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Thorp, Joseph Peter (1873–1962), journalist and typographer, was born at 9 Widcombe Crescent, Bath, on 11 May 1873, the son of William Thorp (1823–1904), then an Anglican curate at Widcombe, Somerset, and his wife, Catherine Josephine, née Atkinson (b. 1847). His parents separated in 1875 when he was two. He was brought up by his mother as a Roman Catholic at the home, in Reading, Berkshire, of his elderly and twice-widowed grandmother, Elizabeth Chester Fernie (c.1818–1898), and sent from the age of seven to Catholic boarding schools: in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire; Baylis House preparatory school at Salt Hill, near Slough; and then in 1885 to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He had been baptized Joseph Atkinson, but in adult life he adopted the name Peter.

On leaving school in 1891 Thorp entered the novitiate in the Society of Jesus. His training included being part of the community at Manresa House, Roehampton, and acting as a schoolmaster at Beaumont College, Old Windsor. In 1901, after ten years as a Jesuit, he was advised that the freer life of a secular priest might be more in keeping with his temperament, and he was sent by Cardinal Vaughan to Oscott College for further training. But at the age of twenty-nine he seemed out of place with his much younger fellow students, and he returned to lodgings in the archbishop's house in order to be a master at Westminster Cathedral choir school while completing his studies. The new archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bourne, declined to take responsibility for his ordination, an article on agnosticism published by Thorp under a pseudonym in the American Ecclesiastical Review having been deemed unacceptable to the church authorities.

The generosity of friends helped Thorp to recover from the shock of becoming a layman. The publisher Wilfrid Meynell gave him free food and lodging, while another Catholic publisher, Bernard Newdigate (1869–1944), gave him a temporary job as ‘a reader’. A visit in 1904 to the printing works in Leamington used by the Arden Press, the publishing side of the Art and Book Company created by Newdigate's father, aroused in Thorp a strong interest in layout and typeface design. In Newdigate's publishing office he encountered Ellen (Helen) Syrett (b. 1874), the daughter of Ernest Syrett, linen draper. They were married in Westminster Cathedral on 9 August 1905. A prize student at the Slade School of Fine Art, Helen was a Yellow Book artist known to connoisseurs as a painter of fans; she was then illustrating The Dream Garden, edited by her elder sister Netta Syrett, the novelist. They had no children. The envoi of his memoirs, Friends and Adventures (1931), implies that they were unfaithful to each other.

For a decade Thorp had no secure income, working variously as a freelance journalist and as a layout designer in advertising. In 1905 he was employed as a commercial traveller by W. H. Smith & Son where, under the influence of Herbert Morgan (1880–1951), he moved into advertising, and became head of the copy department in its agency run by Charles F. Higham. His contact with St John Hornby gave him the opportunity to assist in the takeover of the Arden Press by W. H. Smith when the printing works was moved to Letchworth. He had his own printing typeface (Decoy Type) and his own press, the Decoy Press, which was an imprint that he was allowed to use by Harold Curwen (1885–1949) of the Curwen Press, by whom Thorp was hired in 1918 as a publicist. During these years he also gained the confidence of the newspaper proprietors the Berry brothers, owners of Advertising World.

With the instincts of a professional entertainer and a flair for making networks of personal contacts Thorp adored trumpeting a cause. He was labelled ‘a young man with a programme’ (Catholic Who's Who, 1908). His ‘programme’ had two principal objectives, securing all kinds of standardization to make a common language of signs and persuading manufacturers to adopt attractive designs for everyday goods. His other public interest lay in organizing social service. During the constitutional crisis of 1910 he placed ‘An open letter to English gentlemen’ under the pseudonym of Pars Minima in the Hibbert Journal, announcing the formation of a new movement whose inspiration was ‘the spirit of the Samurai’, uniting men of good will among the professional and business classes in organized philanthropy and personal service. Its focus was the Agenda Club, publicly inaugurated at a dinner in December 1910, of which Thorp was secretary for two years, touring the country to gain recruits on its behalf and entering the mainly protestant world of Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools, which he had hitherto known only by repute. It created a network of sponsors in what he regarded as partly a club, partly a postgraduate university, and partly a religious order. Among those from whom he raised money were Owen Seaman, the editor of Punch, and A. A. Milne, that magazine's dramatic critic.

In 1915 Seaman invited Thorp to replace A. A. Milne as drama critic on Punch when the latter was conscripted. Writing as ‘T of Punch’ Thorp continued as drama critic until his retirement in 1934. In addition to his weekly Punch contribution he joined the editorial team of a monthly, The Athenaeum, led by Arthur Greenwood, which in December 1916 changed the character of that journal from a review of the arts to a discussion of the problems of post-war reconstruction. With the benefits of this transformation he created in February 1917 the luncheon club called the , which he saw as a continuation of his Agenda Club in its aim of generating ideas for post-war social reconstruction.

Thorp maintained his interest in typography. The foundation in May 1915 of the Design and Industries Association, with the motto Fitness for use, brought commercial voices in support of the programme he had been pursuing and extended his personal contacts. With the encouragement of Herbert Morgan he went on to write Publishing for Business (1919), which was described as ‘a manual of printing practice in non-technical idiom’. During 1921–2 he was a member of the Bowerman committee, which advised the government on the design of official publications. He was flattered to be invited in 1924 to be one of the founding members of the Double Crown Club, which was confined to ‘those who had rendered some special service to English Printing’. In 1925 he was commissioned to recast the format of the Morning Post; some of his suggestions were adopted by the Manchester Guardian. His interest in lettering led him to write a book on Eric Gill, published in 1929.

Thorp was elected a member of the National Liberal Club. But his favourite ‘sodality’—a term he had learnt from Stonyhurst—was the Savile Club, to which he had been introduced by Morley Horder, the architect. In retirement he and his wife lived from 1937 at the White Cottage, Portmeirion, the village in north Wales created by a member of the Romney Street group, Clough Williams-Ellis, which attracted many leftish intellectuals. Latterly resident in a nursing home, Nazareth House, Llanystumdwy, he died on 23 February 1962 in Brony-y-garth, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth.

J. M. Lee

Sources  

T. of Punch [J. P. Thorp], Friends and adventures (1931) · J. Thorp, B. H. Newdigate: scholar-printer, 1869–1944 (1950) · The Catholic who's who [1908 edn onwards] · Hibbert Journal, 8/4 (1910), 705–20 · H. Simon, Song and words: a history of the Curwen Press (1973) · Printing Review, 12/40 (1945–6), 5–28 · Printing World, 196/8 (21 Feb 1975), 189, 192 · Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (7 May 1920), 405–10 · E. Hobsbawm, Interesting times: a twentieth-century life (2002), 233–43 · The Times (3 March 1962); (6 March 1962); (9 March 1962) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

NL Wales, Thomas Jones papers, class C, vol. 19


Likenesses  

photograph, 1917, priv. coll., Florence Schuster's diary · H. Coster, half-plate film negatives, 1926, NPG · H. Coster, double portrait, photograph, 1928 (with E. Gill), NPG