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Once Upon a Time I used to Stand on One Leg
Home Family Careers
By: Malcolm Carpenter Email Article
Word Count: 1275 Digg it | it | Google it | StumbleUpon it


Many years ago, in fact very many years ago I was an apprentice Compositor. For six years I learned the archaic arts of typography and worked in a composing room which I suppose had changed not over much since the advent of printing using moveable type. The composing room I worked in been in situ from about 1850 and I would stand setting type using founts which had originated in Victorian times. The room was heated by a single open gas fire and unshaded light bulbs dangled over the type cases gently wafting in the breeze from the drafts emanating from the badly fitting window frames. The fire would be lit on the command of the proprietor at a particular point in the year which would be more or less fixed not by the weather but by an indeterminate point in the calendar which only he had knowledge off. If I dared to put one of the lights on before it was properly dark the proprietor would suggest I moved my case to the window rather than wasting money on electricity. In those days in the North especially in the winter we used to suffer frequent fogs but that of itself was not enough to warrant the use of electricity. Some mornings it was so cold I would stand on alternate legs to allow one foot at a time to warm up.

In the evenings I would take a bus into the city centre and learn a bit more about the ancient arts of typography and in doing that it slowly dawned on me that a few technological advances had taken place in my profession and my composing room was not exactly state of the art. Our machine room was in a cellar and the machines were Victorian hand fed presses. Some time previously the place had been mechanized by attaching the machines to an electric motor via loose belts. These would rattle and bang incessantly all day long. On one occasion the Health & Safety people did intervene to the extent that they required a hole to be cut in the ceiling above so that the staff could flee to safety in the event of a fire. Should we all be threatened by imminent death at the hands of a sudden inferno we would have to put a stool under the hole and hoist ourselves up to the floor above – the Health and Safety people did not require a ladder. In our printing shop not only had technological advances passed us by but even the English language was used differently. The proprietor had been born I would think around 1880 and had seen the introduction of the first motor vehicles and the introduction of traffic lights so he still used words like robos (robots) to describe these new fangled devices. He lamented the fact that he could no longer beat his apprentices and if anybody dared show any recalcitrant tendencies in either deed or word he would hark back longingly to the good old days. When I joined his enterprise he was in his eighties and still going strong and he had substituted beating his apprentices by discussing their failings loudly with his Manager within their earshot.

After the first few years of observing his operating methods I begin to wonder how his business carried on flourishing. His accounting system was as archaic as his machinery. Instead of updating his prices he added a multiplier to his costs at the end of his quotes. When I was there the multiplier was three. His customers would stand at his shop counter and he would add his figures to the various elements of the job and then at the end multiply the whole lot by three. They would look on with astonishment.

It only slowly dawned on me that his business was probably losing large amounts of money but was being propped up by his other activities as a slum landlord. He had acquired a number of properties over the years and was gradually evicting the tenants and selling off the houses. This would appear to have been a very lucrative enterprise and he got away with it probably as a result of his standing in local society having several times been Major of the town and was currently on the Police Watch Committee. He was also a local Magistrate. The other inducement for his tenants to flee was his ability to offer them nice Council houses as a result of his local government connections. This was a very nice scam you buy houses cheaply with sitting protected tenants and sell them for several times the price vacant possession.

His other rearguard activity in keeping himself above water was fiddling the tax man. In those days printed items which had to be completed by hand like invoices were subject to Purchase Tax. Other items such as books which were solely printed material were not. Despite being on the Watch Committee he printed material for a number of dubious or illegal enterprises. Off course betting was illegal but book makers and bookies runner would stand in back alleys in the same spot every day and clients would place their bets more or less openly. One of his customers was one of the largest back alley operations and he printed their betting slips. He printed vast quantities of them and despite using his archaic handfed machines still managed to remain competitive with the printers who had long since mechanised. I suppose we were like the handloom weavers of the printing trade still hanging on after our time was due. The Revenue man would telephone to make an appointment and before he came the samples of printed items which he should have paid purchase tax on but had not would have been removed from the books. This led to gaps in the sequential numbering something you would think would be quite obvious to the tax man. The tax man would sit in the office slowly and methodically going through each printed sample and making notes in his book. A studied deliberate exercise and then after several hours he would suddenly get up and thank the proprietor and leave. This was always a complete mystery to him and he put it down to the man having a few hours to spare before the pubs opened. The tax man was not the slightest bit interested in his petty fiddling but in looking through his book he was tapping a rich vein of dodgy businesses including the book makers but also illicit drinking dens, tax evaders and other fly by night operations.

I spent a few years as a compositor but then compositors became as dead as dodo’s. They were overtaken by the advent of lithography coupled with graphics software which made decent design and typography obsolete. My web site still bears the scars of my typography training and the stringent constraints imposed by my background in metal type.

These days I promote another group of artisans making fine products – a dying breed but still world class. I sell fine Sheffield made products on my site. Scissors and knives made by the few small factories still surviving in Sheffield. Products made in the traditional ways and whose excellence arises more from the hand skills employed than the application of machines. It keeps me busy as I age and the workshops involved are even less mechanised than our old machine shop which is a tribute to the stamina of the crafts people still operating in them. The article covers a period of time when I was an apprentice compositor in Northern England and deals the trials and tribulations of my life.

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