His love of books has shaped his career and now fills every spare moment of
If you are a lover of New Zealand books, you will probably have heard of
Bob Gormack and have seen some of the books printed by him at the Nag's
Head Press in Christchurch - beautiful small volumes printed in hand-set
type on an antique printer.
The topics range from New Zealand poetry and Bob's autobiography to sport
and New Zealand and Australian history. Some of the topics have a
curiously modern ring - 'Pioneers in Protest' subtitled 'No Gains without
Drains', letters of complaint from the archives of the Christchurch City
Council written in the 1850s, and 'Methods for Diminshing the Rabbit
Where did his life among books begin?
Bob was fascinated with books as a child and his first writing and printing
venture was writing verse for the school magazine and helping with the
After a short time as a journalist and then as a public service cadet he
decided on full time study at Canterbury University College. A year later
war broke out.
Second World War - involvement with printing
He was not fit enough to be conscripted into the armed forces so he did
part-time work and part-time university study during the war years. He
joined with some friends who shared his pacifist views and helped them
publish anti-conscription pamphlets in the early months of the war. In this
they ran the risk of visits from the police. The other result was that Bob
became skilled at hand setting lines of display type, locking up printing
formes and hand feeding both treadle and motorised presses.
Later he began a small business printing specialised graph paper, although
to do this he had to travel by train to Rakaia, a distance of some 56 km
(35 miles) and run a platen press which was kept in a shed in the grounds
of the Presbyterian manse. In 1944 he had the chance to take over the
press at no cost and with a friend set up a printing business at the back
of a building in the heart of Christchurch.
The Raven Press
They called the new business 'The Raven Press'. They printed graph paper,
orders from the Students' Association and labels for pharmacies' bottles.
Keeping the business going was a struggle as they had to use all possible
funds to buy further printing equipment.
At this time they were given what Bob in his history of the Nag's Head
Press describes as 'a sorrowful mounted horse head'. It hung on the wall
of the Raven comp room.
In 1948 his partner wanted a change of occupation and the Raven Printing
Press was sold. Just before it was sold Bob wrote and published 'Bookie',
a satire on 'Book', a publication by a rival printing firm. He needed to
represent it as coming from a different printer, and from the horse on the
wall took the title, 'The Nag's Head Press'.
Editor at Whitcombe and Tombs
For the next few years Bob worked in other printing firms, including some
experience in Britain, before taking up a position on the editorial staff
of Whitcombe and Tombs, later Whitcoulls Publishers. In the role of book
editor he oversaw the printing of many outstanding New Zealand books.
He was concerned with design as well as editing. He is proud of the design
work in books like the revised fourth edition of L. G. D. Acland's 'The
Early Canterbury Runs' and W. A. Sutton's 'Water Colours of Italy'.
Among the hundreds of books that he edited were Philip Temple's non-fiction
books, John A Lee's 'Roughnecks, Rolling Stones and Rouseabouts'.
He was responsible for much of the editing and design of 'New Zealand -Gift
of the Sea' a book by an outstanding New Zealand writer, Maurice Shadbolt,
and an outstanding photographer, Brian Brake. This was one of the first
books of photo essays that became so popular in the seventies.
During these years Bob did little further writing or the type of printing
which had been his first interest. Marriage, the birth of three children,
the purchase of a section, building a house and developing a garden, kept
Bob fully occupied.
The Nag's Head Press starts on a machine confiscated by police during
Then in 1964 with a garden shed all ready to receive it he was offered an
old printing press exactly like the machine on which he had first printed
anti-conscription leaflets. It was a Harrild & Sons (Fleet Works, London)
press with fittings for both treadle and motorised operation.
Very early in the war the press had been confiscated by the police from its
owner, Lincoln Efford, a pacifist campaigner. It was very similar to the
machine on which Bob had printed the anti-conscription leaflets. It had
been returned and had lain, dismantled, in the garage at the property where
Lincoln Efford's widow lived.
Bob says that the wartime police had presumably retained two key parts to
ensure that the press remained inoperable. Two brackets to hold the
clamped chase were missing. A friend made substitutes which worked
The name for the press was fixed on instantly - 'The Nag's Head Press'.
Type was the next consideration and as hand setting was to be the method
Bob settled on Monotype Caslon for basic text in the two available
trade-set sizes, 12-point and 11-point.
His own composition Book I from the Nag's Head Press
For the first publication by the Nag's Head Press Bob then returned to
composition, again using his skill at satire. After 1940 when New Zealand
celebrated its centennial, numerous towns, districts, schools, churches and
other organisations produced centennial histories, some of them of poor
quality in the writing and printing. Bob began his fictional centennial
history of Barnego Flat. Because all the type had to be hand set it
appeared in episodes from 1964 to 1982. Roderick Cave in 'Matrix 5', an
annual publication from the Whittington Press surveying historical and
modern typography, describes the history as "a witty and intelligent
pastiche of other commemorative volumes". He goes on to say, "To sustain a
joke successfully over nine parts and twenty odd years, though, takes some
literary skill, and 'Barnego Flat' is now deservedly sought after by
collectors in New Zealand; sought not merely for the amusing content, but
for the volumes' typography".
Now 110 books printed on that original press
As I write this Bob has just completed the printing of his 110th book. The
titles include a wide range of subjects, but poetry and New Zealand and
Australian history are favourite topics. Bob has printed work by many New
Zealand poets - the best known being Basil Dowling and Denis Glover.
New Zealand history
Works of New Zealand history include:
- 'Biscuit and Butter': A Colonist's Shipboard Fare, The Journal of William
and Laurence Kennaway, London to New Zealand, N.Z., 1851, edited by R. C.
Lamb and R. S. Gormack
- 'Dr Gundry's Diary: Parts I and 2' edited R. S. Gormack, the journal of the
surgeon-superintendent on the 'Steadfast', February - June 1851 and
starting practice in Christchurch
- 'A Year at Hawkswood' the diary of Frances Caverhill for 1865 in two
volumes, Hawkswood being a farm (station) near the coast in North
- 'Pioneers in Protest' ed. R. C. Lamb subtitled 'No Gains without Drains'
letters mainly of complaint, culled from the archives of the Christchurch
City Council, written in the 1850s.
Numerous books on Australian history were commissioned by the publisher,
Sullivan's Cove, Adelaide, South Australia. Among them are:
His personal journey
- 'The Horrors of Convict Life' by John Frost
'A Journal of Events from Port Phillip to Mount Schank, etc., in 1843' by
Messrs Edward and Fortescue Arthur
- 'Life of John Broxup', late convict at Van Dieman's Land
- 'The Settler in Tasmania' by Charles Furlong, a reprint from an anonymous
publication in London in 1879
- 'The Kains; Female Convict Vessel' Charles Picknell's Journal and
Thrasycles Clarke's Notes [1830-31]
He has printed six volumes of autobiography based on his life in the early
1940s when he was in contact with a number of writers who have since become
well known in New Zealand.
Helen Gormack's 'Letters from London at Coronation Time'
A page from Helen Bateman's letters
to see it in the actual size of the book)
These letters to New Zealand, written by Bob's wife, Helen Bateman, a
Christchurch journalist, when she was in London at the time of the
coronation of Queen Elizabeth II give an interesting picture of the events
and customs of the time.
Bob's interest in cricket has led him to print some small volumes about
famous cricket matches:
- 'Grand Match' All-England Eleven v. Canterbury Twenty two, 1864
- 'Great Knock' Sim's Australians v. Canterbury 1914
- 'Demon Bowler' Australian xi v. Canterbury xv 1878
Rugby has not been forgotten and 'The Wales Test 1905' gives the match
reports and commentary of the First Wales v. New Zealand Rugby Test played
at Cardiff Arms Park, 16 December 1905.
The rabbit problem
'Methods for Diminishing the Rabbit Nuisance' Papers relating to this,
1877, source the Appendices to Journal of the House of Representatives - an
amusing exchange of official letters between England and New Zealand on
possible solutions to the colony's runaway rabbit problem.
Interest from collectors
Ross Humphries, a specialist on New Zealand books at Smiths Bookshop, says
that the publications by Nag's Head Press are among the most sought-after
works of non-fiction, especially the rugby and cricketing monographs and 'A
Year at Hawkswood'. Quite a number of book collectors are trying to make
up sets of 'The Centennial History of Barnego Flat'.
The future of The Nag's Head Press
The Nag's Head Press is an on-going concern, with three titles published in
1997 and a similar number in the pipeline for 1998.
Bob's younger son, Nick Gormack, a subeditor on the Christchurch Press, has
more than a passing interest in the work of the press. In recent years he
has been responsible for introducing a younger generation of writers to the
publication list, including poets Kathleen Gallagher, David Howard and
Nick is at present working on his own handsome alphabet book, 'Letters are
to Learn'. It is illustrated by a talented local artist, Jenny Rendell,
and employs the full range of display lettering available at the press.
The future for the Nag's Head Press looks bright.
Since I wrote this article Bob has not been idle.
His recent publications
1998 A Christmas Treat and The Bottle - two of his own
1999 The Broadcast - another of his stories
2000 England Skittled, a cricket story celebrating New Zealand's
first cricket victory against England
2000 The Clutha Bridge - another of Bob's short stories
2001 The Sometime Shortage - a most entertaining short play Bob
has written about the shortage of women in early Canterbury.