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British Industrial History

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John Baskerville

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John Baskerville (January 28, 1706 - January 8, 1775) was born in the village of Wolverley, near Kidderminster in Worcestershire and was a printer in Birmingham. He was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, and an associate of some of the members of the Lunar Society. He directed his punchcutter John Handy in the design of many typefaces of broadly similar appearance. Another apprenctice was Henry Clay, who went on to develop papier-mâché as an industrial product[1].

His businesses included japanning and papier-mâché, but he is best remembered as a printer and typographer. He printed works for Cambridge University in 1758 and although an atheist, printed a splendid folio Bible in 1763. His fonts were greatly admired by fellow member of the Royal Society of Arts, Benjamin Franklin, who took the designs back to the newly-created United States, where they were adopted for most federal government publishing. His work was criticized by jealous competitors and soon fell out of favour, but since the 1920s many new fonts have been released by Linotype, Monotype, and other type foundries – revivals of his work and mostly called 'Baskerville'.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who once lived in Birmingham, may have borrowed Baskerville's surname for one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

As an atheist, Baskerville was buried, at his own request, in unconsecrated ground in his own garden of his house, Easy Hill. When a canal was built through the land his body was placed in storage in a warehouse for several years before being secretly deposited in the crypt of Christ Church (demolished 1899), Birmingham. Later his remains were moved, with other bodies from the crypt, to consecrated catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery. Baskerville House was built on the grounds of Easy Hill.


1821 News Item.[2]

DISINTERMENT OF MR. BASKERVILLE.-It is in the recollection of many of the inhabitants of Birmingham, that Mr. John Baskerville, celebrated for the improvement he made in letter- founding, was buried by an express direction contained in his will, in his own ground, in a Mausoleum erected for the purpose previous to his decease.

Upon his death the ground was sold, and passed into the hands of John Ryland, Esq. and from him to his son, Samuel Ryland, Esq. who a few years ago demised it to Mr. Gibson for a long term, who has since cut a canal through it, and converted the remainder into wharf lands.

Soon after Mr. Rylaid became the possessor of this property; the Mausoleum, which was a small conical building, was taken down, and it was rumoured at the time that the body had been removed. This proves, however, to be unfounded, for it appears that a short time before Christmas last, some workmen who were employed in getting gravel, discovered the leaden coffin. It was immediately covered up, and remained untouched until Friday se'nnight, when, the spot having been recently let for a wharf, it became necessary to remove the coffin, and it was accordingly disinterred, and deposited in Messrs. Gibson and Son's warehouse, where a few individuals were allowed to inspect it.

The body was in a singular state of preservation, considering that it had been under ground about 46 years. It was wrapped in a linen shroud, which was very perfect and white, and on the breast lay a branch of laurel, faded, but entire, and firm in texture. There were also leaves, and sprigs of bay and laurel in other parts of the coffin and on the body. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but the eyebrows, eye-lashes, lips, and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with that of the face. An exceedingly offensive and oppressive effluvin strongly resembling decayed cheese, arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin in a short time, and it has since been consigned to his surviving connections for the purpose of re-interment.

It was at first supposed by those who examined the body that some artificial means had been employed to protect it from putrefaction, but on enquiry it was not ascertained that this was the case. The putrefactive process must have been arrested by the leaden coffin having been sealed hermetically, and thus the access of air, which modern discoveries have ascertained is essential to putrefaction, was prevented.



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Sources of Information

  1. The Times, 18 May 1957
  2. Oxford Journal - Saturday 02 June 1821