It was, thought Walter, an exciting time to be an apprentice. All this new technology to learn: as well as the reading and writing. Master Barker was a stern but fair man, trying to ensure that Walter learned his craft in a proper manner. Not that he had progressed very far yet. After all it was only a few months since he had gone for the first time accompanied by his father who had duly made his X on the Indenture that bound young Walter to Master Barker for seven years, and incidentally make Walter the first in his family able to read and write!

Now he was learning day by day how to keep the rooms tidy – clean was another matter in the print room where the presses were – but the composing room and the proof-checking room just had to be orderly to ensure that the books were assembled properly. One day, Walter thought, he would be there carefully checking the work of the typesetters, or even learning to read the letterpress upside down and wrong way round. But that could only come after he had learned to read them the right way round!

They were working now on an important job – well when your Master holds the patent to be the King’s Printer most of the jobs were important, but this was specially so. It was a new edition of the Bible in English, and it was such a big project to get it done to time that Master Barker had had to sub-contract parts of the work to other printing houses. There was a constant flow of newly printed sheets to be checked and stacked in proper order ready to make up the copies for the customer to buy and take to his own binder. And that meant that Walter was kept busy long after the journey-men had finished for the day.

“Boy!” The peremptory call came from the man who had just finished setting another page of type. “Take this forme to the press man – and be careful with it. It’s been a difficult page to set.” Gingerly Walter picked up the forme, but alas! the compositor had neglected to ensure that the wedges holding the type in the forme were secure, and the whole page of type cascaded onto the floor! The compositor cursed and aimed a half-hearted blow at Walter’s head, realizing that, in truth, it had been his own fault. “Come on, boy! Pick up that type. I’ve got to set it up all over again now!”

Walter gulped nervously. He knew the pitfalls of type, and his reading was not yet that strong. Nevertheless, he had to start clearing the printer’s pie that lay on the floor. The letter e was quite recognizable, but his hands started trembling: was this b or d, and this; was it a p or q? As Walter sorted the letters the compositor started remaking the page and eventually it was done. The forme, this time properly wedged, was taken to the press and the sheets pulled, dried and stacked.
Two months later Master Barker came into the house in a great rage! “Three hundred pounds fine and my good name being mocked all over town! How did this happen: who checked the sheets?”

“What happened, Sir?” quavered his foreman printer. Barker threw a book at him. “Take a look. It’s that octavo Bible we printed three months ago. Exodus 20, verse 14 “Thou shalt commit adultery. The Seventh Commandment. ‘Shalt’ not ‘shalt not’. Are there any unbound sheets left? Destroy them and get a re-setting done. And get the bloody thing properly proofed this time!”

© 2017 Alan F. Jesson


Historical Note
This edition of the King James Version of the English Bible was published in 1631, and is probably the most notorious of the misprinted editions. (The 1612 first octavo edition of the KJV had ‘printers have persecuted me without cause’ in psalm 119 verse 161, rather than the correct ‘princes’!). Robert Barker was originally in partnership with John Bill who died in 1630 and left all his estate including his interest in the King’s Printing House to his son, John Bill II. The Crown Patent was not necessarily exclusive and was the occasion of a lot of litigation in the seventeenth century, which is a fascinating study in itself. It is not entirely clear who was actually in partnership with Robert Barker at the time: the imprint of this edition is ‘Barker and the Assigns of Bill’. Some sources identify Martin Lucas as Barker’s partner, but another source names Miles Fletcher, John Haviland and Robert Young and denies that Lucas was involved.

What is incontrovertible, however, is that the printers were fined £300 (at a conservative estimate about £1.8 million at today’s value) and the whole of the edition of 1,000 copies was recalled. There are around 11 copies known today.

Author: debscarey

Tweets @debsdespatches My personal blog is Debs Despatches, where I ramble on a variety of topics. I write fiction on co-hosted site Fiction Can Be Fun, where my #IWSG reflections can be found; and my Life Coaching business can be found on

2 thoughts on “Alphascrabble”

  1. I’ve had the vaguest tickle going on in my mind ever since I read your story. It’s taken me till now to put it together (the synapses are not firing as fast as I’d like). It was in the most recent of the Shardlake series by C J Sansom, Lamentation, where one of the story lines is a series of confessionals written by Catherine Parr which find their way into the hands of London printers. If you’ve not read the series, I do recommend them.

    I enjoyed the story and was worried for Walter, in case fingers were pointed inappropriately. But I’m glad that didn’t happen here.


    1. Thanks for the comment Debs, and for the recommendation which I shall put into my ‘later follow up’ folder! Not that I don’t want hints for new authors, but I am resolutely *not* embarking on new authors until I have the current 15,000 words completed. Alas! it’s not 15k words of fiction but historical stuff that is so slow to write. 😦 (But I am following your and April A-Z challenge blogs, and loving them both.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: