Thomas de la Rue was born in a small hamlet in Guernsey called Le Bourg in 1793, the seventh child (of nine) of Eleazar and Rachel de la Rue.In 1803, aged ten, he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Joseph Antoine Chevalier, a master printer in St Peter Port who produced the Gazette de l’Île de Guernsey, the first printed newspaper on the island, gaining a thorough knowledge of printing. In 1813 he set up a joint business printing Le Publiciste, then in 1816 started a rival publication Le Miroir Politique. In 1818 he moved to London with his family and set up shop initially as a straw hat manufacturer, but he soon diversified into bookbinding and the embossing of leather, and then into paper manufacture. By around 1828 his interests had moved to playing cards and he introduced letter-press printing in 1830 together with Samuel Cornish and William Rock, founding a business of “cardmakers, hot pressers and enamellers”. Prior to this, playing cards were flimsy, printed from woodblocks and hand-coloured using stencils. De la Rue’s ‘improvements’ included quicker drying coloured inks, improved glazing technology and the use of enamelled paper, resulting in a much stiffer, glossier and more durable product. In 1831, de la Rue was granted the Royal Warrant to print playing cards, making it the first company to do so; it printed its first pack the following year and came to be recognised as the inventor of the modern English playing card.
Besides manufacturing playing cards and card games, the firm also printed railway tickets and visiting cards using his enamelled playing-card paper. De la Rue’s card games were of the highest quality and tended to be expensive.
De La Rue became the principal printer of fiscal, inland revenue and postage stamps and banknotes for the UK and colonies, and over the years the best engravers and miniature designers worked for De La Rue.
After WWI playing card production took off and De La Rue absorbed the famous card maker Chas Goodall, keeping the name, until the slump of the 30s forced them to help out Waddingtons with their production – a good thing, because when the De La Rue buildings were destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, Waddingtons took over their production in Leeds.
The two firms joined forces, becoming the Amalgamated Playing Card Co, but De La Rue sold out the playing card franchise to Waddingtons in 1971.
In 1970, the entire De La Rue collection of playing cards was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for £12,000 to the Fournier collection, Spain.
Thomas De La Rue International Ltd now specialises in the manufacture of banknotes and other security documents, printing, currency counting machinery and money dispensers. It also has interests in the design and sale of banknote printing machinery.