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Last Days At WF Arber & Co Ltd

February 18, 2014
by the gentle author

Gary Arber

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

Gary Arber, Printer

Gary Arber’s Collection

Return to W.F.Arber & Co Ltd

At W.F.Arber & Co Ltd

James Brown at W.F.Arber & Co Ltd

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    February 18, 2014

    I am very sad to hear the news that Mr Arber has decided to bring to an end his connection to his family shop and printing work’s in Roman Rd, I have spoken to Mr Arber in his shop many times over the years and always found him to be very helpful, his extensive knowledge and experience of his chosen trade is second to none, and his “old school” approach to customer’s is very much a reminder of a lost era in retail trading, I for one will be genuinely very sorry to see him close the door on his shop for the last time, for it will indeed be the end of an era, I wish you luck Mr Arber,

  2. February 18, 2014

    An excellent article, as ever, GA. The Lagonda is indeed a very strange press and I have added an article to my site on that machine:

    I should love to go and see Mr Arber, and will see if he can accommodate me, at the least offer him best wishes and see his wonderful machines!

  3. Sue & Chris permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Our lovely neighbour Gary, wishing you a very long and happy retirement Gary. Now is your time to enjoy doing all the things you want to. Make the most of it.

  4. February 18, 2014

    Sorry that Mr Arber has to give up his premises – this seems to be the sad fate of so many skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. I am glad that those wonderful machines will be given a new lease of life, though. All the best to Mr Arber! Valerie

  5. martin permalink
    February 18, 2014

    This is such a sad loss for the Roman Road and Bow, i’ve walked past the shop so many times over the years and peered in to look at the treasures inside – it just feels like it’s always been there,

    It seems a shame that it isn’t possible to ‘list’ a business to ensure that it survives as part of an area’s heritage,

    Best wishes to Mr Arber

  6. February 18, 2014

    Interesting article, as always!

  7. Libby Hall permalink
    February 18, 2014

    It was a great treat, and a privilege, for me to meet Gary Arber and to be shown the presses. A visit I will remember always.

    It’s sad of course to think of that amazing shop no longer being there, but it is wonderful news that the presses have found the right home.

    Three cheers for the amazing Gary Arber!

  8. February 18, 2014

    Future generations won’t even know where the word “print” does come from. Good to know, that some of the dinosaurs of the ancient letterpress era will be saved!

    Fine report.

    Love & Peace

  9. February 18, 2014

    Sad news but great that the collection of presses will go to a good home in Norfolk at Catseye Press – is that really the owners’ name, Pressman?

  10. poppy mckenzie permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Very sad to hear Mr Arber is closing his shop, I remember when it used to sell toys in the 1960s my brother had a pedal car from there he used to ride it up & down our the Balcony of our flats, It must have been Garys Mum served in there. Wish you good luck for the Future Gary,

  11. February 18, 2014

    Photo of real printing history. Wish I had the money to remove the equipment clean them up and restore.

  12. Chris F permalink
    February 18, 2014

    As a lover of all things printing, it was heartening to hear that these machines are going to be preserved… I hope that Gary is able to enjoy his retirement but I sincerely hope that he enjoys good health for long enough to see the machines restored and working.

  13. February 18, 2014

    Good luck Gary, I’m sure it was a hard, but wise decision to make (selling up shop) and hope you enjoy a well earned retirement and get what you seek from the sale of the property. I had the privilege to enter your shop on many an occasion, each time stepping back in time to be served by your “gentlemanly” self, always leaving with just what I needed. Your shop like ours was an East End landmark and it and your presence will be sadly missed.

  14. Joan francis permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Very sad to see this shop going its a piece of east end history, My uncle had a pile of cards made here in the 1950s, advertising himself playing his accordian, It says dance & straight, classical solos a speciality, We still have them, Wishing Mr Arber the best of luck & a happy retirement.

  15. Gary Arber permalink
    February 18, 2014

    I am very honoured to receive all of the good wishes from all of my friends in the world of the Gentle Author.
    Thank you to you all,
    Gary Arber

  16. February 19, 2014

    End of a rich era! So pleased the machines will find a new home. Good luck Gary.

  17. Ian Mckenzie permalink
    February 19, 2014

    I will miss you & your shop Mr Arber, you are a true gent, Best of health & happiness Enjoy your retirement, I wont ever forget you & your wonderful printing shop. .

  18. Tony Hart - and lilSylvie Hart permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Not having Gary on the Roman Road is going to be hard to bare. I have lived here 20 years and it has always been a rich pleasure going in to Arber and Co. His stories of our area in past times have enlightened me and my 6 year old daughter. His tales of being a young scamp searching for bits of shrapnel and incendiary bombs (good bonfire starters apparently) during the war are always funny. Wandering through his shop is simply a unique experience. Considering him and his wife as friends is a joy. He bound my Thesis and dug out (from deep in that shop) green paint from the 60’s for us to repaint the shop frontage in 2010.

    On half-term Friday my daughter and I took a stroll up to his shop. We ended up having to walk a block or two extra while Sylvie got over the upwelling of little tears shed after it had dawned on her that such pleasant & unique trips – which have been a constant in her life – are soon to be no more. She has always thrilled at going to see Gary. It feeds her pride in her experience of living on the street that the suffragette’s lived…she’s even strode up to Mr Arber’s with a ‘votes for women’ sash she made (copied from Mary Poppins!). Thanks Gary for your kindness and all the rich knowledge you continue to pass on to Sylvie, and to me.

    Gary has always been a part of our community. Any time you fancy, you just go ring that bell, pause, knowing that he’ll be along in a mo. The shop might be going some time in May 2014, but as always Gary, our door is open to you for a cuppa, a tale and a good time. Just ring, or knock loud on the glass if you don’t at first get an answer.

  19. Beverley Charters permalink
    February 26, 2014

    I am so very sorry to read the news that Arbers will be no more. It is such a wonderful treasure trove, and Gary so very helpful and courteous. It is a real treat to shop here, rather than buying on line, and I shall miss the shop, and the friendly chatter. Wishing you a very long and very happy retirement dear Gary. Enjoy your gardening and everything else you turn your hand to. Thanks for serving the people of Bow – and beyond – so well for so very many years. We shall miss you.

  20. stephen riley permalink
    March 9, 2014

    very sad to see Mr Arber leave his premises. I visited him a few months ago after reading previous article[s] on here, I have an Adana 5 x 3 so enjoyed talking to Mr.Arber very much.
    For all those out there who like the idea of letterpress the adana , abeit the 8 x 5 or the 5 x 3 is still a great way to have a go , small scale. i sold mine when my kids were growing up but bought another 2 years ago, and a lovelly type cabinet [empty] I have stocked it up with small founts of my favourite faces. Long live letterpress…………..PROPER PRINTING!!!!!!!!!! ASK MR.Arber.!!!!!!!!! god bless….

  21. Mark Thompson permalink
    March 11, 2014

    I have known Gary for over 50 years whilst my family traded opposite in Thompsons all that time. It will be a sad day when he retires as a true character will be leaving Roman Rd. There is not another shop like Arbers, from 100 year old machinery in basement to a modern calculator that I bought today from him. Always a smile, I will not forget him and I wish my parents were still here to see him off as they got on well and were from the same mould.
    Good Luck Gary I will miss you and so will all at Thompsons

  22. David permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Lovely write up and bittersweet as well – have a long and happy retirement Mr and Mrs Arber.

    One thing intrigues me – I know the presses got into the basement but how will Cats Eye press get them out – I think we should be told!

  23. Heather March permalink
    June 23, 2014

    It was with great sadness I noticed Arber had closed. I moved out of the area a year ago and had not seen Gary for a while.
    I used to adore popping in for my stationery and chatting to Gary. His stories of the past filled me with joy. He is a true gentleman.
    I hope he’s now enjoying his garden, which I know brings him so much joy. And I hope he realises just how much joy HE brought many people, just by being such a charming character.
    Good luck in your retirement Gary. You were an institution xxx

  24. joy derrick permalink
    October 23, 2015

    recognised gary’s photo although i last saw him in the 1950’s i did think it must be his father ,but then realized that time had moved on for all of us but the dishy young man was still to be seen.bought all my childrens toys in the shop and it was his aunt who worked there not his mother.

  25. David Hatch permalink
    October 11, 2019

    I am reading Spitalfields life by the gentle author and as an ex letterpress printer i was looking forward to going to Mr Arbers shop ,I do miss those days of make ready ,colour mixing with the sense of achievement at the end of the run (with hopefully no set off of space ups.

    Happy days indeed David Hatch

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