Printing – Now and Then

slpressBookhams Bulletin has been printed at Surrey Litho for many years and the company has just updated their equipment by a second, faster and better ‘five colour press’. Today the printing process is very computer driven. ‘Mac’ computers are used to design the pages with graphical design software and the images are then transferred to ‘offset litho’ thin plates at the press of a button. Each page is broken down in this process to its constituent colours (CMYK – cyan, magenta, yellow, key black) to produce an A2 size plate for each colour (in the case of the Bulletin there are four pages on one plate). These plates are loaded separately on to the inline press and the whole is set in motion to take a pile of paper through the five presses to produce the full colour printed sheets at an astonishing speed. Further machines cut and assemble the pages. Why a five colour press? – sometimes a fifth ‘spot’ colour is necessary, one special to a company, publication or even for gold lettering.

pressAll these slick processes contrast to the tale of one member of our community, Kit Carson. He tells a story of post war days. He had been pressman on the Illustrated London News, a weekly magazine found in most top class hotels and private clubs in London and first published in 1842. He had started in printing at the age of 14 the year WWII finished. The building was Ingram House, named after the founder of the magazine, right opposite the Law Courts at the start of Fleet Street. In those days computers were a very distant dream – in 1943 Thomas Watson of IBM had declared that the whole world would only need five! Those were the days of the letterpress where individual letters making up each word had to be taken out of a tray and assembled to make up a block of print. The work was done by compositors.

typesettingKit was stationed ‘in the gods’ on the top floor, the composing department. It had a glass roof which earlier had been blown off in the blitz on London . The room was very long and quite wide with the composing frames containing the trays of type on each side. Down the middle stood the huge oblong composing stones mounted on thick iron slabs. Underneath were racks storing the rectangular ‘formes’ made of heavy metal for locking the pages of type together to move them from place to place. The enormous printing presses were housed below in the basement manned by dozens of men manipulating various levers and eventually producing the glossy magazine.

compositorMost of the compositors were elderly, grey haired and bowed by years of crouching over their frames. Most had left school at 14, experienced four years in the WWI trenches and served five years apprenticeship. They worked back to back each with his own composing frame. Kit had just a small alcove containing an ancient proofing press for pulling off proofs for the reader, editor and author of the article in question. These old chaps made themselves at home in the work environment. Some wore carpet slippers and shuffled about as though they were at home and during lunch they cleared the composing stones and formed card schools with piles of small change being won and lost.

The effect of the experiences of the First World War and also the times in which they lived were deep seated. Kit remembers his first Friday when after lunch while sitting silently in his alcove awaiting the first page of type from the far end of the room a thin reedy voice began singing – ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…’ This was soon joined by all the others – the sound of the hymn singing was very emotional. This first hymn was followed by another – ‘…for those in peril on the sea’ sung with even more gusto. Every Friday this impromptu concert took place and apparently dated back to 1918 with survivors returning from the trenches. Again on Monday mornings there was a short prayer meeting around the ‘stone’ just to give thanks for their daily lives. Kit sometimes wondered whether this was why the union or shop steward was called the ‘father of the chapel’.

Sadly the company was closed down and the Illustrated London News was printed elsewhere and Kit went on to work in other print organisations. The contrast between now and over 50 years ago is stark – what a different world it was, not only the computerisation and mechanisation that we have today but also the workplace. We must ask – were they the ‘bad old days’?

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