The first textbooks
The mission presses made the earliest attempts to describe the Māori language. William Williams’s Dictionary of the New Zealand language and a concise grammar (1844) was the first major secular book from Colenso’s press. Mission presses also produced the first texts, in Māori, specifically designed for teaching purposes, especially readers (books for teaching reading).
Most textbooks used in schools up to 1880 were directed at the children of settlers and were standard sets imported from Britain. With the Education Act 1877 making primary education free, secular and compulsory, an opportunity arose for Whitcombe and Tombs, which became New Zealand’s first professional and long-term publisher.
George Whitcombe had four daughters and eight sons. Most of the sons joined the family firm and by the 1920s, with the eldest son, Bertie, managing director, nearly all the branches were managed by Whitcombes. George Tombs had several sons – Felix joined the firm, but Harry left it in 1915 to set up his own printing firm, H. H. Tombs.
Whitcombe and Tombs
In 1882 in Christchurch George Whitcombe, a bookseller, joined forces with George Tombs, a printer. The new venture continued to print and sell books, and also began to publish them. This cross-subsidisation drove much of its success. Whitcombe and Tombs had offices and printing factories in all the main centres by 1890, and nationwide distribution arrangements. It opened a buying office in London in 1893.
As a publisher it dominated the educational market from the mid-1880s to 1940. It began with geography, a likely subject for a local publisher. Soon Whitcombes was publishing graded books in almost every primary school subject as well as school stationery books.
The firm published at least five different series of infant readers. Pacific Readers, for example, were sold in huge quantities from 1911 to 1931, as many as 175,000 copies per reader.
The best remembered Whitcombe and Tombs school books were the Whitcombes Story Books, supplementary readers that were reprints and adaptations of favourite stories from many sources. It became the biggest series of children’s books in the world at that time. Started in 1908, they grew to 450 titles in more than 1,500 editions and are said to have achieved sales of over 12 million copies by 1962.
On the suggestion of James Hight – the first editor, appointed in 1901 – Whitcombes moved into the Australian education market. They adapted local series and developed new ones for the Australian states. Austral Primers and Federal Arithmetics, for example, were sold in large quantities through their own bookshops in the main cities.
Hight also encouraged Whitcombes into some general book publishing on scientific, technical or legal subjects, cookery and gardening, history and biography, atlases and dictionaries. They were practical, durable and safe titles, without much flair in design or selection. A few literary titles were included – poet Blanche Baughan was a strong Whitcombes author.
The Government Printing Office too continued to publish general books outside its specific mandate, often sharing authors with Whitcombes. It published many of Elsdon Best’s ethnological works for the Dominion Museum and James Cowan’s The New Zealand wars (1922–23).