Meeting Report: Letterpress Printing

Date: 
16 January 2015
Speaker(s): 
Mac Creedon (Solway Offset)

The thirty-one members of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society who braved the cold and the snow were treated to an enthralling journey through the history of printing by Mac Creedon, founder of Solway Offset. He began his career as a printer in 1955 when he became an apprentice compositor at Dinwiddie's. At that time, there were five printing houses in Dumfries town centre, employing around 150 people. Although they were rivals in business, there was very much a cooperative attitude between the five companies, being true 'guid nychburris' to each other, always willing to help out should one of their number be experiencing a temporary shortage of some vital material.

Although the Chinese had a form of printing, it was Johannes Gutenberg who made the critical step of inventing the first printing press around 1439. Printing presses spread rapidly thereafter, being brought to Britain by William Caxton in 1476. He set up his printing press in a disused chapel and to this day print shops are called Chapels, with the shop steward or head compositor called the Father of the Chapel.

The speaker then took his audience on a virtual walk through Dinwiddie's as he knew it when he began his apprenticeship. Behind the shop front on the High Street was the printing house, reached by adhering to the instructions: 'Follow the white line to Typewriter House.' This would bring the visitor to the Composing Room, lined with the Valuation Rolls of the County Council and ready to hand for annual amendments as people of the Rolls were added or removed through death or moving away. The most important item of equipment in this room was the Stone, a kind of very smooth and level table where individual letters taken from Cases (the terms Upper Case and Lower Case come from this piece of equipment) were assembled. A Case was a kind of boxed tray divided up internally by individual compartments for each letter in order, the size of each compartment varying according to the frequency of usage of each letter in English. The letters J and U were not in order, however, being placed last in a Case because they were late entrants to the present-day alphabets, after printing began. A team of ten people — three or four Journeymen, one Composer and the rest Apprentices — assembled and locked the letters into blocks ready for inking and printing. This was done on the Stone, where all meetings of the workers were also held, making it akin to an altar for the print trade.

From the Composing Room, the visitor (and the work) moved on to the Machine Room, with its two Wharfedale Printing Presses, able to print 500–750 sheets per hour (nowadays, such machines can print 15,000 per hour) and a single Heidelberg, the only automatic machine in Dinwiddie's, a machine made in Germany as the name suggests and still to be found in every printing house today.

From the Machine Room, the visitor would have moved on to the Litho or Lithography Room, its most critical piece of equipment being another Stone, a real stone this time, made of high quality limestone quarried in Germany. On this stone, an artist would draw whatever illustration was required, this then being transferred for printing by roller. After the print-run of that particular illustration was finished, it was the job of an apprentice to scrub the stone clean of all trace of what had had been painted onto it — a task that often took two hours!

Other sections of Dinwiddie's included Warehousing, Picture Framing, Typewriting and the Ruling Room, where lined paper was produced. To this day, the speaker remembers the strange smell always present in it because of the materials used. Another section in Dinwiddie's was the Bindery Department, employing three full-time craftsmen, and also had a constant strange odour, the result of the animal glue pots being heated up. Sheets might be glued directly to the spine of a book or sewn together in 32-page subsections before binding. Binderies were much more common in those days, the neighbouring Dumfries and Galloway Standard print shop also employing bookbinders. Today, as the speaker sadly told his audience, although Solway Offset in Dumfries has a Bindery, there are no others between Dumfries and Glasgow.

During his six-year Apprenticeship, the speaker worked on, among many other things, printing updates of the Valuation Rolls, business cards, Council meetings, work for companies such as Cochrane's and the diaries of the Royal Yacht Britannia (whose Captain was a personal friend of the young Mac Creedon's boss, Noel Dinwiddie). In 1956–7, it was decided centrally that all apprentices in every Trade should attend evening classes and, accordingly, for the next two years, the speaker would finish work an hour early one day each week to take the bus through to Carlisle for a two-hour class that taught him nothing useful about his trade!

When his Apprenticeship finished in 1961, he found a job in Edinburgh, working at the Daily Mail, an experience he found interesting but also shocking, coming up against for the first time against what was called 'quaint old Spanish customs' as well as the printing industry's penchant for hard drinking. One amusing memory he took away for his time at the Daily Mail was having to correct Sir Winston Churchill's obituary. After a time, he moved to a job at a Glasgow bookshop and then down to High Wycombe and the Bucks Free Press. At the time, a provincial printer would be earning £16 per week, the speaker because of his promoted post earning £55 per week. Fleet Street printers — very much a closed shop to outsiders — by contrast earned £55 per shift, with up to 10 shifts per week, earning as much as a High court Judge and putting them in the top 2% of wage-earners in the country. Each Father of the Chapel exerted great power and, when a visiting senior Scottish union secretary on a business trip to London was asked by his secretary to arrange a tour of the Daily Express, it was from the Father of the Chapel that permission was required. Fleet Street was able to keep the computer out long after its adoption by provincial newspapers but could not do so indefinitely. Although Eddy Shah and Rupert Murdoch are best known for breaking the power of the Fleet Street Unions, it was ultimately the computer.

The speaker returned to Dinwiddie's in 1967. A local worthy he knew was James Gunyeon ('Tim') Jeffs, a friend of Noel Dinwiddie and a Dumfries (and later Kirkcudbright) artist best known for the Civic Freedom ceremonial miniature caskets he carved and illuminated manuscripts executed for such figures as the astronaut Neil Armstrong on his award of the Freedom of Langholm. Another local worthy mentioned was Ivie Callan, founder of The Gallovidian, a printer greatly admired by the speaker. Callan was a skilled calligrapher, putting three copies of The Lord’s Prayer onto a silver threepenny bit!

The speaker also read out a very articulate, not to mention vituperative, 1840 letter written by a print worker, Amos Wardrop. His Chapel was in dispute with the print shop owner and Amos Wardrop, along with a colleague, had agreed to withdraw his labour at the instruction of the Union, but then reneged on the agreement and was called up before the Union, whom he accused of pursuing an unreasonable vendetta against the owner. Wardrop was dismissed from the Union, accordingly losing his job (it was a Closed Shop).

Eventually, the speaker left Dinwiddie's and, with the help of his local helpful bank manager, set up Solway Offset, using the newer offset printing technology, unlike the older five printing houses, all now gone. Solway Offset continues to this day as a successful business, one of its customers being the Transactions of the Society.