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The Newspaper Distributors of Old London

July 28, 2012
by the gentle author

Commonplace, an exhibition of photography by Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien opens today the crypt of Christ Church Spitalfields and runs until 26th August. Colin will be talking about his work tomorrow, Sunday 29th July 2pm. Throughout this past week, I have been revisiting stories I have done in collaboration with Colin, accompanied by his photographs that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

When Colin O’Brien was growing up in a slum tenement in Clerkenwell in the nineteen forties, his mother used to give him a penny and send him out to buy a copy of the Evening Standard.

Since 1827, the streets of London echoed to the cry of “Standodd! Midday Special! Standodd! Evening Special!” and, at its peak, there were over seven hundred distributors sending the paper as far afield as Liverpool and Brighton. Yet by the time the Evening Standard became a free paper two years ago, there were just one hundred and sixty distributors and today there are only sixty left. So when a handful of heroic distributors from the glory days of the Evening Standard gathered at the Bishopsgate Institute, one Saturday in January, for old times’ sake, I asked Colin to be there to take their portraits.

“I used to be a paper boy when I was at school in Catford in 1962.” recalled John Cato who worked for the Standard until 2008, “And when I left school at fifteen in 1965, the guy who delivered the Evening Standard asked me if I’d like to be his van boy. I had to be at the station to collect the papers at ten and I’d go off with him in the van to deliver and collect the money from the sellers. Then I’d go home for lunch and at two o’clock there’d be another driver I worked with to deliver the later editions. We got paid weekly, so on Friday I’d go back to Shoe Lane with the driver to collect my wages and I used to mix with the other van boys and we all made friends. Sometimes we used to socialise with the van boys from the Evening News, even though they were our competitors.”

It was a furious business, bundling up the papers and tying them up with string as they came off the printing presses in Shoe Lane, then sending them off continuously in the fleet of vans as the editions updated through the day. Years now after they retired, most of these men still have the ink-stained hands and backache that are marks of a lifetime in newspaper distribution.

Frank Webster started as a rounds boy, delivering papers to newsagents by bicycle four times a day.“I was thirty years old before I graduated to a driver,” he told me with shrug, “they said it was the longest apprenticeship – in fact, it was a bit of a closed shop, the families knew each other for generations. You needed a relative in the business to get a job and it was based on seniority, it was dead man’s shoes. Yet I always enjoyed going to work, being outdoors and meeting all the vendors, they were such characters.”

“Most of us took early retirement between 2007-2009 when they were trying to cut costs, before they sold the paper to Alexander Lebedev for £1 and it went free,” explained Rob Dickers with a philosophical grin. He started at fifteen and his father worked for thirty years as a compositor at the Standard since before World War II. “From the late sixties, there was a great sense of camaraderie but when the printing moved out from Shoe Lane to Rotherhithe and we were deunionised, the money dropped.” Rob and his pal John Cato were very active in the Chapel, as the branch of the union was termed. “I became Father of the Chapel, the shop steward,” revealed John, “The management de-recognised the union but I built it up again from three to eighty. That’s my claim to fame really.” John’s efforts ensured his members received better pensions and redundancy deals, crucial for the employees as the industry itself began to flag.

The retrospective irony is that while the newspaper managements enacted aggressive policies upon their workforce to drive costs down during the last decades of the twentieth century, in this century the entire newsprint industry finds itself eclipsed by electronic media. Yet these proud men are the last of a hardy breed who devoted their lives to keep the papers rolling and then fought fiercely against tyrannical employers to protect their livelihood as the world changed around them.

On the day after Colin O’Brien took these portraits, the printing of the Evening Standard moved from Rotherhithe to Broxbourne and the first issue of  the London Evening Standard not printed in London hit the streets. A new chapter opened for the capital’s most famous paper and the implications of this new development were yet to be discovered. No longer is the cry of “Standodd! Midday Special! Standodd! Evening Special!” to be heard upon the streets of London and the soul of the city is the lesser for it.

Victor Wilson, Distributor at the Evening Standard, 1972 – 2007.

Frank Webster, Distributor at the Evening Standard, 15th August 1966 – 30th September 2007.

Ron Chadwick, Distributor at the Evening Standard, 1963 – 2006.

Former Evening Standard headquarters at Shoe Lane.

David Patten, Distributor at the Evening Standard, 1966 – 2009.

John Cato, Distributor at the Evening Standard, 1965 -2008.

Peter Steward, Distributor at the Evening Standard from 1964.

Brian Eller, Distributor at the Evening Standard from 1970 -2008.

Rob Dickers’ Newspaper Distributor’s knife. The notch on the top knife was worn by winding string around the handle to tie the bundle. “They wouldn’t let you go to work without one of these and a union card,” said Rob.

Barry Pach worked in the Bill Room at the Evening Standard from 1960 – 1989, writing the bills for the newspaper hoardings by hand.

Portraits and final photograph © Colin O’Brien

Archive images courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

Commonplace, Photographs by Colin O’Brien 1948-2012, runs at the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields from today, 28th July until 26th August. Open Tuesdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1-6pm. Colin O’Brien will be talking about his work on Sunday 29th July 2pm.

One Response leave one →
  1. July 28, 2012

    Back in the 1950s, as a child listening to Test Match Special from Lords or the Oval in a house many miles from an as yet unvisited London, I always loved the regular cries of ‘Star, News ‘n’ Staaaandard’ floating up behind the commentators’ voices. It seemed to epitomise the metropolitan-ness of the capital. A decade or so on – and this may or may not be a calumny – a friend working on the latter told me that the van drivers, when off duty, were much prized by ‘the chaps’ as getaway drivers. No-one could weave so sinuous a path through the city’s traffic.

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