P.T. Cremer: The Greatest Handwriting Copybook

In Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column, he looks at the fascinating P.T. Cremer of Dowra who invented the Cremer handwriting system...

It is easy enough to picture the scene as children long ago sat listening to the schoolmaster, each child holding chalk in hand while forming their first ABCs on pieces of slate. As proficiency developed, they could move on to more up-market mediums like the Vere Foster copybook, practising repetitively, sentence by sentence with lines like ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’.

Each generation brought new methods of teaching and, by the first half of the 20th century, the Cremer unit method became the standard way to teach writing in Ireland. A lesser-known fact is that the Cremer system was devised by Patrick T. Cremer from County Cavan.

In October 1953, the Tuam Herald noted that a sum of money amounting to £40 had been provided for a ‘modest tombstone’ in the will of the late P.T. Cremer whose estate, in total, consisted of a substantial £11,000. Cremer who, for most of his adult life lived in Dublin, had succeeded in promoting his handwriting system, not only to Irish schools but to foreign schools as far away as Africa whose first written sentences were composed on paper thanks to an Irishman.

For an epitaph, the Tuam Herald further suggested that ‘kind hearts are more than coronets’ should have been a more appropriate inscription to place on Mr Cremer’s headstone, as it was a motto so often traced by junior infants in handwriting lessons.

People who remember using the Cremer method will recall being told to make ‘the upstrokes light and the downstrokes heavy’ and how, in a corner of the classroom, lay a bundle of oblong-shaped Cremer copybooks with their red and blue lines, awaiting the mark of freshly sharpened pencil by infants each Autumn.

According to an article in this newspaper published at the time of his death in 1953, Patrick Thomas Cremer, was a native of Dowra, Co Cavan, situated in proximity to the county borderline with Co Leitrim.

As a child, Patrick, or ‘P.T.’, as some referred to him, was a product of the ‘Hedge School system’. A correspondent with the Leitrim Observer wrote on May 24, 1975, that regarding the history of the region into which P.T. was born that it was ‘thanks to the Herculean efforts of that noted historian of the parish, the late Peadar Clancy, headmaster of Slievenakilla NS,’ who ensured that ‘much of the history of the parish’ was written for posterity.

The headmaster’s research informs us that Patrick Cremer attended a nearby Hedge School in Eden, which was one of five such establishments in the area. Eden School itself was situated along the shores of Lough Allen in Co Leitrim.


Young Cremer, filled with the youthful exuberance of a Spring morning, attended school barefoot in those times and, on the occasion of his taking the King’s School examination, had traversed Slievanerin Mountain on the bare soles of his feet bringing him on his journey to the place of examination at Ballinamore. During his time at Eden, Cremer attended with punctuality and always arrived each morning in advance of the headmaster, Michael McMurrow, affectionately nicknamed ‘Gog’ by his pupils, which apparently was a derivative of the term ‘pedagogue’, that is, a learned person. Gog was highly esteemed by everyone in the community around Dowra.

Cremer System

From what information I could find on Patrick Cremer, it was interesting to note that his early career began as professor of Art and English at St Boniface College, Plymouth and thereafter he joined the staff at Rockwell College, Cashel, Co Tipperary, where he befriended a young Mathematics teacher named Eamon De Valera who, as history ably records, went on to become Taoiseach and later President of Ireland.

Cremer’s next career move was to join the publishing company of Messrs. Browne and Nolan as their education representative and having developed the Cremer Unit system for teaching handwriting, his employer Browne and Nolan realised the value of the invention and began to produce Cremer exercise copybooks for schools.

Meanwhile, Patrick toured Ireland in the 1920s, demonstrating the merits of his system and an account of a lecture he gave at Queen’s University, Belfast, appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on June 14, 1923, describing how the lecturer was listened to by over 100 students as Cremer ‘illustrated his remarks’ on a blackboard. The success of such a handwriting system, stated its inventor, was that it ‘established a simple positive method of proportion, which made for artistic formations, accurate spacing, and intelligent construction'.

When the lecture concluded, Cremer received loud applause around the lecture hall from the university’s students who effusively praised his ‘scientific method’ of linking letters together.

By 1930, the Cremer Unit System became the method of choice for most teachers who taught handwriting, and alongside the Cremer right-lined copybooks, sat the Cóip Leabhar Gaelic books, used for learning ‘Irish and English script’ in schools around the country. A review of the Cremer copybook stated that simplicity was the ‘keynote of the system’ and the aim was ‘to secure economy in time, intelligent execution’ and perfect legibility.

Two of Patrick Cremer’s well-known publications were ‘The Cremer-unit system of handwriting: explanatory system for teachers’, and 'Cremer's practical English composition'. Having died on April 16, 1953, Patrick Cremer was survived by his wife Claire. For additional reading on Patrick Thomas Cremer, I recommend an account by Helen Andrews published in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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