Movable metal type in a type tray

The swinging 60s and all that! Memories of a compositor

Friday 30 October 2015

I first met Stephen Nevin a few years after I graduated from University. We worked together on various print projects for many years before we realised that we both shared an interest in letterpress printing. I was just beginning on my letterpress adventure, and Stephen’s experience of the process was completely different.

I am delighted to be able to share some of Stephen’s memories of letterpress in Nottingham’s printing industry with you here on my blog:

Stephen Nevin

April 1966, the Spencer Davis Group, Somebody Help Me! number one in the charts and England only a few weeks away from winning the World Cup. Exciting times as a 15 year old started his six year apprenticeship as a compositor.

The company I joined was Eric Meads, a letterpress jobbing printer located in Nottingham city centre. Looking back now this was print in its true form, I was becoming part of a long established and secure industry.

The premises were Victorian or perhaps even earlier, the basement held quill pens, ink wells, sealing waxes and sepia postcards. The ground floor, the stationery shop, the first floor the paper store, the second floor print/finishing and the third the compositors’ room. Not the ideal factory layout by today’s modern standards and health and safety not the best as the fire escape consisted of a knotted rope tied to one of the legs of the stone in the compositors’ room and then dangled out of the third floor window. The stone was a very heavy slate surface supported by a thick wooden frame, similar to a snooker table. Type was placed on this in page form before being locked into the chase ready for the print room.

The world of type was before me; the dirty apron, the lead and ink on your hands, bodkins, pied type and my favourite fonts, Spartan and Verona. Universe had just been introduced and was proving a big hit.

You respected your elders and listened intently as the journeymen passed on their knowledge.

Looking back now I had no idea that setting type by hand would not be my future career. It was only when I met other students at the Nottingham Regional College of Technology where I attended day release and night school that I began to understand that the print industry was changing very fast. My fellow students were not only from commercial printers but also from the local Nottingham Evening Post where Linotype had replaced hand setting. It was at this time I had my first introduction to phototypesetting and litho. I enjoyed every minute of my apprenticeship and apart from training as a compositor had the opportunity to operate a Heidleberg platen and work on many aspects of print finishing.

Then in the late sixties small jobbing firms started to look for bigger partners. Eric Meads sold to E. H. Lee and then Milwards purchased E. H. Lee. This was still a totally letterpress environment and this consolidation was taking place around Nottingham. Older equipment was discarded, some went to the local print college and some sold on as there was still a market for letterpress at this time. I managed to salvage a weighty Stephenson Blake font book along with a Printing Design and Layout book by Vincent Steer. I remember all the quill pens and sepia post cards thrown out when Meads closed, I wish I had the sense to keep some back, but at 18 that was not part of your thought process.

I served my apprenticeship with three different companies but there is only so many times you can move full type cases and print machinery from one company to another.

Upon qualifying as a journeyman I spent a further two years as a compositor with Milwards but realised that I had to look at my options. I had started evening classes studying management and production control. Many of my fellow students from the class of ‘66 went into phototypesetting or moved to companies with joint litho and letterpress, some left the industry. I went to work at Lonsdale and Bartholomew a company with both litho and at that time a large letterpress division producing timetables for British Rail. My job was to plan work loads and schedules for the letterpress division.

Nottingham was a large print employer and the majority of old family firms started to embrace litho whilst retaining letterpress, but the writing was on the wall for letterpress. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that wholesale closure of letterpress departments took place. I joined Hawthornes as a sales rep in 1989 and letterpress closed two or three years after I started. The type and machinery was kept in storage and many years later items were sold, presented to the print college, placed in the reception area of the company and individuals including myself given permission to take home type cases with complete fonts, chases with type, galleys, numbering boxes etc.

On a recent trip to Slovenia I came across two upmarket letterpress outlets selling high end products such as note books, diaries, address books, stationery, invites, labels and certificates. The ink and paper was superb, paper stocks used were at the top end of the market and the finishing and binding first class. There is a future for this kind of shop on the high street.

As my generation fade away I believe that people will hold onto letterpress and be intrigued by the craft not only of the compositor but the skill of the print machine operator and the wonder of the final ink on paper product perfectly put together by the binding manager.

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Photograph of Sarah Cowan

Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan