The Evolution of The Print Industry in Nottingham

Words: Michael Collins
Friday 16 December 2016
reading time: min, words

Preparing for retirement is something that will come to most of us. As print engineer Mike Collins approaches the big R, he shares some thoughts and memories from his career in the print industry in Nottingham...


I consider myself very lucky to have chosen a profession, all those years ago in 1970, which has offered me unbroken employment for 46 years since.

I can remember my first day at Bemrose and Sons Company Limited as though it were yesterday. I was indentured as a letterpress machine apprentice for five years as they, under the guidance of a sergeant major-type works manager, gradually bid farewell to a bygone era. Railway timetables printed on lumbering two-revolution flatbed presses filled one entire room of the old mill building which had been their home for most of the twentieth century.

The place was awash with eccentricity – some characters who fought in the Second World War. Many others, whose childhood memories included blackouts, dank air-raid shelters and post-war rationing, forged their careers and their individuality with Derby’s biggest printing company.

In those days, lead times were weeks, sometimes months even, especially in cases like the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue. The runs for this were about 40,000, and on the bank of presses printing it each year, we were allowed a full shift to make each 32-page section ready (tissue between thumb and forefinger, paste on the back of the hand) as we patched up all the low rubber stereotypes. Then, the presses trundled along at a maximum speed of 1,500 impressions per hour; five shifts in total (two and a half days) to complete one section.

The composing room was upstairs, a long room with each compositor at his station, working single-type characters into their ‘sticks’, then into pages before constructing 64 of them together, for timetables, onto a ‘stone’ (a large, flat metal surface) before being secured with ‘quoins’ and ‘wooden furniture’. Then they would be brought down to the print room on a large drop-down barrow and offered onto the press’s bed, by three men, and then locked on with ‘dogs’. The rollers were made of gelatine and the printers, starting at 6am, had to clear the rats off them before they started.

I’ve been witness to huge changes in my life, not least those in printing. I left Bemrose in 1980, for a brief period, to print the Ripley & Heanor News on a reel-fed letterpress flatbed printing machine that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Victorian England. Then, while I married a girl who worked at Bemrose and we started a family, I progressed through several companies, leaving a dying letterpress process behind me, to then embrace lithography.

I went back to college to study management, to become a fellow of the Institute of Industrial Managers, and ultimately to find a position of responsibility with Royden Greene in Derby as their Print Manager. They had invested heavily in Komori printing presses, then in a scanner and innovative page assembly. This was to be their undoing.

In an ailing industry, as we progressed through the nineties towards the 21st century, recession, massive outlay on new technology, and customers’ ever-tightening budgets dictated a graveyard of failed printers; Royden Greene proved to be just one more.

I was lucky. Before Royden’s inevitable death toll, I was offered an opportunity to return to the presses with Print 4 Ltd, and here I have remained for 24 years. Practically every company I’ve worked has closed its doors, including Bemrose. It might, therefore, be in Print 4’s best interests to keep me occupied for as long as they possibly can.

Now though, I can look back with affection as more than half my working life has been spent on the presses at Dabell Avenue. Remarkably, many of those people who were here when I began, or started soon afterwards, are still here, some approaching retirement as I am. I believe this says a lot; companies who look after their employees invariably have low turnover of staff.

In those early days, an Akiyama Bestech B2 four-colour was churning off sheets, often 24 hours a day, six days a week, week in, week out. We printed huge amounts of point of sale and marketing literature for the likes of British Midland Airways, Woolworths, Clarkes and Cadbury’s.

Another four-colour Bestech was installed at the side of the first, and then after several more years the original press was swapped for a new six-colour with a coater as the work continued to flood in. These were healthy days indeed. And while the presses worked tirelessly, the scenery within the factory changed: mezzanine floors were taken down and put up elsewhere, with offices disappearing and reappearing elsewhere.

Rewind ten years, back to those halcyon days and a brand new B1 five-colour Extreme spread itself the entire length of the factory floor, a kind of flagship for the company, taking over that mantle from the smaller six colour B2. Fast forward again, to almost four years ago, and as the six colour reached the winter of its life, a decision was taken to replace it with another B1.

That’s where we are now. The two large presses sitting impressively side by side one another, consuming a large area of floor space. Not to mention all the wide format digital presses. Interestingly to note, it would take either of these two presses approximately five hours, from the beginning of a make-ready to the completion of a 40,000 print run, as against the two and half days of its 1970 letterpress ancestor.

I often wonder where time has gone. As I look back, each press has created its own era, catering for those customers belonging to its particular time, producing challenges, problems and successes, all filed into a huge library of events which seem to have passed me by like a card magician flicking through a pack of cards, or the fast forward on a remote control. And through all of these changes we were frequently called upon to work long hours. I’ve spent more time at Print 4 with my work colleagues than with my wife.

In recent years however, lead times have diminished, and profit margins along with them. Printing companies are forced into Kamikaze quoting in their efforts to keep presses running and, as marketing moves towards highly impressive, informative websites, we find ourselves immersed into an increasingly competitive market.

Files ping through the stratosphere with customers demanding jobs sometimes within hours of placing an order, but with quality still paramount. Through all of these stormy seas however, Print 4 has not only stayed afloat but maintained a steady course. Even after the founder of the company, Robin Ringham, retired several years ago, Matthew Boam and Peter Clark (both of whom have been at the company for many years) stepped up to the helm to continue to navigate us safely onwards.

These days there is less of a need for overtime, circumstances for which, I suspect, the older fraternity are extremely grateful. And, as our present directors are conscious of the need to keep costs tight, they have thoughtfully presented an opportunity, to those who can afford it, to reduce their hours as they approach retirement. I fall into this category and gratefully accepted the chance to reduce my week to four days when I was 61 and then subsequently, since October 2016, to three days. My time at Print 4, more than a third of my entire life, has been a memorable experience and one for which I doff my cap.

It does seem a little strange, having worked continually since September 1970, but it is enabling me to spend time with my family and my one-year-old grandson, and also to get down to some serious home improvement. It will also, hopefully, set me on a course as an author. I’ve already written two novels although in another extremely competitive market – publishing. It’s an almost impossible task to persuade literary agents your work will be profitable. As yet, I remain unpublished, nevertheless, I will persevere: watch this space.

Print 4 website

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