Thomas Combe

A man who did much for Jericho

Posted - December 10, 1985

Thomas Combe,one time controller of the Clarendon Press,was a man who loved and did much for Jericho and the people who lived there. He was born in 1797 at Leicester where his father was a printer and bookseller.Thomas went to school at Repton.He came to Oxford to work in the printing and bookselling business of Joseph Parker.After some years there he became dissatisfied because Mr.Parker would not take him into partnership,and he left to work in London. When the post of Superintendent of the Clarendon Press fell vacant in 1838 Mr.Henry Parker recommended Thomas to the delegates for the post and in that year on the 24th June Thomas Combe became the Superintendent.He remained in control of the Press until his death in 1872 and was the main influence on the development of printing during that time.

When Thomas first joined the Press it was divided into two departments each with its own manager.The Learned,or Classical,department was directly controlled by the University whereas in the Bible department the partners as well as the University had an interest.Thomas was admitted as a partner in the Bible Press in 1841,three years after he had joined.He had a holding of two and a half of the total of forty-eight shares.He continued to superintend printing in the Learned department in the interests of the Delegates and at the same time ran the Bible department for the partners.In 1853 when the two older partners had died Thomas became Senior Partner thus increasing his holdings to eight shares. When Thomas joined the Bible Press it was a profitable business.Nearly half the Bibles,Prayer Books and Church service books produced in England were printed at Oxford.

In 1820 the output of the Bible Press had been about 750,000 books.It rose steadily to average a million a year by 1865.Two thirds of the Bibles and Testaments were sold to the Britsh and Foreign Bible Society. The demand from the Society and the bookshops was mostly for the cheapest possible product.The progressive lowering of the price of what were called "Common Bibles" went on until,in 1864,one in every twenty-four was being sold for just 4d a copy.These very low priced books were the main product of the Press and little by little the profits dwindled until by 1860 it had become a much less lucrative concern. Thomas,however, came into the business at a good time and so made a great deal of money in his first ten years as a partner.He was thereafter able to indulge those personal tastes for which he is most remembered while continuing to work hard at superintending the Press.

When he first came to Oxford Thomas Combe lived with an unmarried sister who rented a house in Oriel Street and let lodgings to members of the University.J.H.Newman and Pusey were among her lodgers and Combe came very much under their influence.He listened to their sermons at St.Mary's and read the Tracts. In 1840 Combe was marrried by Newman who had,some years before,introduced the couple.Combe started a Sunday School for the boys at the Press where he taught regularly for more than twenty years as well as giving evening classes in secular subjects.He was a generous supporter of the Church School of St.Paul near the Press;he gave a large contribution towards the rebuilding of Wolvercote Church in 1857 and he built a schoolroom for Wolvercote mill at his own cost in the same year on the site of the present offices of the mill.

In 1859 he presented the Chapel to the Radcliffe Infirmary and ten years later founded and bore the building costs of the church of St.Barnabas for the district of Jericho which had expanded due to the building of the Press from 1827-'32.Combe's circle of friends took in a number of clergy of the anglo-Catholic persuasion. In 1848 John Everett Millais(later a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a President of the Royal Academy of Art)was introduced to Mr.and Mrs.Combe and in the following year stayed with them at their house in the quadrangle of the Press while he painted Combe's portrait.He wrote letters to them for several years afterwards which showed his fondness for them both and he also brought them into touch with other Pre-Raphaelite artists.Combe began buying other works of this school of painting in 1850 when he bought Holman Hunt's "A Converted British Family Sheltering a Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids".

His important collection of their paintings and drawings,excepting Holman Hunt's"The Light of the World",was bequeathed to the Asmolean Museum by Combe's widow in accordance with his wishes.Mrs.Combe gave "The Light of the World"to Keble College and built a chapel for it. Holman Hunt became a particular friend of the Combes and in his memoirs"Pre-Raphaelitism and•^ the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood"he praises them and their kindness to him very warmly.One of his anecdotes,told as testimony to the royal memory for faces,throws light on another of Combe's pursuits.Hunt painted a crowd on London Bridge celebrating the wedding of the Princess Alexandra and the Prince of Wales and putting in several portraits of friends.The Prince,on seeing the picture,pointed to a face no larger than a sixpenny piece and said"! know that man!Wait a minute,! have seen him on the hunting field with Lord Macclesfield1s hounds.He rides a clever pony about fourteen hands high and his beard blows over his shoulders. He is the head of a House at Oxford,not a college,yes,I remember now,it's a printing house"!.

Author: Ted Harris

Did you know?

The origins of Nelson Street?

Nelson Street takes its name from a local pub, the Lord Nelson, subsequently renamed Carpenters’ Arms -- which has since been converted to housing.

Why Jericho still has such a mix of houses?

Jericho's intriguing mix of housing today owes a lot, to the Residents' Association in the 1960s and 1970s which together with the then Vicar and some local councillors resisted plans to bulldoze the whole area and turn it over to offices and light industrial use.