Bob Gormack - man of books
Dorothy - 12/11/04
If you are a lover of New Zealand books, you will probably have heard of
Bob Gormack and seen some of the books printed by him at Nag's Head Press
in Christchurch - beautiful small volumes printed in hand-set type on an
antique Harrild & Sons printing press.
The topics range from New Zealand poetry and Bob's diaries 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
Diminishing the Rabbit Nuisance 1877.
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.
Diary for 1942-3 and Diary of a Hundred Days
These diaries published much later in Bob's life give a valuable picture of
life in Christchurch in the war years.
Diary for 1942-3 gives a fascinating insight into the thoughts,
ambitions and problems of a writer in his student days. He read widely -
philosophy, psychology, poetry, drama and novels - and did not confine his
reading to works written in English. He records his reactions to other
people's writing and to the music he listened to, including the music of
his friend Douglas Lilburn. He attended literature lectures given by
Winston Rhodes, and evaluates these in his diary.
A group of people, mainly men, living in rented rooms formed the Sanseneise
Society and met in each other's rooms for meals and in depth discussions on
life and writing. For this group Bob wrote what he calls his Sanseneise
farce and the group put on a successful performance of this in the
University's Little Theatre.
Bob writes about his stage experience in the cast of Shakespearian plays
put on by Ngaio Marsh. In a footnote he writes about acting in the role of
gravedigger in Hamlet:
"Looking back, it appears to have worked out very well indeed. With this
gravedigger's role I gained an entry to a whole new world of Shakespearian
theatre experience, under the direction of Ngaio Marsh. I got minor
character parts in her first five Shakespeare productions with the
Canterbury students, ending with Macbeth in 1946. In addition
there were the semi-professional tours, first round the New Zealand cities
then later by ship to Australia."
Diary of a Hundred Days
This detailed account of life in Christchurch in the middle of World War 2
was kept for a hundred days in 1943 and sent as daily letters to peace
activist Wilf Foote in a detention camp in the North Island. The letters
were kept and published in Diary of a Hundred Days and are now an
important document of New Zealand's social history.
Ventures into business as a printer
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 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, 'Nag's Head
Working at Pegasus Press
For the next few years Bob worked in other printing firms. He particularly
valued his work as a compositor at Pegasus Press started by Albion Wright.
Pegasus published some memorable material such as the Maori magazine Te
Ao Hou, and the great Canterbury Centennial book The Journal of
Edward Ward recording his voyage to Lyttelton in 1950. He sailed on
the Charlotte Jane with well known pioneers - James Edward
Fitzgerald, Alfred Charles Barker and Charles Thomas Cholmondeley.
At Pegasus he met people who were to make their mark as significant New
Zealand writers. He worked with New Zealand poet Denis Glover, and when
Albion Wright published seven paperback books of the work of seven New
Zealand poets he took Bob's suggestion of publishing an eighth book of the
poetry of John Caselberg. Bob and John corresponded regularly over the
years and one of the first books published by Nag's Head Press was Six
Songs in the Wake, poems written by Caselberg after the death of his
dog. Later these poems received further recognition when lines from them
were used in a series of paintings by Colin McCahon.
After his work at Pegasus Bob and his wife Helen went to Britain for him to
gain some experience in the printing industry there.
Editor at Whitcombe and Tombs
On his return from Britain he took 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
Among the hundreds of books that he edited were Philip Temple's non-fiction
books, and John A Lee's Roughnecks, Rolling Stones and
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
him fully occupied.
Nag's Head Press starts on a machine confiscated by police during the
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 had been returned and had
lain, dismantled, in the garage at the property where Lincoln Efford's
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 - "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 Nag's Head Press
For the first publication by 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 119 books printed on that original press
As I write this Bob has completed the printing of his 119th book. The
titles include a wide range of subjects, but poetry and New Zealand and
Australian history are favourite topics. He 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:
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]
His personal journey
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 frrom London at Coronation Time
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 ll 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
Interest from collectors
Ross Humphries, a specialist on New Zealand books and formerly manager of
Smiths Bookshop, said 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
The future of Nag's Head Press
Nag's Head Press is an on-going concern, with titles published in 2002 and
others in the pipeline.
Bob's younger son, Nick Gormack, works as a journalist, but 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 Bill Direen.
Nick produced 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 Nag's Head Press looks as interesting as ever.
Nick Gormack intends to carry on with the work at Nag's Head Press, but Bob is no longer alive to be part of the enterprise.
Bob died after a short illness on August 20, 2006.