WILLIAM CASLON

More than three hundred years after his birth, the controversial subject of the birthplace of the famous typeface designer William Caslon is still hotly debated by some. Was he born in Cradley, as most reference works state, or was he from Halesowen?



Portrait of William Caslon, reproduced with the generous permission of W. Richard Caslon, Caslon Limited, Caslon House, Bakers Row, London
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 Portrait of William Caslon, reproduced with the generous permission of W. Richard Caslon, Caslon Limited, Caslon House, Bakers Row, London 


William Caslon (b. 1693) was apprenticed to a London engraver of gunlocks and barrels at age 13. He went into business for himself in 1716, engraving the tools and stamps used by bookbinders, and later cutting type punches.

In 1720 Caslon set up a type foundry, and by 1726 he had begun creating the famous typeface (inspired by earlier Dutch designs) which came to be known as "Caslon".

Caslon's work became the most widely used typeface of the eighteenth century. It was also extremely popular in what were then the American colonies, and was used for the first official printings of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Sample of Caslon typeface from "A Hue and cry after part of a pack of hounds, which broke out of their kennel in Westminster". London, printed for F. Style, 1739. (University Of Florida, Department of Fine Arts)
Click to open enlarged image (382 x 666 pixels) in new window
 Sample of Caslon typeface from "A Hue and cry after part of a pack of hounds, which broke out of their kennel in Westminster". London, printed for F. Style, 1739. (University Of Florida, Department of Fine Arts) 


William Caslon died in Bethnal Green (London) on Jan. 23, 1766.

Caslon's ancestry, and the Halesowen claim

No less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Caslon was born in Cradley. A web site search using the Google search engine with the words William Caslon Cradley (http://www.google.com/search?q=William+Caslon+Cradley) produces several dozen "hits".

In 1973 Dr Johnson Ball (Principal of Halesowen Technical College 1938-1952) of the Halesowen Local History Group published a biography of Caslon, "William Caslon, 1693-1766: the ancestry, life and connections of England's foremost letter-engraver and type-founder" (publ. 1973, Halesowen Local History Group; now out of print, but is listed on Amazon - check here).

In his book, Dr Ball presented the "Halesowen" case that Caslon was from Halesowen, rather than Cradley.

Here is a chart derived from Dr Ball's account, starting from William's grandfather:

An excerpt from William Caslon\'s family tree
 An excerpt from William Caslon's family tree 


The central theme of Dr Ball's Halesowen hypothesis is that there were two Caslon sons named William.

Dr Ball says that the "first" William dies in infancy, but he says that there is a second William - born in Halesowen, not Cradley - who survives.

Dr Ball gave three (unreferenced) parish register entries for the two Williams to support his argument:

  • 19 Jan. 1689 - 'William child of Geo. Casseltoune de Cradley by Mary his wife baptised'
  • "in March of the same year" 'William Casseltoune infant buried'
  • 23 April, 1693 'Wm. child of George Casselon by Mary his wife baptised'
On the basis of those three entries, Dr Ball asserted:

"It is the baptism of this earlier William which has given rise to the oft-repeated but unfounded tradition that the great type-founder, a later William, was born at Cradley. Moreover, it is the only reference to Cradley in any of the Caslon entries in the parish register, The property of William Castledowne the shoemaker was at Halesowen, his executors were of Halesowen, and the connections of the future typefounder, the Carpenters, the Shenstones, etc., were all at Halesowen, and the legend that William Caslon was a native of Cradley must, on all the evidence, be abandoned."

Dr Ball was silent on the question of why the “first” William is so clearly shown as being “of Cradley”.

The second William Caslon was, beyond any dispute, baptised at Halesowen, and not Cradley, on 23 April 1693, exactly as Dr Ball recorded.

Therefore - by Dr Ball's reasoning - surely it's obvious that William Caslon must have been born in Halesowen ... after all, had he been born in Cradley, it stands to reason that he would have been christened in a Cradley church!

Unfortunately, Dr Ball's account failed to tell his readers that not one child was christened in Cradley in 1693, because there were no churches in Cradley at that time!

Where, then, did Cradley parents take their children to be baptised? ...

The closest town with a church, of course (and they continued to do so even long after Cradley had its own churches). Yes, Halesowen.

Let us look again at those two parish register entries which Dr. Ball so confidently (and accurately) quoted:

  • 19 Jan. 1689 - 'William child of Geo. Casseltoune de Cradley by Mary his wife baptised'
  • "in March of the same year" 'William Casseltoune infant buried'
The evidence is clear; there was indeed a first-born William, who died in infancy, and was baptised at Halesowen; but note that at the time of his birth his father is explicitly shown as Geo. Casseltoune de Cradley.

The next-born son of George and Mary - also christened William - became the famous William Caslon. The documents show that he was baptised - baptised, not born - at Halesowen :

  • 23 April, 1693 'Wm. child of George Casselon by Mary his wife baptised'
Given the above facts, what is the more likely conclusion : was William's father George from Cradley, or Halesowen?

Cradley people have for three centuries taken it for granted that Caslon was a local boy. However, we acknowledge that some of our Halesowen friends and cousins may understandably prefer other views, which are always interesting to consider and debate.

But it seems to us that unless and until the historical record can produce a more definitive and better documented answer one way or the other, most Cradley folk are likely to continue to agree with the prevailing view (both from the literature and from the oral history) that William Caslon was, indeed, born a Cradley boy.



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