By 1930 or soon after, the days of (comparative) prosperity for the English hand-printer were over. The economic blizzard was blowing and one by one the hand presses were swept away. At least three families were drawing their livelihood from the St Dominic’s Press, and mechanisation became inevitable. A sign of things to come was the introduction of a treadle ‘platen’ machine -the first step towards the appearance of the Heidelberg power press and the linotype. Handmade paper was less and less in use; the authentic founder’s type gave way gradually to the facilities of monotype. Eventually, when the transformation was seen to be inevitable, the Press was moved to more suitable premises in Ditchling Village, where it had begun. Soon after, Pepler retired from printing and gave over the control of the Press to his son Mark and to his friend Cyril Costick, who had been with him almost from the beginning and was his first apprentice.
Pepler’s other great interest was the drama. During his early years in London he had joined the O.P. Club (a body chiefly made up of first-nighters), and also a Shakespeare Society with headquarters in Cavendish Square, for whose productions he acted, among other parts, Sir Toby Belch and Don Amando (Love’s Labor’s Lost). He read and thought deeply on the history and significance of the drama, especially in its relation to the liturgy. He came to concentrate especially on the art of mime, of which he became a producer of distinction. His mimed Stations of the Cross, the principles of which he explained in a little book, The Stations of the Cross in Mime (Blackfriars Publications) he produced during Lent 1932 in the church of the Sacred Heart, Pittsburgh, and later in the cathedral at St Paul, Minnesota, and again, with Indian actors, at Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the second world war he presented his mimed Stations of the Cross in a London underground air-raid shelter; and he also presented them, with Dominican students as the actors, in the Dominican Priory at Salamanca, during a visit to Spain. In 1936 he presented his mime, The Field Is Won, at the Victoria Palace Theatre, as part of the celebrations in honour of the canonisation of St john Fisher and St Thomas More.
At Ditchling he had his own puppet theatre, and in 1930 he presented his puppets at the international marionette festival at Liege. At different times he presented for the B.B.C. mimed versions for television of Pilgrim’s Progress, Everyman, The Eve of St Agnes, The Ancient Mariner, Jacob and Esau, Aesop’s Fables, and My Lady Poltagrue (which Belloc watched at Messrs Alfred Imhoff’s in Oxford Street-probably the only time he ever witnessed television).
As a writer Hilary Pepler is yet to be discovered-except by the few who possess the handprinted books of the St Dominic’s Press. His The Devil‘s Devices is a lively distributist squib, an entertaining mixture of prose, verse, and Gill’s illustrations; probably it is too topical to bear reprinting today. But he wrote a little masterpiece for his series of ‘Welfare Handbooks’ in Missions: or Sheepfolds and Shambles by A Sheep (1922). Fr Vincent McNabb, in his book The Church and the Land, describes this as ‘an open letter to a Catholic Master-Shepherd set to literary prose’. ‘Those who know the hand-printing of St Dominic’s Press, Ditchling, Sussex’, he says, ‘will find the case for the land put with force and literature in a pamphlet entitled Missions. . . . More prophetic insight finds its place in this slender book than we have seen since Cobbett.’
Pepler’s play St Dominic has always seemed to me a moving piece of work, capturing perfectly the spirit of the Founder of the Friars Preachers; as far as I know, it has never been performed. But his passion play, Pilate, has been many times acted; and never without making a profound impression. Some of his poems in lighter vein, The Law the Lawyers Know About and Christmas Gifts, for example, have been many times reprinted in anthologies; but his finest poems are still unknown except to those who have his handprinted books Nisi Dominus, In Petra, and Pertinent and Impertinent.
In the years immediately following Chesterton’s death in 1936, Pepler was associated with Mr Belloc and Reginald Jebb in carrying on the editorship and publication of G.K.’s Weekly under its new name, The Weekly Review.
Pepler was a Liveryman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company and a Freeman of the City of London; but perhaps he took more pride in his unique office as Reeve of Ditchling Common-a rcsponsible position which brought him into close contact with the local farmers who exercised grazing rights on the Common.
But the privilege that he valued most deeply was that of being a Dominican Tertiary. He was deeply devoted to thc Ordcr of Preachers, in which he had the happiness in 1932 of seeing one of his sons ordained priest. (And to how many young men disappointed in their trial of a hoped-for Dominican vocation did he not give work and hospitality while they adjusted themselves to the world anew?-a singularly delicate charity. Some of these young men eventually attained the priesthood by other paths.)
Pepler was a great man, large of frame and large of heart. To describe him is for me impossible. To borrow some words of Chesterton’s, ‘as a friend he is too near me, and as a hero too far away’. I recall his wonderful spirit of hospitality, the range of his interests in music, literature, and art, his piety and his profanity, his humour and sense of fun.
But perhaps he is best remembered as the much loved father and patriarch of a Catholic family and household in which there prevailed a singular dignity, graciousness, and gracefulness (in the deepest, theological meaning of the word).