In 1955, my
father contacted Rosamund Essex, then editor of the
Church Times, to ask if there were any vacancies for me.
There was one - for a dogsbody: office-boy-cum-general-factotum
(who was known as a "printer's devil"). So, at the age of 16, when
I didn't really know what I wanted to do, off I went to Portugal
Rosamund was very
- how can I describe her - stern. That's the kindest word
I can think of for her. A no-nonsense kind of lady. She was a
pillar of the Abbey in St Albans, as well, where my family
In those days,
the Church Times was rather old-fashioned, as
were most of the staff.
All the work was
done by hand. I started off in the front office, which was
headed by Mr Finch, downstairs, just inside the door. He commuted
in from Kent, and was assisted by a Mr Salmon from Chatham, and
another man from Harrow. I thought they were elderly, but I suppose
they were in their 50s. On the ground floor, there was a Miss or
Mrs Somerville, who dealt with advertising, and was an ardent
Communist. She read the Daily Worker.
Bernard Palmer, who was the head man, and Rosamund Essex,
I can remember the proof-reader, Mr Randall, in an office right
upstairs underneath the printers. He was a younger man; and there
was Anne Frances Potts, who was in her 20s. She edited the
People came in on
a casual basis - mainly clergy. They used to write ad hoc
articles, I suppose, as and when asked.
contained a bit of everything. First thing in the morning,
we dealt with the mail; and we dealt with enquiries and
subscriptions. All the editorial work was done upstairs, in a
rather large room. So it was: "Do this, do that, run out to the
café round the corner and get me a ham roll."
If they needed
some dirty job doing in the print workshop, like
"dissing", dis-typing - breaking up the type which had been set and
putting it back into the trays again - that was my job. Once the
type had been cast, it was just necessary to assemble it together
with the pictures, which in those days were solid metal plates; so
the time it took varied, according to its complexity. Headlines
didn't take long, but text took time.
I really enjoyed
my lunch hours, peering into the Old Curiosity Shop
opposite, and wandering down Oxford Street. Commuting on those old
steam trains could be cold and cramped, but it only took 25
minutes, the same as today.
typesetting machines upstairs, and the compositors made up
the pages of hot metal. They were put into what are known as chases
- one for each page - and that was put into a forme, which holds
the page. These were lowered down on the infamous lift, which was a
hand-rope job - always getting stuck. On one occasion, the heavy
forme fell to the bottom, and was completely ruined. There were
loud words emanating from upstairs.
St Albans has
this great tradition of printing. It was supposed to have
had the second printer: Wynkyn de Worde.
I did printing
training at Staples Press in St Albans. Everyone who
worked there aspired to go to Watford, because the wages were twice
as good. I didn't do that - eventually I set up on my own. We had a
printing club at school, and my brother had also done some printing
work, and I was getting more work than I could handle at evenings
and weekends. So my fiancée suggested I started my own business. I
had secretarial help, and a printing friend who helped in the busy
times. A lot of my work came from the Abbey, because they didn't
have their own department then.
The main changes
in printing have been the moves from hot metal to offset,
and now to digital. Hot metal is still used in the craft world -
and there are still things we can do that offset can't do, like
perforating, numbering, and scoring. A prime example is printing
draw tickets. A letterpress printer can do all in one movement,
which makes it cheaper for the customer.
changed, and you have a lot more options with digital. But
you see a lot of bad offset work done by people who have no real
training, unlike the hot-metal apprentices.
I was in the St
Albans Abbey Fellowship from the mid-'50s, and over time I
got involved with various things: the parochial committee, the
Cathedral Council, and various sub-committees: finance, mission,
Abbey Magazine - I suppose that's because of the printing
connection, though I didn't print it.
I'm now the head
of servers at the cathedral. I used to sit in the nave on
the south side, always on the end of the row. One day, Dean
Thicknesse came along. He used to walk up and down the centre nave
on his stick before the service, talking to people. One day, he
prodded me in the back with his stick and said in his loud voice:
"You must become a server." I was duly enrolled, in 1953. Yes, 60
years ago, though I was at boarding school at the time; so I wasn't
formally admitted till 1955.
It's hard work
doing the rotas. It's coming up to our busy time, with all
the extra Easter services, and we've lost a few servers recently.
They go off to university, and it's becoming difficult to cover all
the services: weekdays, Sundays, and all the special services. I
don't know why I do it, really - I tear my hair out on the second
Sunday of every month. It comes round relentlessly. It's a chore.
But it's a tremendous pleasure - doing the actual serving. I shall
carry on with that for as long as I can, though kneeling is getting
I married my
fiancée, Virginia. It's our Golden Wedding on 16 February,
and we're going to Devon. We have two meetings for collectors of
Poole pottery in February and July, which usually attract between
100 and 150 people. We have talks, sell books, and have a jolly
good long weekend.
grandparents had three pieces of South Devon pottery, and
I thought it was wonderful. When they died, the pieces came into
our possession. They had "Watcombe" on the base; so I acquired a
book about it, and discovered a collectors' society, and it all
went on from there. The Watcombe pottery became established in
Torquay in 1869, and closed in 1962. At the time there were about
20 potteries in the Torquay area. Now they've all gone.
Being us, we
didn't just become members: we got
involved. Virginia became editor of the magazine for 13
years, and I printed it, and I became secretary and eventually
chairman in the '70s. In 2000, we gave up all that, and now just
enjoy the pottery and going to meetings.
I've had some odd
things to print over time. This last Christmas, I printed
some paper bags for a Raymond Gubbay concert at the Albert Hall, in
which they were playing the 1812 Overture. The bags had a
starburst on, and the word "BANG" in the middle in red. When the
cannons were going off, the audience had to blow up the bags and
My one regret is
that I didn't continue with my music studies when I was
younger. That was really - well, it was because I met
Virginia. . . No, the truth of the matter was that I wasn't good
enough. I had a vision of being a really competent musician, but
when I was 11 I lost the top of my finger, and it affected my
confidence and capability.
Thicknesse was an inspiration. He encouraged me. He always
seemed to have time for you, though he did seem very gruff to some
My favourite part
of the Bible is the Psalms. When Dean Thicknesse was here,
we used to say verses, taken from psalms, in the vestry.
When I was really
young, the Queen and Prince Philip came to open the new
Chapter House in St Albans. I actually served at that service, and
spoke to them both. Prince Philip said to me: "I bet that cross is
heavy." I replied: "Deceptively so - they think because it's
acrylic, it's not - but it is." But there have been lots of other
occasions which I've been honoured to be part of, and will always
stay with me. I was invited to go to a garden party at Buckingham
Palace in 2001, which was nice. I think often servers are taken for
I wanted to be a
pianist and organist; so, to me, the sound of an organ is
just wonderful. And the sound of railway steam- engines: every
summer we go to the Severn Valley Railway. They re- create the
1940s, and we dress up, and travel up and down the line - great
We like going to
North Cyprus; and Guernsey.
I'd like to be
locked in the Abbey with its former Master of Music, Peter
Hurford. He was a brilliant musician and a friendly guy,
from whom I learned a lot.
Bill Brisco was
talking to Terence Handley MacMath.