Street Names - Leighton Street

The indispensable craft of bookbinding has its roots firmly planted in antiquity.

This invention was taken up by churches and the word ‘bible’ comes from the town where Byzantine monks assembled their first scriptorium and from then on the book format became the preferred way of preserving printed material. But all these various methods paled into insignificance when Johannes Gutenberg invented the famous press named after him. The printed word became available to the masses, and was no longer the exclusive domain of scholars and the educated elite.

Mr James Francis Leighton was a bookbinder par excellence who was born in the parish of Clerkenwell, London in 1830. He was educated at a private school and then apprenticed at the young age of 10 to the well-known firm, Messrs Eyre and Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen and during the next four years he acquired enough experience to work for his cousins, Messrs Leighton and Son, bookbinders of the Strand, London.

After a merger the firm was called Messrs Leighton, Son and Hodge of Shoe Lane, Fleet Street. During his time there he was thoroughly taught every branch of the bookbinding trade. He must have demonstrated significant ability because the usual rule of keeping apprentices in one branch only was overlooked in his favour. When he had finished his apprenticeship in 1851 he gained employment with Messrs Samuel and Son where he was occupied binding special editions of the bible for the Royal courts of Europe. He later worked for Messrs Eeles and Sons of Chancery Lane and was engaged on the first issue of Dickens’ works.

But the siren call of the new world was irresistible and he left London in 1853 on the ‘Investigator’ to travel to Sydney arriving there in August that year. He was immediately employed by the Church Press Office to set up a bindery department but remained there for only two years in spite of excellent inducements to stay. He found the hot climate was too much to bear so he decided to approach the proprietors of the ‘Southern Cross’ where there was an opening in their bindery. He arrived in Auckland on the ‘William Denny’ in 1855 but instead of taking up employment, he opened a business in Shortland Street and later secured premises in High Street. While Auckland remained the capital he was bookbinder for the government and also gained the contract for the supply of stationery to the Imperial troops during the Maori war. On the removal of the government to Wellington he was urged by parliament to follow, but for domestic and business reasons he decided to remain in Auckland.

Meanwhile his eldest son joined Leighton in the business as junior partner. He was born in Ponsonby and educated at Auckland College, later named Auckland Grammar. He stayed in the business for only a short time before travelling to England where he acquainted himself with many of the leading manufacturers of stationery and formed many connections that proved to be exceedingly useful.

On his way back to Auckland he stopped off at Sydney where he stayed for three years in order to gain commercial experience. He finally left Sydney for Auckland on the ‘Wairarapa’ which proved to be the vessel’s final voyage to New Zealand. After an absence of nearly five years, all the souvenirs that he had collected from the many of the countries he had visited during his sojourn abroad were lost in the ‘Wairarapa’ wreck. He revisited Sydney for a short time but returned to Auckland and joined his father to take over managing the commercial side of the business.

In the interim his father, even though a prominent citizen, avoided taking active participation in public affairs. Instead, while continuing to enjoy excellent health he lived very quietly, content to be supervising the practical side of his business. It is worth noting that James Leighton was the first person to introduce ruling machines into the newly fledged colony more than 150 years ago. (DEIRDRE ROELANTS)