Wai-te-Ata Press

History and Founder

Professor Don McKenzie, Founder Wai-te-ata Press

Wai-te-ata Press was founded in 1962 by Professor Don McKenzie of the Department of English. It functioned initially as a practical extension of the Department's honours courses in paleography, bibliography, and textual study, particularly in relation to issues and problems of research in literary works dating from 1450-1850. In Don's inimitable words, the aura of the Press was an enduring experience: "the Wai-te-ata Press is as antiquated and as obsolete as diligent inquiry and dust-disturbing visits to old newspaper offices and defunct printing shops can make it." Students were taught all aspects of early book production from hand-setting text with lead or wooden type to inking, printing, collating and binding. These printer's devils, or "several hands" as they were often described, helped Don (The Doctor) to expand the Press from a purely educational-oriented bibliographic press in the College or University tradition into a small printing and publishing house which promoted cultural events on and off-campus, and produced first edition poetry and prose.

The Press was originally located in two garages at numbers 10 and 12 Wai-te-ata Road, Wellington. The sonorous name 'Wai-te-ata' is of Māori origin, 'wai' meaning 'waters' and 'te ata' meaning variously 'of the dawn' or 'of the morning.' A stream of that name ran through a gully and along the road until construction of university buildings forced it underground. Ironically, the practical implications of this poetic though aqueous metaphor have been only too true; water leaks and floods have plagued the Press's various relocations and incarnations.

Wai-te-ata Press

The Press owes its existence in large part not only to the enthusiasm and forward thinking of its founder, but to the arrival of its first piece of equipment, a Stanhope Press, on indefinite loan from Cambridge University Press, UK. Designed by the third Earl Stanhope as the first cast iron press in the printing profession, this particular press (number 108) dates from 1813 and is assumed to be the last press fabricated by Stanhope's engineer, Robert Walker of Vine Street, Piccadilly. The University Printer at Cambridge University paid Sarah, widow of Robert Walker, the grand sum of £88 for the press. It was used extensively throughout the next century and a half. Wai-te-ata Press's fine specimen, restored to fully operational condition, is one of only 16 such presses left in the world. It is also the oldest printing press in New Zealand, pre-dating those imported by the French and English in the colonial period by some twenty years.

Until 1952, this particular Stanhope was still used by Cambridge University, reserved for the dignified task of overprinting the Vice-Chancellor's signature on certificates. Between 1953 and 1957, it was part of the Water Lane Press, a small bibliographical printing house in King's College, Cambridge, run by the eminent bibliographer Philip Gaskell. James Mosely, formerly Chief Librarian of the St Bride Printing Library, London recalls with fondness the hundreds, if not thousands of sheets pulled with this press. In fact, generations of students may not be aware that the photograph of a Stanhope in Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography is that of the same press which several years later found its way by ship to the Antipodes!

The collection of equipment at the Press also includes a substantial amount of lead and wooden type. The two main typefaces used in the early years were Van Dijck and Garamond. Since then, a range of types representing most of the type families are part of the collection as are over 115 fonts of wood types, sourced from Stephenson & Blake, DeLittle, and Page, plus some unique handcut and hand-routed faces. Wai-te-ata Press also has an historically representative range of printing presses rescued from local commercial printeries or on loan from various individuals and institutions: two Albions from the early to mid-nineteenth century (Hopkinson & Cope, Miller and Richard); three treadle platens (Arab, Diadem, Prouty's Perfecting Press); three cylinder proofing presses (Asbern, Littlejohn, Vandercook SP25); and several table top clamshell presses. The collection also includes some rarities/oddities, including a set of hand-cut wooden letters one foot high purportedly used to print advertisements for display on the sides of Wellington's tramcars, and a Victorian rule-bending machine.

During the 1960s and 70s, Wai-te-ata Press was a key contributor to the development and recognition of New Zealand literature. It made contemporary writing readily available to students and the general public at a price and format accessible to the reading/buying public. This was during a time in which printed works of writers were difficult if not impossible to publish, sell or buy in NZ bookshops, let alone overseas. Significant writers printed and published by Wai-te-ata Press during this period include Alistair Campbell, James K Baxter, Peter Bland, Charles Brasch, Charles Doyle, Sam Hunt, Iain Lonie, and Bill Manhire. Four issues of the literary journal Words: Wai-te-ata Studies in Literature also appeared occasionally from 1965-1974 and featured student honours essays as well as critical works on major literary figures. The work of New Zealand visual artists Robin White, Don Peebles, Joanna Paul and Grant Tilley featured in many of the Press's publications as title-page designs, frontispieces, or illustrations.

Under the initiative of Douglas Lilburn, Wai-te-ata Press established a music division in 1967 to print and distribute scores by New Zealand composers ranging from Douglas Lilburn, Jenny McLeod, David Farquhar, Jack Body, Larry Pruden and John Rimmer to Lyell Cresswell, Gillian Whitehead and Eve de Castro-Robinson. Waiteata Music Editions remains a seminal force on the domestic and international scene, now a separate publishing house under the direction of Michael Norris of the New Zealand School of Music and renamed Waiteata Press Music.

When Professor McKenzie moved from Wellington to Oxford in 1986, some of the equipment was maintained by the Department of Library and Information Studies as part of their Printing Laboratory established in December 1981 by Professor Roderick Cave. This laboratory was located initially on Kelburn Parade, and called "The Printing Office on the Parade," then in the basement of the new School of Music building. Several facsimile editions of documents on the history of printing appeared during this period and many budding rare book librarians found themselves hooked by the smell of ink and the glow of newly-cast type. With Professor Cave's departure from New Zealand to teach in Singapore in 1993 the Printing Office closed.

Wai-te-ata Press was officially re-established on 24 February 1995 as part of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. Its final move into the University Library was celebrated with a re/re-launch on 12 November 2009 by Professor Michael F Suarez, one of McKenzie's Oxford students, now Director of the world famous Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.