Witherby History

Celebrating Witherby's 280th Anniversary

In 2020 the company celebrates its 280th year.

Witherbys began business during 1740 in a coffee shop in London, immediately becoming involved in the marine industry, where Articles of Agreement were drawn up between the merchants, ship owners and Captains. Witherbys also published insurance clauses for the new insurance businesses. The company passed from father to son for seven generations until it merged in January 2008 with Seamanship International, a young dynamic company with ambitious plans. This merge saw the beginning of Witherby Publishing Group. Since that time, the company has continued to grow and during 2008, Witherbys won the Lloyds List Training Award. A charitable trust was formed in 2011 to primarily support sport and the arts in Scotland. In 2007 the company was awarded the Queen’s Award for International Trade.

Witherbys is based in Livingston, Scotland and has a portfolio of more than 400 titles in shipping, insurance and the energy sectors. They also publish material such as books and eBooks for IMO, SIGTTO, OCIMF, INTERTANKO and ICS. Witherbys export their books, training manuals and CD ROMs to more than 110 countries all around the world.

Since 2008 Witherbys have expanded their employee team and facilities in both Livingston and Delhi, India to ensure that market and customer demands are met.



Thomas Witherby was born in 1719 and started his Stationery business in Birchin Lane, near the Sword Blade House in the 1740s. The firm passed from father to son until the 7th generation.

  Seal of Thomas Witherby

Thomas’ excellent handwriting was ideal for producing legal documents, leases, wills and marriage settlements. Witherbys immediately became involved with the marine industry, drawing up Articles of Agreement between the merchants, shipowners and Captains and publishing insurance clauses for use by the new group of ‘underwriters’.

In 1748, Witherbys' original premises were destroyed by fire. Thomas signed a ten year lease for a new three storey house in 1749 and Elizabeth, Thomas’s sister, looked after the house. She married George Coltman who was initially made a partner within the firm, but he left to work at the Stamp Office.

Thomas married Elizabeth Sterrop in 1757 and their eldest son, William, was born the following year.

The following decade was an important one for Witherbys. A journal from this period shows that customers include several livery companies, shipping companies and law firms.


Heading to a set of insurance clauses for a voyage to Mexico

1767 saw Thomas elected to the Common Council of the Corporation of London as Councillor for Lanbourn Ward; he was appointed as Deputy to the Alderman for the ward in 1771.

William Witherby finished his apprentice ship in 1779 and, from around this time, the title printed on trade cards and in directories read ‘Witherby & Son’.

Trade card in the Heal collection, about 1780 Reproduced by courtesy of the 
Trustees of the British Museum

During this time, Thomas prepared a precedent book to be was used as a guide for his staff of law writers. It displayed the style, correct wording and required layout for various legal presentations.

The Deputy’s Precedent Book, showing a left hand folio

Thomas’ younger son, George Henry, became a partner in 1778, during the time that the company enjoyed an upsurge in their business.

During the early part of the 19th century Witherby & Sons continued to grow their business and by 1810, approximately 30 writers were employed by the firm.

George Henry died in 1805 from a stroke. Earlier that year he had employed his eldest son, George, as an apprentice. Responsibility for the firm was now passed to William, whose son William Henry was employed as a second apprentice. By 1816 William and the two apprentices were partners.

In 1817 William was elected to the Court of the Stationers’ Company, becoming Master for the year 1821-22. He retired in 1834 aged 76, having been with the firm for 62 years.

Witherbys opened a branch office and shop in Westminster in 1838, increasing the amount of parliamentary business the firm dealt with. In 1851 Walter, George’s son, became a partner. In 1853 a lease was taken out on a property that was much better placed for the Inns surrounding the courts.

George retired in 1857 and Walter’s younger brother Henry Forbes joined William Henry and Walter as a partner.

Witherbys acquired a printing business in 1860, a well timed move as in 1862 the Lord Chancellor decreed that all Chancery Affidavits and Depositions were to be printed. Underwriters could now be certain that the published marine insurance clauses were accurate and consistent as print plates were set up.

A year later Walter and William Henry retired leaving Henry Forbes Witherby as sole partner.

The long association with Birchin Lane came to an end when the bankers, Glyns, purchased the property. Witherby’s moved to a larger property in Cornhill that allowed the business to expand.

Typewriters were starting to be used, from 1890, for legal and general work. Henry Forbes obtained exclusive control over the sale of the American ‘Hall’ typewriters, which proved to be a very successful venture.


Part of Witherby’s advertisement in 
The Graphic – December 1885

Around 1889, Witherbys widened its marine publications interests through the purchase of the Royal Navy list, at the cost of £250. This was a standard work, published for the Navy and a copy was put on board every ship.

By 1894, two of Henry Forbes sons had joined the business as partners. Theodore was the eldest, but he did not take to the business and left to take Holy Orders. Harry was a keen naturalist looking to expand the publishing activities and, in 1899, Harry’s younger brother, George, joined the firm. This allowed Henry Forbes to retire and return to painting.

In 1902 Harry published a book about a recent trip to study birds in the Sudan. The book was called ‘Bird Hunting on the White Nile.’ During the years to 1913 another 30 books were published, mainly on birds, and the imprint was changed to Witherby & Co. A monthly magazine, ‘British Birds’, edited by Harry, was launched in 1907. It was printed and sent out from Holborn for more than 30 years.

During 1908, the partners bought Greaves Pass & Co, a firm of law and general stationers and in 1910 they bought the company Prince and Baugh.


While there was a surge in business immediately after the First World War, business was at a low ebb in 1922. In 1925 Harry’s eldest son, Thomas, joined the firm and in that same year Witherbys purchased the firm Bean Webley & Co.

Harry’s son Richard, who joined the business in 1927, was responsible for improving the efficiency of the monotype business at the Holborn factory. Things became very hard in 1929 as a result of the Wall Street Crash and the following depression, although there were signs of recovery by 1933.

In 1935 the partners agreed to turn the business in to a Private Limited Company, the full title becoming ‘Witherby & Company Limited’. George’s son, Antony, joined the firm in 1936. Once Antony’s training was completed, he assisted in the publishing side of the business.

During the Second World War the litho business, including the machines, plates and stock, and the Holborn business were completely destroyed on the same night. In 1942 the only member of the family in the firm was George, as all of the younger ones were in the army.

By 1948 the Holborn factory had been rebuilt and by the early 1950s the sales figures were improving again. In 1954 Witherbys bought the firm ‘Drake Driver and Leaver’, who were printers and stationers.

During early 1960s the seventh and last generation of the family joined the firm, Alan in 1962 and David in 1964.

Over the next twenty years several important changes happened. It was agreed that the Holborn factory was old fashioned and that it was not possible to use modern production techniques. After lengthy discussions, developers bought the property and, in 1965, the company moved to a new building in Aylesbury Street, EC1.

Richard, David and Alan’s priorities were to develop and modernise the existing systems as well as introduce new ideas. Alan was responsible for the publishing side and focussed on bringing in new titles from shipping, insurance and safety in the oil industry. He supervised the expansion as booksellers and began supplying business books both at home and overseas.