Bernard Ellis's Notebook:

Memories from the Baptist Mission Press, Calcutta, India




Introduction by Ronald Ellis       


The Call


Arriving in Calcutta


The Day-to-Day Work


A Typical Working Day


The Tradition Behind Baptist Mission Press


A Typical Year, 1964-1965


Upon Leaving the Baptist Mission Press, 1966




by Ronald Ellis

Bernard Ellis came from a Baptist family in the close knit Derbyshire village of Riddings.  His father had been through a printing apprenticeship in Alfreton and had a family Press to run. His brother Norman studied printing at Nottingham University, but Bernard took after his mother and became the local reporter for the Derbyshire Times.  However, because the family business was in the back yard, all the family were expected to help out composing, printing, collating and binding.  This was how the exceptional printing skills their father possessed were passed on to the two sons.

Most of the young men in the village expected to spend their working lives at the local ironworks or down the coal mines.  When Norman heard through his local Baptist church that a printer was required in Calcutta his imagination was fired and he applied.  He was successful, and started work at Baptist Mission Press (photograph by Bernard Ellis) in 1931.  Bernard went to Calcutta a year or two later to work for a commercial letterpress block-maker, as a salesman, returning to England after four years.

When the Second World War broke out, Bernard joined the British Army, and Norman, being in India, joined the Indian Army.  After the war Norman's furlough was due but there was no one to look after the Press while he was away.  Having met his brother, the workers at the Press suggested to the Baptist Missionary Society that Bernard would be an ideal candidate.  He joined Baptist Mission Press in 1947.

Bernard and Norman, although they had the responsibilities of running a Press with 300 workmen, were paid the same as any missionary nurse, missionary doctor or evangelist.  They had the same allowances and were entitled to eight months furlough in the UK every four years.  After the first months furlough every weekend they travelled to, and preached in, Baptist Churches all over England and Wales.

The following are extracts from notes Bernard made in Bath, UK, in the early 1980s. 

We start where he has just returned to Riddings after the War.  He writes . . .

The Call

I could not see myself settling for evermore in the district.  This was confirmed, almost, when right out of the blue came a letter from the Baptist Mission Press, Calcutta.  They had a staffing problem, when my brother, running the Press, single-handed, was due for furlough.  And the Indian senior members of staff had asked if there would be any possibility of my returning to Calcutta.

When news leaked out locally, our friends said we must be mad, even to think about it, "with all those Calcutta killings", after partition, and a baby not twelve months old.  Freda was naturally a bit apprehensive.  It meant selling up.  Dorothy, her sister would be without a home base to come back to, during her nursing holidays.  My mother, on her own.  There was a thousand and one things to think about.

Right or wrong, we decided it must be a "call."  And having committed ourselves and having been invited by the BMS staff - we then "offered" ourselves.

Arriving in Calcutta

We got on the train, at Bombay, bedded down in a 2-birth compartment and promptly lost the baby.  He had rolled into the flap behind the bottom birth.  I was in, or on, the top birth.  Two nights and a day, and soon after the second dawn on the train, we saw Howrah Bridge, first from one side, then the other.  Howrah station was as big, if not bigger than Bombay.  Madras not far behind.

On arrival at BMP we were made very welcome by local staff and BMS staff.

In Calcutta, we met a Mr Heins who was a member of Lower Circular Road Baptist Church, Calcutta.  His family, who emigrated to Australia, were descendants of William Carey.  Mr Heins senior was in the photographic business.  On one occasion, Mr Heins posed with other BMP personnel (click here for the reverse side caption).

The Day-to-Day Work

My own contribution was not particularly brilliant.  My brother was the technical expert; he knew letterpress printing inside out, from design to typography, setting at the case, making-up pages, operating machines, simple bookbinding, use of the Linotype, administration, business methods. 

I could set at the case, distribute type, knew the theory of block-making, not bad on administration, but most of all, I could write.  Of the two of us, that was my strength.  My brother was editor of  'Indian Print and Paper', which BMP printed and to which I contributed.  I also contributed to the 'United Kingdom Citizens' Association Monthly Magazine'.

People in England imagined that, as in some parts of the world, Europeans had an afternoon siesta.  This was not so.  We were up before 6 am.  By that time the sun was hot, all windows were closed, to keep the hot air out, and would not be opened again until early evening, when the air inside the rooms would be comparatively cool.  We had a ceiling fan in every room.  During the cold weather, the fan blades would be taken down for maintenance.  The seasons were well regulated, in the sense that, for example, you knew it would not rain in the hot weather.  The onset of the cold weather was looked forward to.  My brother would say, at the back end of September or early October, "Snow in Simla."  He had detected the faintest whiff of cool air.  He would add, "You see, there will be a report of the first fall of snow in Simla in tomorrow's paper."  And there was!

From October to January was Calcutta's cold weather - cold enough to wear a light-weight English suit, minus waistcoat, and to have a blanket on the bed.  This was the time when mosquito-nets were shaken out and put up, over the poles at each corner of the bed.  Even so, mosquitos sometimes got inside the net and the only way to get rid of them was to switch the light on, watch until they - or 'it'- settled on the inside of the net.  A quick wipe down with a handkerchief would be sufficient to get rid of the mosquito.  But once inside the net and 'on the loose' there was little sleep.

During the cold weather, once, and once only, I saw a wood fire in a grate at the Manse, next door.  Normally it was not sufficiently cool of an evening, although there were times when we did switch on an electric fire.

A Typical Working Day

I made a note of a typical working day, when the temperature was 100 - 105.  (Office hours were 9 am - 1 pm; 1.30 pm - 4.30 pm plus overtime.  Saturdays, 9 am - 1 pm.) 

This was how it went:

1)  Signed clerks' attendance register.

2)  Received order for 400 handbills for a Bible course for Diocesan women, at Puri, Orissa, 400 miles away.

3)  Arranged for Gestetner to carry out work on circular letters.

4)  Visited every department to check on current work progress: despatch, admin, Monotype, Linotype, composing, machinery, bookbinding, carpenters, proof-readers.

5)  Signed orders for new Monotype spare parts.

6)  Storekeeper telephoned to say he had fever - off for two weeks.

7)  Signed and passed to Labour Officer requests for loans.

8)  Outside coolies declined to move paper racks - too hot.

9)  Passed 5 pages of 'Indian Print & Paper' proofs, to send to customers.

10)  Checked and signed daily dockets of proof-readers and compositors.

11)  Mrs McPherson, 'special' proof-reader, arrives unwell, sent home, I will do her work.

12)  Signed forwarding note for goods to New Delhi (scientific books) by rail.

13)  Passed out proofs for B.I.News and Asiatic Society.

14)  Signed paying in slips and endorsed cheques for bank.

15)  Telephone call from Director of National Library, re bills.

16)  Tried to straighten out a worker's debts.  He lied so much, he could not be helped.  When told he must pay his debts from his share of profits he began to bargain, so that was that.

17)  BMS field secretary brought in BMP mail - the P.O. is so short staffed through illness that ours could not be delivered.

18)  Dealt with the mail, signed letter, drafted one letter re fire extinguishers, signed cheques.

19) Replied to a letter from Cuttack, Orrissa, re training their Mission Press manager in office routine.

20)  Interviewed new commercial artist.  Found he knew nothing about preparing finished artwork from roughs.  No go.

21)  Coolie collapsed in the heat - 104 two days ago, 108 yesterday.  Sent him home in a rickshaw.  Today unbelievably 'heavy', with air 'thick'.

22)  B.I. Shipping gave permission for a special block of theirs to be borrowed for a piece on Diocesan women's work printing.

23)  Sent latest deliveries of religious weeklies into bookroom.

24)  Passed out proofs, in Assamese and Oriya, for Oriental Bureau, Bombay.

25)  Discussed with works manager method of checking 'revisions' on machines.

26)  Signed letter to Nestles, re work in Gujerati.

27)  Gave pay orders on bills checked by accounts dept.

28)  Signed daily reports on machine and binding departments.  Six machine-men and six coolies absent, ill.

29)  Worked on layout for 'Indian Print and Paper' pages.

30)  Desk work eased, to allow for second tour of departments.

31)  Watched and checked on automatics, turning out 'New Testament' in Hindi.

32)  In office, signed receipt for pile of registered mail.

33)  Telephone call re state of lead piping replacement for Monotype machine cooling tank.

34)  Receipts on and off desk constantly.

35)  Blockmaker in, to discuss cover design for 'The life and teaching of Jesus Christ', in Bengali.

36)  Signed commercial tax forms.

37)  Telephone call from Calcutta School of Printing Technology, re pictures of Carey, Marshman and Ward.

38)  Signed letter with information called for by Statistics Dept., Labour Commissioner.

39)  Received material for blockmaking for 'B.I.News'

40)  Dealt with workers' application for leave.

41)  Signed goods and parcels despatch records re books, and more letters.

42)  Drafted letter re Oriya Bible and dealt with query re proofs.

43)  Checked out receipts for supplies of paper and paint.

44)  Passed advertisement settings for 'Indian Journal of Theology'.

45)  Passed to dept. order for books and tracts for Tract & Book Society.

46)  Dealt with memo of the East Pakistan Baptist Trust Association.

47)  Signed leave slips for men going sick with fever.

48)  Signed letter to BMS, London, re despatch of Bengal Baptist Union minutes.

49)  Passed proofs of several degree diplomas for a University.

50)  Passed drafts of letters, requesting payment of Christian literature bills in respect of books sold.

51)  Signed three telegrams.

52)  Received letter from Bible Society re binding of Oriya Bible, 'New Testament', 'St John's Gospel' and 'Sermon on the Mount' in Tibetan.

53)  Signed forms for despatch of goods by rail.

54)  Telephone enquiry as to possibility of printing a book on leprosy for the Tropical School of Medicine.

55) Passed pay slips for petty cash.

56)  Telephone enquiry from National Cash Register re training a young man in lithography.  (We are letterpress printers, but made suggestions).

57)  Passed proofs for Santali 'St Luke' page proofs, for Bible Society.

58)  Discussed with works manager practical implications of changing accounts dept. round, measuring, etc. and seeing what staff say.

59)  Signed letter supporting application request from staff member for passport to East Pakistan.

60)  Signed order for blocks.

61)  Passed proofs for 'The Cable' - a house magazine.

62)  Passed proofs for Diocesan work that came in during morning.

63)  Replied to enquiry from East Pakistan re cost of translation.

64)  Signed bill drafts for typing.

65)  Revised layout of 'Indian Print & Paper' pages.

66)  Went into details of Lepcha type history, re a letter from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.  This will mean much research and correspondence if taken up.

67)  First and only delivery of ordinary mail came in, five minutes before closing time.

68)  Letter from Lushai missionary re cost of repairing a Gestetner machine.

69)  Enquiry from Welsh Mission, Aijal, re reliability of Japanese machinery, how much power for a diesel engine to run it and other machines to contemplate buying.  More time involved in answering.  Letter concludes with invitation to visit and advise.

70)  Letter from Survey of India, unable to supply maps for a job.

71)  Disciplinary matters concerning a peon, who declined to carry out an instruction from a clerk.

72)  Accountant produces cash and books for checking, at end of day.

73)  Leave office at 5.50 pm, with two hours confidential proof reading (exam papers) to be completed during evening.  These always have to be done out of hours.

Too hot for visitors to call, so few personal contacts. 

One unrecorded interruption - toured compound to see if any monkeys around.  Could not see any.  But they were there next morning at 6 am.

The foregoing may seem a particularly busy day.  It was average.  It would have been more demanding but for the fact that we had, with the odd exception, completely reliable staff, especially the works manager (Bannerjee), and heads of departments.

There were several office rules that I inherited. 

One was that all letters had to be acknowledged within 24 hours of receipt.  Not all could be answered at once, but at least the enquirers knew that what they had written was being attended to.

All bills were checked on receipt - paper being delivered by the ton - and as soon they had been checked were passed for payment and paid. No waiting until the end of the month.

If, for any reason, such as illness or absence of key workers (they were entitled to four weeks) work could not be delivered on time, customers were informed in advance that there might be a few days delay.

When a customer called personally, no hint of haste was allowed.  Papers were kept off the desk.

When any worker was in trouble or in urgent need of help, that help was given with the minimum of fuss.

I followed most of the retiring Superintendent's methods, because those methods worked.  The only difference was that I had one copy typist for all general correspondence; the head of the confidential department had an assistant who typed in a meticulously clean style - with, literally, one finger.

We advertised for a junior copy typist.  One of the applicants was a man in his middle thirties, going bald; he was easily the best man.  And he stayed.  He was also deaf.  He typed all the general office letters from my drafts.  No letters were dictated. All letters came onto my desk first.  Suresh Babu, head of the Confidential Department, concluded most of his drafts with "trusting you will do the needful."  I was always crossing it out.  And he always wrote it.

Suresh was a high-caste Hindu.  In all that he did, he was a model of integrity.  I relied to a great extent on his advice, which was always sound.  He never took advantage of this and knew a great deal about the history of BMPSuresh told me that the Monotype Department was the spot where the first Baptist church in the area was established by half-a-dozen people.

The Tradition Behind Baptist Mission Press

I should explain that Baptist Mission Press is one of the best known private printing presses in the country.  It would be no exaggeration to say 'the Far East,' although there was an American Baptist Mission Press in Rangoon.  This Press ceased to function when the Japanese Army invaded Burma.  All the machinery was taken over, dismantled and shipped to Japan.

The Calcutta Press was established in 1818 and over the years a vast range of languages was built up: more than 40.  And very many more if the total includes dialects and minor languages using the same script.

Some people have an impression that BMP, as it was best known, was a pioneer Press. This is not so. It was a missionary enterprise that first brought printing into prominence in India.  Probably the first book to be printed from moveable type was 'Conclusoes', produced in Goa, on the west coast of India. Roman Catholic names have been known since 1561, and one name that recurs is that of Ziegenbalg, one of two Germans who responded to an appeal by the King of Denmark for someone to go out and alleviate "appalling suffering" in India.  Ziegenbalg became a famous Tamil scholar. A printing press was captured by the English at Pondicherry and another Tamil scholar, Fabricus, was placed in charge. He lived at Vepery, Madras.  That press became the Diocesan Press, the oldest Mission Press in India, but with a broken history. 

The purpose of BMP in Calcutta was primarily the production of Christian literature, which naturally took priority over commercial work.  To the dismay of many evangelicals in British churches, BMP produced commercial work. All Christian literature is subsidised and the 300 men who worked at BMP, many of them highly skilled, could not be paid their wages out of Christian literature alone.  Such British critics also lost sight of the fact that, mainly through the printing of University examination papers in the security press inside the press, 12,000 to 15,000 could be given to the BMS for redistribution to the India field, so that evangelists, teachers and nurses could be paid.  There was nothing to apologise for.  Those same critics seemed to consider it wrong for a Christian run Press to make a profit.  In the 20 years I was at the Press I helped to raise more than 200,000 in hard cash - again, mainly from commercial work, in competition with other big presses in Calcutta. 

Suresh Babu was entrusted with the entire organization of the Confidential Department.  The fewer the number of people who knew the ins and outs of that department the better.  When I read the final print-order proofs of examination papers, I had not the faintest idea which university they were intended for.  I met the registrars when they came to the Press but all details as to which papers we would handle were left entirely to Suresh.

It was only when the bills went out that I saw the name of the university.

Suresh was responsible for the exact amount of paper used.  Every sheet had to be accounted for, so there could be no question of a 'leak'.  Every box that was packed was checked, wire-bound and lead sealed.  The box-maker delivered wooden boxes by the handcart load.  We were his chief customers.

It was a wonderful system.  In all that Suresh did he was a model of integrity because he had been brought up in a Christian-run Press from the age of fourteen.  Everyone trusted him, from the management to the most skilled men and right down to peons and coolies.  I relied on his advice.

The Confidential Department was a self contained Press of which visitors were unaware.  The entrance was a thick, wide, heavy wooden door.  Nothing more than that.  Through that door passed not only the manuscripts of thousands and thousands of university examination papers but the men whose work was to convert them into print, without blemish.

When proof-reading, if a scholarly question-setter had set a question that was too involved and ungrammatical I could consult our head proof-reader, Mr Laxminarayan, who was a barrister by profession.  He was another man on whom we could rely implicitly.  How the Press found men of such quality in the first place, I do not know.

The Confidential Department supplied universities all over India and was the most profitable part of the Press.  I am aware of no occasion when there was any question over its integrity.  The system worked perfectly.

A Typical Year, 1964-1965

To quote from the 1964-65 report to the BMS: 'During that year, the Press distributed or sold 74,771 pieces of Christian literature, for BMP, the BMS, Scripture Gift Mission of India, and Calcutta Christian Tract and Book Society, the latter owing to the Press Rs7,057' (we used to convert Rs14 to the ). 

Included in the list of general work completed was a 664 page book, 'Animal Gametes' for the Zoology Dept. of the Government of India, and the 'Life of Sir Arthur Cotton' (564 pages, 18 illustrations and a dust jacket in four colours).  The latter book was out of print in England and was reprinted by the Institute of Engineers; it is a classic for engineers in India.  The Sara New Testament, in international phonetic script, was delivered, with three key publications in Lushai: 'The story of the Hebrew prophets'; 'The history of the Hebrews and their religion'; and 'The Work of the Holy Spirit', reprints being ordered almost at once.  'The Gospel of Mark' in Kui demanded the cutting of special characters and that edition went with the production of 'I Corinthians' in Bengali, 'Ananda Sangit' in Bengali, Kumaon parables, Nepali parables, 'In the beginning, God' in English, Oriya, Hindi and Gurmukhi (separate editions), 'St Matthew' and 'The Book of Genesis' in Tibetan.  Work continued on the Anal hymnal for Assam.  A 212 page text book on Nanpung algebra, for a customer in Manipur State, was an unusual piece of work.  The Press received regular print and block orders from Christian organizations elsewhere in Manipur and when the Annual Report was being prepared, the Press was producing passports for the Government of Bhutan - the country which Dr William Carey hoped to include in his work, early in the last century. 

The Press was responsible for printing - and helping with the editorship - of the 'Himalayan Journal', with its worldwide circulation among mountaineers.  Printing was completed, as usual, of school magazines for Woodstock (Mussoorie), St Paul's (Darjeeling), Sherwood College (Naini Tal) and Modern Girl's High School (Calcutta), the latter in English and Hindi.  Various books were sent to the National Book Exhibition, in Delhi, and to the Publishers' Exhibition, Bombay.  The Press reprinted Bevan Jones 'People of the Mosque'.  The cost of the paper was covered by a generous gift from the managing director of a Brisbane firm of printers, in appreciation of 'Service Forum', the Christian quarterly printed by BMP for the National Christian Council of India and distributed to 30 countries.  The readership was intended for the benefit of Christian presses and publishing agencies and was unique to the extent that when the editor, a member of staff of the BMS, retired, a successor simply could not be found.

When Christian organisations, such as the Bible Society, entrusted work to BMP, they received 40% discount.  This was always the arrangement, so that the Press received little financial profit from any Christian literature work.  Our best customers, in the sense of smooth working arrangements, were Scripture Gift Mission, run by two retired lady missionaries, one a doctor, in Bangalore.  We did most of their language setting.

One of the oldest scientific organisations in the far East was the Asiatic Society, founded by Sir William Jones, and later to become the Royal Asiatic Society.  Not only did the Press handle most of their scientific publications but there was a tradition, whereby the Superintendent of BMP was invited on their Publications Committee, on which there were leading scientific writers, all Indian.

There were other organisations which valued BMP and its long-standing service to India: Calcutta University Press Advisory Committee; School of Printing Technology; West Bengal Government Press Production Committee were only three.  There were so many other committees, chiefly connected with the Church, from work among Telegus to theology.

It provided so many opportunities to meet people whose own Christian experience would have daunted thousands.  One vivid example concerned a young Hindu who was given a tract, by a few South Indian Christian young men who held meetings in an old house not far from the Press.  He read it, in his own language, Bengali, asked for instruction, was converted and became a well-known translator.  One day I was invited to the opening of a new church, at Park Circus.  The pastor was the converted Hindu young man, Roy Choudhury.  He visited USA, where he was asked to stay; he toured Britain, Germany and Italy.  And came back to Calcutta, to minister to his own people.  I knew him very well; a quiet, cheerful young man who brought his own particular skills and knowledge to his pastoral work.  Tracts should never be despised, as a means of communication.

Upon Leaving the Baptist Mission Press, 1966

In 1966, the workers who had given me so much trouble for three years, insisted that before we left for the UK, on retirement, there must be a group photograph.  I was told that no-one could remember the time when a retiring superintendent had a photograph, but some said a Mr Thomas who had been so honoured 50 years earlier.  I remember seeing a photograph of a venerable English gentleman, complete with beard.  And an elbow resting on a Bible, as he sat.

When we drove off to Howrah station, the Press workers stopped their machines and stood at the doors of their departments, in silence.

That gives a good idea of what the Press did.


Go back to William Carey's Legacy


Carey Center Home Page


Created:    October 28, 2002        Updated:    November 20, 2002