Last Days At WF Arber & Co Ltd
Four years have passed since I first walked eastward through the freshly fallen snow across Weavers’ Fields on my way to visit Gary Arber, third generation incumbent of W.F. Arber & Co Ltd, the printing works in the Roman Rd opened by Gary’s grandfather Walter Francis Arber in 1897. Captivated by this apparent time capsule of a shop where little had changed in over a century, I was tempted to believe that it would always be there, yet I also knew it could not continue for ever.
“In October, I couldn’t find enough money from my takings to pay my business rates,” Gary admitted to me yesterday, “and that’s when I decided it was time to call it a day.” As the last in the family business, in recent years Gary had been pleasing himself. After three generations, the metal type is all worn out and so Gary let the machines run down, taking on less and less printing. Now he has put the building up for sale with Oliver Franklin and set May 28th, when his insurance runs out, as his date to vacate the premises.
Bearing the responsibility of custodian of the contents, a major question for Gary has been where to find a home for his collection of six printing presses which are of historic significance. I am pleased to report that he has given them to the Cat’s Eye Press in Happisburgh, Norfolk, who have agreed to restore them all to working order and put them to use again. Since he made his decision in October, Gary has been at work clearing up the sea of boxes and detritus that had accumulated to conceal the machines and yesterday I took advantage of this brief moment to see the presses in their glory before the process of taking them apart and transferring them to Norfolk commences later this week.
“It’s good to see them again after thirty years,” declared Gary, as he led me down the narrow staircase to the small basement print workshop where the six gleaming beasts are newly revealed from beneath the litter. In the far corner is the Wharfdale of 1900 that has not moved since it was installed brand new and, at the foot of the stairs, sits the Golding, also installed in 1900. The Wharfdale is a heavy rectangular machine that famously was used to print the Suffragettes’ posters while the more nimble Golding was employed to print their handbills. At WF Arber & Co Ltd it has not been forgotten that Gary’s grandmother Emily would not permit his grandfather to charge Mrs Pankhurst for this work.
The Heidelberg of 1939 is the last press still in full working order and Gary informed me that since World War II broke out after it was delivered, his father (also Walter Francis) had to pay the British Government for the cost of it, although he never discovered if the money was passed on to the Germans afterwards. Next to it, stands the eccentrically-shaped Lagonda of 1946 which we are informed by its future owner is believed to be the last working example in existence.
In between these two pairs, sit the big boys – two large post-war presses, a Mercedes Glockner of 1952 and Supermatic of 1950. Gazing around at these monstrous machines, sprouting pipes and spindles and knobs, Gary can recall them all working. In his mind, he can hear the fierce din and see those long-gone printers – Fred Carter, Alfie Watts, Stan Barton & Harry Harris among others – who worked here and wrote their names in pencil underneath the staircase. Sometime in the mid-fifties, alongside their names and dates, Gary wrote his name too, but instead of the date he wrote “all the time” – a statement amply confirmed by his continuing presence more than half a century later.
Yet Gary never set out to be a printer. He set out to fly Lincoln Bombers, only sacrificing his life as a pilot after his father’s premature death, in order to take over the family print works. “I bought myself out in 1954, but I would be dead by now if I had stayed on, retired and grown fat like all the rest,” he confided to me, rationalising his loss,“I’m the only one surviving of my crew and I can still lift a hundredweight.”
“I remember when I first came here to visit the toy shop upstairs as a child but I didn’t get a toy except for my birthday and at Christmas,” Gary informed me, “My grandfather always had his bowler hat on. He had two, his work bowler and his best bowler. He was a very strict and moral man, he raised money for hospitals and he was a governor of hospitals.”
We shall all miss WF Arber & Co Ltd, but it is far better that Gary chose to dispose of the business as it suits him, and wraps it up to his satisfaction, than be forced into it by external circumstances. After all these years, Gary Arber can rest in the knowledge that he has fulfilled his obligation in a way that pays due respect to both the Walter Francis Arbers that precede him.
The Wharfdale & The Glockner
The 1900 Golding that printed the Suffragettes’ handbills
The 1900 Wharfdale that printed the Suffragettes’ posters
The 1952 Mercedes Glockner
Gary was printing with this 1939 Heidelberg last week
The last known working Lagonda in the world, 1946
The 1950 Supermatic
Gary found his Uncle Albert’s helmet under one of the machines while clearing up. Albert was killed while in the fire service during World War II.
The printers wrote their names and dates in the fifties but Gary wrote “[here] all the time”
Read my other stories about Gary Arber