In the first of a series of articles on companies with a Catholic history that continue to trade, Timothy Elphick visits Burns and Oates
BRITAIN'S oldest Catholic publishers, Burns and Oates, will celebrate its 150th anniversary in a few years time. Its story charts a rocky path from days of great distinction with the master of fine printing Stanley Morison at the turn of the century, and heyday with Chesterton in the 1920s, to near collapse after the changes which transformed the church post Vatican 11. But, like the phoenix the company has emerged from the ashes, and though much smaller in size and more modest in aim, it continues to cater for a reduced but ever present demand among a Christian readership.
Burns and Oates was founded in 1847, the creation of a Scottish Presbyterian, James Burns, who abandoned his studies for the ministry before Converting to Catholicism under the influence of Cardinal Newman. Indeed the cardinal was among the very first authors the company published, beginning a long and profitable association with Loss and Gain, his autobiographical novel on the path of an Oxford undergraduate to the church of Rome.
But if "poor Burns", as Newman called him, had wanted to pass the firm on to his sons and heirs he was to be disappointed. For so evangelical was he in his enthusiasm for his new-found church that all his children became either priests or nuns. On his death in 1871 the company therefore passed to William Oates, a Yorkshireman 20 years his junior who had Worked with him for seven Years. The association with the Burns family went into hibernation for over half a century.
By the turn of the century Burns and Oates was regarded as one of the best publishers in the country. Wilfred Meynell, brother of the poet Alice, worked for the company and was advised by Stanley Morison, the man who later designed the typeface times roman for Times newspapers, a fount that is now widely used in many national journals, including this one.
The 1920s and 1930s were no less distinguished for Burns and Oates, although now the emphasis was more on their list of writers. G. K. Chesterton was perhaps the best known, while Eric Gill designed the company logo, still in use today.
It was after the second World War that the name of Burns reappears in the company's history, when Toni Burns, a distant relative of the founder, joined. It was through Mr Burns and his long-time association with the Tablet that Burns and Oates in the early 1950s was involved in the creation of a Catholic business empire which included not only the publishing division but the Universe, the Tablet, Spes Travel, and six Burns Oates bookshops which also sold icons and objects of piety.
The group flourished in the immediate pre Vatican II period, but scarcely outlasted the Council. As present-day managing director Charlotte de la Bedoyere explains, "it all came unstuck when the liturgy was changed to the vernacular. Nobody wanted to buy their stocks of missals anymore, and the group almost lost overnight what had been the most profitable half of its business".
With financial hardship the different elements of the conglomerate went their separate ways, and in January 1967 Tom Burns, soon to become editor of the Tablet, sold the publishing company to the renown German religious imprint, Herder and Herder. The idea was for an international co-operation that would blossom in the more open post-conciliar times, but sales failed to live up to such high expectations, and by 1970
Herder was looking for a way out.
"The German publishers had closed the company down, although it never went into liquidation", recalls Charlotte de la Bedoyere, a vivacious, determined, woman in her 50s. She stepped into the breach and eventually bought the name Burns and Oates from Herder (although its stock went to another company). Part of the deal was a list of craft books which Mrs de la Bedoyere has continued to market under the name Search Press, recalling the radical newsletter she ran with her husband Michael, the longserving and distinguished editor of the Catholic Herald in the 1960s.
Paul Burns, nephew of Tom, is now editor in chief at Burns and Oates. There is clearly a residual hurt over Herder's three year stewardship of the imprint and the subsequent sale. "We thought then, and we still think now, that the German company should have ridden out the difficult times post Vatican II. But they seemed prepared to allow the demise of Burns and Oates by panicking and taking a short term view of its future prospects", says Mr Burns.
Yet the scale of the operation to rescue this most famous name in Catholic publishing can be glimpsed by his recognition that the company still faces a struggle to sell its books.
"Theology will always be needed. We've been through the mill but so has the church and we've come out the other side tougher and more independent than before. It is a death and resurrection story, but the oldest Catholic publishing house in the land is still active and looking ahead with confidence again".
The company has moved its headquarters out of London to Highbrooms in Kent. And with the help of a ten-strong production team it aims to branch out into new areas of interest to a broader Christian readership. A series of works on liberation theology, with books by Friar Leonardo Boff and others, has already been launched, complementing the steady sales of long-term favourites like Butler's Lives of the Saints.
"We still get phone calls asking about the statues and holy pictures we once sold through the Burns Oates shops — which 25 years after they stopped trading shows just how much the name is embedded in the consciousness of Catholics in this country," says Mrs de la Bedoyere.