Why Did Watford “Lose the Print”?

by Peter Greenhill

During much of the past hundred-odd years, Watford was a world-renowned centre of commercial printing, and one of Britain’s most prosperous towns. Why is this not the case today? Many people have attempted to answer this question, most of them simplistically with one-dimensional explanations: ‘union intransigence’ is a popular one ... “the unions killed the goose that laid the golden egg”; another school of thought has it that the printing process Watford specialised in and pioneered – rotary photogravure – became just too expensive to compete.

Watford’s prosperity can be traced back to George Jones’ decision to locate a large print works on Whippendell Road in 1906, and to its later sale (as Menpes Press) to Edward Hunter’s André Sleigh & Anglo in 1918, when Hunter consolidated his various photoengraving and printing holdings under one roof as the Sun Engraving Company. Suddenly Watford had a print firm employing more than a thousand people.

Sun Engraving’s printing operations – especially magazine printing using gravure with rotary presses – grew rapidly throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In those days secrecy helped the firm to maintain a de facto monopoly, but the Sun became too big to keep its secrets: there was a time during the 1930s when Sun Engraving printed more than 70% of Britain’s weekly periodicals. Lord Southwood of Odhams Press, one of the Sun’s largest customers, decided that his firm needed a piece of the action, so he made an offer to the Sun’s owners to buy their company.

Southwood’s offer was refused, ostensibly because Edward Hunter and his colleagues were concerned about how the Sun’s employees would be treated, and perhaps Hunter didn’t expect Southwood to actually set up a rival gravure printing operation in his own back yard. But that is what Southwood did, in 1937, establishing Odhams (Watford) Ltd in North Watford.

Thus were the seeds of destruction sown: with Odhams’ start-up, Watford found itself with the unique distinction of being a town with two very large print firms, both of them needing employees with virtually identical skills. The word went out that Odhams was looking for people and that the wages there were better. Competition for labour ensured that wage rates in Watford would escalate more rapidly than anywhere else. Many people transferred from the Sun to Odhams, and the Sun found it had to compete in the pay stakes if it was to avoid losing employees.

The Second World War intervened to further restrict the supply of labour, while artificially increasing the work available. Sun Engraving alone sent more than a thousand employees off to war, and of those left behind a significant number found themselves working, in effect, for the government, producing propaganda, aerial reconnaissance books, and war materiel and munitions.

The war was a watershed in terms of social attitudes, too: everyone in Britain was thrown into the ‘same boat,’ and perceptions spawned by this experience caused the so-called working classes to feel empowered and entitled; entitled, that is, to a measure of equality, to a bigger slice of the pie. During the next quarter-century or so this feeling resulted in many subtle but significant changes in society, the most important perhaps being what sociologists have since called a ‘decline of deference.’

By the end of the Second World War, money was in seriously short supply in the UK, and paper – the manufacture of which depended on foreign supplies of woodpulp – was scarce, which, for printers such as the Sun, meant a reduction in product quality because fewer copies could be rejected as spoilage. Personal income taxes went up dramatically. Trade unions became more aggressive in their demands, and the country elected a Labour government that was unsympathetic to business interests and tended to legislate in favour of the unions and their members rather than employers and management.

By the late 1950s it was becoming difficult – if not impossible – for management to tie improvements in wages and benefits to increases in productivity. Furthermore, featherbedding (the maintenance of unnecessary jobs at union insistence) became commonplace. This was a national problem, not peculiar to the printing industry, but Watford was more than usually severely affected because of its already higher-than-average printing wage rates. Labour relations inevitably deteriorated during the 1960s, partly as a result of these pressures, and partly through the decline of deference that resulted from changing social attitudes. People on the shop floor no longer assumed that the boss had a god-given right to control every aspect of their lives, no matter how benevolently he might (or might not) have done it in the past.

Sun Printers – and Odhams – were particularly vulnerable to union pressure. Gravure printing required a huge investment in equipment and, at least until the advent of electronic cylinder engraving, involved a slow and expensive process for preparing the printing surface. Worse, the mainstay of production, the weekly magazine, is a highly perishable commodity. Any threatened work stoppage was a gun to management’s head.

Into this noxious stew of social upheaval and aggressive union tactics were now stirred two other factors that would combine with the rest to seriously threaten large-scale commercial printing in Watford: technological change and outside competition.

Sun Printers – like Sun Engraving before it – had always been technologically innovative; the companies had their own inventors, engineers, and scientists on staff. Until the end of the 1930s – arguably until the end of the war, in 1945 – they had consistently been able to position themselves on the leading edge, chalking up many firsts in the industry. Before the war the Sun even specified, designed, and actively marketed its own ‘Sungravure’ presses. During the war the Sun diversified, at the government’s request, into fields other than printing, getting involved in much secret work, including, peripherally, the Manhattan project, as well as production of material for the radar-confounding technique that was code-named ‘Window.’

But after the war the situation in gravure changed: rotary gravure equipment became widely available ‘off the shelf’ (all you needed was sufficient capital); and automation, which the war did so much to accelerate, began to reduce the skill levels needed to run a gravure printing operation. Companies outside Watford with lower wage costs began to compete for Sun’s work, and Sun itself was now part of a conglomerate and had lost control of its own destiny. Through a series of mergers Sun became part of an increasingly diverse and geographically dispersed group of companies, the management of which became freer to relocate the work where it would be done most efficiently. Robert Maxwell, who appeared at the apex of this merger process with control of Sun, Odhams, Purnell, and countless other print firms, was enabled, partly by the scale of what he controlled and partly by labour laws that were finally swinging back in management’s favour, to base his decisions on economics or greed. He could build, acquire, or close a plant, and/or relocate production, wherever he wished. The unions surely met their nemesis when Sun and Odhams landed up in his hands!

Foreign competition merely exacerbated this situation, and dramatic advances in computer technology resulted in the automation of virtually all pre-press activities. Rear-guard actions on the part of the unions only delayed the inevitable ... but often delayed it long enough to damage the company in the marketplace. Letterpress fell by the wayside first, no longer able to compete with the photomechanical processes. Then improvements in web offset quality and productivity placed that process on a much more even footing with gravure, particularly for press runs below the half-million level.

As Fred Frost points out in his article on this web site, changes were also slowly taking place in the mass-circulation print market in Britain, and they, too, worked against Watford’s big print firms. These changes were quite independent of all the other factors I have mentioned. One was the tendency of magazines to target more specialised audiences, probably brought about by the increasing sophistication of computerised mailing-list management software and its ability to track and target readers demographically. The advertiser usually calls the shots in magazine publishing, and accurate demographic targeting is essential to avoid wasting the message. But for the print firm it means the potential loss of the general-interest magazine or, at the very least, a steep decline in its circulation.

Looking back on it, it is remarkable that Sun Printers and Odhams actually survived into the 1980s at all. They had just about everything going against them, and, as I have argued, this included, but was by no means limited to, the unions. Odhams was the Trojan horse that ultimately brought down the print in Watford, aided and abetted by changing social attitudes, loss of direct control over company destiny, technological change, wage competition from outside the town (and later outside the country), changing market needs, and timid banks and other lenders who took a short-term view rather than standing up to intimidation and helping management face the issues that had to be faced. Whether management could have faced the issues successfully is a moot point: at Sun, management was destabilised after the 1960s, and badly lacked continuity. Certainly Robert Maxwell, who for all his faults did some things that were necessary and perhaps even long overdue, must take a good share of the blame.