Letterpress to litho (1946-1998)

Location : London, Norfolk

Tony learned the printing trade in London and later opened his own printing company in Norfolk. He witnessed many changes in the printing process and sailed through a recession. On retirement he volunteered in Bishop Bonner’s Cottage in Dereham.

Entering the printing trade via the stationer’s shop

I started work just after the end of the Second World War, sometime in 1946. At that time, like so many of my contemporaries, I had no real idea of what I wanted to do in terms of work, and I suppose the upset of the Second World War that we went through added to the uncertainty of everything.

It so happened that an uncle of mine, who was very interested in my future, suggested that perhaps printing might be a good job to do. In those days, I have to say, one couldn’t just apply for a job in the printing industry, one had to be as it were put forward by someone – it’s not a process that I believe in but that’s how it was.

My uncle’s immediate superior was very friendly with the then Head of the Daily Telegraph reading department who said ‘we’ve no vacancies here’ but he contacted a friend of his who was Head Reader at a commercial printing company in London. As a result, I was given an interview and in fact given a job, not in the Reading Room but in the production department of that company.

There were various changes there and it so happened that I was then transferred to the City office, which also incorporated a small stationer’s shop and so that was really my start. I worked under a very nice gentleman who was extremely kind to me. I kept in touch with him after his retirement and indeed attended his funeral at the end. I have very fond memories of him. I had no formal training other than being under the watchful eye of this manager who taught me a lot.

I remember that in this shop they sold account books which were made in the factory at Waterloo in South East London. They were lined up in the display cabinets either bound in pigskin or calf. Pigskin was always red and shiny, and calf was rough and buff coloured. They were gold blocked by hand on the spine – ‘Cash Book’ or ‘Ledger’. They sold quite a lot of those; they were beautifully done.

Another recollection of mine was of the first biro pens that came out. Some people in the City wanted to be right up to date with these things and so there was quite a rush to buy one of these pens. They looked very much like the biros of today, a bit fatter and black. When the ink refill ran out customers had to bring the pens back to us. We took the pens over to the Miles Martin Pen Company somewhere in St. James in London. They took them behind the scenes and fitted a new refill – it was always very secret – and then the pen came back and was handed back to the customer after a day or two. It was quite cumbersome really, and I expect it was relatively expensive, because it was a new thing. It was the in thing and I daresay it was reflected in the price. I remember one irate customer came in one day with this pen which had leaked and ruined his shirt – there was ink all over, terrible state of affairs. Those were the early days of biros – they’ve come a long way since then.

Working in the City

One day I was asked to make an urgent delivery to one of the stockbrokers in the City. That would have been about a quarter of a mile away from where we were situated and the item in question was a quart bottle of red ink; this was for a large staff of office people. I took this bottle round, and somebody nudged into me – it was my fault I’m sure – and I dropped the bottle! That was right in front of the Mansion House and this red ink was all over the shop. I just can’t describe how awful I felt, I had to answer for this one when I went back but the manager was very kind and very understanding. I took another bottle and I managed to get that one there alright.

Those days in the City of London there were still quite a few horses, and so there were a number of Council workmen who used to go round with long handled shovels to clear up after the horses. They all gathered round and cleared all this up in no time at all – very much to my relief. I still had to go back and confess, which I did and survived, but I probably have the dubious claim of being the only person who’s dropped a quart bottle of red ink right in front of the Mansion House.

I remember being in the City, close to the Stock Exchange and there were a lot of stockbrokers around there. Some of the older stockbrokers would still go round, from the office to the Stock Exchange and back, in top hats. I’m sure they don’t do that now, in more modern times… wars of course always change a lot of things and the Second World War was no exception. I went on until I was eighteen and then I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force as it happened.

Production – learning the printing trade in London

I served just under two years, when I came out I was 20 and went back to the firm. By that time they had closed the City office so I was then drafted into the Production Department in the factory at Waterloo, South East London. At that time I went to the London School of Printing which was then situated just round the corner from the factory, which it was quite convenient – later it moved to Elephant and Castle. I did several courses and learnt a lot about costing and estimating. A lot of it was hands on learning from experience and other people. I wasn’t a factory hand. I didn’t work on the machines; I was always in the office. I have operated printing machines but I’m not what we would call in the trade a machine minder.

At that time, there were problems in getting paper because it was in rather short supply; but of course all industry was just gearing up after the war. Interestingly too at that time so many of the customers did not ask for a price – they wanted the product or book by a certain time and they were concerned that they would get it on time but they weren’t concerned about price. For many, many years now it has become practice for virtually everybody to ask the price for everything and I don’t blame them, I’m all for that. But that’s how it was then, it was about getting the work done.

That was a really happy time – it was a very good firm to work for. They employed about 400 people and were really busy and there was a lot of overtime available. I know a couple of chaps in particular who worked on a proofing press and they worked not only during the week but every weekend, so goodness knows what they were paid. The printing industry has always been quite well paid although it does depend very much on where you are; in the newspaper side they were extremely well paid. Many years back the chaps on the newspapers were working four nights a week and getting paid over £400 then.

The unions were very strong in those days. I wasn’t a member at that time because the arrangement where I worked was that you had to be a union member to get a job in the factory but in for the office it was optional. After a while, the union representative in the office spoke to me and as a result I did join the union. There were a number of trade unions then, nowadays I think many of them have merged… They held regular meetings. I attended one or two and then something happened and the union started bullying me, wanting something or other, and that I found intolerable. I went round to their office in Blackfriars and we had a real showdown as a result of which I left the union. I’m not anti-union at all but as so often seen in society, any group of people that gets power tends to abuse it.  I think probably there might have been a quarter or third of the office staff were members, the others were not. Some people had very strong views one way or the other about this.

They looked after us but by golly we had to work. I mean it really was frantic. You had a cup of coffee or a cup of tea in the morning, while you were working, and you didn’t have a break as such. You had a one hour lunch break – they had their own canteen but you didn’t have to go to the canteen, you could go out and do whatever you wanted. The firm was extremely busy and we had to work very quickly, and, of course, things had to be done correctly. The standards I must say were very high there, so it was a good training ground in that sense. There were some very good people there and I enjoyed working. In our job we weren’t paid for any overtime we did, so that was sort of discretionary on our part, it was left to us to decide whether we felt we ought to stay a bit later and do things. We were well looked after in other respects. We had a bonus at the end of the year and the relationship was good.

The tennis connection

As things came to pass, I was then put in charge of work that a particular director brought in. He’d been a Davis Cup tennis player just before the war and he had many friends in the tennis world. I remember he was particularly friendly with Jean Borotra, one of the notable French stars of the day known as the four musketeers, and he would often phone Borotra in his office in Paris.

A lot of work was brought in because of our director’s contacts and a lot of it was company work – reports and accounts – for the likes of Taylor Woodrow, Gossard, Furness Withy the shipping people, Rockwell Glass… and many other companies. Sometimes we would have twelve or more of these on the go. This was only part of the company’s work of course, and I was responsible for it. It could be quite hair-raising at times because of the legal commitment to send out annual reports to shareholders 21 days before the actual meeting. We had to conform to that and what I did when the job started, was to prepare a production schedule in conjunction with the customer. They didn’t always keep to it I have to say, but we were never late, and the jobs went out on time.

Because of our director’s connections at that time, we also printed the Queen’s Club Tournament programmes. And in those days, there were no e-mails or anything like that, so during the Tournament we would print the basic programme – the parts that didn’t change – and then every evening we would send a messenger over to the Queen’s Club who would wait until play had finished to get the results of the day and bring them back. We worked a night shift firm, and they would typeset the results and print that part and it was bound overnight and delivered back by 10 o’clock the next morning. I don’t know how it originally came to be called the Queen’s Club but it’s a very important place in the tennis world. Not as important as Wimbledon. I went often and saw the matches at Queen’s and also at Wimbledon because this Director would give me tickets, it was quite interesting.

Just before Christmas one year, before I was married, I was living with my widowed mother and I came home from work and she said, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but there is a big crate here addressed to you.’ It had come from a firm called Dolamore’s who were a leading wine merchants in London. I opened this crate and in it there were about ten bottles in there, if not more. There were two bottles of whisky, two bottles of gin, two bottles of champagne and four bottles of wine… in it was also a card, and this was the most important thing. It had come from this Director and it was addressed to me and his words were ‘With grateful thanks for all that you do for me.’ For looking after his work, making sure it was all done on time and to the customer’s satisfaction, and I would have been quite happy just to have the card really. It was a nice gesture, perhaps indicative in some ways of the relationship that existed in those days.

Letterpress to litho

Sadly things deteriorated after a time. I think in part perhaps in large part, due to the fact that the technology was changing and from one basic process of printing called letterpress it changed into another called lithography, or litho. They were different processes calling for different skills and different machines.

Letterpress was a very old process and was the commercial process of the day. Someone would bring some copy, and we would typeset it: little pieces of metal with the letter engraved at the top and about an inch in depth, were put together by people called compositors, so that it read correctly. Then the whole page was locked up tight in a metal frame, rather like a picture frame, which was called a chase. That was put on the machine, the inked roller would go over the top of it and only the letters that were in relief were actually inked and printed. The whole thing was very heavy of course because the type was made out of an alloy of tin, antimony and lead so it was very heavy stuff to move around. That was superseded as a commercial process and still exists in some parts, though there can’t be much letterpress being done in this country now.

Lithography was quite different; it was actually based on the antipathy of grease and water. For that you use a thin metal plate which was processed with the text. So the whole thing was flat and the whole plate was inked. The water part, which wasn’t treated, didn’t take the oil-based ink so it didn’t print. It was only the part that you wanted to print that the ink adhered to and that was the part that was printed. So instead of having something really heavy that you had to lug around, you could hold up a printing plate the size of a table between your thumb and forefinger, it was quite light. Of course, storage and everything else was much simpler.

That is how it has been for many years, the leading process. It wasn’t new – it wasn’t invented in the years after the Second World War – it went back I think to the 18th century where it was known as a process, but it never became a commercial process. In fact, when they were experimenting more with it after the Second World War, in the 50’s and 60’s, the blacks were always sort of grey, you could never get a really nice black. As they got over these things letterpress gradually went out of the window.

There were big, big changes and it meant that some firms that did not adapt went to the wall and were superseded by other new firms that started off with the litho process. Indeed, a lot of individuals who had their particular skills in letterpress, did not adapt. It meant a lot of re-investment in machines and all sorts of equipment. This firm I worked at sadly went down… At that time I could see what was happening and many of my other colleagues did too, and I left. The factory eventually closed which was sad because we never thought that that would happen; from a thriving company and a good company to nothing.

Moving on and working for the Westminster Press

I joined another printing company in Greenwich, South East London. They printed the local newspaper there and I remember one of the big publications they did was the Grocer. They were in the process of changing to the new way, but they were still printing by letterpress as well. Their whole approach to business was very different. It was a family run business and the father was really quite dictatorial and I didn’t like that; it didn’t work out very well.

The firm was acquired by a big group in London called the Westminster Press Group and the man at the head was no less than the Duke of Westminster who was then reputedly the richest man in the country. They were good and their office was situated in Great New Street, which is just off Fleet Street in London. I worked there for quite a time. They were very good people and the men at the top were gentlemen. I never saw the Duke of Westminster; I don’t know whether he ever appeared on the scene but one of the directors was a very nice man.

That worked out quite well but I was commuting up to London every day from Kent and I started to get this feeling in my mind that I would perhaps be doing that until I retired, which was quite a few years off at that point, and I thought I really need to do something, make a change… I’d still got my job in London of course and that was as far as anyone could tell a secure job, I didn’t feel I was going to be made redundant or anything like that. I had this fear that I’d get to 65 on my last day at work and I’d think ‘Gosh here I am, what a shame I didn’t try this or try that but it’s too late now.’ So I decided to do something; I spoke to my wife about it and we wanted to move away.

I didn’t really want to be commuting up to London, because it really wasn’t much fun and it was quite expensive to commute by train, every day. It was about three quarters of an hour I think the run up to London and of course you had to get to the station, and to the office at the other end, and then the reverse of that process at night. You get a lovely day perhaps in the summer and by the time you got home, it might have been about half past seven and the day is virtually gone. And quite tiring as well in itself.

Setting up in Norfolk, 500 years after Caxton

We looked around in various parts of the country and we ended up in Norfolk. We wanted a place with some land, preferably an old place. That was at the time when it was really a seller’s market and people were being gazumped left, right and centre – as we were, on several occasions. It was pretty awful, and we got to the stage where we’d almost given up. But I had a chappy up here who said, ‘I’ll keep an eye open for you on any places that I see’, and he found us one after we had almost given up the idea of moving.

One day this fellow phoned up, we were going to take the children – who were quite young then – to the zoo or somewhere. They were disappointed to hear that we were going to shoot up to Norfolk and of course the road system was not as good in those days. You had to go through a lot of villages, so it took quite a time to get up here. We looked at this place and we thought it was quite a joke at first. It was an old, 16th century farmhouse with a thatched roof, and it was in pretty poor condition. It had four and a half acres of land and was beautifully sited. We went home thinking ‘Oh gosh, is this any good?’ By the time we got home my wife and I had been chatting about it and we thought, ‘Well it’s got possibilities…’ and from that we pursued it. We managed to get the property in the end and so we moved up here.

Now of course that was all very well, what about a job? Before we moved, I had to go into all that and it so happened that someone I had worked with previously had become a sales rep to a company in Thetford. I hadn’t been in touch with him for some time, but I thought, ‘I’ll try him and see…’ I also went for an interview for another printing company at Fakenham and to cut a long story short, I was offered both jobs. In those days things were very different from what they are now. Hundreds of people seem to go after one job today, but it was very different then. I chose the job in Thetford and I was with the company for about four years, from 1972 when we moved up here in 1972, until 1976.

In that time, I met up and got friendly with a freelance graphic designer and we seemed to hit it off well. We had a number of discussions and decided that we’d start our own firm. And that’s what we did, in 1976 which so happened to be 500 years since William Caxton set up [thought to be the first person to introduce a printing press into England, in 1476, and the first English retailer of printed books]. Well, that’s a coincidence!

It was not for the fainthearted and I wouldn’t say you have to be exceptionally good, and I think you have to be exceptionally mad to do it. A particular kind of nut because it’s quite risky. I always likened it to wanting to jump over a stream – you get close but you’re still safe, but at some point you’ve actually got to jump and when you jump you’ve committed yourself.

We would go around speaking to people, getting advice. We were also helped by what I call an old style of bank manager who put us in touch with people who enabled us to acquire a unit on an industrial site. We actually started in one of the barns in the grounds where I lived. At first, we were the firm, the two of us with our wives helping in the background, before we started employing people. At one time I was seeing customers during the day and working one of the machines at night – it was tough going for a while, but you have to be prepared to do these things. We progressed and then we moved into an industrial unit in Dereham and started employing people.

The trials of running a company

We did quite well for many years but then there was a recession; things became very tough. When you’re running a firm like that you’re really governed by market forces, and you have to give credit to customers. In other words, you do the work and then you wait for the payment, and of course you’re exposed then. We did a lot of work for Jeyes here, at the time and The University of East Anglia and Crane Fruehauf and a number of London companies from my past…

If you went up to companies like that and said, ‘Please can we do some work for you, but we want payment up front’, they would tell you to go away and give it to someone else where they’d get 30 days or more credit. You have to be as careful as you can and in some instances you would ask for money up front. We had this recession and a number of companies went down and we were owed in the region of £30,000 totally. In practice what happens is that you’re likely to get nothing or at best perhaps a penny or tuppence in the pound – that was not good.

We went through a tough time but just about then, when things were not too good nationally, we had a call out of the blue from the BBC. At that time, somewhere in the 1980’s, Noel Edmonds was running a jokey TV programme and I said, ‘This is about Noel Edmonds is it?’ ‘No, this is about Panorama.’ They said, ‘We’ve picked four small companies in this area – and I don’t know to this day how we were picked – a Thetford company, another company at Fakenham, and another one in Norwich’. They were writing a magazine article and the gist of it was that the recession at that point had not really hit East Anglia.

They came up for about two hours, taking sound recordings and I said to my partner then, ‘Do you want to do the speaking bit?’ he said ‘No, I’d rather you do it.’ We did it in one take but in all honesty I don’t think it was very good, but it went through anyway and it was rather interesting to hear David Dimbleby announce my name on television. We were on the programme I think for a couple of minutes, that was all. But it was a quite interesting exercise, and we were paid about £50.

Sometime after that my partner left so I became in sole charge and we became a limited company. I carried on until I eventually retired in 1998, at the age of 68 which by coincidence was the same age that my father retired – unfortunately, he died in the same year, so he didn’t have really much retirement at all. That was just about the end of my working life, though I seem to have been very busy since then in fact I have often thought I should find a job to give myself time to do things.

Leisure activities and a busy retirement in Dereham

In the earlier days I used to go to football and play a bit for a local team. Table tennis was really my game as a teenager and I used to go down to the local YMCA at Dartford which has long since gone. I used to go down on Saturdays with two friends of mine. The table tennis room was open all day, from about 10 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night and we’d stay there all day. There was only one table and we had to share with other people, but they tended to not come in until later on Saturday and so the three of us were pretty well playing there all day. I think we perhaps paid a subscription to belong and then it was free. But it worked out very well and we entered various tournaments, we were I suppose decent club players. I did once beat the Kent junior champion, but I don’t know whether he was trying or not, I’m not sure! Now I probably couldn’t get the ball on the table. But it was quite good fun.

Things moved on and I was very busy with work… my friends went various places and we all sort of split up so that was the end of that. I have always been quite keen on football and I used to commonly go to see professional matches. I’ve been to most of the London grounds anyway to see the teams play and I’ve always been interested in following the sport but for many years I haven’t engaged in anything at all.

Then when I retired, my wife had been a secretary of the local WEA branch which is the Workers Educational Association with branches nationally. It’s a non-political, non-religious organisation that sets up lecture groups for people, and she had been the secretary for a while. So I got caught up with that and then the Chairman was standing down and they wanted me to be Chairman, so I was Chairman of the local branch for about twelve years I think it was. I am still involved and my wife is still secretary. She’s been doing this for over twenty years, she’s still going strong even though she is disabled – she’s one of those very determined people and she does really well.

We also got involved with the Dereham Antiquarian Society, which was formed in 1953, with local people who were interested in history and collection of old items. That’s how the Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum at Dereham came to be opened in 1963, ten years after the formation of the Society, in this old building dating from 1502. It was three one-up one-down cottages originally. When one part became vacant, it opened as a little museum and eventually as the other parts were vacated the whole building became a museum – which is only six small rooms in fact. I was the Chairman of the Society for some six years but I stood down last year; I thought it was about time I gave way to somebody else, younger.

It was called Bishop Bonner’s Cottage because a man called Edmund Bonner was Rector of Dereham in 1534 and he became quite famous [as Bishop of London]. He was involved with Henry VIII and went over to negotiate with the Pope on behalf of the King when Henry was wanting to arrange a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Bonner was a staunch Catholic which got him into trouble when Edward VI, who was a protestant, came to the throne. Bonner found himself out of favour and in fact finished up in prison at the time.

When Edward was succeeded by Mary I, a Catholic, Bonner came back into favour but was said to be involved, in some cases hands on, with the torture and killing of Protestants that occurred in those days. Many of them were burnt at the stake and that was not very nice to say the least. Mary was on the throne for five years and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I in 1558 and Elizabeth herself was a Protestant so again things weren’t so good for Bonner. In the following year he was again put in prison then spent the last nine or ten years in prison where he died. It was a roller coaster life for him and he was quite a prominent figure at one time. He was Rector in Dereham and I’m sure he never lived in these particular cottages though they were owned by the church, and very close to the church too.

Tony Jones (b. 1930) talking to WISEArchive in Bradenham on 20th July 2012.

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