imagined stroll around the town describing people and places that the anonymous author passes. It is quite long so split into two parts each of twelve pages one in this edition and one that appeared in the 1963 copy. The inclusion of articles like these really adds to the books and they become more prevalent from this point onwards.

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There is also a three page write up about the church of St James in Audlem which continues a short series that had started the previous year with information about St Mary’s church in Acton.

1973 – Eighty-fifth year of publication

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This year the cover was redesigned again, dropping the Almanack reference and now describing the publication as the Town Guide. There had been a few price rises in the intervening years from six pence in 1967, up 33% to eight pence in 1968, then again up 33% in 1969 to a shilling (twelve pence). In 1971 we had decimalisation of the currency and Johnson’s took the opportunity to increase the price again by 20% from five new pence (which is what a shilling became) to six pence. In 1972 it went up again by 33% to eight pence and as you can see in 1973 a further 20% increase occurred taking the price to ten pence. In just six years the price had quadrupled from six old pence (2½ new pence) to ten new pence.  This was undoubtedly due to several factors, one definitely being the reduction in the number of advertisers and those that were there are mainly typographical in design so I have just included a couple for businesses that I remember well. By now we had moved to another new build property on Broadway and this house was surrounded by lots of wooden panel fencing, which always seemed to be getting damaged leading to regular trips to Derek Copeland and I also found an advert from my first employer when I was a paper boy for Carringtons.

The production value of the book has also greatly increased. Taking the ‘Town Guide” part of the name seriously the articles included are significantly longer and illustrated. They start with a guide which runs from a brief history of the town to lists of general information such as the fact that there are 4148 inhabited dwellings in the town of which 1291 are Council owned and the population is 11666 (1971 census).

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Of more interest to myself who enjoys the local history, this edition also includes the second part of what is really a stand-alone book entitled “Nantwich – Saxon to Puritan”. The first thirty two pages had been included in the 1972 edition, this has pages 33 to 88

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and it is a really good read, very well researched with full bibliographies after each section. The final section; pages 89 to 120 are in the 1974 edition which also includes a note that the full text had been published in December 1972 as a stand alone book.

1977 – Eighty-ninth year of publication

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As noted above this is sadly the last edition of Johnson’s Directory and there was a final redesign for what turned out to be its swansong.  The price has again trebled from 1973 now up to thirty pence so it is now 24 times the price of my oldest copy from 1938 almost all of which has happened in the last ten years. Advertising has become rather static with most companies simply running the same advert for years on end, this doesn’t normally matter too much but because of this habit Chatwin’s the bakers are still making a point of a prize they won in 1963 with the obvious implications that they haven’t done anything similar over the intervening 14 years.

The article in this edition is the Johnson’s story that I quoted from at the start of this blog and in a way that is entirely fitting. The company is a Nantwich institution and it has been fascinating to go back through my collection of their products and remember companies that sadly have not managed to last as long as them along with a few that are still trading eighty years after they advertised in my oldest copy.

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In a future blog I intend to look at probably Johnson’s finest publication, Hall’s History of Nantwich and I’d like to finish with a quote from the frontispiece of that book

Thus times do shift; each thing his turne does hold

New things succeed as former things grow old

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