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Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle

by David Roberts


The famous pub stood in City Road, on the corner of Shepherdess Walk. A few paces further and you came to a curious building, a former tobacco factory, part of which was acquired during the Great War by His Majesty’s Stationery Office for a duplicating unit. In due time the whole factory was taken over. Evidence of Shepherdess dramatic productions set me thinking of my two years there in the outback.

On a curved corner of the building, a flight of steps led up to an inset door, the staff entrance to D Division, later to be called D & D (Duplicating and Distribution). Inside on the right was a messenger box, where messengers took it in turn to rest their feet and guard against strangers.  When I reported for duty there in August 1951, I was directed to the lift and the first floor. On the first floor, two rooms away from the lift, was the HEO’s room above the front door, where I introduced myself to John Wilkinson. He was a cheery Yorkshireman who was to be my boss. He was charged with co-ordination of reproduction services across the Civil Service. His work had just started, and his staff were myself and Mike Mew. Mike had been a postman, regraded as a CO after flat feet made him unfit for Post Office service. A stocky man, he also suffered from a mild stammer, which made his work quite taxing.

The objective of HMSO was to keep all reproduction work in house. This included stencil and litho duplicating, Photostat copying, and addressing. If any London Department wanted more copies than could be produced with carbon paper in a typewriter, the work was supposed to be sent to Shepherdess Walk or, if urgent, to a satellite of D at Bainbridge Street (behind the Dominion cinema in Tottenham Court Road). Of course this to and fro delayed everything, and during wartime many Departments had been allowed modest duplicating facilities for urgent work on their own premises. In peacetime these facilities often were underused, so the Treasury called on HMSO to utilise idle time by sharing out simple jobs among them.

This was not a popular decision at Shepherdess Walk. Unaware of the imminent explosion of reprographic technologies, which would create a huge growth in demand for document copying, everyone, from the Director (stone deaf Joe Argent) down, saw co-ordination as depriving D of some daily bread. John Wilkinson, with me as his record-keeper, set out to visit all the Departmental units in greater London. When already I had set up a Kardex system listing all the relevant staff and equipment in each Department which we visited, we discovered that a Government Photographic Adviser (Rex Verrey) in HM Treasury had such records already — which had prompted the Organisation & Methods branch to propose co-ordination of reproduction work in the first place.

John Wilkinson’s strategy, as we toured the ageing duplicating units in other Government Departments, was to question whether they really wanted this dirty and disagreeable work. I remember the Ministry of Labour HQ in Watford, where batteries of ancient addressing machines printed labels from gangs of metal plates in heavy trays. Their machines, which were second-hand when purchased at the start of World War II, were held together with string or pieces of Meccano. HMSO held the whip hand because, unless Treasury O & M made a strong case, we could refuse to supply replacement machinery, and Departments were not allowed money to purchase their own. In the Air Ministry, however, the Aerial Photography unit had been able to buy from their own Vote Photostat cameras, reflex boxes, office offset-litho, microfilm processors and other machinery, under the guise of cameras and processing equipment. The War Department had its own duplicating and copying unit, on grounds that (at least some of) its work was classified Secret or Confidential. I suspect we never found some machines in private offices, unless a breakdown called for a visit from an OMRS mechanic.

We bought a large-scale street map of London in four sections. Warehousemen joined and mounted them on a wallboard, and it was screwed to the partition between our room and the HEO’s. Coloured map tacks indicated each Government reproduction unit. We set up a form to cover each job transferred between Departments or from Shepherdess Walk to another unit. Mike stuttered through ‘phone calls to arrange these transfers. Meanwhile I had to learn the ropes at D. It was no use being ignorant of the processes and techniques which we were supposed to co-ordinate.

Our Assistant Director was Frank Hillman, and beyond his room was the Typing School. This long room occupied one wing of the first floor. Typists for our own and other duplicating units were taught to type with three fingers of each hand, not like copy typing which is done with all ten fingers. This was because even electric typewriters of the day tended to cut characters unevenly into stencils, because the outer fingers of each hand are less strong. Expensive electric typewriters were no more suitable, as they tended to punch holes right through stencil backing sheets. The area of a full stop or comma is much less than other characters, but the type was thrown forward with the same force for every key. HMSO engineers sometimes filed down punctuation marks, so that they would not cut as deep, but these then made broader incisions in the stencil wax. Bless the generation which could type fast with three fingers. They tapped away to the rhythm of piped music. It did not disturb Frank, who was used to it.

Around the corner was Testing and Training, headed by Harold Gregory, a cheerless HEO, responsible for the typing school and a duplicating school upstairs in the attic. His EOs were a charming lady and a dour Scot, with Arnold Martyn as his CO. Problems with materials or new techniques were investigated by T & T, sometimes in consultation with the Laboratory at Cornwall House. They also had a luscious CA to type for them, so we all found excuses to visit T & T from time to time, in the hope of ingratiating ourselves with this peachy young lady.

The warehousing and noisy addressing sections were housed on the ground floor. Emily Bennett was the Addressing supervisor. The noise was in part from plate cutters — machines like the strip embossers on railway platforms, where you embossed each character onto a strip by swinging the pointer to it on a large dial; then you pulled a handle (or stepped on a pedal). The plate in its carriage then moved along one space, ready for the next character to be "cut". Each finished 5-linr or 9-line plate was slotted into a metal frame, which could be tabbed in up to 24 positions for purposes of mechanical sorting. A tray of plates weighed many pounds, so the addressing machine operators needed plenty of muscle.

The far wing upstairs was occupied by the main typing pool, headed by Miss Cracknell. Everyone but the typists were cowed by her, because she protected them sturdily from unreasonable demands. I passed through there each day at lunchtime, for lunch in the canteen with Gordon Cooper and Ron Smyth. These fellow EOs befriended me and answered all the questions which as an EO I was afraid to ask in the workrooms. The fourth side of the quadrangle housed the platemaking, Photostat and process cameras, and a dyeline printer room which made diazo prints from original tracings. This empire came under an EO (I think Dave Reynolds) and HEO, Harold Dodge.

In those days, a Photostat was the only likely facsimile copy you could get. Although on paper, it was a negative — a white image on a black background. If you wanted a true copy, the negative was placed on the copy board and was photographed again. The Photostat camera was like a huge Box Brownie on a pedestal. In front of the lens was a prism (actually a mirror at 45°), pointing downwards to the middle of the copy board, on which a document was laid for copying. The prism meant that the copy came out right way round (readable, if wrong way up). A magazine on the back of the camera contained a huge role of photographic paper, 13, 18 or 24 inches wide. When a copy was made, the paper then was cut off and wound down into a light-tight processing tray. It then was removed for washing (to stop further development of the image) and drying round a hot rotating drum. All this took time, so for large orders we had wall-mounted Photostat cameras. The magazine back was in a darkroom, and the exposed paper was processed in shallow tanks of developer, fixer and water.

Similarly there were Process cameras, mounted with their rear inside a darkroom. A ground glass was used to focus the image on the copy board, using crank handles inside the darkroom to extend or contract the camera bellows or move the copyholder nearer or further way. When ready, the glass was swung aside and a dark-slide was clipped into its space, containing a sheet of film negative. Arc lamps flashed on to light the copy board. Like in the Photostat darkrooms, the process camera operators worked under red safelights, and processed the films in shallow tanks. Wearing rubber gloves and aprons, and behind doors protected by a warning light to deter visitors, the girls had a steamy job and a gloomy one.

The heat generated by the arc lamps became unbearable on hot summer days. Even the windows of the ladies’ room were left open, and the view across the courtyard, on hot days when ladies’ overalls came off, was attractive to the gentlemen. Sometimes at work, girls wore little beneath their overalls.

The long rooms downstairs had batteries of office litho machines. Addressograph Multigraph supplied Multilith 1250 machines for printing up to 14" x 10" sheets. Larger sizes were handled by Rotaprint R30 machines, made in Britain since the patents were confiscated from Germany during World War II.

All used flexible aluminium masters, grained by scrubbing with marbles in a special machine. The plates then were coated with an albumen fluid, poured on as a plate was whirled round in a platemaking machine. This spread the albumen as an even coat over the surface. The image was transferred to a plate under an arc lamp, which shone through a film negative or opaque stencil, to bake an image into the albumen. The unexposed surface then could be washed off, leaving an image which held litho ink. The bare areas of grained aluminium held a film of water, so that greasy ink was repelled from those areas.

Enough science! Yellow or orange diapositive stencils were typed just like ordinary duplicator stencils. Their coloured wax worked like a film negative in platemaking. Thus our three-finger typists were in demand for their very even typing. When Ivor Arkinstall joined HMSO, he was put under me for training. One Christmas Eve, when the typing school was making merry, we inveigled a teenage trainee into the lift with her box of chocolates. Putty in curly-headed Ivor’s hands, she travelled up and down in the lift with us for twenty minutes, while between us we devoured all her chocolates. Then we let her out of the lift. Even Ivor had had enough chocolate by then, and none of her friends were willing to risk entering the lift with us anyway.

Another person I was set to train was Ken Rhodes. He still lived with his parents in a large bungalow in Reading. He was destined to manage Reading Regional Branch. I remember that, as a product of a boys’ grammar school like me, he worried about managing women, especially young women. "What do I do if she cries?" I suggested to Ken that he sit her down, pour her a glass of water, and offer her his handkerchief. (This would not come from his trousers pocket, where a young EO would keep his working handkerchief. You were expected to have another immaculate handkerchief, neatly folded so that its top edge appeared discretely from the top of your breast pocket). He never forgot this advice, as he mentioned this key element of his initial training, in his retirement speech, when he escaped from HMSO to head administration at the Science Museum.

John Wilkinson, despite his cheerful manner, was seen more and more by Government Departments as a magpie, stealing back work which they preferred to undertake themselves, so as to maximise the productivity of Shepherdess Walk. He was promoted to SEO and moved to Cornwall House. His successor was Stan Palmer, promoted from our Kingsway bookshop, and he was much more diplomatic. On the other hand, Mike and I were gaining a friendly reputation among Departmental Rep units, who often rang in to see if we had jobs to offer them.

George Mann by now shared John Wilkinson’s room, and welcomed the arrival of Stan Palmer. John scarcely had acknowledged George’s presence. George’s company was time consuming. Whatever came his way, he had a quotation from Shakespeare which was apposite. If it did not come immediately to mind, George would pull out a volume of "Complete Shakespeare" and ramble on while he looked a passage up. He remembered play, act, scene and line, rather like some people remember Bible passages by chapter and verse. Stan was courteous enough to tolerate this, probably because he was never as busy at John Wilkinson had been while tracing and inspecting all those Government Rep units.

George Mann was appointed the HEO over all the Regional Branches — outstationed duplicating units where there was no HMSO provincial office. (Regional Offices in Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast had their own Government bookshops and duplicating units). At this time, Regional Branches were set up in Birmingham, Reading, Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds and Newcastle. The EOs there were kept in touch with developments by George Mann — if he remembered to despatch his post. In this he was so dilatory that I was persuaded to collect his letters and envelope them each afternoon, address and seal them, and send them off. This way I knew when RBs were short of work, and Mike sometimes offloaded quite large duplicating jobs for London Departments, to fill spare capacity in a region.

In the early years of the 1950s, Civil Servants in principle worked six days a week. In practice we worked on Saturday mornings and went home at lunchtime. On Saturdays we were not compelled to wear suits, and it was the custom to wear a less formal jacket (Mine was an orange tweed from a sale at Burton’s!). George would come up to Town in a splendid navy blazer with a magnificent crest, embroidered on the breast pocket in silver, gold and several colours. This we assumed was the badge of his cricket, tennis or bowls club, but nobody dared ask, as that would admit ignorance of such an ancient and glorious club (judging by its insignia). Though now in his 50s, George also carried a sports bag, which was assumed to enclose cricket boots, bat and white flannel trousers. I fancy it actually contained a volume of Shakespeare, the Daily Telegraph  and his lunchbox — but we never spotted him napping on a park bench anywhere in the metropolis.

R.A. Williams, Deputy Director of D, used to wander into our room from time to time. We would rather he had called in on George. More and more coloured pins were appearing on our wall map, which sparked huge interest in Mr Williams. Wherever it was fixed on the map of Greater London, each pin might remind him of all manner of interesting facts and events in that vicinity in past generations, which he felt bound to tell us. We struggled tactfully to listen and at the same time to keep our work going, until thankfully the need for a cup of tea eventually would take him elsewhere.

As at Cornwall House, I found that young EOs had to live by their instincts, and acquire knowledge on the job, with little planned training. To supervise staff two or three times your age always was a sensitive matter. A great leveller, which made relationships less formal, was extra-mural activities such as collecting monthly subscriptions from members of the Society of Civil Servants. My Welsh father had been a keen union man, so it seemed natural to me to join the union. Bob Norris made sure of that, and roped me in as a collector. I covered Shepherdess Walk, Bainbridge Street, Gee Street and Orsman Road — on foot, as there were no convenient bus routes between most of them. John Wilkinson did not seem to begrudge me taking these trips in working time, and it made a change of scene for me.

Someone (I cannot remember who) collared me to take a part in a Shepherdess Dramatic Society production. These took place at the Cripplegate Theatre, well equipped but too small for professional productions. They were short of players when someone’s leave commitments took him away during rehearsals. The play was a detective story — The Strange Case of Blondie White.  I was asked to play a young detective straight from Hendon Police College, somewhat at sea in the face of a murder. I remember Harry Edwards played the part of a dentist, who I think was the guilty party. Harry, with a marked lisp, always played himself, but had a great sense of dramatic timing. I doubt if ever he worked in D, but for years he wrote reviews of West End productions for the Staff Side magazine, the S.O. Review.

On the retirement of R.A. Williams, A.C.A. Taylor became Deputy Director. He instituted a morning meeting once a week with Frank Hillman, to which I was summoned with a batch of jobs which Mike Mew had been asked to place. Sometimes a large job was waiting for capacity at Shepherdess Walk, and I was asked to offload it. More often, jobs in excess of their own unit’s resources were lifted from a Department by HMSO to keep D busy.

Treasury O & M got wise to this, and in 1953 the role of co-ordination was taken off D. A special unit was set up in the new HMSO headquarters at Atlantic House, on Holborn Viaduct. This unit was headed not by an HMSO man but by John Eyres, a Principal who had been Secretary of the Milk Marketing Board. This new unit was to take over from HM Treasury the responsibility for approving demands for "reprographic" equipment. ("Reproduction" seemed an activity more suited to the Ministry of Agriculture or the new National Health Service). Harold Dodge was promoted to be his SEO deputy, and I was transferred to Atlantic House as their EO. Mike Mew (whose stammering was felt an impediment) did not want to leave Shepherdess Walk. The task of work transfers fell on the new Co-ordination of Reprographic Services section, with Mary Marrott the CO to mother all us men.

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