Skip to content

At W. F. Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works

December 28, 2011
by the gentle author

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

and Return to W. F.  Arber & Co Ltd

6 Responses leave one →
  1. December 28, 2011

    Really great post and photo’s.

  2. Gary permalink
    December 28, 2011

    Hi Gentle Author
    I was surprised when making my daily visit to your site to find that it featured me.
    I notice that you refer to the back room as the “trimming room”, the mighty Furnival would be very upset to be called a “trimmer” he cuts with great ferocity, we call the room the “cutting room” , You will notice that I called the machine “him”, We printers think that the machines have souls and know what we think, Fred Carter who used to run the Supermatic press hated his machine and thought that it watched him and put a sheet around the rollers if he turned his attention elsewhere, Alfie Watts who ran the Heidleberg platen used to whistle the German national anthem if his press played up, to pacify it. I am glad that you enjoyed your visit.
    Happy new year

  3. TokyoDon permalink
    December 29, 2011

    Would be great to hear more stories like the ones above from Gary. Hope the Gentle Author can make another visit one day soon!

  4. May 31, 2012

    I admire crafts men, determination and the massive fount of knowledge they have.

    The machines, type and ancillary equipment of the old letterpress era do indeed
    have at least their own character, if not soul.

  5. Kieran permalink
    May 13, 2014

    I’m surprised a movement hasn’t been made to save the shop.

  6. July 25, 2014

    To all the people who have discovered one of life’s last true eccentrics, and without doubt the nicest ! my dear old friend Gary Arber,
    I have known Gary for roughly fifty years now, and love him like an elder brother,
    Its only Now, that Gary has retired, that I am going to tell you all out there, Half of a Secret , that only two or three people in the Whole World now about !

    Over forty years ago, whilst purchasing fluorescent coloured sheets of cardboard that I used to buy from Gary , to put on the windscreens of the cheap (very cheap ) second hand cars that I used to sell every Saturday on the corner of Lyal Road, the street facing Gary’s shop, and where I lived for twenty four happy years,
    It was whilst buying the cardboard that Gary said, Tom , I’m going to tell you a secret that very few people in the world know !!!!!!!!, He then told me his Secret,
    I wasn’t born with the name Gary ! it was Never my real name !!!!!, he then told me that he had never liked his real name, and when he was a teenager he decided to call himself Gary, after one of his favourite film stars, —–Gary Cooper ! He then laughed and said to me, I shall give you a week or two , and the next time you call, tell me if you have guessed my real name ! and he challenged me that I never would !!!!!!, as I left his shop, he again laughed and said, You will Never guess it !!!!! Gary was right, I never guessed it, and neither will ANY of you !
    Gary eventually told me his real birth name, and so, I’m going to ask you All, if you can keep a Secret ??, Well, So can I, !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Best wishes to you all, and wishing Gary a well deserved happy retirement,

    from his friend, Tom Old

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS