Rembrandt between 1955 and 1957
by Rob Clayton
The Rembrandt factory had two main press departments. There was the sheet-fed department, with Palatia and Vomag presses and one or two old, small presses used from time to time by apprentices. And there was the rotary department, composed solely of pre-Second World War presses – John Woods, mainly, along with one Sungravure press. Rembrandt’s rotary department was the repository for old Sun presses that had been removed to make space for more modern, high-speed ones. No one in the mid-1950s expected any new presses to come into Rembrandt and it was generally thought that the factory had a fairly limited life expectancy.
Labour relations were excellent and friction between Sogat and NGA was limited to militancy by one or two entrenched Sogat members who not unnaturally resented the fact that they had no means of progression to the status of printer. This situation was due to the established union agreement whereby only time-served (apprenticeship) tradesmen could hold a TA (Typographical Association) card, and only card-holding persons would be employed as printers. In Fleet Street there was a relaxation to this rule – the 50-50 agreement. This was a wartime agreement (later made permanent) whereby each time a vacancy occurred, it was filled alternately by, first, a TA member from outside the company and then, second, by a Natsopa member from the existing staff. The latter then had to join the TA. Within Fleet Street it was quite practical for this to happen, the skill levels were relatively low, and a Natsopa member promoted to the TA would have been a long-established member with some pull in the right quarters.
The system of there being no opportunity for an assistant to progress to printer seems harsh, but was based on long tradition. Natsopa members had their own strictly defined progression that was based on becoming a member to start with. Unless you had a job in the industry you could not become a member, and unless you were a member you could not get a job! This must be the original catch-22 situation and it was treated very seriously.
It was alleged that at the Sun the Natsopa FOC was a senior Salvation Army member in either St Albans or Hemel Hempstead. If you were a Salvationist you had a good chance of getting a job. They had a rule that if you were not already in the industry, the only way you could get a card was as a ‘temporary casual,’ perhaps doing a sweeping-up job. After some time you could become a ‘regular casual’ and you could progress to being given a ‘Full Card.’ The next level was typically as a ‘Fly hand,’ taking copies off the folder.
The progression after that (and this would be years later) was to ‘reel-hand,’ preparing the reels for the press and being responsible for splicing; and ‘Oiler,’ responsible for lubricating the press, a prime occupation. The top pay for Oiler was 87½ % of the minders’ base rate, and this was cast in stone as the maximum. The minder’s progression was that he must have served an apprenticeship and have a Typographical Association Card; he could then be offered a job after being interviewed to assess his experience. He would start as a third hand ‘ink slinger.’ Where this title came from I don’t know, it was not one I heard of before joining Rembrandt, but it was descriptive and clearly defined one’s role, albeit in a slightly demeaning way. None of the ‘ink slingers’ ever complained about the use of this title, though; it was just a fact of life. Where I worked previously, he would have been called a ‘number two’ or ‘second minder,’ because at that time we did not have more than two printers on any press.
If he wanted to, and was considered suitable, an ink slinger could progress to register-hand, and maybe after many years, if he was good and reliable, he would become chargehand on a small rotary. Over the years he could move up the scale of presses.
Sun/Rembrandt had a good training programme for apprentices; initial selection seemed to be from the sons of employees, which was no different from what tended to happen in most parts of the country with a strong printing tradition. The prime apprenticeships – colour retouchers, engravers, and camera operators, for instance (SLADE members) – were the most sought-after, followed by the TA compositors, machine minders (letterpress or gravure), and stereotypers. The warehouse would have bookbinders, members of the Paperworkers Union, and apart from this there were engineering, electrical, and some other crafts. It was a bit of a lottery: the numbers of apprentices were strictly limited; that is, one apprentice for every four printers in a small company, to perhaps one in twenty-five for a large company. Vacancies were few and far between and a school leaver could find that there were no vacancies when he left school, so he would join as a ‘boy’ and might only get in as a Natsopa member. He might be clever, a good worker, and ambitious, but his position was sealed, hence the bitterness that could be stored up, which could result in militancy and rivalry between unions, with the employer in the middle.
– A John Woods two-unit, double-width for 1 backing 1, with five baby units for 4 backing 1. The chargehand on days was Bob Holden. Ken Anscombe was register-hand, the name of the ink slinger/third man is not known. The two full-width units were supervised by an Indian who had worked for the Times of India.
– A John Woods five-unit baby. Peter Mowbray was chargehand and Stuart Miekle was register-hand; the third man varied.
– A Baker Perkins Sungravure press, the most modern press there. I can’t now remember the chargehand’s name, other than Bill, but he was a good friend to me. I was register-hand.
The Sungravure had ‘lathe’-type adjustments to the doctors whereas the John Woods presses had doctor units of a swivel type (which just rested on the cylinder, pressure being applied by suspended weights – crude but effective). The Sungravure presses had better frame castings, but apart from their lathe-type doctors they were much the same as the older John Woods presses.
There was no auto register control or ink circulation system on any of these presses. Cylinders rested on plain brass open bearings. One Natsopa assistant was ‘oiler,’ one brake hand was at each unwind, and four nats were on the delivery. About 8000 impressions an hour could be produced on a good day. (At higher speeds it was not possible to check register on the running web.)
– Two other presses were shipped in from Sun shortly before I left. These were 5-unit baby John Woods presses.
– There were two Vomag high-speed presses which only ran from time to time. They were okay for mono work but not for colour.
– The rest were Palatias, which were good reliable presses.
The engineering was straightforward; there was very little to go wrong
The sheet-fed presses were used to make reproductions for the fine art dealers Frost and Reed. Many of the subjects were by modern artists, with print runs as low as 1500. Pictures of sailing ships were especially popular, as were D’Oyly John’s ‘thumb and palette knife’ paintings. Proof approval was always done by a team, and took place at 11 a.m. from the same bench near the same window. Quality was superb. The rotaries printed a range of monthlies, including Soldier, Coal, World Sports, an Arabic magazine for the British government, the colour inserts for Homes and Gardens, mono inserts for Amateur Photographer and Autocar, and children’s comics. We also printed the Wallace Heaton ‘Blue Book,’ an annual or biannual catalogue of photographic products with tiny photos showing the goods. This publication has since become a collector’s item.
One of the major jobs handled by the sheet-fed side of the business was to print the Annigoni portrait of Queen Elizabeth. We kept the original by the press. You often see the framed portrait on TV, in the background, hanging on the walls of police stations, etc. The painting was also reproduced as a double-page centre spread in Woman’s Own. Not a particularly good reproduction, as the paper was not of the right quality. The sheet-fed department also printed reproductions for Boots the Chemist, and one of these was a picture of a Spanish Lady in a long red skirt. This was very popular, and until a few years ago it appeared on Coronation Street, on the wall of one of the houses.
Shifts and workload
We did a day shift and also a night shift of four ten-hour nights – Monday night to Friday morning. The premium for night shift was time-and-a-half. We did three-month spells of night work, and it was voluntary. As far as I can calculate about seventy men worked in the rotary department with about thirty of them on nights. The rotaries were kept busy, and often one or two presses would work Friday night; this was carried out by the day shift. We worked all day Friday until 5:00 p.m., had a break until 6:00 p.m., then worked until 10:00 p.m., had another break until 11:00 p.m., and then worked through until five in the morning. We received the equivalent of a week’s basic wage for the one night’s work.
The sheet-fed presses were kept quite busy but it was all fairly relaxed. One large Palatia only ran infrequently due to a shortage of skilled printers. The Vomag sheet-feds did not run very much at all. They did not do colour work, only mono, but they were fast. If the Autocar or Amateur Photographer runs were reduced, then instead of running the sections on the rotaries they would be printed on the Vomags.
There may have been a restroom for the women in the Warehouse, but I don’t remember anything for the men. They used to take their break in the gents if they were smokers, but many lived in Croxley Green and so could get home for lunch. Unlike at Sun, there was no nurse and no canteen.
Sun and Rembrandt workers did not mix at all. The only time I can remember this happening was when the Sun minders’ chapel invited John Crosfield of Crosfield Electronics to talk to them one evening about the Autotron, and Rembrandt minders were invited along. It was a good meeting, although I think I was the only one who attended from Rembrandt.
Rob Clayton left Rembrandt in 1957. Rembrandt was absorbed into Sun Printers in 1961, and its employees were moved to Sun.