Retouching before computers (1963-2011)

Location : Norwich

Mick describes his early days in the family ice cream business, his job as a photo litho retoucher at Jarrolds and at East Anglian Engraving. His manual specialist skills were gradually taken over by modern technology and the working world changed. He eventually returned to the ice cream business.

A significant tuppeny cone

We had a family ice cream firm and when I was about seven or eight years old I would go out with my father at weekends. I would help him and I served my first ice cream outside the watchmakers in Bungay, a tuppeny cone, quite a large cone in those days, to a chap – I remember him. As time went on I worked every weekend throughout the summer. I never had a summer holiday from school. On a Saturday morning I would get all the vans ready and then work through till lunchtime, and I had to work all day Sunday which was probably a 12 or 14 hour day. I was about twelve or fourteen as I’d started senior school by then. I did this until I was 21 and was being paid the grand total of a pound for a Sunday! During school holidays I would also do a Wednesday and a Friday. My father always had Tuesdays off which was quite nice. In 1963 when I was sixteen I left school, having stayed on an extra term to get a better Maths mark.

I love art, painting and drawing and my uncle was the bindery manager at Jarrolds printing works. He said ‘There is a vacancy for an apprenticeship for a photo litho retoucher, you know, litho artist, in the repro department. Would you like that?’ So on January 3rd 1963 I started work there earning £4.9.11d, rising to £14.10.0d five years later. I was offered the job before my GCE results and started a five-year apprenticeship as a litho retoucher. There were probably five or six other apprentices there and we did everything, we were dogsbodies and it was fun!

The Jarrolds family printing firm

Jarrolds was very much a family firm run by the Jarrold family. You called them all Mr and Christian names. The main man was John Jarrold who was way ahead of his time and loved modern technology. He had no interest in money or possessions, his only interest was printing. He loved it and had the most modern machinery. Peter Jarrold, Mr Peter, was Mr John’s second in command. He was making a very good career in the army and absolutely loved it but, as the oldest son, he was forced to come into the business, which I know he didn’t enjoy at all.

It was a good company to work for. They looked after you. They did lots of social things. A number of deaf and dumb people worked in the factory as well as physically handicapped people. Colmans did the same. They looked after you when you retired and there was a pension scheme. There was a good relationship with all the managers. We had a slight dispute once which almost got to a strike situation and they said ‘That’s fine, you can go on strike’. I think there were seventeen different countries they could call on to do the work in case of a strike. So we said ‘Right’ and didn’t pursue that one.

At the time if you were apprenticed or worked at Jarrolds you could get a job anywhere in the world. They were world leaders, won the awards, they were the best printers. The Italians took over that mantle and it’s probably the Chinese now.

Measuring and painting the dots

There were two groups in our department, the retouchers and the camera operators. Colour printing is from a series of dots and it’s the size of the dots in colour, a cyan, a magenta and a yellow. You had to separate transparencies into these colours. The size of dots of colour, when combined, makes all the colours. It was my job to know what combination of sized dots made certain colours. The camera operators separated out the transparencies by means of masks and filters but they were not very good so you needed to get the positives, glass plates when I first started, which went on to a plastic-based plate with a gelatine on. This could be chemically etched and you had to assess what size dot was correct and what size dot was too big.

At that time I was doing Jarrolds major calendars. You would have the sky predominantly cyan with just a small amount of magenta, a fraction of yellow but no black. We started with nearly all the same sized dots and you had to assess what you had and paint them with something called Belco. You held those dots so you could keep them and chemically etched the others down to the correct size. Then you had to wash it all off and start all over again. This time you painted out all the stuff that was good, including all the new stuff because other stuff still wanted to come down. So you had a series of these painting out, especially skies where there were trees. You had to paint out every leaf and branch to take the sky down to an acceptable level so that it didn’t look grey. You’d then enhance things – make beaches more yellow and grass more green. That was essentially my job.

When I was still in my apprenticeship electronics came in and we had a machine called a vario-Klischograph which I worked. It was on two cantilever tables. You put the original in one side which was scanned electronically. The signal was put through to the other side which held a plastic plate and a needle – a Ratcherstichel. Whatever that read electronically it would punch out a dot. However large or small the dots were the heavier the thing was. The machine was similar to the scanner we know today. We had the second scanner in the world because a bloke called Cunnell, who was in our R&D, invented the first scanner going. This was in the early ‘60s. Cunnell invented many things, he was extremely good at that. I was still half way between hand-retouching and working on scanners until 1977 and earning £24 per week when I finally left.

Lucky camera operators!

In the late ‘60s the camera operators and retouchers were still in separate sections but we all did the premium bonds. You could buy them singly for a pound. People put about a pound a month into a pot. The camera operators had one and the retouchers had another. One year the camera operators won the jackpot, £25,000. There were 12 of them and they got about £2,000 each. I’d worked for these people for at least 10 to 15 years and some people had worked with them all their lives. They won £25,000, the equivalent of at least two and a half million now, and they never bought a single drink for anybody!

Like me, apprentices were getting married about that time, and there were birthdays. The entire department would go to the pub and it would cost about £8 to buy everybody a drink for the entire lunchtime. So, £25,000 in your hand, that gives you some idea, and they never bought a single drink. The cheque was presented at the Norwood Rooms in Norwich, they had a huge cake which they took into work, sliced up and handed out between themselves. Never even gave you a piece of cake. Not one of them gave anything to anybody. That was just so surprising. All the people you’d known all your life you’d thought would be generous. But they weren’t.

Moving on to East Anglian Engraving

In 1977 I went to an up and coming company called East Anglian Engraving Company, EAE as it was known, starting on £80 per week, finishing on £350 per week when I left in 2003. Tom Ferguson, the charismatic chap who owned it, worked for the EDP and they all used to drink at the Festival House, now Delaney’s, in Norwich. One of them was Oliver Sears who had just sold Snetterton racetrack. The day he sold it he came into the Festival House and said ‘I’ve just made one and a half million pounds. Does anyone want any money for anything?’ Tom Ferguson said ‘I would, I’d like to set up a repro company’ which he did. He then proceeded to recruit the best people in repro and luckily I was one of them. I was a top class scanner operator by then and a highly qualified retoucher which was reasonably rare at that time. He got a group of five or six of us together and we started off from the basics again, which was lovely because there were no longer shifts and you were just one family. Everyone was called by their Christian names. It was a young company, we were all roughly the same age, about thirty. Tom said ‘I’m going to buy a scanner!’ and I thought, ‘No, don’t go down this route, I’ve just come from there’. He bought a scanner and obviously I worked on it.

We had a place in Cushion’s wood yard, their office block was ours. Tom was desperate to get out. The place across the road was an old tyre depot so I came back from lunch one day and said ‘That’s for sale. It would be ideal for us to move in there’. By then he had got a few more people in so we moved in and made an entirely new set up. We had one printing press and the rest of it was all repro which is what you do prior to actually printing. We’d go up to printing plates. We grew to be the biggest repro house in East Anglia at one time. Then technology gradually took over. Apple Macs came in so retouching was out.

I was still connected with the ice cream business and my cousin wanted some advertising. I said ‘Well, if you get the pictures…’ He said ‘No, my daughter will scan those in’. She was five years old and she was scanning. I said ‘But I could do that’. My scanner was something like £250,000 at the time. He said ‘No, we got this scanner free with something’.

I could have done it slightly better, but not much!

Specialist manual skills overtaken by technology

New technology didn’t interest me. I am not that way inclined. I worked a Mac for years, I worked computers for years but you only work in a very small field and I was okay with that. The other 99% didn’t really interest me. I was more practical. Thinking back, I would quite like to have done something more physical, more creative. It was nice when I was a retoucher because that was my skill. One colour would probably take four hours to paint and then ten seconds to etch it. When they came back I would think, I created that, that was my creation. Now a machine created it. I was still useful because you had to set up colour correction on a scanner and you knew a basic colour correction could be fine-tuned to something which would come out near perfect every time. Up until then a scanner couldn’t do that but it got to the point when it could.

By then the writing was on the wall and at the turn of the millenium more and more people were being made redundant and, having got totally disillusioned, I very much wanted to be one of them. My boss was Scottish Canadian and had a Celtic temper and I was Irish Italian and had the same temper. We got on very well, and we still do, I still see him, but we had these nose to nose rows. When he took a back seat his son took over. He’d lost his job in the City on Black Wednesday, and was just not my type. I was extremely unhappy and my saddest time was my last two weeks there, after 25 years.

Highlights and comparisons

The highlights were probably the first ten years at EAE working as a small group to make it the best repro house in East Anglia. It was all down to us. As soon as technology took over your job went with it. Also, Tom, the owner, was always called Tom and he always called you by your Christian name. He always treated you as a colleague rather than a worker. We then got a general manager who said ‘Oh, yes, I’m middle management’. ‘We haven’t got management here, we’ve got people in charge of themselves and we all work together’. We’d got somebody who you might call a manager but he was just Brian who collated and organised the work. This other chap came in and the whole thing changed, it became more professional. Technology spoilt it all.

When I worked for Jarrolds we had fun. People had time. There weren’t deadlines. They had Christmas parties in the departments. We all worked at benches with hoods over the top and a light desk in front and lights overhead. You were in your own world, but they were all in a row. Somebody had the idea of making them into a train and as these people were artists in their own right they painted carriages, doors, a guard’s van at the back and a chimney stack at the front. They were not exactly in a row and everyone was individual.

When I worked for EAE, after a while, everything was put in a row, absolutely dead straight. I couldn’t stand it, I had to move mine slightly out. We took over two other companies and it was a different way of thinking when new people came in. I don’t think I’d ever had a day off work through illness. These people came in ‘Oh, I’ve just got a headache, I won’t be in for the rest of the week’. They spoilt it. With more technology a few people made life uncomfortable for the rest and it was just not enjoyable.

Back to the ice cream business

When I left EAE in 2003 I got the minimum amount of redundancy money you could get, which paid off the credit card bill. I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was highly qualified in a specialist area of expertise which had been taken over by a machine. I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. Saying ‘You’ve got a degree in Life’ is rubbish.

Two days after I was made redundant my cousin, who had taken over the ice cream company, phoned to say ‘We’re doing an event to celebrate the centenary of the company. Could you come and help?’. My father had died and my cousin was struggling for drivers. I said ‘Yes, as a matter of fact I am free!’. He said ‘I am so busy. My father and I are making all the ice cream on our own as well as going out. I’m desperate for help’. So I started there and, having been associated with ice cream all my life, having made it all by hand, I knew what the recipe was.

To begin with I just made the ice cream. You get the milk in each morning to make the basic mix fresh every day. In the afternoons you would make up all the ice cream, freeze it down and the next day you would do the same again. At the weekends we would go out and do events. Take the van into the middle of a field and sell ice cream. We had six vans, two went out and four were for weekend events only.

Exotic ice cream flavours

We were always eating ice cream! When you grew up in a family like that it was the natural thing to do. You ate ice cream. We had over 40 flavours which we made in the kitchen where we have a small ice cream maker. We all used to sit round and say ‘What do you think of this one? What do you think of that?’ Now we’ve got two strangers making it and they don’t have that experience. Some flavours you think ‘Oh, that’s lovely, that’s gorgeous but it won’t sell’. You’re in business, it has to be commercial. At the moment we’re doing bubblegum ice cream which is extremely good for children. It’s bright blue which children like. We did liquorice ice cream which, if you like liquorice, would be lovely but we couldn’t give it away! We did a whisky one, all sorts, ‘Fruits of the Forest’, called ‘Frutti del bosco’, made with blackberries and blueberries and we bought everything in from Italy. It didn’t sell so we did a new one called ‘Blackberry and Blueberry’ and we can’t make enough of it. We had a plum ice cream, beautiful flavour, and nobody would buy it because it was plums. We called it ‘Damson’ and everybody bought it. The same ice cream. There was another one called ‘Gianduia’ which is hazelnut chocolate. Nobody would pronounce it and you can’t pronounce it. They know you are Italian and they don’t want to make fools of themselves, and you can’t sell it. So you have to think of names that sell.

Making ice cream morning, noon and night!

When van sales went down we went into wholesale and started selling to restaurants. Production went up and we went into cakes and patisseries which we bought in. We could sell anything that was frozen because we had a freezer van which we used to make deliveries. I was making ice cream in the morning, delivering orders and then coming back to make more ice cream in the afternoons. It was back to the 12 to 14 hours a day, every day, between April to the end of September, seven days a week. We did events at weekends, leaving the yard at six in the morning, returning at nine o’clock at night. Same again on the Sunday morning, back at about nine or ten o’clock at night, unloading everything, and six o’clock Monday morning you were back in again making ice cream.

After about two and a half years I got to the point where I physically couldn’t do it any more. I worked 98 hours one week. I did the Norfolk Show which was huge for us, over three to four days. You’d set up, two days work, and then you took down. The next day, Saturday, I did Poringland fete which doesn’t sound very much but was huge. That was an all day event. On the Sunday we did a huge country fair at Heveningham, near Halesworth, and I got back 11 o’clock at night. Starting again the next morning I thought, I can’t do this! I collapsed one Saturday and had to be helped from the van. You got no help whatsoever, you were there, alone,12 hours solid, you couldn’t leave it. We didn’t get help because it is working for family, working for my cousin. The thing is, I’m not sure if it is working for an Italian family. My grandfather, who started the company, died very young and the company was taken over by his wife who then gave it to the eldest son. He then owned the company and the rest of the family worked for him. When he was in his mid-eighties my cousin took over and we all worked for him. My son still works for him.

After I collapsed they got me an assistant, in September. Well, between September and March there is not much to do so I had someone trailing round after me through the winter with nothing to do. You could go for weeks without doing very much really, if you wanted to. About six months ago we got another chap in to help the assistant. He is very good. So it took two people to do my job, which was quite satisfying! When I got to 65 it was goodbye and thank you. I could have carried on working but physically I couldn’t do it any more.

Mick (b.1946)  talking to WISEArchive on 23rd August 2011 in Framingham Earl.

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