The Printer’s Devil (1962-2008)

Location : London

Graham describes his working life in the print industry, from Lewisham to ‘Ink Street’ (Fleet Street).

On the bottom rung – collating, glueing and stapling

When I was 15 I started working in the printing trade. I was amongst the first group affected when the school leaving age was raised on April 1st 1947. My first print shop was The Obelisk Press, Lewisham, in South London, a converted store from Chiesmans, the nearby large department shop. There was 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 there as the dogsbody, sweeping up, fetching lunch break snacks and acting as a messenger with the Managing Director, he in his car, me on the tram or bus, collecting and delivering in London. I was also collating, glueing and stapling in the Finishing Department.  All for 28 shillings a week.

Over the years this proved to be valuable experience but they could not offer me the apprenticeship, as a compositor, that I sought. Men were still returning from war service and staffing levels required by the Print Union did not exist. So began a somewhat checkered working life, due to my nivety, involving the Union, working in an ‘open house’ in Clerkenwell, EC1, with no-one to advise me. Unions did much to improve working conditions and apprenticeship training. Much fiction abounded, however, when you mentioned you were a printer. Supposedly you only worked a three-day week, earned a fortune, especially on a Saturday night, or a friend, neighbour or relative did, who worked on The Daily Something in Ink Street! That it was often very hard work in the art and craft of printing was not fiction.

The art of the compositor

In 1949 my compositor apprenticeship began at Jackson, Ruston and Keeson Limited in Pear Tree Court, Clerkenwell, EC1, near Ink Street, the nickname for Fleet Street. It was founded in 1798, an out of character address for a cobbled road, opposite the Peabody Buildings. It was a long time since pears grew there. The horses in the next door rail goods depot may have tasted them many years ago! The foreman, Mr Bill Colebrooke wore a brown warehouse coat and we wore white carpenter-type aprons. My employer, Mr Ruston, introduced me to him as ‘Mr Colebrooke who will tell you what to do’. His daily instructions included sweeping up, again, taking galley proofs of typesetting from the linotype to the readers’ department, and lunch break snacks and messenger duties. To begin with, although I was now an apprentice with indentures, not a lot had changed from my first job.

Important tea break orders

In the comp room the ten minute mid morning tea break was most important to the staff. I would take a galley slip, a strip of newsprint paper, and go round the room taking orders. For example, ten Woodbines for Charlie, Evening News for Albert, and his daily bet, plus cheese and ham rolls. This included Mr Colebrooke of course and one day, after a month or so, he said ‘Call me Bill, lad’ when asked what he would like. This was a stepping-stone. I like to think I’d won his respect for getting on with learning the ropes. I then began to learn the way the type case was set out and also about the various typefaces, how to justify or set a line of type to a layout or copy. My very first job, from start to finish, was a letter heading for a local business. All this, as well as knowing where to go for various tea break orders. Rationing was still on and certain brands of cigarettes were under the counter.

I was a Union member and did my bit in the Chapel. I worked in several printing works over the years, gaining experience of different types of print work. I even worked as a stone hand, imposing the pages, mainly for books, in correct position ready for printing. Heavy work in hot metal days but it earned an extra ten shillings a week (50 pence). Type cases (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, annual increases were not large. I got £20 a week on my return to the trade after two years’ National Service in 1956 and that took a while to increase by any sizeable amount.

Climbing the ladder as computers create change.

Some time later, after travels round the trade, a learning curve, as they say nowadays, I did get Mr Colebrooke’s job. That was in 1966 when we won the World Cup! Fast forward to my first apprentice who 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!

I did eventually make Overseer, Production Manager, and even got a company car, but a lot was changing in the trade. Computers replaced compositors and there was no need for type cases. As long as you got the computer booted up you could have any typeface you liked and any size you liked without resetting. Finally, no more Crown, Double Demy or Foolscap, in came metric paper sizes, and redundancy!

I then worked on a local free newspaper with paste up and scalpels and page size camera negatives sent to the printers. It is much easier to carry 16 negatives than 16 pages of typeset pages, and it won’t get ‘pied’ – knocked over or dropped or jumbled in a heap. Computers may crash but the compositors’ dread was ‘printers’ pie’. However, forty odd years passed before redundancy finally finished my printing career.

Graham submitted his story to WISEArchive in 2008.

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