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Gary Arber, Printer

August 28, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with  favourite stories from the first decade


I set out early from Spitalfields, crossing the freshly fallen snow in Weavers’ Fields and walking due East until I came to the premises of Arber & Co Ltd at 459 Roman Rd. Once I rang the bell, Gary Arber appeared from the warren of boxes inside, explaining that he did not have much time because he had to do his accounts. So, without delay, I took the photo above and Gary told to me that his grandfather Walter Francis Arber first opened the shop in 1897, as a printer and stationer that also sold toys. The business was continued by Gary’s father who was also called Walter Francis Arber and it is this name that remains on the stationery today.

“I’m here under duress because I’m an airman,” said Gary, explaining that he took over the business, sacrificing his career as a pilot flying Lincoln Bombers when his father died, because his mother relied upon the income of the printing works. “I left the beautiful Air Force forever in 1954,” he revealed wistfully. It is not hard to envisage Gary as a handsome flying ace, he has that charismatically nonchalant professionalism. Gary retains the Air Force moustache over half a century later, so you only have to imagine a flight suit in place of the overall to complete the picture. There is no doubt Gary saw life before he swapped the flight suit for an overall and vanished into the print shop. He was there at Christmas Island in 1946 to witness one of the first nuclear tests, though thankfully Gary was not one of those pilots who flew through the dust cloud to collect samples. “We were guests of the day, watching from a boat, we had bits of dark glass and they told us to shut our eyes when the countdown reached two and open our eyes to look through the glass when it reached minus five – but you saw it through your eyelids. Then you felt the shock, the turbulence and the heat. It was great fun.” Mercifully, Gary appeared to have suffered no ill-effects, still driving daily from his home in Romford.

In those days, Gary’s shop became something of a magnet for artists who loved his old-school letterpress printing but, as a sole operator, Gary only undertook these jobs “under pressure.” “The quality is rubbish,” he said, grabbing a pad of taxi receipts and turning one over to reveal the impress of the type, embossed into the paper – the only way he could get a clear print from the worn type then. “It should be smooth, like a baby’s bottom,” he sighed, running a single finger across the reverse of the page before tossing it back onto the pile. I was concerned upon Gary’s behalf until he disarmed me, “I don’t make any money, I’m just pottering about and enjoying myself!” he confided gleefully. Owning his premises, Gary enjoyed complete security and the freedom to carry on in his own sweet way.

I heard a rumour that the Suffragettes’ handbills were printed there and Gary confirmed this. “My grandmother, Emily Arber, was a friend of Mrs Pankhurst and she wouldn’t let my grandfather charge for the printing. A ferocious woman, she ruled everyone – the women, my grandmother and aunt, ran the toys’ side of the business.” And although the toys side was wrapped up long ago when Gary’s aunt (also called Emily) died, the signs remained everywhere. Lifting your eyes above the suspended fluorescents, you discovered beautifully coloured posters produced by toy manufacturers pasted to the ceiling. “If I removed those the roof would probably collapse!” quipped Gary with a grin. Then, indicating the glass-fronted cases that were used to display dolls, “All the shopfittings are a hundred years old, nothing’s been touched.” he said proudly, and pointed to an enigmatic line with scruffy ends of string hanging down, each carrying more dust than you would have thought possible, “Those bits of string had board games hanging from them once.”

Moving a stack of boxes to one side, Gary uncovered some printing samples for customers to select their preferred options. What a selection!  There was a ration card from a butcher round the corner, a dance ticket for December 30th 1939 at Wilmot St School, Bethnal Green, and one for an ATS Social with the helpful text “You will be informed in the event of an air raid,” just in case you got seduced by Glenn Miller and do not hear the siren. There was a crazy humour about these things being there. I turned to confront an advert for a Chopper bicycle portraying a winsome lady with big hair, exhorting me to “Be a trendy shopper.” I turned back to Gary, “This is a shop not a museum,” he said sternly. You could have fooled me.

Aware that I was keeping Gary from his chores, I was on the brink of taking my leave, when Gary confessed that he was no longer in the mood for doing accounts. Instead he took me down to the cellar where six printers worked once. “This is where it used to happen,” he announced with bathos, as we descended the wooden staircase into a subterranean space where six oily black beasts of printing presses crouched, artfully camouflaged beneath a morass of waste paper, old boxes and packets with the occasional antique tin toy, left over from stock, to complete the mix. Here was a printing shop from a century ago, an untidy time capsule – where the twentieth century passed through like a furious whirlwind, demanding printing for the Suffragettes and printing for the Government through two World Wars, and whisking Gary away to Christmas Island to witness a nuclear explosion. And this what was what was left. I was completely overawed at the spectacle, as Gary began removing boxes to reveal more of the machines, enthusiastically explaining their different qualities, capabilities and operating systems. He pointed out the two that were used for the Suffragettes’ handbills and I stood in a moment of silent reverence to register the historical significance of these old hulks, a Wharfdale and a Golding Jobber.

Gary made a beeline for the Heidelberg, the only one that still worked, and began tinkering with the type that he used to print the taxi receipt I saw earlier. This was the heart of it all. I joined him and, standing together in the quiet, we both became absorbed by the magic of the press. Gary was explaining the technical names for the parts of the printer’s pie, when an unexpected wave of emotion overcame me there in this gloomy cellar, on that cold morning in February, up to my ankles in rubbish surrounded by historic printing presses.

I doubt very much that Gary did his accounts that day, but Gary is a sociable man with a generous spirit – even if he strikes an unconvincingly gruff posture occasionally – and if you chose to pay a visit yourself, then it is highly possible that you will have learnt – as I did – about the Roman sarcophagus that was discovered in the Roman Rd, or the woman who was the inspiration for the character of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, or Gary’s adventures on steam trains in India, or when Gary was invited to the National Physics Laboratory in the fifties see an early computer, as big as four houses, that could play chess.

One word of caution, “Printers are either highly religious or wicked,” declared Gary, adding “- and I don’t go to church!” with melodramatic irony. So if you decided to go round, you had to be sure to pay Gary due respect by buying something, even if it was only a modest thing. You needed to bear in mind, as you purchased your box of paperclips, that Gary was there under duress – he would rather be flying Lincoln Bombers – and then, once this subterfuge was achieved, it was appropriate to widen the nature of discourse.


This picture shows the garden at the rear of Arber’s printing works in the Roman Rd photographed in 1930. I was going to photograph the same view today but, once I saw it for myself, I decided that you would rather not know.

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Gary Arber at Home

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Juliet Jeater permalink
    August 28, 2019

    Living history. Is the shop still there ten years later?

  2. Richard Smith permalink
    August 28, 2019

    Absolutely fascinating, thank you GA.

  3. August 28, 2019

    A Heidelberg! They were fantastic, glorious! Happy third birthday Wednesday.

  4. David Harrison permalink
    August 28, 2019

    No unfortunately Gary retired a few years ago, I think his old shop is a tattoo parlour now.
    wonderful to re-read the Gary Arber blog, he is a real character, full of stories, anecdotes and wisdom.
    I went into the shop a few times and shared with him a love of bird watching (just one of his extraordinary range of interests) and particularly the birds he’d seen in the re-wilded garden at his home. ahead of the trend as always, and be-moaned the decline of species in the East End.
    I had the honour of painting a portrait of him; that I’m pleased to say he liked.

  5. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    August 28, 2019

    The shop has gone now. It’s a homeware shop now. Super article. I do hope that all that history didn’t just end up in a skip.

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    August 28, 2019

    Gary is a polymath and that makes him always interesting to read. and that is apart from his own local hstory and knowledge. His visit to the National Physics Lab in the 1950’s where he first saw a computer that could play chess brings back memories. My father was the editor of the Civil Service Chess Handbook /Magazine in the 1960s. He was a Chess lover and taught me how to play from five years old . He died in 1981 before computers had really made their impact but he once said to me that the one thing that computers will never do is to beat a human at chess .There are too many tatcical variations . Little did he know I often play an online computer but cant get a win past level 7 unless I cheat and take back moves . One day I will win, then take it for recycling

  7. David Tarrant permalink
    August 28, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author, your masterclass in the use of the english language to communicate the wonders of a bygone age is indeed a wonder to behold and also a humbling experience. Respect!

  8. Eric Forward permalink
    August 29, 2019

    Ha ha! You got me with that last line GA – ‘you would rather not know’.

  9. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 1, 2019

    Sad to know it’s long gone, but thank you for sharing the memories.

  10. Neil D permalink
    January 24, 2021

    The shop closed May 2014. I was living around the corner at the time. I went in only once, it happened to be the day Gary was preparing to remove the print press he used for the Suffragettes material. He told me it was going to a museum. He went on to explain how the shop was about to close because of council parking restrictions and increased business rates (he had posted this information for all to see on the outside of the shop). I enjoyed the unexpected history lesson – not bad seeing as I was only looking for a bit of bubble wrap. I hope Gary is doing well.

  11. Antony Hart permalink
    September 22, 2022

    Hi G.A.
    I just tried emailing Gary Arber but got a fail on his old address. Do you know how he and Ruby are?

  12. Chris Sawyer permalink
    February 17, 2023

    Well, Gary, your old Heidelberg 10×15 is located in one of me sheds after taking stall apart, lifting it through a hatch in floor with Graham Pressman, I use it two or three times a week sometimes more, printing , die-cuttting, cutting and creasing, of all the platens I have operated, this, albeit the oldest, it is sweets as a nut, I love it, wife cannot understand my passion for letterpress printing. It has found it’s one in the village of Holbrook in Suffolk, the young children come round every now and then to watch it working when hear me working.

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