By Edward Rawlinson
Printer’s Devil survives today as no more than a name for a pub, before it gets re-christened as something ‘trendy’ like The Slug in Sandwich. But it used to be a real job.
The first print shops astonished the world by producing bibles that were all perfectly identical, and monastery clerics reckoned this was the work of Satan (not least because they were being put out of their jobs, spending about a year to produce a single copy) and the apprentices were usually stained from head to toe in black ink so, the story goes, they became the Devils. And type that became confused in its cases, or was dropped on the floor – usually by the harassed assistant - was said to have been devilled, or pied: a printer’s pie was a mix-up of type, long before it was adopted as yet another pub name.
Among the old devils whose names you may be familiar with are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Guy Bartholomew, Ian Skidmore… and your humble correspondent.
Three months into the craft I was about to sign a seven-year apprenticeship as a young devil at a local printers. I’d already recognised the boredom spent putting type back into cases so that one day I would be able to call myself a compositor. After I’d put every individual letter of used type into its proper place my initials were chalked on the case to show I had done the job correctly. Anyone knowing single 6pt type fonts will understand just how hard it could be to recognise the difference between individual loose letters like b, d, q or p and it often resulted in my getting a clout from the foreman. Printer’s pie was no meal for a 14 year old apprentice. In those three months I learnt quite a lot about type and attended night school for typography three times a week, continuing my studies for another two years when not working nights.
I hadn’t yet signed my apprentice indentures when the opportunity came for me to join the bi-weekly Burnley Express as an apprentice engraver and photographer so I went off into what became a lifetime of enjoyment.
The war had taken most of the young men and I had to learn fast about block making and photography and within six months I was out and about taking photographs and then turning them into zinc printing blocks. There was only me to help the boss take pictures and produce blocks because the others had left the department and gone off to the war. The boss, Fred Simcock, was in his mid sixties – that seemed old, then - and sometimes would miss work through illness and I’d be left on my own.
Only a few photographers will be around today who have wound up a spring to fire a flint, to make a flash, to take a picture. Flash powder was used in those days after your rationed quota of flash bulbs had been used up. When using powder you soon learnt to make a quick exit from a room before a cloud of dust started to descend on the people you’d just been photographing.
One of the jobs that took me closer to the war, as a boy, was having to go to the homes of servicemen and collect photographs if they had been killed in action, were missing or taken prisoner of war.
It was a task as hard as that of the telegram boy who pedalled his red bike delivering the sad news to the families. I never received any resentment when I knocked on a door to ask for a photograph; in their grief everyone seemed to be proud that their next of kin had served his country. My constant fear was that one day I would have to copy a photograph of my brother who was in the Navy. I had already made a block from a photograph of my cousin who was lost at sea.
Having taken, or copied, a photograph, developed and printed it, sized it up and coated a glass plate with collodian and silver nitrate, I’d re-photograph my picture and make it into a metal image. After etching the blocks I had to stick the thin metal zinc plates on to the rotary press. It was a worrying time when the huge Crabtree machine started to go into top gear, waiting to see whether any of the blocks would go flying across the press room. Fortunately that never happened to me.
Nowadays, so I hear, you just press a key on a computer.
Eddy Rawlinson also worked on the Manchester Evening News, then the Daily Express. In 1964 he bought a pub and started his own free sheet, Motoring Gazette, running it from behind the bar. He sold it to the Rochdale Advertiser and joined the Daily Mirror as a photographer, eventually becoming northern picture editor.