Gary Arber, Printer

Following the Gentle Author’s footsteps to Mr Arber’s of East London

Arber Printing WorksLetterpress-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.

Machine Room

Arber Machine Room Panorama
Arber Machine Room Panorama

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.

Work­ing from under the stairs, the room con­tains the now-famous Lagonda, the Heidel­berg Platen, a ‘Superm­atic’, Wharfedale, Mer­cedes Glock­ner, and a small Gold­ing Press.

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’


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.

The Heidel­berg

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

Panorama of Arber's Caseroom
Panorama of Arber’s Caseroom

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.

Type Selec­tion

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!

The Future

Gary Arber in the Caseroom
Gary Arber in the Caseroom

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.



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