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92 Years with HMSO Presses

by  Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson and his son Terry

 Terry writes: This is a transcription of my Dad’s letter and notes sent from his home in Catford to Don Burgess [then working in HMSO Establishments] for the publication of HMSO: The first 200 Years 1786-1986.  Walter was 80 when he wrote these notes, and still had his indentures, signed by Ambrose Joseph Briggs in 1920.

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‘Many thanks for the copies of Progress No. 5  which you so kindly sent me. It was a pleasure to be, for the first time, featured on a front page, but I am afraid you have the details wrong. The picture was of the Composing Room at HMSO Farringdon Road, not Hare Street, in 1920. Before being taken over by HMSO, the firm was Hayman, Christie and Lilley’s whereSmart   and Dainty   novels; Health and Strength  etc. were printed. It was HMSO when I started work there in 1919. The General Manager was Mr Burroughs and the Deputy General Manager Mr Payne. As a 14 year old I used to watch while the huge rotary press turned out Surplus  once a month.

In 1920 we were told that the work and workers were being transferred to Harrow and Hare Street. At the same time, Dugdale Street, Camberwell, was closed. The three apprentices were kept back to clear up. It was terrible to see the beautiful initial letters, borders, ornaments and script type being dumped into bins.

Eventually we finished, and I was sent to Hare Street — which was originally Darlings, who, before being taken over, did a considerable amount of Government printing, an example being Orders in Council   known as DC (Darling’s Contract) Orders.

On arrival at Hare Street I was given a brass check with a number engraved. On arrival in the morning, this had to be dropped into the ‘8 o’clock box.’ A minute after 8 o’clock the box was taken away and the ‘8.15 box’ substituted. If your token was dropped into this box there was a deduction in wages at the end of the week.

At Hare Street the Composing Department consisted of three floors on split levels. I was on the middle floor with the Compositors from Farringdon Road. We had two jobs: Post Office Weekly   which was hand-set as the measure was 42 ems and could not be set on the Linotype machine, its limit being 36 ems. After the pages were made up my job was to impose them into two pages and take them to the foundry where Mr Riches beat out the flong and cast the plates. The forms were very hot when I brought them back and I would re-impose the pages of moveable type into ‘16s.’

The other job was Illustrated Official Journal of Patents (IOJ).  This consisted of zinc blocks illustrating the patent applied for and linotype text describing the block. My job was to gauge the blocks for ‘type high.’ If one was low I would have to smear on a quick drying paste, put the block on paper and put it under a press, pull a lever and squeeze the block until it was ‘type high.’

I think that mention should be made of Mr Hickman, the storekeeper. He was a wizard with his little file making split fractions, floating accents, braces for braced matter out of four-to-pica brass rule and Greek alphas out of figure 8s.

The General Manager was Mr J Whitehead and the Works Overseer Mr F Gilbert — and woe betide any who fell foul of them.

I have omitted to mention that my starting wage was 15/- (75p) a week plus 2/- (10p) ‘good conduct’ money. I dreaded going home on pay day 2/- short- not so much because of the shortage but the fact that I had been a ‘bad lad.’ This was for a 48 hour week with one holiday a year.

I was in the Fire Squad..  Three of us stayed late one night a month for practice. The bell would ring, and the Overseer would rush in shouting ‘Fire in the Overseer’s office (or wherever).’ We would proceed to the seat of the ‘fire’ dragging the fire hose and leaving a trail of pied pages from the random and numerous gas mantles (one of which was over each ‘frame’) demolished, much to Tom Beasley’s (the gas fitters) disgust.

Came the General Strike in 1926, four of we senior apprentices were being taught the Linotype and when all the Journeymen walked out we were told in no uncertain terms by Mr Whitehead that we were to stay put or our indentures would be cancelled. We couldn’t chance that, so we were allocated machines and had to set London Gazette  all of the time. One Friday Mr Whitehead told the four of us that a cab was waiting outside to take us to The Morning Post   offices opposite the Lyceum. Greatly mystified, we went and were met by a very affluent-looking gentleman with a huge cigar (no, it wasn’t Mr Churchill) who showed us each a Linotype and told us to set the British Gazette  (I’m not sure….this name could be wrong) but the paper was Mr Churchill’s brainchild- there were no newspapers being printed in the country. At the end of the day we were told to report back on Sunday afternoon. The strike finished the next day.

I finished my apprenticeship on 7 January 1927 and was put permanently on piece-work on the Linotype and therefore on the Night Ship setting Hansard.. This went on until 1928 when we moved to Pocock Street. The building was on the other side of the street to what was to become St Stephen’s Parliamentary Press.

Pocock Street was a long single-storey building without any partitions. Mr Whitehead retired and Mr Petley became General Manager. Things proceeded smoothly until 1939 when the war broke out. All was quiet until 1940 when the Blitz started and half of our time was spent in the shelter. The railway bridge over Pocock Street was hit and we were in the shelter just twenty yards away. There was considerable damage to the Linotype machines which were situated at the end of the building nearest to the bridge. We started producing again, but shortly afterwards the building was gutted by incendiaries. We were told to report to Queen Anne’s Buildings, Tothill Street, Westminster where we received our pay and were told to report to the Avenue Press in Drury Lane.

Conditions at Drury Lane were very poor. The machines lacked maintenance and the matrixes and type faces were quite bad; new parts were obtained and gradually production was nearly normal. Apart from the roster for fire-watching, which was far from pleasant, things went quite smoothly.

The younger Linotype operators had gradually been called up for the Forces and my turn came in 1942. I returned in 1945 and as the lads were gradually discharged, things were quite good. We even took on several local Telephone Directories.

Mr Petley retired and Mr Fox was appointed to replace him. He proved to be a very good boss. After him came Mr Jackson and finally Mr Charlie Walker- a great character. Eventually we were told that we were moving to St Stephen’s. I was one of the first to go to watch over the installation of the Linotype machines and, as the other operators drifted over, to get the work running smoothly. New Rotaries were installed for Hansard  and there was consternation after the first night of working when a number of pages appeared either completely blank or only half a page appeared.

Abbey Orchard Street (Vacher’s) closed; therefore Votes and Proceedings were brought over to St. Stephen’s.

I would like to relate something which I think was unique appertaining to the Day Linotype ‘Ship’ of which I was a member.  There were eleven operators at the time (1968) of whom ten had been House apprentices, and the total number of years served between them with HMSO was nearly 400. They were: G, Nicholson; H Porter; S Terry; P Connor; S Metselaar; P Rose; H Copland; C Terry; B Cannell and myself.

I retired in October 1970 having served HMSO for 51 years (and being honoured with the Imperial Service Medal). They were, on the whole, happy years and my relationship with Management was always cordial.’

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Terry adds: ‘I do not think that there was ever a more dedicated servant of HMSO than my father. I don’t think they make them like that any longer. My own story is a little more colourful than Dad’s and although we often worked in the same building, we never worked together.

I started work in 1945 when my Dad left the army and was indentured as a Compositor apprentice in 1945 at Drury Lane. I was posted almost immediately to the Foreign Office Press where I was ‘taught my boxes’ by a wonderful character named Percy Craske. I served at FOP for the first three years of my apprenticeship and during this time one job which I can remember was setting the place cards for the inaugural meeting of the United Nations which was held at Westminster City Hall.

After three years I was sent back to Drury Lane for two years until I was called up for National Service in the RAF. On leaving the Service at the beginning of 1952 I picked up where I left off at Drury Lane until I had finished my apprenticeship.

At the end of my apprenticeship I asked to be transferred to the Linotype ‘Ship’ as I had been studying for this at the London School of Printing in my own time. I was told that there were no vacancies and that the Ship was at full capacity. I was very disappointed at this as I had turned down an offer to become Commissioned Aircrew in the RAF on my Dad’s advice.

I decided to leave HMSO to get experience in the General Printing trade, my first job being Linotype operator at the Kentish Mercury   in Deptford, SE London. I stayed there for about nine months and I started drifting about the trade. My next job was as Demonstrator/Operator at the Linotype Company in Chancery lane. From there I moved on to Moore and Tomlinson at the Oval, Kennington, where we printed various, one of which was of course The Cricketer.  When the work got a bit slack the Guv’nor was not above taking on a bit of soft ‘porn’ to make ends meet. My one lasting memory of this firm was the smell- it was horrible, as the factory was next to the Marmite works, which stank of rotten cabbage!

Moore and Tomlinson closed, and on the day we were given our cards I received a letter asking me to come along for an interview at the Islington Gazette and East End News  in Hind Court, just off Fleet Street. The years that I spent there were among the happiest of my working life, with the hustle and bustle of a very active local paper along with the other publications printed there- thePolice Gazette  and theBaptist Times.  It was a good job at piecework rates but I could not settle down.

My next move was to the Cornwall Press  the Illife Company in Stamford Street where we published Autocar; Motor Cycling; Yachting World; Wireless World  and theFarmer and Stockbreeder.  This job was good but it was not what I was hoping for, being the latest addition to the Linotype Ship I did not always get a share of the lucrative work and soon after I joined the Company I heard from Dad that there was a vacancy at Drury Lane as a piecework Linotype operator on the Night Ship and I applied and was accepted back. This was in 1959.

After a year on night work it began to pall and I applied to transfer to the War Office Press in Whitehall on day work. This lasted for about a year when the Press was closed and re-opened at St Stephen’s, Pocock Street as S Department. I think that this was the most interesting work that I had been involved in, and an added bonus was the fact that my old Overseer from the FO Press, Percy Craske, had been posted in as an Overseer. He was a really nice man.

When Dad retired in 1970 there was a vacancy in the Main Press Linotype Department for which I applied and was appointed, but once again it was a case of the last person in the Ship not getting the perks, and the ranks of the oldies closed, so after yet another year I decided to go back on night work when a post became vacant. Happily, I was treated fairly to my full share of all work on this Ship.

In 1979 a rumour was going about that the end of Hot Metal was in sight with the advent of computer typesetting. Anyone with half an eye could see that this was the way forward, and when volunteers were asked for I immediately volunteered and was transferred to the new Parliamentary Press in Walworth Road, for training. We first had to forget the Linotype keyboard and learn Qwerty. After qualifying as touch-typists we then proceeded on to computer training on the Ferranti CS7 system. We eventually went ‘live’ in 1980 and the Press was opened by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

I soldiered on for the next 13 years until my wife died two years before my retirement in 1993. After this I had a prolonged period of ill-health, during which the Press closed and I was made redundant, not even receiving my full pension.

Fortunately I did achieve my ambition to fly with the RAF, as when I left the service I joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer reserve, with which I served for 33 years. HMSO gave me a good living and enabled me to bring up my son to be not entirely unconnected with the media: he is a freelance graphic artist.’


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