The Printer’s Devil (2008)

Location : London


I first started working in the printing trade at the age of 15. Being amongst the first group affected when the school leaving age was raised on April 1st 1947. Looking back, The Obelisk Press, Lewisham in South London, a converted stove from the nearby large store "Chiesemans" was my first print shop. With no heating bar a coke burning stove in the middle of the Machine room! Washing was in a metal sink outside. I spent a year working there as the dogsbody, sweeping up, fetching lunch break snacks. Acting as a Messenger with the MD, he in his Car, me on the tram/bus, collecting and delivering in London. Plus Collating, Gluing, Stapling etc., in the *finishing Department. All for 28 shillings a week. (*Mr Clarke and Mrs Green)

This proved over the years to be a valuable experience however – but they could not offer me the apprenticeship, as a Compositor that I sought. Men were still returning from War Service, staffing levels required by the Print Union did not exist. So began a somewhat chequered working life involving the Union, working in an "open house" in Clerkenwell EC1. Due to my naivety to a degree not having anyone to advise me. Unions did much to improve working conditions and apprenticeship training. Much fiction abounded however when you mentioned you was a printer **. That it was often very hard work in the "Art & Craft" of printing was not fiction.

** You only worked a 3-day week, earned a fortune, especially on a Saturday night or a Friend and neighbour/relative did who worked on The Daily Something in Ink Street!

But I was a union Member (Still am rtd.) did my bit in the "Chapel". Worked in several printing works over the years gaining experience of different types of print work. Even worked as a Stonehand, imposing the pages mainly for books in correct position ready for printing. Heavy work in hot metal days but it earned an extra 10 shillings a week (50p). Typecases (not intended to store your thimble collection) galleys, Galley proofs, Formes, and Quoins all terms that had a meaning, now lost in the mists of time.

Although the "Print" was considered to be a well-paid job, the increases per year were not large. £20 a week on my return to the trade after 2 years National Service in 1956 took a while to increase by any sizable amount.

Did eventually make Overseer, Production Manager, and got a Company Car even – but many changes were happening in the Trade. Computers replaced Compositors, with no need for typecases any size you liked without resetting as long as you got the Computer "booted up" you could have any type face you liked. No need to visit Yendalls or other trade typesetters for a fount of new type.

Finally came Metric paper sizes, no more Crown, Double Demy, Foolscap, and redundancy. Working on a local Free Newspaper with paste up and scalpels and page size camera negatives to the Printers. Much easier to carry 16 negatives than 16 pages of typeset pages and it won't get pied (get knocked over or dropped or jumbled in a heap). Computers may crash; the Compositors dread however was "printer's pie". But with respect forty odd years passed before the redundancy finally finished my printing career. . .


1949 – Clerkenwell EC1, near Ink Street (nickname for Fleet Street), my compositor apprenticeship began. Jackson, Ruston and Keeson Ltd., Pear tree Court, founded in 1798 an out of character address for cobbled road opposite the Peabody Buildings.

Long time since any pears grew there – the horses in the next-door rail goods depot may have tasted them many years ago! My Foreman, a Mr Bill Colebrooke in his uniform Brown Warehouse Coat, we wore White Carpenter type aprons. My employer, a Mr Ruston, as "Mr Colebrook, who will tell you what to do", introduced me to him. I took his daily instructions (this included sweeping up again). Taking galley proofs of typesetting from the Linotype to the Readers' Dept, and lunch break snacks and messenger duties. So although I was now an apprentice with indentures, not a lot changed at first from my first job.

Most important to the staff in the Comproom was the 10-minute mid morning Tea Break. I would take a galley slip (strip of newsprint paper) and go round the room taking orders, for example 10 Woodbines for Charlie, Evening News for Albert and his daily bet plus cheese and Ham rolls etc. This included Mr Colebrooke of course, so it was an event one day, after a month or so, he said "Call me Bill, lad" when asked what he would like. This was a stepping-stone. Like to think I'd won his respect for getting on with learning the ropes. I then began to learn the way the typecase (bigger box for lower case e) was set out, and various typefaces. Then how to justify/set a line of type to a layout or copy. My very first job to do from start to finish, a letterheading for a local business.

All this and having to know where to go for the various Tea break orders, rationing was still on and cigarettes of certain brands were under the counter. I eventually did get Mr Bill Colebrooke's job. That was quite a while later, though and travels round the trade, a learning curve as they say nowadays. 1966 when we won the World Cup I think!

Fast forward those years, my first apprentice sadly "blotted his copy book" as they say. He did not take to the routine very well, on his second day when he was to do the Tea Break round for the first time on his own. He plonked his backside on my desk and said "what do you want then?"! I recall with some restraint telling him to remove his backside from my desk for starters. Sad to say he/we did not progress, he could make more money quickly doing something else. I respected his wishes!

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