The St Omers Press is over 400 years old, originally founded as the printing and publishing arm of St Omers English Jesuit College, the direct ancestor of the present-day Stonyhurst College.
St Omers College started its existence in August 1593, at Saint-Omer, near Calais, as a school for English Catholic boys at a time when the Catholic religion was illegal in England and Wales. The College flourished, despite many setbacks, relocating to Bruges in 1762 and Liege in 1773, moving to its present location at Stonyhurst in Lancashire in 1794 as a result of the French Revolution.
The St Omers Press was described by Bishop Jacques Blaise of Saint-Omer shortly after it was instituted in 1608 as ‘a little house equipped with a printing press and all the accessories of printing, and very handsome too.’ Catholic books were illegal in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and so the press operated as a secret imprint, smuggling unbound books across the Channel into England and Wales. It was a perilous and costly activity, requiring fees to agents and underground distributors in Europe and England, and hefty payments to those ship captains prepared to take the risk of carrying illegal printed texts. In the reign of James VI & I the fine for ownership or purchase of a single book in England was forty shillings.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the Press printed a wide variety of devotional and spiritual Catholic texts, cultural, dramatic and poetic works, religious printed images as well as polemical and political controversies. As toleration for Catholics flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, the role of the St Omers Press changed. Nowadays it focuses on the cultural, artistic and spiritual endeavours of Stonyhurst College and its extraordinarily rich collections, libraries and archives, and the broad-ranging work of the British Jesuit Province.