John Baskerville, Printer and Atheist

  • 16 Jan 2012
  • Historical Studies
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John Baskerville, Printer and Atheist was born at Sion Hill, Wolverly in 1706. He was a confirmed atheist, yet he printed the most beautiful Bibles. His Bible of 1763 was the finest ever produced in England, and one of the most beautiful books in the world. Baskerville died at Cradley in 1775, and directed that his buriel be in unconsecrated ground 'free from the idle fears of superstition and the wicked arts of Priesthood'. Yet for all his gestures of defiance at the Church, his plans came to nought.

Sixteen years after his death, his house was set on fire and gutted in the great Priestley Riots of 1791. Then came the canal which cut through the grounds. In 1820, workmen found his coffin and moved it, and covered it up, only to be dug up six years later and removed to a neighbouring shop. Finally, it was reburied in the consecrated ground of a Cradley chapel. Baskerville began typefounding about 1750, and in 1757, appeared, as Macaulay says, 'the first of those magnificent editions which went forth to astonish all the libraries of Europe'. His work was mostly done in Birmingham.

Baskerville House, Barbourne, Worcester, was built by Mr. Smart, a book-seller of High Street, and named after the printer. So great was his admiration for Baskerville, that on his death, he at once bought books to the amount of £1,100 from the widow.

A wealthy japanner, turned printer and typemaker. 'My labours have always been treated with more honour abroad', he wrote to Benjamin Franklin, he could not get a 'single job' from the London booksellers. It was France that bought his types, which was refused by this country.