Please note: Reminiscences are arranged first in rough chronological order, and then by surname. Where a reminiscence covers more than one decade, it is usually placed in the first decade covered. We have made an exception for Frank Venables’s story of his Sun career because, although it begins in 1960, the highlight occurs during the 1970s. We made another exception for Alan Orchard’s contribution for reasons that will become clear as you read it. All accounts are first-hand, and most (but not all) are by former employees.
We cannot vouch for the accuracy of any material in this section of the website, but we believe the sources to be reliable.
Hampton, Ernest [Early days at Rembrandt]
I joined Rembrandt as a messenger boy in 1906, and have been with the Rembrandt company and its successors nearly all my working life till my retirement a few weeks ago .
When and why Mr Klic joined Storey Brothers, I do not know, but when he arrived in the early 1890s, Samuel Fawcett was [already] there, trying to simplify making textile printing cylinders by the application of photography. Mr Klic suggested early in his collaboration at Lancaster that rotary printing on paper from intaglio cylinders would be possible and be an attractive business.
Klic and Fawcett’s close collaboration for this purpose was soon successful, and Rembrandt was founded by the Storey Brothers in 1895. At that time neither Klic nor Fawcett were more than technical executives: they became directors only years later. Mr Klic’s position in the early times was not clearly defined, and by 1897 he left Lancaster to settle permanently in Vienna. He remained, however, in close touch with Rembrandt and came back to Lancaster in 1906 just when I started to work there.
By that time Mr Klic was a life director. Mr Fawcett and Mr Klic were close friends, and all the early experiments were made jointly by them, but the running of the firm from 1897 on was entirely in Mr Fawcett’s hands.
When I came to Rembrandt the works were at Queens Mill, a quarter of a mile from White Cross Mills, the Storey headquarters. The veil of secrecy that surrounded every detail of the work at Rembrandt is well known and prevailed even inside the firm. Rembrandt’s staff consisted of between 70 and 80 people. A staff group photograph taken on the occasion of Mr Klic’s visit to Lancaster in 1906 shows me as a young boy sitting at the feet of the great man, and, looking over the faces, I know that of the total less than a handful were men who knew the details of the process. All others were considered unskilled labourers and paid as such [and] never told any details of the procedure.
The etching of cylinders was entrusted to Sam Thompson and [supposedly] only he and Mr Fawcett shared the secret. Yet one day both were absent and great consternation was caused by the fact that one of the etching room labourers managed to etch a perfectly good cylinder.
Rembrandt was quite a small concern by present-day standards. Their field was the reproduction of old masters, and only slowly and reluctantly did they progress into the field of auction catalogue illustrations, cigarette cards, picture postcards, etc.
The photographic studio was at Storey headquarters, away from the Rembrandt works. William Thompson, a brother of the etcher, was the operator, together with a labourer. They had 3 cameras, the largest of which could take a 30” x 40” plate. Negative exposures were made to daylight, then sent to Queens Mill for retouching, under the supervision of Edward Hunter [note: this is not the Edward Hunter who founded Anglo Engraving and Sun Engraving]. Retouching was very time-consuming and the negatives were returned to the studio afterwards for positive making, again by daylight, after which these were spotted and retouched on diapositives, making them ready for planning, which was done in the ‘yellow room.’
Nobody ever knew why this room was so called, but I suppose it was done to confuse inquisitive minds: it was kept locked and nobody was allowed in except the heads, although as messenger boy I soon earned the privilege, and found the place was very quiet. The planner, Jim Talbot, used similar methods as are normal today except that all positives were on glass. The valuable master screen was kept in the ‘yellow room’ and it was here that carbon tissue was exposed, again using daylight unless the weather was too dull, when mercury vapour lamps were substituted. Because they were considered unsatisfactory for quality, I remember special jobs waiting days for the weather to clear.
Similar methods of sensitizing were used as today, but the sheets were dried on polished copper cylinders revolving close to turning boards. Laying by hand to centre lines on the cylinder, stripping the backing paper, and developing was done very much as it is today. When a job was very urgent, methylated spirit was used for accelerated drying of the resist. We sometimes had cases where the negatives were received at 9 a.m. and 500 prints with engraved title and plate sunk were on the train south by 6 p.m.
All Rembrandt printing up to 1910 was reel-fed, the paper being dampened prior to printing and re-reeling. The printed reel was then hand guillotined and the prints trimmed to size by female labour, who also did the plate marking using a zinc plate on a guttapercha base. Speed was about 5000 prints per day on average. In 1910 Rembrandt installed three sheet-fed Foster presses capable of 1000 impressions an hour. The first minder of these machines, Dick Whiteside, still works at Sun Printers in Watford.
The doctor blades were less pliable than those in use today, and their traverse motion was worked hydraulically, pressure being adjusted by weights through a lever system – with manual intervention as needed.
Inks were much thicker than modern gravure inks, thinning being done with turpentine or gum solutions. Ink making and grinding was considered an unskilled labourer’s job, and was done at Joseph Storey &Co., using a formula supplied by Mr Fawcett.
To preserve the secret of the methods used by Rembrandt, in particular that the prints were made on a reel-fed press, we never used the word cylinder. We always talked of plates. This became second nature to all Rembrandt employees, so much so that the few friends who survive from those early days still say ‘plates’ when speaking of gravure cylinders.
Greenhill, David [How we ‘got into’ Weldon’s]
I would like to tell you of an incident which happened when I was working for Bemrose-Dalziel. At that time I was attending what were known as the Sheldon Course of Lectures. You paid 20 guineas [£21 – ed.] and you received a lot of little grey books – each book being a complete essay on some special part of the course – and you also had the opportunity of lectures.
There were two main ideas in these, which have proved very valuable to me since. One was an American axiom – that no business is permanent unless it pays both parties.
The second one was the correct method of getting business ... first, to attract the attention of the potential customer; second, to arouse his interest; third, to make him desire your goods; and fourth – only when you had successfully managed number three – you should attempt to clinch the order.
The lecturer told us that to try and get the order before the customer desired the goods meant that you nearly always had to sacrifice price. [...] I was so interested in this method of selling that I thought I would try it out. I went down to Watford Junction station and looked all over the bookstall to see if I could get a line on a prospective customer, and I bought a number of Weldon publications. I went to a local shop in the St Albans Road and asked them to order for me one each of the Weldon publications. When they told me that there were 400 publications in one series alone, I called a halt, and said I wanted just one from each series. I took them home, studied them, and came to the conclusion that the Weldon covers on the Ladies’ Journal, Children’s Bazaar, and the Dressmaker and such like publications would be ideal work for Bemrose-Dalziel to do, so I thought to myself – here’s my chance to try out the Sheldon idea.
I first of all carefully studied the Ladies’ Journal, which was their chief publication. It had a coloured cover, but all the inside was monotone, the centre spread being a large fashion plate drawn in line. I made some cheap line blocks for this centre spread and pulled some proofs on paper which I matched with the book. I thus got out a very attractive centre spread, in rather light colours, which looked really good. Having done this, I bound it up in the copy which I had bought, and was ready to start operations.
First was to attract the attention of the potential customer, and I did this by writing to the managing director of Weldon’s, saying that I had been trying to do some experiments [for the purpose of which] I had reproduced the centrespread in one of his publications, and I would like to have the opportunity of showing it to him. I knew of course that directly I said I had reproduced one of his publications, he would sit up and take notice! I had a letter by return, giving me an appointment, and when I went to see Weldon, I immediately got over the second point, i.e., arousing his interest, because he was tremendously interested in the fact that I [had taken] the trouble to reproduce a double page in order to demonstrate the idea.
He of course told me that it was too expensive to reproduce them, and then I swung round to my real attack, which was to get the printing order for the covers. He said he doubted whether we could print them well enough, so at this stage I broke off the interview and asked him to see me on the following day, which he [agreed to]. I took some samples of our work which were so good – and better than his covers were [then] being printed – that we reached the third stage, i.e., he desired and wanted our printing. So we proceeded to stage four, which was the inevitable argument on price.
When this was finally fixed up, we began to print the Weldon covers. We printed them first at Bemrose-Dalziel, and I printed them again at André & Sleigh. We are still printing them at the Sun Engraving Co Ltd today. [Written about August, 1940.]
Garratt, Jack [Interview, 28 October 2004]
I can remember Whippendell Road before Sun Engraving bought the Menpes factory: south of Hagden Lane it wasn’t made up or anything, and the land opposite the factory was partly a small farm run by farmer Watts who grazed a few cows there, and partly a vacant grassy lot on which they had a sports field and played football. That was before the land was acquired for the Sun Sports Club in Cassiobury Park. The Sun built a house on Whippendell Road, adjacent to the factory, for Miss Andrews, who ran the canteen; then later they built a small row of (I think about 8 or 10) houses for other employees. From 1914, we occupied a house a little further up Whippendell Road, close to the Hagden Lane junction, one of a group which I believe were among the first houses in Watford to have electric light.
I can also remember when Gade House was being built for David Greenhill [~1926]. I lived on Swiss Avenue (on the Cassiobury estate) at that time, and I also remember Cyril Greenhill’s taking the house over later. I only visited it once.
I went to Sun Engraving as a machine minder in February 1937 from the Watford Observer (where I had done my apprenticeship). At that time the Sun’s canteen and offices were across Whippendell Road from the factory, in a wooden building. George Nixey, who was recruited to run the Sun Sports Club as its secretary, worked in an office there too.
I was conscripted into the army in 1940, into the Essex regiment (infantry) and after about 2 years was transferred to tanks. I spent 6 years in the forces, and landed on the Normandy beaches on D+10. I was in a tank that was blown up, and I was sent back to England for a health reassessment and then reclassified to clerical work. Then I went back to France, and on to Holland, then Belgium, and eventually was seconded to the U.S. 2nd Army.
When I came back to Watford in 1945, George Lambert was the manager of the gravure machine department.
I can remember A.G.Symmons: he was a hyperactive individual who was an avid gardener; he had a big garden that backed onto Cassiobury Park from Parkside Drive. His daughter Olive married my friend Cyril Stebbins. A.G.’s son, Quinn, was night foreman in the gravure machine department. Quinn was killed by his own car: he was underneath it doing servicing work when the jacks gave way and it fell on him. I’d say he was about forty when this happened.
I remember Archie Hughes, the engineer, and I also knew Cyril Greenhill quite well because I was involved a lot in union business, which was one of his responsibilities.
Just after the war there was a reunion of gravure machine room
employees at Watford Town Hall. I have a menu/program for this
which I will try to find. I also remember the editor of
Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, because I was sitting next to
him one day in 1940 when the air raid sirens went off and we had
to take shelter
I worked for Sun until 1976, and then retired. I ended up on a Mirror pension that was eventually terminated with a £100 lump sum payment.
Farrell, George D. [A boy doing his dad’s duties]
[as told by George’s daughter, Shirley Childs]
Part of Thomas Farrell’s duties must have been to man the phone in an office during some evenings while Jane (my grandma) cleaned the offices. Sometimes while Tom patrolled the works, my dad would man the phone, and Dad said Mr [David] Greenhill would still be in his office and when he left he would call out ‘Good Night Farrell’ and never mention that it was young George and not Tom.
Hunter, Eileen [Opening of the new plant, August 1919]
I shall never know whether the firm was called the ‘Sun’ because a son was what my father most desired and never had. In 1918 he already had three daughters and in October 1919 he was to have yet another. It was because she was awaiting this birth – in the passionate hope that it would be a boy – that my mother was unable to attend the inauguration of the Sun’s new premises in August of that year so that I – my sisters being too young – was the only child of our family to be present.
The day itself dawned blazing hot, and made a royal progress bathed in sparkling sunlight from one glorious moment to another. It began with my putting on my wonderful new clothes, followed by first sight of my father, resplendent in white flannels, his straw hat straight-set on his head while my uncle Noel’s was, typically, rakishly slanted. Flags swirled and fluttered from the fine new building, there were speeches – ‘Cheerio, a right joyous welcome home to our own boys,’ according to the programme of and Events’ which was adorned, rather mysteriously, with a galleon in full sail at the top and silhouettes of centaurs capering at the foot – a mammoth luncheon in a bunting-decorated hall, coconut shies, wheelbarrow races, sports of every kind. Half an hour of horrible vertigo brought on by a session in a sea-sickening swing boat was cured by consuming a ripely dripping William pear in the welcome shade of an empty linotype room.
Later, a special treat, I sat up for a ‘Grand Fancy Dress Ball’ where I fell madly in love with a cavalier whose rubbed velveteen and dingy Nottingham lace I transformed into Lyons velvet and finest Mechlin, and whose badly attached crepe hair moustachios were for me the embodiment of all I had read of swashbuckling braggadocio. The band – the ‘Watford Artisans’ – thumped manfully throughout the evening, and I was enthralled by the ‘Whimsicals’ – a pierrot show under the direction of Miss Ruby Sadler. All this was heady stuff for a ten-year-old, and the day remains imprinted on my mind, brilliant, still glittering with sunlight, slashed with shadow, loud with ringing voices, click of cutlery and plates, dry clatter of applause, and ending finally in showering cascades of fizzing fireworks.
Hunter, Eileen [Edward Hunter at Whippendell Road]
I was always aware of an atmosphere of brisk progress, a feeling almost of gaiety, both in the London office, and in Watford, where I felt both proud and shy to be called ‘Mr Edward’s daughter.’
Sometimes, when I sat in his simply furnished private office – not distantly, grandly sequestered but right in the heart of the bustling works – ostensibly leafing through a pile of glossy journals brought in to amuse me while waiting to be taken out to lunch, I would in fact be listening to his voice as he dictated to his secretary Miss Crowley, and noting how he was always willing to break off when his door swung open admitting Noel or Mr Ives or Mr Cook. ‘I say, Ted — ,’ ‘Mr Hunter can you spare a moment? — ,’ ‘Mr Edward, Letterpress wants to know — ’ and there he sat accessible to all, as keenly conscious of every turn in the widening ramifications of the large and growing business as he must have been when there were only himself, Archie Hughes, and the legendary ‘boy.’
I liked to see him here, sure of himself and relaxed, which he seldom seemed at home. His manner of dealing with people at the office had a different, a more positive style. It was the manner of a man sure of himself, sailing a course he himself had charted and who, with a crew of his own choice, was captain of his destiny.
Boden, Basil [Some pre-war memories]
I started at Sun Engraving at Whippendell Road on my fourteenth birthday, July 2nd 1938, a rather shy boy. I had applied there for a job to Mr A.G. Symmons who was the works manager. He had given me an interview and told me to report to him at 8 a.m. on that day. I was to start in the white paper warehouse. What I was to do there I had no idea, but I was to have a month’s trial, and if I proved suitable I could start an apprenticeship when I was sixteen. On the appointed day, he took me to the warehouse, passing huge printing machines. Throughout the warehouse lots of girls were working, and I was sure every one of them was looking at me and I would never get used to it.
The white paper was in a five-storey building alongside the railway line. The department office and guillotines were on the second floor. I did not know until later that it would be one of my jobs to keep clean the stairs we climbed, as well to change the fire buckets and keep them topped up. I was introduced to Mr W. Simper, the manager, and Joe Penney, the foreman.
The department was responsible for unloading all reels and flat paper, sorting them, and getting them to the right machines at the right time. The unloading was done in a bay along Ascot Road, all by hand; there were no cranes or electric barrows in those days. Reels were stored in the basement, and the flat paper taken to the second or third floors, smaller packets [stored] in huge racks.
I soon settled in and helped to unwrap the sheets and lift the paper on and off the guillotine. I also learnt my way around the firm – letterpress, machine room, composition and process – to all of which at various times I would have to deliver paper. All jobs had a work log that followed its progress through the various departments.
I was the boy who took samples around, got stuff from the stores, and got the flat paper to the machines on little trolleys. If I was pulling one of these, men would ‘help’ me by pushing at the back. On many occasions they would push me too fast for my little legs, but I soon learnt. I had to pass all those girls many times a day, and soon got talking to many of them.
When I started there the firm had just switched to a 5-day week. I worked from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., 45 hours, and got paid 12/6 a week [12 shilling and sixpence, 62½p in today’s money]. After serving a year I was entitled to one week’s holiday a year.
At 5 minutes to 8 a.m. in the morning, most factories had a siren to warn workers to hurry up to work. If you were late clocking in (on a Bundy Clock) or early clocking out, you were docked those minutes and stopped an hour’s pay when the total time lost reached 60.
At 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day I had to fetch tea and rolls from the canteen across the road. There was always a rush, and Mr Elderidge was there to keep control of about twenty youngsters, a few Natsopas, and a couple of girls who always had priority. A bell was rung in the warehouse for the start of the break, which lasted ten minutes.
All through the plant there were sets of five coloured lights that told a manager he was wanted and should go to the nearest phone. Mr Simper’s colours were green and yellow, and if I saw these colours come on I had to find him and tell him he was wanted.
I remember as a lad of 14 being sent to the stores for a fill-up of a French chalk tin. Mr Bastin, the stores head man, asked if I was entitled to it. I replied something like, “I’m not really entitled to anything, am I?” Later I was called into Mr Simper’s office, and told that Mr Bastin had complained about me. I explained what had happened. “You should treat Mr Bastin with milk and honey,” he said. I must have pulled a face, because he added “not literally speaking, you bloody fool.”
Another time I was in trouble with Mrs Fanny Andrews, who was in charge of the canteen. As a boy getting rolls and tea, you had to queue up twice, once for the rolls, and once for the teas. So I arranged with another lad that he got my rolls, and I got his teas. Mrs Andrews saw us do this and reported me to Mr Simper. I was on the carpet again. I explained to Mr Simper what I’d done, and assured him it was a lot quicker. Mrs Andrews said this was nonsense, and against the rules, and I was ordered not to do it again. After that we deliberately took longer, but nobody noticed.
In those days before spray drying, an interleaf had to be put over each sheet as it was printed. This had to be removed before the next colour could be printed. The large letterpress machines had girls who hand-fed these sheets through to the suckers. A lot of women were involved in this activity alone.
I remember there was wonderful ambience in the firm, lots of families in fact. It was rather like one big family, so many had got a job there through their father being there. Lots of chaps married girls they met while working there. I met my future wife there and knew the first time I saw her that she was the one for me (although she had another boyfriend then). Eventually her dad, her sister, two brothers and a sister-in-law joined the firm.
There was a lot of fun in the warehouse, especially when a girl was getting married ... her bench would be decorated, posters and drawings displayed (some outrageous) and cards and presents were all put on display as well. When an apprentice came out of his time, he would be paraded around the firm (usually smothered with French chalk and face painted) in one of the barrows, accompanied by a gang of mates making as much noise as possible. Naturally, lads from other departments were taken in front of the warehouse girls for maximum embarrassment. Christmas was another great time when us lads kissed as many girls as possible, as after four o’clock the warehouse had a glorious two hours of freedom when no work was done at all.
Mr Elderidge, who lived opposite the firm on Whippendell Road, and who only had one arm, was the security person for the Sun. He was also in charge of us tea boys, and was supposed to prevent our dashing across Whippendell Road and going to the canteen too early. He had two sons of his own who worked at the Sun as well, one of whom, Norman, was constantly late for work. Mr A.G.Symmons had him in the office and told him if he couldn’t get in on time he had better try to get a job nearer to his home.
There was also a time when during the dinner hour the lads played football on a pitch located where the building housing the process department was later put up. One day, a few minutes past starting time, they were caught – still playing – by Mr Symmons who, much to their surprise, told them to carry on. They later found their wages docked a quarter of an hour each!
I can remember visiting the toilet in the process department and being surprised to see only the bottom half of each door on the cubicles. I was told that Mr Symmons had become aware that the men were smoking in there, so he had had the doors modified so they couldn’t hide.
Farrell, George D. [Security printing]
[as told by George’s daughter, Shirley Childs]
During the time my dad worked at the firm, they were given the contract to print the Irish Sweepstakes tickets. This was a very big money-raising event that raised funds for the Irish hospitals. Tickets were £1 each, and were sold all over the world. Some people bought a 6d share (that’s six pence, or a ‘tanner,’ in old money) because £1 would be too much to pay for a gamble at a time when a week’s wages might be only £2-10s or £2 or less. Gambling was illegal in [Britain] until the 1960s, so to have a 6d share in a big prize was quite an event.
Security was extremely tight, and a sort of cage was erected around the machine that printed the tickets. Dad said it was a terrible job, as each ticket had a separate number and there were no automatic numbering machines in those days. Dad said every time he turned round, old Tom would be there making sure he was not slacking, and George was thoroughly fed up with having his father breathing down his neck. But old Tom was a very conscientious man, and he made sure his children were, too.
Leach, Leonard Charles [Rembrandt at West Norwood, and the move to Watford]
I started work as a messenger boy at the Rembrandt Photogravure Co. of West Norwood [London] in 1928 when I was 15 years old. I started my apprenticeship a year later, and had to belong to the London Machine Managers’ Society. Rembrandt was [run by] L.T.A. Robinson at that time. The machines were invented by a Mr Baldwin and printing was from copper plates which wrapped around a steel cylinder. There was one rotary press. One job I remember was Holiday Haunts for the G.W.R. [Great Western Railway]; it was photos of scenes from all the areas covered by that railway. Another was a booklet for a company formed to promote the sale of Cox’s Orange Pippin apple. These jobs were all printed in sepia. There also were machines to do 4-colour work.
Life at Norwood was free and easy: we were given ham sandwiches if we worked overtime, and every day a local baker would call selling hot doughnuts. There were monthly dances at Streatham Baths, which were boarded over during the winter. Mr Robinson was very keen on cricket so every winter he would employ a couple of Surrey players who turned out occasionally for the firm’s team.
The firm’s works was split into two locations, the main offices and the process department being at Knight’s Hill, while the comps, printing, and warehouse were half a mile away next to the High Street. This of course meant that the etched plates had to be transported from the process dept.
The firm was taken over by the Sun Engraving Co [in 1932] and was moved in [July] 1934 to Watford, to the former North’s Speedometer factory at the corner of Hagden Lane and Whippendell Road. Mr North’s house was made into a hostel for us apprentices. We stayed there during the week, returning to our homes in Norwood for the weekend.
At Watford, all Rembrandt’s existing presses were scrapped, so I then worked on the new Palatia machines that had been installed there: we did mainly catalogue work and holiday brochures.
On coming out of my time in 1934 I transferred to the Sun, as Rembrandt was not very busy and the Sun was. I saw Mr Larcombe and he agreed to take me on. Sun was doing a 48-hour week, and as I could no longer use the apprentices’ hostel my daily travel from Norwood to the Sun took nearly 2 hrs each way. I married in 1937 and bought one of the new houses in Croxley Green.
Bryant, Elsie (née Hilton) [Sun Engraving in the 1930s, and the Blackpool trip]
The Sun Engraving was a prestige company to work for, and if your father or any other member of your family worked for them, you were taken on. My father, Arthur Hilton, had worked there for as long as I can remember – since I was about 4 years of age. He was born on June 4, 1882, and died in August 1935, and had started working for Menpes Press. He must have started right after leaving school. The company was then situated at the far end of Watford High Street on the border of Bushey, but I do not know the dates of the removal to Whippendell Road, where it became the Sun Engraving Co. I only know that it is where he went so long as I can remember, until he died, so I suppose that’s where he served his apprenticeship. He worked at the Sun until he died.
He was a printer’s journeyman. He and two others, Freddie Edgington and Len Stocker, worked on the three Platen machines and mostly did the glossy photos of objects in the magazines. The magazines were Drapers Organizer, Footwear Organizer, and Furnishing Trades Organizer.
My brother Charles turned 14 years of age the year my father died, and one of the supervisors came to see my mother and offered a job to Charles, so he was at the Sun until 1939 when he was called up for the war and joined the navy. His ship was in the thick of the war in Russia and around Norway; he became a surveyor on the ships and was sent over to Australia to survey the coast to watch for Japanese ships and submarines. That’s how he eventually came to Australia; after he was demobbed in 1945 he went back to work at the Sun until 1948, then emigrated to Australia, so you see he wasn’t apprenticed to anything.
I started at the Sun in 1928, at 14 years of age, and worked there until late 1939, when I married, then went back again in late 1940 and left in 1943, when I was pregnant with my first baby. I started in the reading room [as a copyholder] and was there for two years, then moved to the Warehouse. The supervisor over the compositors and readers was Mr Smith. The proofreaders were Mr Bearock, Mr Anderson, Mr Piggot, Mr Molloney, Mr Fields, Mr Wally Brewer, and Mr Saunders. Other copyholders were Dorothy Sansom and Leila Emson. In the Machine Room, Mr Blenkarn was supervisor. In the Warehouse, the supervisor was Mr Castro and sometimes Mr Pestall. There must have been 150 to 200 girls in the Warehouse. The foreladies were Nellie Bunce and Win Farrell.
On one occasion while I was working in the reading room, I was sent to the photographic room which was upstairs at the end of the building. I had to have written permission to enter and had to go through a locked door. Here, they took photos of valuable art pictures and while I was there they were taking a photo of a huge, beautiful Persian wool carpet. My father and his other two friends at one time, I remember, were printing reproductions of The Blue Boy. The cameras in the photographic room were huge – approximately four to five feet high.
Lots of girls were on piece-work [in the Warehouse] and I was asked if I would like to do it, so I agreed, and worked on the saddle-back and flat-bed wire stitching machines, folding the large printed sheets, so when finished all the page numbers ran in order. Other girls were on book-binding. Of course we all had lots of other things to do as well, and by doing piece-work we earned nearly double the weekly wage.
Magazines I remember at the Sun were Vogue, Wireless, and Gardener, and there were other weekly books into which we had to insert free dress patterns; lots of other booklets and leaflets of all sorts were also printed. There was also a Swiss tourist journal, with all the Alps and lakes. I read all this while with the proofreaders before I went into the Warehouse, where I was one of the girls who assembled the publications after they were printed.
During the war one part of the Warehouse was partitioned off and some of the girls were then given the job of assembling civilian gas masks.
In the Warehouse, all the girls were supplied with overalls which crossed over at the front and tied at the back, so there were no buttons to interfere with our work. Colours were red, blue, and green. At the end of the week we had to throw the dirty one in the bin, and on the Monday we put on a clean one (they were laundered for us), so we all looked the same, either red or blue or green, except for the office staff, who just wore their ordinary attire.
You probably know that Mr [Guy] Symmons was the manager of the whole place, and if he ever came through the room in which you were working, someone would warn you, “Look out, here comes Mr Symmons!”, because he had such a brusque manner about him. But to talk to him normally he was quite pleasant.
Mr Edward Hunter thought it a good idea for the girls to have some music while they worked, so he supplied a Gramophone and on Thursday afternoons one of the girls was put in charge of it and any of us could supply one of our own favourite records to be played. So you see, it was a very friendly and happy place to work.
At the end of the building was a wide driveway which the vans used in order to get to the landing stage to deliver or load up. Also, the bicycle racks were there, as the majority of us used bicycles. Then, on the right of this, was a very lovely sunken garden with lawns, flower beds, and shrubs, eight or nine steps leading down to it, and over to one side was a very nice Canteen. Each department would delegate one person to go and get tea, coffee, or biscuits or something else for morning break at 10 a.m. The Canteen also supplied dinners, if ordered, for the 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. break. Every Christmas Eve, all the girls were invited to the Canteen where a huge great Christmas tree was set up and decorated, and each and every one of us received a gift off the tree and a glass of wine to celebrate Christmas.
In 1935 an outing was arranged by Mr David Greenhill and the two Hunter brothers, to take us all to Blackpool, a seaside town on the northwest coast of England. We had to be down at the Watford junction station between 3 and 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning and as each steam train arrived at the platform (there were three in all) we were all very surprised to see the big golden SUN on the front of the engine. It was a very happy day, even if the weather was a bit cool and very windy. We made the most of it, and the men as well as us girls had rides on the donkeys on the beach and lots of laughs and fun.
Fishlock, Bette (née Roberts) [Working at Sun Engraving before World War II]
Sun Printers pre-war was a very family-oriented firm; fathers, sons, and daughters were the norm. My aunt, Miss Gert Roberts, was the Interleaving forelady in the Letterpress Machine Room and it was she who secured my job for me when I left school in March 1934. Incidentally, she had worked for the firm under its previous name of the Menpes Printing and Engraving Company. The Sun Engraving, as it then was, was very highly regarded and you were considered fortunate to work there; however, I found it very tiring after school life. The hours were 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and 8 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday, and one week's holiday a year.
We also had fewer holidays in those days, one week annual holiday, two days at Easter, one in August, two days at Christmas, and if you didn't come in to work the day after Boxing Day you lost your two days’ holiday pay. By the time I left to get married in March 1940 things had become a lot less strict, but for all that we were a happy and friendly lot. I noticed a big difference when I returned part-time in 1943; the family atmosphere had gone.
Girls spent 18 months to two years in the Letterpress Department, sometimes interleaving on machines, which consisted of placing sheets of brown paper between the printed sheets as they came through the machine, to dry the ink. When the ink was dry the brown paper had to be removed, usually the following day. These machines were known as flat-beds, the small ones were known as Kellys and the larger ones as Miehles. Then there were various other bench jobs. Our pay was 12/6 [65p] per week.
After our time in the Letterpress we went into the Warehouse and felt very grown up because we were eligible to join the Union.
I must mention the dreaded overalls with long sleeves. They wrapped around and tied at the back and were of a quite thick material, not very flattering! Two weeks later these were sent to the laundry and replaced with green ones. In the summer we still had to wear overalls but they were of a thinner material. They were still being worn when I left in 1940.
Work in the Warehouse was very varied. Bench work consisted of many jobs, inserting adverts (even in those days), gathering, which meant putting pages in the right order ready to be stitched, and many other [operations]. There was also work on the many machines, all of which were operated by men. On the trimmers, where the magazines were trimmed after being stitched, the girls had to count the magazines into bundles and stack them on boards ready to be packed for distribution. I mainly worked on what were called the Chris machines, where the various sections of magazines were collated and stitched, ready to be trimmed.
One memorable time in late November 1936 the Sun was asked to send one of these [Christensen] machines with four girls and a male operator to the Printing Exhibition at Earls Court and I was one of the four chosen. We started demonstrating the machine at about 10 o’clock in the morning and at intervals during the day until about 8 or 9 o'clock at night. We went by train in the morning but at night Mr A.G. Symmons, the then managing director, came to pick us up in his car to make sure we got home safely. We were all only 16 and he felt responsible for us. It was a lovely fortnight, though tiring, but the money we earned made up for that.
Another snippet of information: One Christmas, I think it was 1936, all the girls were given a 10/– (50p now) voucher to spend at Cawdells Department Store, of which I understand Mr D. Greenhill was a director. I well remember that I bought myself an umbrella (2/6) [12-1/2p] and spent the rest on presents. Considering my wages were only 15/– (75p) a week, this made me feel quite rich!
I well remember Mr David Greenhill, as he often walked around the firm, also Mr Hunter, another director. While I wasin the Letterpress (1934-35) the son of one of them came to learn about the machines, but I can't recall his name. [It was Lawrence David, DG's son. – Ed.]
By now I was eligible to become a pieceworker and left the machines behind, mainly doing bench work – folding, collating, and inserting. I met my future husband [Harry Fishlock], who also worked in the warehouse. Three years later, when we married (in March 1940), I had to give in my notice, as in those days married women weren't employed. I returned in 1943 part-time for a further three years under the war work scheme.
In 1943, Sun Engraving acquired some land from Rickmansworth Council and built 48 houses for rental to employees in need of accommodation. This was named Durrants Drive and we were one of the fortunate couples. Although from various departments, most of the men knew each other and the wives soon became friendly. Some already had young children but new babies soon began to arrive, including two sets of twins and one set of triplets. No wonder the local doctor renamed our road ‘Fertility Drive’!
Those children are now parents themselves and several have come back here to live. After Mr Maxwell died the houses were put up for auction but present tenants were given the chance to buy them before the auction, as sitting tenants, at a lower price. Many took advantage of it but over the years, sadly, many have died and others have moved to live near their children, and only sixteen of the originals remain.
My husband retired in 1979. Apart from the aunt who got me my job, my father, brother, two uncles, and two girl cousins also worked at the Sun. It certainly was a family firm.
We had many happy times on the sports field, cheering on our teams in the football competitions.It was a lovely atmosphere, like one big family. It was sad to see [the Sun] closed and left to become a ruin, but the good days (and hard work) will always bring a warm and happy feeling.
Boden, Basil [Remembering the war years at Sun Engraving]
In 1939, even before the war started, other sorts of jobs were brought to the Sun. Pith helmets for wear in the tropics were assembled there, as were gas masks. The lads who had just finished their apprenticeships – they were aged twenty-one or twenty-two – were conscripted into the forces for six months’ training. In the end they weren’t released until the war was over.
Air raid precautions were practised and firemen, anti-gas parties, and rescue parties were trained. We also practised evacuating the whole firm in case of an air raid, and we spent our weekends digging-in our Anderson shelters.
By 1941, when the bombing started, the Sun basement had been turned into a huge air raid shelter. Windows were screened with big bales of trimmer shavings, and of course there was a problem getting all the roof blacked out as it was mainly glass. There were sandbags stacked by each lamp post (for putting on incendiary bombs), and I can remember a yellow disk in the garden by the front office for detecting mustard gas. When the air-raid siren sounded, the machines shut down and everybody stopped whatever they were doing and went down to their allotted place in the basement. It was a bit scary at first, and sometimes the ‘all clear’ didn’t sound until an hour or more later, and this could occur several times a day. The climax came one day when we were all sheltering in the basement. When it came time for the dinner break we all went home to our dinners and then came back down into the basement shelter. Such ludicrous behaviour had to stop.
So a new system was begun: it was arranged that all factories would have spotters on the roof so when the siren sounded everyone was alerted. The spotters kept watch for enemy aircraft, and, when these were sighted, another signal sounded so that employees could take shelter. A black disk was hoisted to alert other factories in the neighbourhood. This worked very well, and although some bombs dropped on Watford, none hit the Sun.
All sorts of war work was done at the Sun: parts of tanks were made, leaflets were produced in many languages, and weekly news sheets were printed in French and German. We also made ‘Window,’ which consisted of bundles of strips of metal foil printed black and fastened with elastic at one end so that they scattered when dropped from an aircraft. This was widely used to confuse enemy radar, and was dropped over the channel between Dover and Calais during the D-Day invasions to camouflage the true location of the action.
As the war went on, more and more men and women were called up, or volunteered to join the forces. All sorts of uniforms were on display when they visited the Sun to see old friends and hear how other mates in the services were doing. So a news sheet, Sun at War, was produced and sent to all serving forces employees, giving the latest information about who was doing what, and where, so they could all keep in touch. It included letters written to their mates at the Sun, as well as photos. In all, four volumes were produced, the last including a list of all who had served, died, or become POWs.
One Sunday morning Mr Simper called at my house just as I was leaving to go on home guard parade. He asked me to go in to work and cut some paper for a rush job that had just come in. So I went along in my home guard uniform and he acted as my assistant. Later, in 1942, being eighteen, I was conscripted into the army, and landed in Normandy. I wrote several letters back to the Sun, and they were included in volumes 3 and 4 of Sun at War.
The Sun head office at Milford House in the Strand was bombed, and Mr A.G. Symmons distinguished himself in organising the evacuation of the building to Watford, and the clearing up of the damage. Staff from Picture Post also came down to Sun, as did [the people from Thomas] De La Rue, whose job it was to print a lot of foreign currency.
Boden, Basil [Post-war memories]
By the time I was demobbed in 1947, after two years in postwar Germany, Sun Engraving had changed to Sun Printers, but a lot more also changed. Promotion to management was no longer given to employees, but outsiders were brought in. Different ways of working were introduced, and quality standards were lowered, so that what had previously been rejected as waste was now accepted. With magazines like Vogue and House &Garden we had been used to [pulling out and defacing bad sheets and signatures to prevent their use in the finished product]; now these inferior sheets were used along with all the rest. The girls on the folders found this very hard to accept: they had been trained to remove anything sub-standard, but now they had to ‘let it go.’
The warehouse Guild of Journeymen had an annual outing and dinner, to which the manager was always invited. At one of these dinners, held in a venue along the Edgware Road, Mr G. Bunce (a manager who was not very popular with the journeymen) was the principal guest. The room was J-shaped, and Mr Bunce invited everyone to have a drink on him. The usual brown ales and pints of beer were ordered (you couldn’t get lager in those days) and when the waiter got to the corner not visible from the top table, one chap who I won’t name said “I’ll have a Pimms no. 2,” and his mate said “If you’re having that, I’ll have a brandy – make it a double.” It sort of caught on and all sorts of shorts were ordered. When the waiter brought the drinks, the Pimms looked like a glass with a stick of rhubarb in it, and brought gasps from the lads. Next year at the annual dinner Mr Bunce just donated £5 for the guild fund.
Pre-war the unions had no power, but they gradually got stronger and took over many decisions that had previously been made by management. In fact departmental management was told not to upset the FOCs, and the unions were all-powerful. Then, towards the end of my service, thanks to Mrs Thatcher and Mr Maxwell, the unions were destroyed. Looking back, it surprises me how much power they had, and how quickly they lost it.
Boden, Basil [On taking snuff]
[...] I should have mentioned the snuff. Whenever two chaps met in the firm or had occasion to visit another department, out would come the snuff box, tapped a couple of times on its side, carefully opened and offered. There were different ways, some took a pinch and sniffed it up each nostril, others put it on to the back of their hand and sniffed it, and one chap used to sprinkle it along his arm and then sniff it up like a vacuum cleaner. I never saw any of the women take any, but not many girls or women smoked in those days. As a boy I often had to go across the road to the shop for 1d or 2d of snuff weighed out and put into a paper “screw.” ‘Doc’ Nanson was an elderly comp/proofer who was a very keen snuff taker. I believe he was also a tobacco chewer.
[Note: as recently as mid-1970, as noted in SUNews #14 (June), approximately forty members of the Sun Snuff Club met at the Belmont Hotel, Kenton, for an evening’s entertainment and, presumably, some snuff.]
Brown, Wally G. [With apologies to Dante]
[A latter-day rendering of cantos 29 to 34 of The Inferno]
Deep in the earth, in the basement pit, swathed in artificial light by day and night, Like ants with bleachèd eggs, manoeuvre their rolls of paper white, to feed the mammoth goblins’ gluttonous appetite, All uniformly dressed in darkened blue overall – And under all; Where FoCs in screenèd corner stand with serious intent, On guard o’er cash box and document, masters of them all; What Nimrod put them in such bond I cannot tell, That made them Bondsmen of this Industrial Hell; Oh rabble, of all others misbegot ’twould that they better be, born sheep or goat on hillside free; Is there no Moden, or Briggenshaw to save? Canst they not open the door of this preliminary grave? In the second pit above the first Where sinners ache amid the cold, In the mist and stink of the doctored spirited ink, in shades of yellow, blue and pink; Where the white reels unending upward race to absorb the coloured image on their face to befog and bemuse the common populace. Having thus heard A voice from the Upper Chasm of the Comps, Displaced overall, Where Comps are Comps, and have no other significance! Was heard to say: Where does it get you? All this diatribe! When I to him replied: Think ye of Jesus Christ! Betrayed by a mate for thirty bob; And died without a ‘dime.’ Shall personal gain move all men’s seeking? ’Tis the difference between A cluster of worms in the benighted earth And a parlour of rooks in the highlight of a summer sky. Clayton, Rob [Covering for absent Nats at Rembrandt]
I only had dealings with Bert Nockles once. He was a very nice man. He got me into trouble [on this occasion] but never knew it. I was register hand on a Sungravure press, but acting chargehand during the holiday period. We had spent the morning setting up and running – on copper – the cover for a magazine. The staffing was myself, two minders, and five Natsopas, for four cylinders and a rewind unit. While the minders were helping me in running the units up to obtain progressives, the assistants had been taking their ‘blows’ every 15 minutes. When the proofs had gone to Mr Bruce for study, I told the minders that they could go for a smoke while we waited.
No sooner had they left than Bert Nockles came up; he had a look at the spare copies of the proofs, and said he thought we could get more out of the red if we increased the impression, and we should have another run. When I looked round for the Nats, they had all disappeared. At a bit of a loss, I said they were on their break. “That’s OK,” he said, “we’ll do it together!” Naturally when only two pairs of hands were involved in manually applying impression on four units and trying to set up the rewind, we broke the web. Bert smiled and walked away. Next thing I knew the Nats FoC had been to see the TA FoC and complained that I had run the press without the correct manning. I said to the FoC that I only did it because to reveal that the Nats had left the press without permission would have got them into trouble. But this cut no ice, it was a black mark for me!
Clayton, Rob [The Rembrandt Fire]
On the morning following the fire I entered the factory at about a quarter to eight, and noticed that the parquet flooring by the time clocks near the sheet-fed department was wet. This was unusual and my first thought was that there had been some horseplay during the night
Going through into the rotary department I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw open sky and the floor and presses covered in ash and debris. It was obvious that there had been a major fire: what was in doubt was whether the machines would ever run again. Being a single man with no long-term commitment to Rembrandt, my initial thought was that I was probably going to have to find a new job. The long-term employees, both assistants and minders, were naturally extremely concerned, and within an hour or two a clean-up operation started. There was no thought of union demarcation ... everyone pitched in, and, once the main rubbish had been cleared out, everyone set to and cleaned the presses completely. Years have gone by, and I cannot remember how many days this took, but it was probably ten days to a fortnight. There had always been a good spirit within the factory; there was inter-union rivalry, but management were held in high regard, and indeed, although it may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, the saying ‘you can't do too much for a good boss’ was often used when that little extra effort was necessary to finish a job or something similar.
The question on everyone’s mind was, of course, how did the fire start? It appeared that while one of the minders was filling a one-gallon tin with solvent from a fifty-gallon drum, the steel bung which was resting on top of the drum had fallen to the floor and created a spark which ignited the solvent fumes. The printer’s hands, wet with solvent, caught fire, and he jumped away leaving the tap open with solvent running onto the floor. Within seconds the drum exploded, the flames were up to the roof, and people just got out of the way, it was out of control!
There had been a tradition of people helping themselves to bottles of solvent. There had recently been petrol rationing (as a result of the Suez crisis) and employees who were motorists occasionally took out two or three gallons of solvent. There were few motorists in those days, but sufficient solvent was being taken for management to issue notices warning that the use of this solvent would cause excess wear to engine valves. There were two solvents in general use: a standard one, and one named PPP (or something similar, maybe PP9) that you used when fast drying [of the ink] was necessary; this was the one favoured for use as a petrol replacement.
This particular night the minder did something that he had probably done many times before, but which was extremely stupid. Whilst filling the one-gallon can with PPP, he decided to fill his lighter. He dunked his lighter in the can, pulled it out, and went on to check whether it would light OK. It did light OK but it ignited the solvent on his hands, causing him to jump away, dropping the lighter, and leaving the tap open and solvent running onto the floor, and the fire was away. The charge-hand who told me the story also mentioned that the following morning the lighter had been found in the debris, and was smuggled out before management arrived.
Leach, Leonard Charles [Pranks in gravure]
There was a chap who must have thought his ancestors were Red Indians. His workmates would make a headdress and a tomahawk, and these would be given to him. They would start banging on empty ink drums. Then out would come the fellow wearing the gear and stripped to his underpants, and do a war dance. This occurred on nights, and I am afraid it didn’t go down well with the nearby residents: a complaint was sent to the firm.
Leach, Leonard Charles [More pranks in gravure]
One of the chaps used to make a tiny top hat out of tissue
paper, with a spot of glue on the bottom, and it would be
[gently] placed on someone’s head. Very often it
wouldn’t be discovered until the victim arrived home, no
doubt much to the amusement of his
One day an artist came to paint a sketch of one of the K&B machines. He set up his easel and sat on the chair provided. He became a victim of our prankster, and the top hat was duly placed on his head. Word soon got around and people came from all over the factory to have a look. The artist no doubt thought they were admiring his work until, when he took off his hat in the train going back to London, a fellow passenger told him what was on his head. A few days later a notice appeared on the board condemning the act and hoping there wouldn’t be a repeat performance on a subsequent visit.
Mallord, Geoff [Rembrandt and Sun in the mid-1950s]
I started work at Rembrandt as a machine assistant after Christmas 1954, so I was there for the whole of 1955, starting at Sun at the beginning of 1956.
Having had experience of sheetfed work at Greycaines, after a short period I was on the rotary presses, and given the opportunity to work on the Palatia proofer, a much more interesting job although not a very busy one. Most of this work was on proofing all four colours of the Frost and Reed reproductions of paintings, which were runs of only 1000 or so and were of very high quality. Among those that I remember was the Annigoni portrait of the Queen in Garter Robes, which can be seen in any number of ex-service clubs today. There is still one in Croxley British Legion [hall]. There was also a picture of a gipsy dancer, entitled “The Red Skirt,” which was very popular at the time. I still see copies at car boot sales. The original print order must have been exceeded considerably. I have one myself.
The rotary section of Rembrandts had, I think, five small presses, printing mostly comics and bits and pieces from the Sun. Two regular jobs I remember were the National Coal Board journal COAL and another magazine in Arabic which for some reason was stitched only in copper wire.
The sheet-fed presses were the original Palatias from the old Rembrandt works, some others from the old Sun Engraving, and one larger one which came from Hazells. There were some others (not Palatias), which I never worked on, and I do not remember their names. They also came from the Sun. There were also two small hand-fed presses about demy size – a LITI and an L & M. Not all these presses were in constant use while I was there.
My move to the Sun was occasioned by the starting up of the Goss presses. Volunteers were sought on a seniority basis to go to the Sun, and none being forthcoming, our union approached the four most recent arrivals and suggested that we volunteer, with the assurance that we could return to Rembrandt, should there be future vacancies, without loss of service. The alternative would most likely have been redundancy or being sent to Sun by the union (Natsopa) anyway. On this basis, we were persuaded to go. Only one of us ever returned to Rembrandt. The rest were quite satisfied, particularly after 1961 when the old Rembrandt hands came “down the Road” who had not wanted it in 1961, but were now scared they didn’t have the chance, and also were junior to us in the pecking order.
Starting the first Goss blew out the electrical mains in Whippendell Road, resulting in a great number of homes being without electricity and pavements having to be dug up.
At the Sun I became involved with the Sports and Social Club, mostly through the Sun Camera Club, of which I became secretary and later chairman. We had darkrooms and a studio in the Rembrandt building which we lost, of course, with the closure of Rembrandt, never to be replaced. Much of the caring side of Hazell Sun was lost with the formation of BPC.
McGrath, Dennis [The 1959 strike and other memories]
I had 30 good years of employment at the Sun and can say that I have a tale to tell that may not be through such rosy spectacles as some.
I am not a relation of Mick McGrath (although he used to call me Dad). I remember him as an apprentice who, as I recall, came to the Sun to complete his time, I forget from where. Mick and I have recently completed an IT course together, held at the Mirror building in North Watford, thus my attachment to this end of the PC at the tender age of 71, and marvelling at its capabilities. I worked on the Dexter feeders that were a super-eight-crown sheet of Country Life. There were two of them in the old letterpress dept and the other assistant on them in my time was George Ward, who was a very popular bloke, always up to some joke or trick, and was very good at sleight-of-hand and teased many of our mates; he started on the same day as myself in January 1958, I still see him occasionally, although he is quite a bit older than I am and not quite as active.
Regarding Maxwell and my dismissal, I was speaking at a public meeting in Watford as the Watford and District Trades Council Secretary, a position I held for over 18 years, and I was asked my views on Maxwell by a local reporter, which I gave; these were duly reported to Maxwell but never ever were published. Maxwell (who I met on several occasions as part of the joint NGA and NATSOPA, later to be SOGAT, negotiating team) demanded my head on a plate, and he got it, although, as I said to the MD of the day, I was quite pleased to be put in the same category as John the Baptist!
Perhaps I should end here for now as this is beginning to sound like my biography I suppose in a way it was my life, and my life blood, I always enjoyed working at the Sun with a great gang of blokes, and got a reasonable living. My TU activity probably did not make me the most popular of employees, but most people know me or of me. If you wish me to continue in this vein, I am prepared to go on about the 1959 dispute when the Sun was closed for six weeks by a national printing strike [to obtain] a forty-hour week. That’s what I meant by rose-tinted specs. Also, the Sun allowed me to attend the London School of Economics for a year, followed by a bursary to study labour relations in Australasia for six months in 1975.
Most people moved from letterpress to the gravure because the rates of pay were higher. As a father of three girls, I remember the company christmas parties for the children that were run by the Sun Sports Club. The Natsopa machine chapel also held christmas parties, and outings to the seaside at Walton-on-the-Naze and Wicksteed Park in Northhamptonshire; the latter, I remember, held races among the parents as well as the children, with prizes of half a crown (12.5 pence today) for the winner, it was always a good day out with the kids getting five bob (25 pence) when the coach left Whippendell Road ... a nice gift in those days, raised by a weekly donation of threepence and a weekly raffle; my wife still has a £1 Premium Bond won from one such raffle (still waiting to win the million pound prize on it)! An annual dinner and dance was also held [which was supported by] the same funds. There was also a “snuff club” that had its own outings and dances as well as a necktie with snuffbox motif. It was easier to become a Freemason than it was a member of the snuff club. Snuff was quite common in my earlier days in print, particularly in Fleet Street, where it was supposedly used to dispel ink fly. There were quite a few users at the Sun, and it was quite common for a communal box to be on the press in my earlier days, supplied I believe by the snuff club. By the way, I was never a member of the snuff club or a Masonic lodge (I was too bolshy).
I wonder if you have any info regarding the 1959 strike that went on for six weeks, I have no wish to repeat what others have related or what will not be retold for whatever reason, clearly there are many stories that are beyond the pale, but when you have been working in a firm that employed [close to] four thousand people at one time, things could not have been sweetness and light all of the time.
With regard to the 1959 strike, the bone of contention was a forty-hour week. As I recall, the Sun was prepared to concede, but as the strike was called for by all the print unions, we had to fall in line with national policy. The work force at Sun was solid, and nobody crossed the picket line. Apprentices were allowed to work alongside supervisors and overseers, and their training continued during the six-week-long strike. One thing in favour of the strikers was the brilliantly hot summer. The militants were carrying out what would now be called “flying picket” duties at firms that were printing work normally printed at the Sun; for example, the TV Times was being printed in London, and I think Tunbridge Wells or that part of the world. Other firms were picketed who were carrying out collation and insertion work. The strike ended without too much animosity, however, and [just a few] arrests, and with much personal and private decorating completed, and much ale consumed. At the end of it all, the 40-hour week was achieved, allbeit piecemeal. And eventually a thirty-hour shift was negotiated, for what was known as the Twilight Shift,i.e., 4.30 pm to 10.30 pm, with no break but pay for 40 hours. Maxwell soon put a stop to that when he appeared on the scene!
Can only find one picture, that of Harold Richardson (Nat) and myself in the old letterpress downstairs when we worked on the Printomatics; this shows him playing an ochorina, which much to his chagrin I could also play even though I couldn’t read music. Harold was a cornet player with the sally army, and I was a mouth-organ player in the devil’s army.
I do recall that there was much campaigning against companies that were printing additional copies of the TV Times, which was one of the big contracts held by Sun (not the total print run but certain regions of it).
Much energy was spent up and down the country trying to stop it [TVTimes] leaving various print works, and bundles that were delivered to newsagents here and there somehow mysteriously disappeared from the doorstep. TV Times head office in Kingsway, London, was regularly picketed, and after one particularly hectic session several people were arrested and subsequently appeared at the Old Bailey, but most got off after being represented by Rose Heilbron QC, who later became a High Court Judge. Her fees of course were paid by the union.
The Sunday Times dispute with which the Sun had a vicarious connection (because Sun was printing the Sunday Times colour magazine) went on for over a year and was thus much [longer] than the 1959 dispute, which only lasted for six weeks. During the Sunday Times problems I was able to arrange through my contacts in the London machine branch of Natsopa to get our members casual work in Fleet Street which was eventually made available to the whole of the Watford Branch. This caused raised eyebrows with the craft sections at Sun because these casual nights were highly lucrative, and the inactivity of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine machine cost most of us lost earnings due to the fact that much overtime had to be worked in order to get this very large run onto the street.
Ratz, Henry [A Swiss visitor spends a working year at the Sun to improve his English]
Following 4½ years of apprenticeship in typography and Linotype at Hallwag in Bern and almost 2 years in the Swiss army, Henry Ratz was ‘ready to explore the rest of the world.’ First, he applied for a job at Georges Lang, then the largest printer in Paris, France.
It [Georges Lang] was heavenly, although their composing room was rather small for the amount of magazine printing they did. When there was insufficient work for the local journeymen, they let me do time in their production office, which handled all the liaison between the various plant departments and their clients.
Towards the end of this 12-month stint, I wrote to Sun Printers and asked for a similar one-year term, as my school English badly needed some upgrading. The prompt reply came from a certain Mr. Woodward, who introduced himself as manager of the composing room. He told me what papers I needed for a temporary immigration and work permit, and conveyed the message from the union that I needed to show past membership in a like-minded organization. So, on a dreary February Sunday morning in 1959 I boarded the ferry in Calais and landed almost legally on the shores of England (one document from the Home Office had not arrived in time, but no bureaucracy ever slowed me down). An immigration officer berated me at length, but let me in anyway because it was a Sunday. Above and beyond any obligation, Mr. Woodward had graciously offered to come and pick me up; he drove me to the plant to show me the lay of the streets and then dropped me off at a house, not too far from the Sun’s works, where he had arranged room and board for me with a nice elderly couple.
Three big surprises on the first day on the job: First, there were stools to sit on while doing the hand setting. Wow! What progressive fluff that was, never saw that on the Continent. Second, don’t pick up your galleys coming out of Monotype casting, ‘We have unskilled labour to do that crummy job.’ Third, lunch at the canteen: after one year of 4-star French canteen food I looked at this water-logged mushy stuff with some trepidation, but I said to myself that since I had survived Swiss rationed food for six years and Swiss army food for two, I might as well try to overcome Sun canteen food. However, the bread was something else. How could two nations that close to each other geographically produce such different bread? On the French side of the channel, crisp and well-baked crunchy stuff, and on the other side nothing but soggy white half-baked dough!
I was set up somewhere in the centre of the Sun’s huge composing room, and my closest co-workers introduced themselves: Geoff Skinner and Charlie Sonntag, and they were extremely generous in helping me navigate my new surroundings. Over the course of the next twelve months, I managed to lift a few glasses of brew with Geoff, and he dragged me to a couple of football games, standing room only. I am still sorry that I was not clever enough then to figure out the trick of the rolled-up newspapers they used to carry to these games. From the photo he posted on this site, I can see that he found the proper ‘nursing’ home for his retirement. To your good health, Geoffrey! Charlie was a gentlemen and good friend throughout, a home-cooked dinner by his lovely wife included. He told me some horror stories from the veterans of the North-African war, which resurfaced in my mind after we invaded Iraq a few decades later.
Of all the jobs I handled at the Sun, I only remember one, mainly because I did a barrel full of them: the advertisements of the thousands of elaborate estates for sale in Country Life. I readily admit having drooled occasionally over some of the places on offer, but a quick look at my pay-stub of £14 cured any envy in no time. Although the Monotype keyboarders did a remarkably good job in getting all those figures and details straight, their end product needed a lot of massaging because of the narrow column width around the pictures. The very small font sizes used in those ads was not for butterfingers either. [Henry was a hand comp – Ed.] But the worst aspect of that particular product was getting a call from the press room to go and fix broken type and make last-minute corrections. Crawling over those big and barely washed-up forms in close proximity to the ink rollers was a real chore.
Then came the first pay day and it was a hoot for me to watch that and many more of these Kabuki dances. First, they abandoned all their work to stand in long single files till the ‘pay-master’ handed them the brown envelopes. Then everybody disappeared into the four corners of the room, doing whatever betting these determined gamblers wanted. Maybe I got that part wrong and they were actually paying off their mortgages, or were making their contributions to various charitable organizations. Whatever, it was not my money, therefore really none of my business, but it was positively fun to watch.
Then came the strike sometime in June, with the stern warning by the Union bosses not to seek any other work during its duration. Well, my restless personality could not take it for any more than two weeks, so I boarded a train for Bern to pay a visit to an elderly colonel at the Mechanized Forces HQ. He was in charge of scheduling officers’ assignments and I asked him for a 3½-week duty somewhere so I could forgo paying the absentee military taxes for that year. He found me the most cushy duty as a swim instructor at an NCO tank school. When I got back to Watford, the strike was still on. Things started to accelerate after the strike was over, and overtime could be had by the bushel-full. I leaned into it with gusto and promptly earned a reprimand from the Union steward: Slow down and put in less hours! After I explained my situation to him (that I was soon to be taking a 6-semester no-income course at Stuttgart’s Graphic Arts school), he left me in peace.
Life in a town like Watford ... what can I say? Coming down from the Mount. Olympus of cities, Paris, it was a bit of a culture shock at first, but in the final analysis it was no different from hundreds and thousands of towns around the world, and one adjusts over time. Maybe a little bit more mobility would have helped, but I was not at all anxious to join those crazy Brits, who insisted on driving on the wrong side of the road. The one piece of business I could never stomach was the substandard [British] species of dentist I had to visit. This slob actually managed to fix cavities by drilling with one hand while holding a smouldering cigarette in the other. Yuck!
Well, the one year was over in no time and I was heading for Germany. I came back to England only three more times: Twice from Paris, to help some ad salesmen pull a few hot quality chestnuts out of the fire and once from Southern California, to set up the pre-press production for a two-volume history college text that was being written and edited for us in London.
The first semester at the school in Stuttgart was a big disappointment for me, as it was a total rehash of stuff I learned a long time ago back in Switzerland, and I wasn’t willing to pay for this knowledge twice. They were basically playing catchup as the result of the loss of two generations of skilled labour due to the war. The same was evidenced by the chauffeured limousines that were waiting for us students on late afternoons to go and help provide emergency labour in plants with chronic labour shortages. Double pay plus unlimited beer and sausages, what paradise that was. It was fine as a stop-gap measure, but not satisfactory in the long run. By chance, one day I led a small caravan of students to the big graphic industries equipment show in Paris, where an old friend from the plant there showed me a 3-liner in the Figaro classifieds, wherein an American publisher was looking for a magazine production manager. I applied, waited forever like in the army, then a rush interview followed by a great job offer to run Time Magazine in Paris. My German nightmare was over for good. It turned into one of the best jobs I ever had as it included travel to the USA, Canada, Italy, Kenya, and Japan at company expense. In the meantime I finally married my sweetheart. By late 1964 they transferred us to their HQ in New York. I became a Yank, and the rest is history.” [Henry now lives in Sonoma, California – Ed.]
Rusinek, Hans [Plant visit, 1958]
Although he [the writer] has seen many large printing factories in Europe, the tour through this concern provided new, powerful impressions ... powerful in regard to the technical equipment, and powerful in regard to the production resulting from it.
Thirty-three hundred men and women are employed here for 43½ hours in a 5-day week. There are 28 rotary gravure presses in the machine room, some of them enormous. Three women’s journals, with a total weekly circulation of 2.5 million copies, are produced in colour and form the backbone of the production. One of these journals, containing 80 pages in 4-colour, sells for five pence.
The printing works consumes 1,300 tons of paper a week, making Sun Printers the largest photogravure operation in the world.
What most print shops do in [a single] large area, Sun Printers has separate halls for each production stage. There is one hall for the cylinder store, one for copper plating [deposition], one for grinding and polishing, and so on. Swing doors between the halls open automatically, and there is no noise when trolleys pass through them. Travelling cranes in the halls carry the printing cylinders – some weighing more than a ton – to and from the presses. Heavy manual handling is completely eliminated. So also is fire danger, because a ceiling sprinkler system goes into action as soon as the temperature has exceeded a critical point in any part of the building complex. When we asked about benzene and toluene poisoning, we were told there was none.
The guides proudly informed us that the first electronic press-register controls ever used were installed here, using the ‘Autotron’ of Crosfield Electronics. These controls handle deviations in register as small as one one-thousandth of an inch.
An ink factory in the grounds supplies the presses with between 10 and 15 tons of ink each day, and a new solvent recovery plant is expected to increase recovery from the present 45% to between 70 and 80%. The chief ink chemist told us that health is not affected by anything in the ink troughs, and it must be admitted that cleanliness was of a high order everywhere.
Well-lit, roomy composing and letterpress machine halls were equipped in the same exemplary fashion. When the ‘Father of the Chapel’ was introduced to us, we could assure him that we had nothing but good impressions of Sun Printers, and we thanked our guides, who had shown us one of the most noteworthy printing concerns in England.
Smith, Stanley Albert [Getting a job at the Sun]
[Stan Smith jotted down his memoirs in some notebooks. They contained two pieces about Rembrandt, the first a brief stint during 1940, then another piece about how he got a job there late 1949 or early 1950. Stan’s daughter Val remembers his being, at one time or another, an ‘improver’. No one seems exactly sure what that meant, but the consensus is that it was a sort of adult apprentice undergoing a change of skills. Can anyone enlighten us?–Ed.]
 I got a job at Rembrandt House fitting metal mesh guards over windows [that were] above workers below. This was in case there was a bombing raid. I only worked for a few weeks.
 I had a day off on a Tuesday and a Wednesday from working on the buses, and went down to Natsopa House to try to get a job in the print. When I got inside the front door, a lady came out of the office and said to the crowd of men in the corridor, “All I can do is take your names and addresses, and we will write to you if we have a job. I was about third in the queue, gave my name and address, and came out.
The next week I had a Wednesday and Thursday as days off. On the Wednesday morning a letter arrived for me saying that if I went down to Natsopa House, a job would be offered to me. I went down there straight away, and was told that there was a job for me at Sun Printers, but not to tell the bus company that I was leaving, as the print union had had complaints about so many men leaving.
I was earning £5-2-6d [£5.12½p] a week on the buses, and I was going to get £6-15-0d [£6.75] in the print, so I arranged to leave the buses on the Thursday and start work not at Sun Printers but at Rembrandt, a company in the group.
So now I was a printer’s assistant, knocking up books, or comics. Seemed hard at first, but I got used to it. I was asked to work overtime on nights on the Monday, and was told to go home at dinner time and come back at 6 o’clock for night work. I turned up at 6 o’clock and worked to 9.45 p.m. and we stopped for supper. Went back at 10.30 p.m. after going down to the Sun canteen for supper. At 2 a.m. we had about ¾ hr break and finished finally at 5.30 a.m.
I had some good times in the print.
Walker, Peter [Remembering the last days at Rembrandt]
I started working at Rembrandt Photogravure April 15, 1955. Mr J. Jefferies was the Personnel manager at the Sun and all recruitment for Rembrandt staff was done by that department. I remember that first day so clearly. I started with Ron Rooney and Reg Hunt. When we arrived, a manager named Mr Bert Carroll wasn’t sure which department we were going to. He said, “Is there anyone interested in photography?” I said, “Well, I am a bit,” so his response was, “Right, you can go to the Studio; Reg you can go to the Machine Room, and Ron, you go in the Planning Room.” My first workmate was Colin Balchin, who was responsible for making up the developers for the films: so many grams of this and that in water of a certain temperature. I remember after a few weeks the palms and fingers of my hands were getting quite stained, so dear old Colin gave me some tiny crystals of permanganate and told me to rub them into the stains. My hands turned bright purple. He said, “That’s okay, just wash it off with soap.” I tried, and panic set in. It wouldn’t budge, and there was me, going out that evening. After a few choice words from me, and a couple of hours later, he produced a certain chemical that removed the stain. Was I relieved! We did become good buddies.
The manager then was Bob Lawrence and some of the photographers I remember were Frank Symmons (whose brother was one of the directors at the Sun), Bert Rump, Terry Stevens, and Frank Wesley. Although I was just an assistant, I learned quite a bit, and used to assist in developing and printing. I was in the studio for two years, then transferred to the machine room office, although I didn’t particularly want to go there. Ron Rooney also went, so both of us and Reg Hunt were working together for the first time. We were general messenger boys until we actually went on the presses. We used to take proofs to the Sun or collect certain bits from there, and generally, as young lads, take quite a bit of time doing it, especially if it was a nice day.
There are so many memories. I recall that when we were printing the famous reproduction of the Annigoni portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the proof was compared with the original painting [which was] just outside the Machine Room office. No security then; there we were, just a couple of feet away from it. I also remember when the explorer Vivian Fuchs came to check on the colour work for a book he had written about one of his expeditions, and we all shook hands with him. Another print we did for Frost & Reed was the ‘painting of the year,’ of a Spanish dancer, and aptly called ‘The Red Skirt,’ because of the long red dress she was wearing. The print always appeared on the wall of Jack and Vera’s front room in ‘Coronation Street,’ and always reminded me of my days at Rembrandt.
I can also remember going to work one morning and seeing a lot of burnt paper flying around. As I got nearer I was astounded to see most of the roof above the Machine Room had gone. There had been a massive fire that night and an awful lot of damage had been done. I think not long after that the place was shut down and staff were either given redundancy or were transferred to the Sun, where our service carried on. I transferred to Sun Printers in 1960 when Rembrandt closed down, and finished working, after the Maxwell fiasco, for Mirror Colour Print, at the old Odhams site. That was from 1987 to February 2005, when I was 65. All our service counted, so I was just two months short of earning 50 years’ service.
How the time has flown since my first day at work. Much of the old factory is now replaced but the Rembrandt building is still there, and from the outside looks much the same as it did when I started there. I’ve got to say I thoroughly enjoyed my working life at Rembrandt and the Sun, but was unhappy working at the Mirror. I really only stayed on for my pension and the few other benefits there. Glad to say that I am now receiving my pension and enjoying retirement. [Peter Walker was also a long-time member of the Sun’s fire brigade. See the article on the Facts & Opinions page. – Ed.]
Clarke, Jack [Before the hush huts]
Until the hush huts came along, gravure crews had to communicate amongst themselves by means of coded signals: there was too much noise to talk (or shout). I don’t know whether the code was industry-wide in use, probably not. Probably this code was a Watford version. The signs that we used to denote units by colour on the presses were: Yellow – Cross arms around shoulders, meaning frightened, or ‘yellow’; Red – Place fingers on nose, meaning Rudolph, hence ‘red nose’; Blue – Hold overalls, sleeve if possible (we used to wear blue overalls); and for Black (or Key as it was called) – Mime turning a door key.
Gardner, Peter [Remembering some friends]
Bob was a colourful character, and he sat with Rodney Dock, two behind me at work. Bob had a 1936 Austin 7, he had had it painted all over with Greek scenes, in tribute to Bacchus the god of wine and all that goes with having a Greek good time: on each door was a picture of Bacchus, with grapes, glasses overflowing, etc. He decided to drive the car to Greece, as a tribute to his pagan god; he got there and back, although we all thought he wouldn’t, and he threw a BBQ and party to celebrate his return! This took place in a field in Abbots Langley, and we were told to come dressed in Greek clothes. We all met in the Dog Pub, next to the Tech. When we finally got to the party, there in the field was the old Austin 7 standing in all its splendour on top of a large bonfire, and at 8 o’clock Bob lit the fire and we all raised our glasses to a good friend and a great car. The car took 4 hours to disappear, but has lasted in many people’s memories forty-five years or more. Bob! Eccentric, yes! British, all the way.
The Boss of retouchers while I was there was a lovely man, Peter Hurren. Now during those years (1959-65) there was a program on T.V. – black and white – on Sunday nights called Highway Patrol, Brodrick Crawford was the star as Detective Dan Matthews. I can't write the music but it sounded like this DAN, dan, dan diddley DAN, DAN. Well unfortunately Peter Hurren looked very much like Brodrick Crawford, so at work he came to be known as Dan, and as he started his morning round from the bottom of the room, the whistling started ... Dan, dan, dan diddley dan, dan, to warn those doing the daily crossword in the News Chronicle, or the Sketch, or not otherwise working, to look busy! By the time he got to the end of his round, the whole room was singing and whistling the Highway Patrol theme, and I can still hear his old voice saying above the noise, "Come on now chaps!! Play up and play the game!!" Anyone remembering that era will remember Peter Hurren as a nice and good boss, and yes, we did play up ... but we also played the game!
Here’s another one:I have kept them short for you in case you think I'm colouring them up! Bill Spivey (not related to any of the former bosses of that name) somehow slipped through the retirement net and worked until he was 70, when they at last found him out. He was the oldest retoucher in the Sun, and he was a collectomaniac. At the top of the planning room there was a lift down to the yard at the back of the Sun engineers’ shop and Bill’s oasis, the Sun dump. He could be seen out there any time, searching the mess for odds and ends to take away with him, a bagful here, a boxful there, into his car and off home he would go. He was also a fine gardener, and grew orchids. One day he invited me to see them, and I went down to his house in Chorleywood. It was a large house with double garages, and out in front was his Morris Minor, which he had just polished. Well, it started to rain, and I asked him why he did not put his car away. His wife, bringing out a cup of tea for us, rather sharply said as she swung open the garage doors, “This is why!” Grief, it looked like the Sun machine shop, wall-to-wall and roof-to-floor were Sun chuck-outs; I have never seen so much rubbish, and junk! Bill told me, “If you have somewhere to store it, and don't have to feed it, some day someone will want it!” l often wonder what happened to it. It probably ended up where it should have gone, down to George Austin’s scrapyard in the Watford High Street.
This is all true, as I was sitting next to him on the day it happened. He was very ... what can I say? arrogant, in a cocky way ... it did not stop you from liking him, but whatever you had done, he had done bigger and better, any subject you knew, he knew more, so people often provoked him, just to see him on his high horse. He wore a Robin hood hat, tweedy jackets made in Scotland, the best Harris tweed, colours fixed in human urine (that’s what they did in the old days of the crofters). Anyway, he got into a conversation with Ken Matthews, the Sun Sports Club fencing instructor, about the sport. The discussion got very heated, and with encouragement from all around things got out of hand, Ken told Bob he was talking a load of rubbish, and with that Bob lost it, and told Ken to put his money where his mouth was. So Ken challenged him to a fencing match, that lunch time, and at 1 p.m. we all bundled off down to the piece of ground by the Gade River, near the fire station. Ken drove there in his Morris as he had the foils in the car boot. Robby had peeled off to his shirt and I, as his second, held his clothes. Now as Ken was getting the foils out of the boot, he closed the lid too quickly, and without realising it he cut the protective top off one of the foils. He offered the hilts to Bob, who picked the one with the protected tip. Let battle commence! Well, it all looked pretty good until Ken started to get serious, he parried and lunged at Bob, stabbing him twice in the chest; blood ran down Bob’s shirt, and when he saw that – blood and humiliation – Bob went mad. As everyone cheered Ken, Bob ceased subscribing to the gentlemanly art of fencing and became more like Rob Roy (or Robert Newton in Treasure Island), using his foil as a claymore or cutlass. He got into close quarters with Ken, pushing and shoving, and they both ended up in the Gade. Well the lads watching thought things were going the wrong way and parted the two of them, and we all returned to a very quiet afternoon on the benches. It was Friday and all the lads wanted to do was go home. I was looking out of the corner of my eye at Bob, when Ron Attwood was asked what he was doing at the weekend, only to say, “I've put some fence posts in my garden, all I've got to do now is the fencing!” Bob turned to me, and said, “Does a lion heed the whinings of jackals?” and gave me a smile. I shook his hand: he wasn’t a bad loser, and we never spoke of fencing ever again.
Greenhill, Peter [Training on a manual-register gravure press]
As a ‘management trainee,’ I spent several years moving from department to department at the Sun, and then moving from company to company within the group, and in all that time I worked exactly one week ... and that week nearly killed me.
I had been moving through the Sun’s departments, and was transferred from cylinder engraving to gravure machines. Ron Hardy was manager of the gravure machine room at the time (if my memory serves me correctly ... I am talking here about the early 1960s), and I arrived in his office early one morning. To my horror he produced a set of overalls that looked like a boiler suit, told me to put these on, and said, “Have I got a job for you!”
I started to feel pretty apprehensive, and with good reason: he must have had it in for me ... decided this was a golden opportunity for him to show a Greenhill what was what. He motioned me from his office into the main machine room. As I stepped into the press hall, one of the webs on the press closest to Ron’s office caught fire, and a big chap came over to us, looked at me, and said with a strong Irish accent, “You must be a Jonah, young fellah!”
I didn’t know what he meant, and followed Ron over to the far side of the pressroom, where a very small gravure press was in operation: maybe a 36”? 5 units? something like that. Well, this machine also developed a problem just about the time we arrived, and the chap running it also looked at me and muttered something about a Jonah.
I was starting to think these big, tough-looking, burly machine minders must have taken a liking to me. I thought: Could a ‘Jonah’ be a ‘Whale of a Fellow’ perhaps, or a ‘Whale of a Guy’?
Well, Ron handed me over to the chap running this particular
press – which I think was printing the cover for
Farmer’s Weekly – and told him he was to show
me how to run it, and then leave me to it. So, for the first (and
only) time during my training at Sun,
I had something useful to do.
For the benefit of those who have never run a manual gravure press – or never run a gravure press at all – I should explain that most of my time was spent at the ‘business’ end of the machine (where a folder would have been, had it had one), monitoring the colour register as the web flew past above me, and twiddling knobs to advance or retard the appropriate unit as needed. And inhaling a rather nice-smelling mixture of xylol, toluol, and several other noxious solvents.
After a week of this I had backache and neck ache, and I couldn’t stand up. I spent the following week in bed with one almighty hangover, while I waited for my blood to detoxify. “This,” I thought “is what they mean by ‘having printing ink in your veins’.”
I also looked up ‘Jonah’ in my dictionary, and all in all I concluded that machine printing was probably not for me.
Humphreys, Barry [Goings-on in the gravure machine room]
During my apprenticeship days there was a mania for nailing things down. Anything and everything would be nailed to the wooden bench tops or wooden floors. The classic was a guy’s aluminium mug: the tea was removed, the mug nailed through the base, and the tea poured back in. Boots were another favourite – nailed to the wooden locker-room floor.
One tradition was that a bag of sweets was bought daily, each of us taking turns to buy, and the bag left on the Natsopa’s knocking-up table for everyone to help themselves. Of course, everyone ate, but not everyone purchased. If the sweets were the white spearmint type, someone would carve a piece of soap the right size and this would be wrapped as a sweet. With everyone in on the game except the victim, it was easy to ensure that the ‘sweet’ reached the right person. A worse example was directed against a person who was known to steal people’s sandwiches. Lunch boxes were stored on a press’s doctor bench, and it was easy for this guy to help himself when the owner was on ‘blow.’ On one occasion, however, someone found an apple floating about in the trough of the gents’ urinal. This was fished out, washed, and set up on the bench. I believe a complete cure was effected instantly.
Humphreys, Barry [Fires on the gravure presses]
[These were] not that common in the later years when we had enclosed ink ducts, but the earlier unit construction made a fire very likely. Static, combined with the concentration of volatile spirit in the air. There were fire extinguishers on all presses, and the fire was always brought under control by the press crews. The first time I saw one it was a bit daunting, but everyone grabbed an extinguisher and blasted away, and the flames were soon quelled. It was drilled into us from day one that you didn’t stop the machine under any circumstances, because to do so would risk allowing the fire to spread through the machine, making it much more difficult to get things under control again. The fire was put out and the press ran on: no waste – just a note in the machine’s book, logging the event. Later on, fires were controlled by automatic unit extinguishers that ‘saw’ the flame and aimed at it: no flash photography allowed after that, of course. Subsequently, units were all enclosed, greatly reducing the fire risk, although at Rembrandt, up the road from us, they had a very destructive fire, probably caused by the amount of spirit kept in barrels close to the presses.
Leech, Graham [Girls in long dresses climbing the presses]
After a formal dinner-dance in London, I and my partner were among three couples who visited the plant [in the early hours of the morning]. I got the OK from the number one pressman on machine #81 (a Goss) for us to climb up the folder (long dresses and all).Very, very stupid, and [...] dangerous, and the night manager rightly tore strips off me later.
Venables, Frank [Bob the Bog Wallah]
I never did learn his surname! Along with his fellow cleaner, Bob had the job of cleaning the toilets. But his unofficial job was a bookies’ runner: every day the Evening Standard van would deliver to Bob a bundle of newspapers. He would place them in a room behind the toilets where the men could smoke, read the racing page, and place their bets. Bob would be standing there, taking bets, every day. Although I didn’t bet, he always allowed me to read a paper as long as there were spare copies still available.
Eventually this practice was stopped, and Bob retired immediately, I am told having made enough money to buy his daughter a house, and for him to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
Venables, Frank [A regatta on the Gade]
My dad was working in the gravure as a Natsopa – he was a reel hand, with the job of operating the flying pasters – and one day he came to me and told me there was going to be a regatta on the River Gade close to the Sun that lunch time, and I should come along and watch.
At this time German engineers were putting up a new Goss press the size of a battleship, and the Natsopas had challenged them to a model boat regatta.
I went along to watch this, and believe me some of these model boats made of cardboard and paper coloured with printing ink were quite amazing. A great time was had by all.
Walker, Raymond [With Dr Hell on the Kiel Canal]
I recall an incident sailing, after work, with Cyril Greenhill in Dr Hell’s yacht to a restaurant for dinner in Kiel Bay.After dinner Dr Hell proposed phoning for his car to take us back to Kiel because we wouldn’t want to sail again, would we? CRG said that indeed we would, coming from a sea-faring nation, so, the customer being always right, we sailed.
Unfortunately it transpired that the boat’s navigation lights were not in working order, and we found ourselves in the dark in the Kiel Canal’s shipping lane, with a torch being shone on our main sail to draw attention to our presence! To add to our plight, the steering gear jammed, and the crewman on board had to rig a tiller, only to find that it was too long which limited us to going round in circles either clockwise or anticlockwise. Fortunately we had a saw on board, so we were able to shorten the tiller and, eventually, proceed in a straight line.
We ultimately arrived at the marina, whereupon Dr Hell made a mess of mooring, and bashed his very costly new boat against the sea wall. We finished the evening rather cold and wet, at Dr Hell’s house, with a somewhat shaken Dr Hell drinking cognac to recover.
[Note: The subject of this story is the late Dr Rudolf Hell whose company, Dr-Ing Rudolf Hell GmbH, was closely involved in the early development of colour scanners, fax machines, and cylinder engraving equipment.]
Wood, John G [PC Pat Mahoney deals with late arrivals]
PC Pat Mahoney was notorious around the Watford area: he seemed to be able to materialise out of thin air. As a young lad I had a very old Rudge motor cycle (only 98 cc) which in those halcyon days was not required by law to have a speedometer, being officially incapable of more than 30 mph. When I could manage to start the beast, I rode it to work.
One memorable week, Pat stopped me four mornings out of five.
On Tuesday he pulled me over in Rickmansworth Road. “Didn’t I warn you yesterday for doing 34 mph in a thirty mile limit?” he queried. “Er, yes Pat,” I replied, “How fast was I going today?” “34 mph again! And don’t be callin’ me Pat. I’m an officer of the law and me name’s Mahoney. Don’t you be forgettin’ it.”
Just then Septimus the Spider [another Sun employee] rode past on his green BSAShooting Star. Mahoney whipped his head round, saw another wicked motorcyclist passing by, and couldn’t wait to be in pursuit. “I’ll deal with you later,” he growled, and roared off after Septimus.
Wednesday morning, late for work as usual: I ran the gauntlet again, and sure enough the dreaded Mahoney appeared in front of my nose. “Pull in,” he says. “Didn’t I pull you over yesterday for doing 34 mph in a thirty mile limit?” “Yes Pat. How fast was I going today?” “33 mph. But at least you’re improving. Late for work again?” “Yes Pat.”“Well, p--- off to work then. Try getting up a bit earlier in the mornings. That’s of course assuming that ye’ve been to bed at all, have ye? And don’t call me Pat! Me name’s Mahoney!”
Thursday morning, five minutes to eight, start time eight o’clock, scene: Rickmansworth Road. “Pull over.” “Oh gawd, Pat ... I wasn’t speeding was I?” “No, you were doing 28 mph. Y’see, ye can do it if ye try. Now p--- off and don’t let me be stopping you again this week!” As he pulled away his helmeted head turned towards me again, “And don’t be calling me Pat.”
Friday, same scenario: “Pull over.” “Morning Pat, how fast today?” “32 mph. You’re getting back to your old ways. Thank the good lord it’s Friday and I won’t have to be stopping the likes of you ’til Monday. Keep the bloody speed down or I’ll have to throw the book at you. Now bugger off to that holiday camp yer works at ... and don’t call me Pat.”
I never did find out if Mahoney nicked Septimus.
Wood, John G [Early-warning system in Rinco]
As a young lad working – supposedly – in Rinco Proofing, boredom set in early most days and, to while away the time, Ron Cole, Pete Ross and I were in the habit of sloping off to the toilet block, an area with a fairly good-sized tiled floor, and performing a game of ‘keepie uppie’ which involved trying to keep a ball of waste paper in the air as long as possible without using one’s hands.
Some remarkable scores were achieved, followed by three red-faced puffing youths emerging from the toilet block to a chorus of “Where the f--- have you lot been for the last week?”
Sometimes our games were cut short by the appearance of the overseer, the dreaded Harry Petts. His normal demeanour was grim, and he rarely if ever smiled. In retrospect he had quite a lot to put up with from us. He usually threatened to stop our ‘good conduct’ money – now there’s a blast from the past! – which didn’t bother us as we had often already forfeited it.
One day, having been caught by Harry once again, we hatched a plan: Jack (Nobby) Clarke agreed to be our Early Warning Operator, and we installed a small switch under the glass scanning board. This was connected to a tiny electric bulb on top of a part partition wall in the toilet block. When Harry appeared in the Rinco, Nobby would flick the switch and we would come rushing out of the toilet block.
This worked extremely well, and Harry couldn’t seem to catch us out for ages, to the amusement of the other Rinco staff. But one day Nobby was a little late flicking the switch – his excuse was that he was working – and the three of us rushed out and nearly mowed Harry down in the process. The rest of the guys were having hysterics, but I don’t think Harry saw the joke!
Venables, Frank [From the Sun to the Stars]
I joined Sun Printers in 1960, directly from school (Durrants in Croxley Green) and left in 1979. My father, Dennis Venables, who worked in gravure, obtained a job for me in the warehouse. Any job at Sun in those days was much sought-after, and I considered myself very lucky.
I vividly remember my first day: I was taken into the warehouse by the acting MoC, Doris Ryan. She took me to an area called the benches, which was staffed by about fifty women piece workers. Their job was to put inserts into magazines, stick free gifts on the covers, and perform various other tasks at break-neck speed.
It was to be my job, along with some slightly older colleagues (Brian Davey, Melvyn Stevens, John Stannard, and our foreman Les Ambridge) to keep the benches clear of the finished work, allowing the women to continue uninterrupted. Being on piece work, the more they did the more they earned. We were kept busy most days.
The lady piece workers were supervised by what I, as a sixteen-year-old, considered to be a very strict lady named Ivy Young. The women, and especially us boys, could never do enough to keep her happy. (I now realise however that she was doing her job, and was very good at it.)
All the boys working on the benches were given one day a week to attend Watford Technical College. Mr George Bunce, the warehouse manager, was very keen on this, and woe betide any boy who used this as an opportunity to take a day off: you would be called to his office and warned that any further non-attendance would result in the sack.
All the boys, myself included, longed for the day we would be taken off the benches and be allowed to work with the men on the machines. One of these was the binding line where the sections of the glossy magazines – Vogue, House and Garden, and so on – were taken around the binder, glued, and had their covers drawn on. The journeyman chargehand who ran the binder at that time was Derek Penny, who was always very conscientious, demanding high standards of the other journeymen and assistants working with him.
Working on the trimmer was also a great job. Not that it required the brain of a rocket scientist to do it: basically you fed the trimmer with Woman’s Own or TV Times which was coming on a conveyor from the gravure. The magazines were trimmed and immediately packed.
There were some really great characters working on these machines: Don Griffen, George Kent, Arthur Durrant, Alf Cox, Basil Arkwright, they were great storytellers, great comedians, and great personalities. You could fill a book with the adventures of some of these men during the war. As for their comedy, television today could make good use of these men.
As the years passed I performed most of the jobs available to an assistant. Among my favourite jobs was that of barrow boy, driving the battery-powered barrows that transported the packed magazines to the loading bay. I can still see the men loading those lorries: their hands with skin as rough as rhino leather, the result of picking up bundles of magazines by the string and holding them together day after day, month after month, year after year.
The barrow-boy job required a certain amount of skill, because the warehouse was a very busy place, what with people everywhere and other barrows, you spent all day dodging one another. I was watched over by two other barrow ‘boys’ with years of experience: Bill Francis (a great guy and a gentleman) and Harry Fishlock (who had the ability to turn a barrow on a sixpence).
[This work made you very hungry and] I also recall my visits to the tea bay at lunch time, where the tea ladies – every one a diamond – dispensed door-step-sized sandwiches and rolls. Filled with either corned beef, or cheese with pickled onions, one round would have fed an army ... and all at silly prices. We also had the opportunity to visit the canteen where hot food of a very high standard was served, again very reasonably priced.
Back in the warehouse I recall Jammy James and Tony Wilkins, two of the guillotine operators whose skill I admired: both had the ability to handle huge sheets of art paper, cutting to exact measurements. Jammy was always the most popular man on Fridays as he paid out the wages.
As the years rolled by, new machinery and technology was introduced, some of it welcomed, and some of it disliked because jobs could be threatened. Progress was inevitable and unstoppable, but some jobs were still done very much by hand. This brings Arthur Badrock to mind: he had to keep a check on the quantity of each magazine that had been printed, trimmed, and delivered to despatch. There were no calculators in those days, and Arthur used little pads of paper to track all his totals manually.
Eddie Goodall was the acting clerk of the chapel in the warehouse during the time I was there [1960-79]. I can see Eddie now, always walking, never running, but walking at such speed that I was convinced if he had trained for it he could have become an Olympic walking champion.
It was Eddie’s job to distribute overtime to us on a rota basis, and at this point I must mention that my private life outside Sun Printers was totally consumed with my desire to become a great ballroom dancer, and I often had to refuse overtime even though I needed the money. This was a problem for me: I was always either practising, taking lessons, or competing, but the other men were happy about the situation as it meant the possibility of extra overtime for them, especially Saturday nights, for which overtime was more or less the equivalent to a normal week’s wages.
Thursday was a special day for Sun Printers, particularly for the warehouse, because every Thursday the final section of Farmer’s Weekly (which contained up-to-date [live]stock prices) had to be printed in the gravure, taken into the warehouse, merged with the rest of the publication, and stitched, trimmed, packed and despatched. Thousands of copies had to be sent out by post as well, requiring the piece workers to roll the copies in addressed brown paper mailers. The boys collected the full mail bags and took them to the loading bay where Post Office lorries were waiting to take them away. This was always a very hectic day, and sometimes there were problems, but Farmer’s Weekly never failed to appear on time in the shops.
My then mate was Derek ‘Dusty’ Miller, like myself a recruit working on the benches. He got a bit fed up with my just dancing and having no proper girl friend, and decided to correct this state of affairs by fixing me up with a date with Linda Horwood, who, along with her sisters Edna (Adams) and Freda (Clark), worked as a piece worker.
At the time, I was dancing competitively with a girl (Carol Akers) who went on to be a Miss Watford Carnival Queen, but she and her family decided to move away from Watford, to Margate. Together we had enjoyed some success in dancing competitions, but their move inevitably terminated our partnership.
By now I was dating Linda regularly, but had no dancing partner, so I asked Linda if she would like to learn to dance to competitive standards. She accepted the challenge, little realising what was ahead for her. For me it meant beginning again as Linda had no knowledge at all of ballroom dancing, and so the real hard slog of forming a new dancing partnership began.
This meant a minimum of two to three hours training in the evenings after work, four hours of lessons every week, and Saturdays and Sundays devoted to more dancing.
By this intensive method we began to catch up with our rivals, and soon we were being looked upon as potential champions. By 1968 we were considered good enough to be chosen for the British team competing against France in Paris. This was a memorable experience for us, not least because the drive back to the airport was at the time that the student riots against the government were causing pandemonium on the streets, and we felt lucky to get to the airport in one piece for our flight home.
This was the first of many such trips for Linda and me, and I have to say a sincere and very heartfelt thank you to our union FoC Ken Diamond, and our manager Peter Barber. They were most helpful in allowing us time off for the many international events that followed.
By the early 1970s we were in the top six couples in Great Britain, and in 1974 we decided to get married. Linda’s fellow workers gave us some super gifts, and we had a really great day. Linda paid for our reception as the very little money I had was all spent on dancing. Being a piece worker, she was able to earn a great deal more than me, and we were both very grateful that she had this opportunity. Our honeymoon was spent in Lintz [Austria]: not the conventional honeymoon, because we were taking part in the European Championships that were held the day after our wedding. We won the title, making this the most memorable day of our lives.
In November of that year we were chosen as number one couple to represent Britain at the World Championships at Bremen [West Germany as it then was]. We won this title as well.
We spent the day after the World Championships walking around Bremen, and at one point we saw a large crowd of people standing gazing into a shop window. We joined them, wondering what was going on. Well, it was a television shop, and the Championship we had just won was being shown! Dancing has always had a greater following in Germany than in Britain.
You can imagine how we felt, looking back at how it had all started! By 1975 we had won all the major ballroom dancing championships so we decided to turn professional, but we still kept our jobs because teaching dancing did not offer immediate financial security. We both stayed with Sun until 1979: by then we had become so busy with dancing that we could not continue to do both.
Since then, we have taught, lectured, judged competitions, and given demonstrations regularly in more than twenty countries. During the past few months [written December 2004] we have visited China to adjudicate a World Youth Championship, and have spent two weeks in Japan judging in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Saporo and Fukoaka. The last weekend before Christmas we were in Athens for the Greek Championships.
I mention all this because both Linda and I truly believe that had we not been lucky enough to have gained employment at Sun Printers, none of this would have been possible. We will always be very grateful.
[Please refer to 1974 on our Timelines page for a photo of Linda and Frank receiving a gift presentation of luggage from then-managing director Roy Smith.]
Clarke, Jack [Robert Maxwell re-launches TV Times at Watford]
After the Cerrutti presses were installed, the TV Times editorial pages returned to Watford, while the programme pages went to various companies throughout BPCC group. Maxwell bragged about how he had managed to get the TV Times back to Sun Printers. He arrived one day at Sun in a Jaguar with the number plate ‘TVT 1.’ He was even telling prospective customers that he was the man who now ‘owned’ TV Times.
Once the first of the new Cerrutti presses was running and TV Times was settling down, Maxwell decided that he was going to have a ‘grand opening.’ He liked to do things in style and loved publicity. Platforms were built around the press; Cerrutti advertising banners were put up all around; everything was prepared for a glorious show to celebrate the return of TV Times to Sun Printers. I remember seeing Telly Savalas and Maxwell’s wife Betty on the platform, along with Maxwell’s business associates and, of course, the great man himself.
So there was Maxwell on the platform showing off the new press. And there I was with the rest of the crew, waiting for the press to start running. A remote button had been wired onto the platform and Maxwell was to push it to start the giant new press. He was jokingly warned that if he touched the button, the men would walk out – unless he held a union card. So he immediately joined the union. There was a bit of a grin and a smile between the men and Maxwell.
The time came for his announcement that TV Times was going to be printed at Sun Printers. He would now push the button to start up the press. (All he was actually doing was putting the machine on a crawl at very low speed: the crewmen would then take it up to its normal running speed and settle the job down). Maxwell was in position. His audience waited expectantly.
When he pressed the button there was one almighty explosion. Smoke billowed everywhere. The factory was plunged into darkness. Maxwell stood there dumbstruck, the only time I ever saw him speechless. Telly Savalas was laughing; Betty Maxwell looked embarrassed, as did Maxwell himself. “Maybe we’re not going to start TV Times after all!” he quipped, but it was clear that he was furious.
Rumour had it that outside the factory the power cables had needed reinforcing. It was ironic that the faulty cable was in Whippendell Road. It not only blacked out Sun Printers, but also the whole of West Watford. Inside the factory there was paper and ink everywhere – one awful mess. Maxwell stormed off the platform and that was the last anyone saw of him that day. When the power was restored some 24 hours later, the men finally got the press running. The rumour about the cable couldn’t be confirmed. I never found out what really happened that day. Was it sabotage? We will probably never know.
Clarke, Jack [Looking back, after web offset had arrived]
[...] things were settling down in the litho, and work was building up. Web offset was becoming quite a busy department. The plates were now being made at the other end of the factory from the presses, in the former process department. This meant a half-mile round trip each time plates had to be collected. Walking through the now run-down process department, where the engravers and the etchers had worked, you could hear water dripping through the roof. It was like a ghost town, everything in semi-darkness and only the emergency lights on. In the silence, one could imagine the sounds of the men who had once worked there. The equipment that still remained stood idle. Memories of the hustle and bustle, the busy hoisting-around of the huge cylinders, flooded back.
Hodgson, Roy [A life in print versus a life in music]
I was born in 1931, so my formative years, in Bedford, were during the WWII period, when education suffered. My school had to resort to half-days, to allow a school which had been evacuated from London to make use of the building during the released half-day.
We were not sent home, however. Instead, we had the good luck to observe the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been relocated in Bedford. All broadcasts were from the Corn Exchange. The organ in the local church was also used for BBC Organ recitals. As I was a brass instrument player, neither of these enforced venues was any hardship; I enjoyed every minute. Two boys in my class had a pianist father, part of the piano duo team Rawicz and Landauer, and they very often organised a recital for us on those “free” half days.
At 15, in 1946, I became an apprentice compositor at the Sidney Press, which at that time had been purchased by Sun Printers. The Manager was Leo Francis, who came from Sun Printers. Indeed, I was deputed to assist him and his wife when they moved from their house in Whippendell Road, Watford, and I made several visits to Sun Printers with Mr Pearson.
At age 21, I was conscripted into the army for National Service. This was followed by 4.5 years in the reserve. However, I was able to use the Army Educational Service to its fullest extent and managed to make up for the years lost during WWII. Having played brass instruments since I was around 10 years old, I served in the military band of the 5th Beds and Herts Regiment.
After serving, I wanted to return to the Sidney Press but my former occupation as a Linotype operator was already filled, so I took up a post with the Herts Advertiser in St Albans. Shortly after that, I was married to Joan, who was still working in the bindery of the Sidney Press, and the Sidney Press made an offer for me to return in my former role.
Those of us who were under 35 years of age, and disadvantaged by the war’s interference with our education, could apply to be considered for entry into universities. As I had been following courses in economics run by a Cambridge University unit, I decided to apply. After an interview in London with a team of professors I was offered a place at the London School of Economics, which I accepted.
After that, I worked for a printing trade union. This was me paying back, as the TUC had kindly funded me during my time at the LSE. The British Printing Corporation and other bodies had declined to assist.
In the early ’70s, I was approached by BPC to take up the post of Industrial Relations adviser at its Great Queen Street headquarters. The role proved to be much wider than IR, as I was not dealing with industrial disputes but remuneration systems and how to deal with the application of new technology. Shortly afterwards, the Personnel Director on the main board decided to return to academia and I was offered his position, with a seat on the main BPC board.
When the Managing Director and Chairman of Sun Printers resigned in the late 1970s, I was requested by BPC’s board to take up that dual role at Sun, which I held until the onset of Maxwell. He changed the corporation’s name to BPCC (British Printing and Communications Corporation) and gave me the divisional responsibility, comprising Sun Printers, Purnell, and Clarke & Sherwell, together with Radio Times and web-offset operations. This meant not dealing with Sun on a day-to-day basis, although I was still located there.
During the years before and after Maxwell, I was involved with the two Canadian businesses in Toronto in which BPCC were investors, as well as with a litho printer in South San Francisco, all of which were either sold or our investment was withdrawn. Maxwell was interested in digital colour systems. At this juncture, the division I was responsible for was split into Sun and Purnells as one group and the Web Offset companies as a second grouping. Clarke & Sherwell ceased gravure printing and formed the basis of a pre-press group which I headed. Digital colour studios were established in Clarke & Sherwell, and in Cary, North Carolina, I built a new facility – Compucolor – jointly with Providence Gravure.
From that point on, I remained on the USA scene and proceeded, along with Jack O’Hara, to put together the US division of BPCC Inc. for Maxwell. All this time, I remained a Director of the holding corporation, irrespective of the many splits Maxwell actioned. When, in the late ’80s, he needed to divest from the US printing operation to make funds available for his personal investments in OAG (a global travel data provider) and in Macmillan, he attempted to get me to consider a post in Macmillan or go with the sale of the MCC printing assets to Quebecor. Both of these I declined.
My Director’s contract allowed for a full pension at age 60 and I exercised this provision much against Maxwell’s wishes. I was so glad that I insisted on retiring; when he died, in 1990, my pension was then firmly in place with annuity providers.
I did consider music to be my vocation. I played with several orchestras and bands and performed in major halls, such as the Albert Hall in London. However enticing, it meant waiting upon the next call from a conductor, etc., to ascertain whether you had any income this week or next. Yes, soloists manage to be wealthy, but other members of an orchestra do have a lean time. Thus, my chosen path became printing and publishing, which served me well and even allowed me to have some unique experiences in the world of music without being a player.
When I first went to New York City I shared an office with Ellis Freedman, the attorney to the American Music Center. His client list included Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, William Schuman, and Aaron Copland; in fact, he had power of attorney over Copland. I was able to accompany him to a great number of private meetings with some of his clients, as well as to public performances in New York. I treasured my association with him and the vodka lunches we enjoyed together. Some of his clients were very different characters in the flesh than when in situ in concerts.
Apart from brass instruments, I was enthralled with the majesty of pipe organs and have tried to visit as many of the great organs as I could, in many countries. I built a full 32-pedal, two-manual, electronic organ during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Today I have only a Korg Electronic piano, which also can simulate several types of organ as well as piano, so allows me to choose the instrument I want to play. I recently sold my trombone but still have a flute which I sometimes get out.
The other pastime I pursued from an early age until today is photography. I was fortunate, for the printing operation in South San Francisco was one of only two I know of that were able to print in two-colour black. They had a Hell Scanner which separated the highlights from the shadows, and the result was printed on a two-colour litho press, both colours being black. Their client using this process to provide his world-renowned photographic books was Ansel Adams, who would personally pass each sheet as it was being printed. I spent many hours with him, an absolute genius of a guy, who was meticulous in getting the best result from a printing press. As he said, “Roy, printing presses can never faithfully portray every nuance of my original photographs, so I must recreate them on site by getting the press operator to ‘fine tune’ each sheet before proceeding to print the job.”
So there’s an insight into how to combine some personal pleasures and pastimes with one’s professional life.
Mackenzie, Ernie [A Sun employee in the 1980s]
I joined the company [from Odhams] in 1983 and left in 1989. My job title was Process Assistant. I took the job as a result of Maxwell’s having taken over Odhams (Watford) in 1982. He held a meeting with the Odhams workforce the very day he took over; I listened to his plans and promises, and decided to take up his offer of a job at the Sun.
After reporting to the Sun for duty, I was soon asking questions regarding my contributions to the pension scheme. I asked [Sun’s personnel people], “Why am I still contributing to Reed International’s pension scheme, when I am employed by BPCC?” I consider that personnel never did give me a satisfactory answer, and I found the situation very confusing.
As a result of this problem during my first few weeks of employment, Sun management may have thought they had got themselves a troublemaker. This was not the case at all, and they later realised that they had misjudged me.
I can remember a meeting between the Sun workforce and Maxwell in August 1985 when he informed us that, in his words, “The days of the gravy train are over, and you have Maggie to thank for this.” His next statement was that he was cutting the workforce by 50%, with immediate effect.
The combined effect of this statement and the previous two years’ gloom was to produce a mass exodus of former Odhams personnel: this was the final straw for many of my old colleagues and friends.
By Christmas of 1985 the workforce had generally been cut by 50%, but Maxwell could not induce sufficient numbers in all departments to take voluntary redundancy or retirement, so on Christmas Eve more people found themselves being made redundant involuntarily. Fortunately for me I managed to survive this exercise because the Process department had been able to achieve a 50% workforce reduction.
In 1987 I was not so fortunate, though, as Maxwell decided to make further cuts in the Process. I was given the choice of a job in the Warehouse, or the door. I chose the job again, but did not feel much security for the future. The gloom continued for the next two years while, first, the Process department was closed altogether, then equipment was taken from the [gravure] machine room, and finally gravure itself was closed.
So in 1989 I decided to accept redundancy after being offered the chance of a new career in a different trade. The gloom continued that year though: four months after leaving the Sun I received notification [from BPCC] of the money cumulated in my pension pot. I did not feel this was enough, and for the next twelve years I battled BPCC for additional money. I am pleased to say that I was awarded extra money in 2001, which I exchanged for service with my employer that same year. So after twelve years of hard work I finally recovered my pension pot, which on many occasions I thought I had lost.
On a final note may I just comment that I regard the Carbon/Etch department under George Chamberlain as the best department I worked in in nearly 30 years in the print industry.
Orchard, Alan [My memories of Sun Printers, man and boy…]
Watford was noted for three things in the far-off days of the Forties: three prime “big firm” job opportunities. They were brewing (Benskins Bitter was brewed in the lower High Street plant and, thanks to the water, was recognised as one of the best); printing (Sun Printers and Odhams dominated the periodical market with their fast and innovative rotogravure machines); and lorry manufacturing (Scammell Lorries in Tolpits Lane produced transporters of prodigious size and capacity, and the quaint-looking three-wheeled Mechanical Horse, designed to replace the animal-powered version in London traffic).
My opportunities were in the printing sphere, although I wound up with only minimal “hands on” printing experience.
On leaving school, aged 14, in 1947, I was placed in the Sun Engraving because my father worked there. To be perfectly honest, I don’t recall that I had any ambitions to become a printer or indeed anything else at that time. I had had a childhood education punctuated with frequent visits to the underground air raid shelters, together with disturbed nights of sleep and the threat of invasion. And no bananas. Laden with all the “benefits” that a World War brought, I was not really in a position to make life-defining decisions. But it seems a better-than-average wage packet was part of the deal. I was placed in the Letterpress Department at Sun as a junior assistant's assistant. I made a point of understanding the process in which I was very lightly involved, but probably would have stood little chance of bettering myself. It appeared to me, in those far-off days, that if your father was a machine minder, then you went in with that target. If your father was an assistant, then that was where you were heading. As an aside, I recall the 321 bus conductor calling out “Whippendell Road Rest Home” as we approached the stop outside the works.
To provide a brief idea of my personal tasks and responsibilities in that first job, I cite my first operation of every day, which was to squirt machine oil from a brass-topped conical can onto the frosted glass windows separating the letterpress machine room from Whippendell Road, thus making it easier for the “workers” to view the office girls passing on the way to their 9 a.m. start.
A pleasant relief was to be sent on the 321 bus to collect the departmental head’s golf clubs from his Garston home. All expenses paid. I believe the boss’s name was Mr Snelling.
There was the all-important task of keeping the paste pot full from the large drum over by the toilet door. Clearing the crust off the pot rim was only carried out on request!
A broom was never very far from my hand, as the waxy substance sprayed onto each printed sheet to stop the next “inky” sheet from adhering to it settled everywhere.
Twice-daily visits to the tea trolley, for my minder (Harry Petts) and his assistants, with an order and mugs together with “the right money”, relieved some of the boredom.
A trip across the road to the sweet shop for the purchase of snuff, in a twist of paper, involved passing the timekeeper’s office at the end of the clocking hall and providing an explanation to the guy in the peaked cap and uniform as to why I was not planning an escape. The longer this operation could be drawn out the better!
Possibly the highlight of my brief involvement as an assistant’s assistant was the rare but exciting trip through the basement that doubled back to the Engineers Stores, to obtain a replacement motor drive belt. I was even allowed, on at least one occasion, to close the fasteners on the new leather strap by hitting the fitting device very hard with a lead hammer. With the belt in one hand and the Gutta Percha connecting pin in the other I could make a whole morning out of the round trip.
I must not forget the final task of the day. The oil that I had spread on the frosted glass had to be removed with the aid of spirit from another conical can belonging to Harry.
The days were extremely long! 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., if my memory serves me right.
The machines were flatbed letterpress. The content to be printed was made up of individual letters cast in a lead compound (see below) and halftone images that were nailed to blocks to raise them to the same height as the type face. These separate pieces were all locked in place in a metal forme before arriving on the press and being placed on the flat reciprocating bed. They formed the material to be printed – one impression – on one side of a sheet of paper that was to be cut to form the pages of (most likely, at Sun) a magazine.
Much of the work in a printing run was taken up by the minder (Harry) preparing the impression cylinder in order to achieve uniform pressure across the sheet and therefore a satisfactory end result. This was achieved by cutting thin tissue-paper sections and sticking them on the impression cylinder under the blanket with the aforementioned paste, which Harry dispensed from the back of his hand.
Large sheets of paper were lifted onto a sloping board by the assistant (the “feeder”) and were singly fed into the grippers on the large impression cylinder, where they matched the speed of the reciprocating forme as it passed, and where ink, previously rolled onto the type face and images, was transferred. In later years the sheets were fed into the press via a device with masses of rubber suckers, emitting a strange sighing sound. The printed sheets were then mechanically lifted and placed on a pallet for drying and removal. With only one colour possible per pass, it required another machine to be set up to produce the second impression, be it the addition of a colour or one-colour printing of the reverse side. Quite often it was only a coloured border on the front page. The main skill here seemed to me to be the pre-press calculation that ensured that page 6 appeared on the back of page 5, and that colour register was achieved over different formes. Readers Digest had many pages printed on each side of a very large sheet of paper. My journeyman was usually involved in producing the cover for Country Life, which required at least a one-colour border in our routine.
When all the printing was finished and the sheets were cut up on large guillotines, they were folded into “signatures” and the warehouse girls would collate them and glue on the covers before the trimming on three sides on another rather intimidating three-bladed guillotine. Some of the periodicals, such as Country Life and Vanity Fair, were only found in the best homes. Readers Digest was the best value in my opinion.
I earlier mentioned the production of the metal type used in the formes. This was a fascinating process and carried out without any electronics at all. Two methods were used. The first, called Monotype, produced the letters individually from a typed command using a large keyboard that output a wide paper tape. The tape was fed into a second machine (the caster) and the cast type (one letter at a time, in lines) was transported to a tray (galley) ready for insertion in the forme. How this process was completed mechanically at the speed of a competent typist I never did discover. There were rods, cams, levers, and molten metal flying all over the place. These were extremely noisy machines.
The second method, called Linotype, also involved a punched-tape keyboard, but using a narrow tape like a teletype. The paper roll from the keyboard was inserted in a machine that cast the text in metal, a line at a time. Again at a tremendous speed.
The other half of the main machine room was devoted to rotary gravure, which at that time I did not get to see much of, although my father worked on the reel stands.
My boredom was just too much and I left, to my father’s displeasure, and got a job outside as an apprentice electrician. A lot less money and a lot more work – but more interesting to me.
While doing three nights a week at the then incomplete Hempstead Road College, it came as quite a relief when, in 1950, I was called up to do my National Service. With my determination to make an electrical trade in the RAF, I decided to get it over with. After two years I became a Senior Aircraftsman Motor mechanic, and demobbed on the day Queen Elizabeth was crowned [June 2, 1953 – ed.]
Straight back to electrical work. I changed employers to Thomas Hallet Ltd. Ironically, I was soon sent back to what I still called The Sun Engraving, but this time I was a contractor, not an employee, and involved in relighting the whole factory with 9 ft. cold-cathode fittings – the latest thing in colour-matching illumination. We mounted the heavy and cumbersome steel reflector luminaires on steel conduits, forging hooks for easy removal, as it was discovered that these fittings acted like dust traps and would produce “snow storms” of extremely explosive paper dust at inopportune moments.
We had several hazards to be aware of and avoid where possible. Height was one. Unavoidable in many cases, and safety harnesses and the like had not been invented. Flammable atmosphere was another. Noxious fumes from the plating room, and being knocked off our ladders by a short-sighted truck driver towing a long, heavy, copper cylinder, added to the excitement. Another cross to bear was the “Father of the Chapel” [FOC] or, in non-printing parlance, the “Shop Steward”. These individuals had an enormous amount of power and control, and to fall foul of any of them was to leave the premises forthwith! Several of our men disappeared suddenly and in some cases were sacked by my boss. A suggestion that you were endangering their members’ earning power was all that was needed, or even purchasing too many rolls from the tea trolley to the detriment, etc., etc.
We also carried out the electrical installation for two new white paper warehouses, complete with travelling cranes, and lit the bays from a frightening height with ladders extended from the mobile crane platform. We did not get any offers of help from the "local incumbents” on this one. The area eventually became the web offset printing bays, ultimately the only survivors of the old company.
Because I was known to management, I was in a favourable position when I applied for a permanent job at the Sun in 1965. Once installed as a £20-a-week electrical maintenance engineer, eventually on a three-shift system, my roving days were over. What happened outside the factory passed me by.
We had our own FOC, who went under the name of Budgie(?), a fitting nickname, as he was almost impossible to shut up.
A lot of things changed in my life with this move to maintenance from installation. All of the machines had relay/relay logic. Large cubicles were full of open-contact electrically operated relays, with at least one for every motor on a press. With masses of register devices, pumps, blowers, impression rollers, and other control devices, and up to 13 printing units on a press, that made an awful lot of items to inspect and maintain – and, heaven forbid, to fail. Later, as solid-state transistor/transistor logic became more prevalent, the hands-on component of the job became less and less. Diagnostics were perhaps simpler, but replacement, not repair, became the vogue. Whichever the form of control, there was an awfully steep learning curve to negotiate. “Not knowing” was not an option on night shift when something would not start, stop, raise, or lower. I found that I could gather a lot of pointers from the operator by asking the right questions and reading between the lines. I had the nickname “Doctor” in some areas, as I would invariably ask the minder, “What seems to be the problem?”
A concept I had not previously met was the very necessary use of “flameproof” electrical installations and what constituted “safe” and “hazardous” areas. This necessitated stringent restrictions on the positioning and nature of everything capable of producing a spark of sufficient magnitude to ignite the heavy vapours and actual inks in and around the printing unit. The basement and above 12 feet in the press room were considered “out of the zone”. Everything else in the press area was deemed hazardous.
One of the results of a web of dry paper peeling off of a rubber impression roller at high speed was the build-up of a “static charge” of electricity. This, as is its very nature, eventually discharged as a visible arc across to the nearest item of opposite polarity. Being adjacent to the ink duct, it was very often the cause of the (fortunately rare) unit fires. A bar, designed to ionise and make the adjacent air more conductive, was eventually developed to replace the tinsel and wire used previously. The occasional dampened wiper could be seen draped over folder bars, in particular, to attack the same problem. Static electricity was an intrinsic and dangerous by-product of fast-moving dry paper and increasing speeds. It was never entirely overcome during my time at the Sun.
I will attempt to describe the photogravure process for a comparison with the then dated and much slower letterpress machines. In my early days of experience the letterpress results were considered superior to those obtained by photogravure, but of course gravure has now also been superseded in many areas by other methods of printing, including web offset lithography, with sometimes amazing results.
At the beginning of the gravure process, a colour-separated set of four photographs was taken of the intended end result. The corrected negatives were placed in the position to be etched, on a sheet of photo resist. This material was exposed to strong light and then developed in warm water. The emulsion that remained formed the patterned barrier, or resist, through which the acid would etch the copper surface of the printing cylinder.
The sheets were squeegee’d onto their respective copper cylinders: Red. Blue. Yellow. And Black/key.
The cylinder was then etched in a bath of ferric chloride on a time-and-temperature scale, leaving the image as a depression below the surface of the copper. After proofing, the cylinder was then chromed by electrolytic deposition. The paper was then passed through four printing units and over four cylinders for a full colour reproduction on one side of the broadsheet, which was the width of a paper reel.
This large reel of paper was mounted on a reel-stand in the basement, its end routed through a slot in the floor to the first press unit on the ground floor, where the first colour was applied. The cylinder rotated in a bath of ink and the unetched areas were wiped clean by a doctor blade which left ink in the etched cells for transfer to the paper surface by compression with a rubber roller. The paper was then further routed round a large steam-heated drum, which had exhaust conduits to a spirit recovery plant. And so on, through the other three units. The other side of the paper was then printed by passing it through additional units on the press. A typical configuration could involve thirteen units with, for instance, 4X4 + 4x1 providing 75% colour, 25% black and white, utilizing two webs of paper from two reel stands. Prior to automation with electronics, the minder had access to hand-operated wheels in rows over the folder exit [the “fly”] and was continually checking the printed output and adjusting the register rollers and turner bars mechanically to maintain quality. When electronic register controls from Crossfield (the Autotron, otherwise known as the “magic eye”) were added later, the printing cylinders contained colour register marks on the borders of the web, which were scanned electronically and the feedback was used to maintain acceptable register. This allowed the press to run considerably faster than the minder could manage using the manual method.
The two webs of paper were then slit into ribbons (whose width was the depth of a page) and adjusted and collated to form a magazine sequence. This stream was stapled, cut, folded, and ejected in finished form. The folders were very impressive bits of engineering.
The reel stands were provided with drives to match the speed of the press by detecting the tension of the paper, and were designed to speed up a new reel to match the speed of the old reel before pasting the two surfaces together and severing the expiring reel. They were termed “flying pasters”. When I first arrived in Whippendell Road the new reel had a “nose” prepared using whatever join configuration the reel hand had perfected over the years, stuck down with Vaseline and pasted (just before the next join was due) with glue from a heated pot. The new reel was accelerated to matching speed by rotating the stand ‘spider’ and closing a clutch gradually, and at the appropriate time a broad brush pushed the old web against the prepared nose on the new reel and almost immediately a length of rope was drawn across the expiring broad sheet to sever it. This was quite a skilled task and determined how well a press performed over a particular shift. A failed join attempt could strip out the whole press and require a great deal of work to recover.
Later, the reel stands became considerably less skill-dependent, with only the loading of the new reel and the provision of a double-sided-tape nose. All the rest was handled automatically. I travelled to ASEA (an electrical engineering firm in Sweden) to help evaluate their reel stands and, together with most of the employee team I was with, was impressed with the ingenuity and performance.
The end result of the printing process was thousands of copies per hour of a full-sized magazine, collated, folded, trimmed, and bundled, ready for delivery to the newsstand. Examples at the Sun were Woman's Own and, earlier, Picture Post. Later came the Sunday Times Colour Magazine.
At the end of the print run, the cylinders were removed from the press and their layers of copper and chrome were stripped off. They were then re-plated in a high-current copper sulphate bath, to go through the whole process again on the next job.
I should mention at this stage that gravure presses also changed considerably during my time at the Sun. Both Albert of Germany and Cerrutti of Italy sold us presses, and I was privileged to be part of the team that selected both and then oversaw the installation of these huge machines.
This installation operation raised another danger, only later recognised, and possibly the most hazardous of the lot. The required steam to heat the new units’ dryers was distributed at high pressure in large steel pipelines from the remote boiler house. These runs were modified to provide the required service to the new presses. They were insulated with an asbestos lagging compound that was mixed as a light/loose powder with cement to form a thick slurry to apply to and insulate the said pipes. The dust, as the powders were mixed with water by hand in a large bath, spread to cover adjacent areas in a white film and was distributed by various ventilation flows. One of our lamp cleaners was to die of mesothelioma as a result of ingesting these particles, and it is likely that others were affected in those much-less-enlightened days. Although lamp cleaners were particularly susceptible to encountering asbestos dust, it was only actually dispersed during alterations to the pipe runs, being contained by a painted cloth covering. With Cape Universal Building Products (producer of Asbestolux) just across the fields at the back, working 24 hours a day, there could have been several sources.
As a finale to my Sun story: the white paper bays of the former paper warehouse we had lit as contractors were eventually turned into a web offset printing room with two Baker Perkins presses. This was the only form of printing from the West Watford site that was still being done as I turned off the lights and locked the Whippendell Road door of the original plant to mark the end of an era.
I performed those same “last rites” at Odham’s too, making the building electrically safe following the closure.
I shall never forget the Sun’s old clock tower, or the phone calls from a certain Robert Maxwell, telling me that the time on the Odhams clock tower was out by a whole minute, noticed as he was driven around the Dome roundabout in the early hours following a posh dinner in town. I retired at 60 years of age and took the opportunity to see a lot of the rest of the world!
I have found the recall required for these memories far from easy. The town as a whole, in fact the whole world, is so different from the 1950s and thereabouts. What did surprise me is that during my last period of near a quarter-century at the Sun, many things had changed without my noticing. The word “insular” comes to mind. Some of us were so tied up with the factory, its developments, and the processes involved that we nearly forgot that other people were not aware of our multitude of problems, and to some extent we did not recognise theirs either.
With the Sun consuming much of my working life in several separate episodes and guises, I suppose this effort was always going to be tied to me, for which I apologise. But having gone from an assistant's assistant, in 1947, to chief electrician, and briefly chief engineer in 1993, I am quite proud of my passage. Nothing was easy “under the Sun”.
Orchard, Alan [Addendum]
In my attempt to name a few of my fellow Sun employees over the years, I decided to adopt a “virtual tour” method. Although I have not followed the actual physical path between various departments, I discovered that I could not persuade my brain cells to recall names without attempting to place myself in the actual location where we had crossed paths. I was successful only to a point. I am afraid that many names are now lost to me, probably forever. A few faces came to mind, whose owners I could place as to their responsibilities but I could not drag out their names. The time scale of this tour is also somewhat flexible and covers the entire period of my Sun involvement, from 1947 to 1993.
The tour starts here!
My access to people and other departments was extremely limited during my first brief employment in the old Letterpress, but I remember...
Harry Petts. Letterpress machine minder and owner of the two conical cans and the paste pot mentioned in my earlier reminiscence. I recall him sitting on the press’s bed for what seemed like hours on end, with the “blanket” lying over the feeder board, his little knife made of a sharpened hacksaw blade in a wooden pencil grip, and the back of his left hand smothered in paste.
Mr Snelling. Letterpress Machine Room manager. The trips taken on his behalf on the 321 bus kept me sane. At times.
Mr. Whippendell Road Security Man. He of the peaked cap and eagle eye. He had an awful lot of employees to monitor in those early days, in and out of the Clocking Hall, and the goods/finished products out of the loading bay. His name will not come to mind, but must be known to someone. He was based in the hutch on the pavement at the end of the Clocking Hall steps.
On my return to the site as a contractor, I met a lot more shop floor people.
The in-house FOCs of the day were a constant worry. A spot-check on our Electrical Trades Union Cards and payment status sometimes resulted in one of our number being absent for a few days whilst he paid up to date. Other niggles concerned the things that contractors had no time to give real credence to, although the FOCs obviously did. As mentioned earlier, the consumption of too many rolls from the tea trolley and not conceding your place in the tea bay queue were issues that we fought in a very biased ring. I will not name names, partly because I can’t remember them all, but “fraternal love” was not very high on the agenda.
Much of our time was spent in the Gravure Press Room and we generally found the inhabitants to be quite pleasant. Actually holding a conversation was not really an option due to the noise. My memory fails me regarding the names of all the Gravure Office staff but I recall they were generally co-operative when access was required to prepare and hang their lights. Alan Hoare was one of our usual contacts, and Mike Bachelor was, I believe, one of the under-managers at the time. The rest are faces and actions but, unfortunately, no names.
Frank Kirby was the electrical manager of the day, and sat in a little office he shared with the engineering manager, by the yard entrance of the ground-floor Millwrights Shop, directly over the time clock and card rack. I honestly can’t recall him on the shop floor, possibly because he did not deal with contractors on my level.
Mr. Donald Berry was chief engineer at around that time and way beyond my pay grade to converse with. Any involvement with this worthy meant we had a serious problem. Or he had. With us!
There were numerous Sun electricians floating around, and we envied them no end. Not for them the hot-metal fabrication of steel hooks, or the drilling and tapping of steel conduit, or even the transportation of the same to erect in dusty, sometimes dangerous, areas. Their FOC was one of our hazards who responded to complaints by other FOCs at their morning meeting. I regret it was very much an “us and them” situation at times. We seemed to get on better with the engineers than we did with the electricians.
My move from contractor to employee came as a bit of a culture shock. My immediate bosses were Charlie Newton, Electrical foreman, and Dennis Wilkinson, Electrical manager. Two nice guys, and both very tall. Dennis was a good badminton player, and difficult to get over. Another electrician was shift chargehand Bert Brown. Another gentle giant of a man. Locked away in the Drawing Office above was Fred Kiddle. He was master of the electrical drawings and a quiet guy. He also held the world record for the slowest transit of Sydney Road (in the uphill direction) on a bicycle. He defied gravity?
Also in the same office were Norman Oldknow and Ray Alberto, who were also housed in and around the Drawing Office. Norman was in charge of the Solvent Recovery Plant.
Wilf Bryan, chief draftsman, was another nice guy. Derek Cooke worked with him. Just as nice! In fact, they were all gentlemen.
The chief engineer then was Bert Creighton, but Christian names did not come into it for me as a lowly electrician. I needed to gain a little promotion before that happened.
The large, near-empty workshop between the offices and the Boiler House in the north-eastern corner of the site had once been designated the Folder Shop, and was where much of the development and prototype manufacture of the gravure press folders, really impressive beasts, had taken place. It had tall, double-door access to the Engineers Yard and high gantry cranes through the doors and along its length to enable large cast-iron pieces to be maneuvered and machined into “top hampers” and other large parts of machine folders. Sun’s own in-house-designed printing units were fabricated there. The floor had several large steel inserts on which to build flat and square structures, complete with bolt slots to hold the project firm during construction. When a piece of machinery has several rollers, all feeding the same ribbon of paper, they must be aligned in every which way. When the rollers total dozens, and multiple ribbons are involved, then the slightest aberration could make the whole unit useless. Several large and seemingly redundant machine tools stood about the floor and a grill and bench level entrance back to the Engineers Stores was securely bolted. I could imagine a bib-and-brace, cloth-cap-wearing engineer drawing out dozens of grease-paper-wrapped ball bearings to insert into a precisely machined current project. Almost romantic for an engineer, and boring for everyone else.
A walk the length of this Shop at first light, following a night of noisy machinery and being confined to a basement, I found very therapeutic. I would be serenaded by dozens of starlings with their amazing repertoire, and the smell of real fresh air. Nice!
This said, I believe that the Shop had seen its heyday by the time I had reason to visit it. Most of the presses now came to site in a finished condition. How much of the design, development, and prototype work was actually carried out in this workshop I will never know. It had no permanent occupants in my day, that I noted.
In the far corner of this block was sited the Boiler House, which contained two impressive Yorkshire boilers. They were originally fired with coal, but I believe converted to oil during my time. I sometimes dried out my clothing there when caught in the rain on my bike. The boilers were a lot shinier than the stokers. That was one dirty job.
The area opposite, in the angle between Whippendell Road and Sydney Road, held the new South Extension block. Process was in the basement, and Studio above. It had been a car park and, come lunchtime, a kick-around area when I was contracting.
Peter Draper appeared on the scene and brought some new ideas and skills. He was soon chief electrician, but my memory does not recall the sequence of events.
For my own movements on the ladder in the department, I only recall first-shift Charge Hand, followed by Foreman, then Chief Electrician. I enjoyed all these stages, but found 24-hour call-out to be very wearing. Thank the Lord mobile phones had not been invented then! I now moved in different management circles and made several continental visits to evaluate proposed new equipment. I met and socialized with many of what I had previously designated “Office Wallers”.
My rise in status and responsibility had also involved me in union negotiations in the Personnel Dept., where I worked alongside David Staton and Alan Pankhurst, and later with Brian Smith (he with the beard!). An inordinate amount of time was spent both negotiating and preparing to negotiate. I remember little of the detail or subjects, but seem to recall a work stoppage resulting from one dispute: Was it to do with the 40-hour week and the eventual three-shift system incorporating the twilight shift? I also seem to recall that other unions were the prime movers, not the ETU. Alan Pankhurst is unfortunately unwell and not able to remind me. Alan and I both played squash and badminton together. He played better squash than me but I could beat him at badminton on a good day. David Burke was also to be found in Personnel in those days, as was George Coppen, who also had a beard around this time. Lew Avis was, I believe, personnel director about this time. (I have just heard; sadly, of his demise.)
Other departments, which I had less day-to-day contact with, provide some more names. Cliff Line was from the Production Office, and a fierce squash player. We knocked various lumps off one another, even resulting in hospital visits. It did not stop us from working, or playing. In Finishing was Peter Barber, who went on to greater things over the ensuing years. It was always nice to see the ladies beavering away on the GST (Gatherer, Stitcher, Trimmer) lines. They did not have that much time to look around as they fed sections to the ever-moving chain belt in front of them, but were still able to hold a conversation (somewhat loudly, due to the ambient noise level) that could sometimes be a little embarrassing, particularly if you happened to be the subject! They always seemed to be pleased with their lot.
My memory has been erased as to the date, and I may not yet have started on my actual Sun employment in 1965 when the Comps – on the first floor above the corner of Whippendell Road and Ascot Road, with its parquet flooring – was given over to the new Sheridan/Martini, a state-of-the-art gathering and perfect-binding machine. These machines were rather different from the GSTs the ladies sat alongside. And with perfect binding, using flexible glue as a spine. they were ideal for Country Life and Vogue-type products. They were the Rolls Royces of the binding world. With the machine’s arrival, I believe that finishing became a more male-orientated operation.
Across to the Ink Factory on the other side of Ascot Road, beyond the Pump House. Doc. Fuchs was the boss, Alan Smillie his assistant. Post-Doc. came Ed Joyce. They produced all the ink for the gravure presses and it was pumped across the road directly to the presses. The place was built like a prison block and housed very noisy, very mucky ball mills and pumps. As all these installations were necessarily flame-proof [no smoking], it was not a popular placed to be called out to, particularly on a wet or cold day. Or worse, night!
This last reminded me of the Technical Dept. Erwin Plaut was the man in charge. He was responsible for the attempted development of alternative cylinder-etching techniques. I was not directly involved, and the exercise seemed to be carried out with a degree of secrecy, but it was around this time that laser etching was the buzzword. As I recall, it was not a success in our part of the printing world at that particular time.
The Technical Dept. was accessed across the Plating Dept., or Pot Shop, as it was un-affectionately called [“pot shop” was short for deposition (electro-plating) – ed.]. I considered it to be a bit of a witch’s cauldron area. Here the steel cylinders were rotated in open steaming baths, partly immersed in all sorts of (to my mind) noxious solutions. They were receiving, by electrolysis, a coating of chrome or copper. This entailed the use of vast amounts of electricity, transformed and rectified by plant sited in warren-like plant rooms behind the tanks. The passage of several thousand amperes deposited copper and prepared the cylinder to be re-etched, or to be coated with the harder chrome after etching and proofing were completed. I believe the manager and chief chemist was Jack Riley. He had two talented artists among his foot soldiers. Reg Allen, RA, was one, and the better-known Terry Challis the other. This latter would produce lifelike cartoons at the drop of a hat. He was wasted in this department.
The cylinders, following their session in the depositing tank, went to the Polishing Dept. next door, where they were ground down to size and polished to a mirror finish. The importance of ensuring that all cylinders on a press had the same circumference cannot be over-stressed. This was achieved by measuring them with a steel tape and sometimes turning off the finest of cuts. If they were too small, though, they had to go back to the witch’s cauldron.
This leads me on to the Etching Dept., in the then newish Process block. To my shame I cannot recall any names, with the exception of manager Fred Frost, although I believe he had a fair number of other responsibilities at various times, all in the Process field. An important cog, and yet another nice bloke.
When first involved with this department, I noted that the etching process was very much a developed skill, supplemented by little more than a hydrometer, a thermometer, a clock, and a large ceramic jug of etchant. The prepared cylinder was rotated slowly over a plastic bath and ferric chloride was tipped manually over the entire surface, through the resist. The time and temperature determined how long the process would continue, and a watchmaker’s loupe was used to monitor the size and depth of the etched cells. On completion of the process, the cylinder was flushed with water from a hose. And that was it. Later in time, cylinders were processed while locked inside a covered bath, and all the variables and results were controlled and monitored electronically. Virtually anyone could achieve consistent results.
Sometime during my employment an attempt was made to introduce phototypesetting. This was definitely kept under wraps to a considerable extent. The facilities provided by the process, such as those that come with MS Word and Publisher these days, would have wiped out the need for whole departments and their staff. My guess was that it was considered too much of a hot potato. I had enough on my Industrial Relations plate to push for closer involvement. My Electronics Dept., however, was less tolerant, and persuading them that it was not their concern was not easy. Les Deleew was the chief there, with Roy Beale his understudy.
As far as the Front Offices and Board Room were concerned, I served under many combinations, but most of the time my direct contact with the top level was buffered by departmental heads. I tended to divorce myself from the politics where possible. My interest and responsibility were with the plant and those people who kept it running. I did meet MDs various, but mainly at mass briefings or socially. Like any other group, some I liked, and some I didn’t. I assume they had their opinions of me too.
My brief period as Chief Engineer was an expedient necessitated by the fact that I was the only manager left with engineering skills, and during that time I ended both Odhams’ and Whippendell Road Sun’s existence by making all the electrics and other services safe. The Sun had an 11kv supply and Odhams a 33kv ditto, both of which were potentially very hazardous indeed. I say that I switched off the lights and locked the door in both of these Watford landmarks. These actions also marked my release from the 24-hr tentacles of Robert Maxwell. I was truly not sorry for that.
So this has been my “virtual tour”, as I call it, around the Whippendell Road plant. All I left behind to mark my considerable involvement “down Whippendell Road” were two bays housing Baker Perkins web offset presses. They were lit by the luminaires that I had risked my life and limb as a contractor to fix and suspend from the concrete roof trusses. Are they still there? (It’s now February, 2021.) I retired in 1993, aged 60 years
This tour has been an interesting journey for me, despite the numerous “black holes” in my memory. Still, the names may help as far as location is concerned, and may prompt others who were actually involved in the specific areas to add personnel to the locations.
One thing that did register with me, as I worked on the tour, were the enormous changes towards technology from original man/hand skills that occurred in almost every area I was involved with. When I read on the website about other parts of the operation, what became even more obvious were the difficulties experienced in the very earliest days, when everything was “new” under the Sun. Those were processes and concepts that had to be invented, not just mechanized or automated. I wish I had been there then.