Letterpress-only printers are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Where this was once the only way to print and each town could boast of such a works, I have only seen a handful in my letterpress adventures across the UK. In Yorkshire, I saw the final days of Ken McWhan’s in Scarborough and saw the demise of Paul Mitchell of Farsley near Leeds. The exemplar blog for me is Spitalfields Life, and I was thrilled to see the Gentle Author pay a visit to Gary Arber on Roman Road in East London.
I was less pleased when I saw that Mr Arber’s Printing Works was near closure, so I took the chance to visit him. I can’t do the same justice as the Gentle Author to this wonderful story, fronted by Mr Arber, but I can as the questions that I suspect printers would want me to ask, and also offer my best wishes for his future.
I spoke to Gary on Wednesday 19 February and asked whether I could visit. Some printers are almost furtive but Gary said he would welcome a visit. I made the short journey from the bowels of the City of London on the Number 8 to this different world. The fact that the light above the door states “Printing Works” leaves the distinct impression he means business.
The visitor’s first impression is the wealth of objects — everywhere. Each surface is filled with engaging and interesting things. Stationery, ephemera, odds-and-sods from the print works itself. This ground floor is Arber’s shop window and the place to deal with customers. Gary was helpful to the trickle of customers that still attend in hope of solving some communication need — despite the rather draconian parking restrictions.
I was escorted down the small, steep stairs to the basement. It’s here that the machines live that printers will have salivated over in the Spitalfields Life article. The usual printing smells of oil and ink are here, but also the cold slightly damp air and quiet that comes with being below street level. I could see that work has begun to remove these machines to Norfolk and the renewed care of the Catseye Press, but the bulk of the battery was here.
Deciding on Machines
I asked Gary how he decided on which machine to use for a job and his response was simple: tiny jobs like business cards would be done on the Golding; larger jobs on the Heidelberg and the largest jobs on the Wharfedale.
The Lagonda has attracted a lot of attention — it’s one of those machines that few people have seen and had attained an almost mythical status. The machine was installed in the 1950s, while Gary was in the Royal Air Force, but was never very popular. The feed mechanism is driven by a long, single bar running from left to right and this was tempremental. An impression of the last job remains on the tympan — a bottle label for oil — and the machine was last used around 1968. The British Printer write-up of the Lagonda suggested they could be run side-by-side, but the way the motor housing is positioned leads me to believe that this could never have been done in practice.
With the exception of Steve Fisher (who raves about the Thompson Platen), the ranks of commercial jobbing letterpress printers fall in love with their Heidelbergs and Gary is no exception. This machine is his ‘go to’ machine and has been used until the last two weeks.
Golding and Wharfedale
These two machines are famous from their connection with the suffragettes. It’s these two machines used to print for the campaign. I was especially taken with the size of the Wharfedale (Crown sized: 20? x 30?) — such small machines are unusual according to Brian Aldred.
Case or Composing Room
The stairs adjacent to the front door lead upstairs to the composing room. Three men worked here at one time: each with his own stand of cases. The room looks slightly domestic with red and gold wallpaper but this is what the comps liked, said Gary. It looks rather chaotic, and I suppose that the demands of work over time meant that very little type seems to have been returned to its case.
Gary told me that his supplier of choice was Riscatype, of Monmouthshire. He concentrated on Gill for the sans face and Times for the seriffed face. A small run of Rockwell and Perpetua supplements this.
General Layout of the Works
The works was at one time all based in the basement machine room: with case racks and compositors working along the back wall and machines on the outside wall. As the business expanded, the guillotine and case racks were moved to a shed in the back yard. From there they were moved to the back of the ‘shop’ area on the ground floor. Eventually the case room was moved upstairs in to what was the living area. Gary told me that a Factories Inspector in the 1970s had suggested the works was not up to standard: including the need to guard most useful elements of the machine, replace the staircase to the cellar and whitewash the case room. Gary declined and ended up letting go of his staff to avoid further enforcement by the Inspector. The case room, by the way, retains the original wallpaper!
Gary’s works have been producing printed material since 1897 and the wonderful human story that follows this is best told by the Gentle Author. It was a pleasure to meet Mr Arber and to find him so willing to indulge my hobby printer’s curiosities. Gary’s machines each have a new home pencilled in, and I wish the chaps at Catseye Press the very best with dimantling, moving, restoring and operating these fragments of a mosaic that cover printing, the East End, the Suffragettes and Mr Arber himself.
I did ask whether I might indulge him with something for his hospitality, but Gary — it seems — has no vices!
Best wishes, Gary, for the next chapter of life away from your Printing Works.
Update: April 2014
The nice chaps from the Catseye Press have been in touch with me —
Once we have it installed and cleaned (quite a lot) We will be more than happy for people with an interest to visit our Lagonda Platen (as removed from Arber’s in Roman Road) Along with our extensive collection of other platen and cylinder machines.