Gary Arber, Printer

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

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.

Machine Room

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

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’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.