Last week I visited “the birthplace of modern stationery”, as Paul Woodmansterne describes it.

He is the owner of greetings card company Woodmansterne, located in at The Boulevard

Blackmoor Lane, next to the business park, and this year he is celebrating the 65th year of the business his father started.

Borehamwood Times:

Before I could delve into this history of the company and how things are run today, Paul enlightened me with the history of paper manufacturing in Watford to reveal why he believes the area to be one of the biggest influences to Western education.

“I think Watford is a fantastic place and I don’t think people realise how fantastic it is. I did a presentation when a painting came back for conservation – we have a programme where every two years we sponsor a conservation of artwork in public places.

“A painting came back to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and in this presentation I said ‘we bring the cash from Watford, the great centre of culture, to Oxford’. Everybody laughed and I thought, actually, this is not right.”

Paul goes on to explain the John Dickenson, whose mills stood where his company now resides, invented the means to produce continuing paper stream manufacturing. Before this, paper was handmade and so books were expensive. His invention meant that books could be printed cheaply enough to be available in schools for all children.

“So if you ask who is more important to the cultural life of this country, and the education of the western world, Oxford or Watford – it is Watford.”

John Dickenson also invented cardboard, enabling layers of paper to be combined together to be a stiff product, and the gummed envelope.

It is for these reasons that he calls it the birthplace of modern stationery, and he says working in the place where it all happened “sends a shiver down my spine every day”.

Where his store began

In 1940 Paul’s father and founder of the business, Graham Woodmansterne, made his first training film for British troops serving in India during the Second World War, interpreting culture through visual imagery has been at our core. In 1952, with a collection of five years’ original photography of cathedrals and country houses, Graham created a collection of colourslides depicting, as he put it, “the beauty, history and pageantry of Britain and the British way of life”.

With his Dutch wife, Willy, their colourslide publishing business got off to a fabulous start in 1953 with the first publicly-available, colour photographs of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. For thirty-five years, tourists, teachers and lecturers valued Woodmansterne as the leading publisher and manufacturer of colourslides in the world, and one of the foremost cataloguers of British cultural heritage.

The popularity of colourslides started to wane in the mid-1980s with the advent of digital photography and improvements of colour television. As Graham and Willy stepped back from running the company, it fell to Paul to reinvent the business. His wife, Bella, suggested they publish some Christmas cards of the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows in Christ Church, Oxford (where they had met as music students and where Paul used to sing in the cathedral choir).

Today, Woodmansterne (now a third general family business with Paul’s son Seth), has become the leading supplier of greeting cards to independent retailers in Britain, and, through their printing site in Croxley, and distribution centre in Milton Keynes, they supply around 30 million cards a year.

How has the business changed?

I asked Paul and his son, Seth, whether the interest in greetings cards has waned with the advent of the internet and social media. While Seth firmly shook his head, Paul told me: “Not at all. The UK is the largest consumer of greeting cards.

“It is very British to need to find a card to express yourself. We send more cards per capita than any other country and it is roughly 50 cards per head – that includes everyone, even babies.

“The only thing we’re under threat from is the shops that are struggling. We depend on the health of the shops and they’re going through a terrible time. If the shops don’t survive then we might not either.”

They have, however, come a long way from producing cards simply from images of fine art. Paul explains: “We as a business have migrated to look at what else people like. Where does the population lie? Humour. Almost every card we do has to raise a smile. We go to as far as ‘not rude’ but the cheekier the better.”

Today the majority of work happens from their Watford site, from design right through to folding the cards in half. I walked through the business and was able to see designers sat cross legged at their desks with an array of instruments in front of them working on cards for Christmas 2019.

I made my way through to the back where various industrial machines, some almost as old as the company, create their incredible and hugely popular greeting cards.

It is quite a sight to see all of that in one place, and Seth explains that the ability for the designs and printers to discuss things face to face is priceless and allows for the highest quality of production – as well as a family feel that still remains for all staff all these years since it began.