At W. F. Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works
Gary Arber with his Furnival guillotine
It was the Friday before Christmas, and when I arrived at W. F. Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works, at 459 Roman Rd there was a sign hanging in the window that said “Back in ten minutes,” so I rang and waited. Before long, the friendly face of Gary Arber – third generation in the family business – appeared from out of the gloom and welcomed me inside the premises established by his grandfather Walter Francis Arber in 1897. Eyes sparkling in excitement, Gary locking the door again behind us and led me back to the trimming room at the rear, where he had been busy.
Each time I visit, Gary shows me a new part of the building – whether the printing works in the basement, the “comp” room up above or, on this occasion, the trimming room at the rear – so I cannot resist the expectation that there may be infinite recession in the mysterious backrooms, crowded passageways and dusty staircases of this magnificent old place where all the paraphernalia of the last century has been permitted to accumulate, unhindered by any tidying up.
At the front, customers come and go, calling in for envelopes and ballpoint pens, but beyond the counter is Gary’s sole preserve, the location where memory becomes history and the presence of his forebears still lingers. Behind the shop, we entered the former toy showroom unused in forty years yet still sporting its jaunty pastel-toned children’s wallpaper. The shop telephone was once here and the walls are inscribed with decades of useful phone numbers. As we walked through, Gary retrieved a fifty-year-old plastic lamb on wheels from the debris and squeezed it to make a plaintive “baah!” sound, as if to express its distress at being left behind.
Gary often thinks of his grandmother Emily Arber, the suffragette, who insisted his grandfather print the handbills for her friend Mrs Pankhurst free of charge. The same presses still sit in the basement and researchers come sometimes to ask Gary about his doughty grandmother, though he must disappoint them because she never spoke directly of her involvement with the cause of female suffrage once the vote was won. She presided with unquestionable authority when Gary first worked here, for a couple of years from the age of sixteen before he joined the Royal Air Force. “She ruled,” is Gary’s term for her stubborn influence. “She was deaf and she only understood by lipreading – if she disagreed with you, she would not look at your mouth, so you could not argue.” Gary worked in the print shop in the basement then, but Emily kept him running up and down the stairs. “She was obsessed with beetles, only she called them ‘beadles,’” Gary recalled fondly, “and if she found a crack in the yard where they might enter, she called me to bung the hole up with cement ‘to stop the beadles getting in.’”
Behind the disused toy showroom, we came to a dark antechamber with one door lined with steel plate and another that once had a glass panel now artfully boarded up with planks of different width and hue. Stepping through, we entered a single-storey wooden structure – a lean-to – which had been the “comp” room before it was moved to Gary’s grandparents’ former living room on the first floor in the nineteen fifties. A string of light bulbs led us further back into the darkness where a massive iron machine crouched in the shadow – a Furnival guillotine. Over the decades, Gary has maintained this beast in fine fettle and he delighted to fetch a telephone directory to place between its monstrous jaws. A great wheel, of the scale you might expect upon a steam engine, span into roaring motion and, drawing upon twenty horse power, the guillotine sliced through the directory with unnerving ease. The beast was satiated by Gary’s offering and after a demonstration of such ferocious power, it was time for us mortals to return to the reassurance of daylight.
Customers were popping in for their last Christmas errands, which prompted Gary to bring out his ledgers from the nineteen sixties and recall the lines that once formed at dawn on Christmas Eve outside W. F. Arber & Co as customers came to pay off the final instalments on the toys they had been saving for all year. Then, arrangements had to be made for dispatch that night once the children were in bed. In those days, Gary himself would fulfil the role of Father Christmas – a character he was born to play – driving around the East End streets as late as three on Christmas morning until every package was safely delivered and awaiting its sleeping recipient. Leafing through the Christmas Club records, we found the page for Mrs Pellicci of E. Pellicci in Bethnal Green in 1968, a pram and bicycle for Anna and Nevio.
Our sentimental reverie was interrupted by an affray on the pavement outside in which the aggrieved parties were making loud threats to kill each other, drawing the attention of half a dozen squad cars within minutes. Nothing new for Gary, he took it as the cue to tell me about the shoplifters he once pursued from his shop, demanding they return the parcel they had taken and – when the police failed to arrive – evincing a promise from the felons never to return to the Roman Rd, then shaking hands with them before the gathered crowd and striding back to his shop with his bag of toys under his arm, like a true hero.
This is the fearless nobility of Gary Arber, ex-flying ace. One of the best storytellers I know, an individual of multiple talents and generosity of spirit, and now at eighty years old, a legend in the Roman Rd.
You may also like to read my original profile of Gary Arber, Printer
take a look at Gary Arber’s Collection