Banging Out – Fleet Street Remembered

A superb documentary with interviews from ex Fleet Street workers, produced by digital:works.

The interviewees give a real insight into what it was like to work in the UK national newspaper industry in those days.

“Banging Out” ceremonies are discussed in some detail, as well as Murdoch’s disgraceful treatment of his workforce.

I’m surprised none of the interviewees described the indelible red dye spraying that I witnessed. Some officers carried pressurised spraying equipment and sprayed copious amounts of dye.

Police dye-spraying equipment used at Wapping
Police with portable dye-spraying equipment during the Wapping Dispute

Indelible Red Dye

They sprayed the indelible red dye on pickets clothing. As well as ruining the clothing, it also acted as a marker enabling pickets to be identified on their way home. This often led to them being arrested on trumped up charges of being “drunk and disorderly,” etc.

Overall, though the film is a very heart-warming account of the UK national newspaper industry, described by some as “one big party.”

Brighton Argus (UK) 1990 – video

Don’t miss Brighton Argus 1973

We start with a look at the county of Sussex, which the newspaper serves.

On to the Evening Argus building in Brighton where we see Press Association news reports being received on a VDU.

We see journalists at work in the field, with one taking shorthand notes. We also see the photographers out taking pictures.

On to the Sports Desk where we see journalists at work on VDUs. Then short interviews with the editor, the environment reporter who tells us about a scheme to replace trees blown down in the 1987 gale, and the editor of the “Argos Woman” supplement.

We see pages being “pasted up” from bromide photographic output.

Then we take a look at an advertising rep visiting a business to sell advertising, then on to the art studio where the adverts are designed.

Tele ad operatives are seen taking classified advertising over the phone, and inputting to VDUs. We see a huge computer that operates the photosetter, which produces output on bromide paper.

Polymer Plates

We see the Pagemaster camera producing full page negatives. These negatives are then sent to a Letterplex machine to produce polymer letterpress plates.

We then move to the machine room where we see a plate being put on the press and reels moved about. The press, which can produce 40,000 papers per hour is seen running.

From there to the despatch department, where we see the papers being bundled up an put onto vans. After an explanation of the various newspaper editions we move to the accounts department, then the promotions department.

We take a look at the various “free sheets” that the Argus produced, and then a look at the Pearson Group’s operations (of which the Brighton Argus is a part).

Brighton Argus (UK) 1973 – video

Don’t miss Brighton Argus 1990

The film starts with a look at Brighton sea front and other towns in the Brighton Argus circulation area, accompanied by the obligatory cheesy music recorded on a very stretchy tape.

We then take a quick look at a management meeting before going to the news desk. Here we see the reporters at work on their typewriters, some very impressively typing while holding a lit cigarette!

Then on to the wire room where we see the teleprinters and photographs being received over phone lines.

Next we see the sub-editors desks before the copy is sent by a conveyor to the composing room.

In the composing room we start with an overview of how the linecasters work, followed by setting headlines on the Ludlow.

Tele ad “girls”

In the advertising department we see tele-ad “girls” typing out copy while on the phone. There is another conveyor taking the copy to the composing room.

A quick look at the artists before going into the production process for producing a halftone block.

From there we go to the stone where we see full pages being made up.

The page then goes to a “mangle” where we see a flong being made. Then we go to the stereo department where we see a plate being cast and finished before being put on a conveyor for transport to the press room.

We then see the last plate being secured before the press is started up. We see a “fudge box” being added, for some “stop press” news.

The film ends with the despatch department and papers being loaded onto vans.

The “Wapping Cough”

This story is taken from Fleet Street journalist Roy Greenslade’s book “Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits From Propaganda.”

It tells the story of Rupert Murdoch’s move to Wapping through the eyes of a journalist who made the move.

Make sure you also take a look at Fortress Wapping written by award-winning journalist John Pilger.

IT started with the mysterious “Wapping cough” and ended when Rupert Murdoch’s moonlight flit revolutionised an industry.

In January 1986 the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, called me into his office. I knew it was serious because he asked me to close the door, which was somewhat unusual, and then spoke almost in a whisper, which was virtually unprecedented.

After asking me to swear not to tell a soul about our conversation, he told me to put every important item from my desk and filing cabinets into two black plastic bags and take them to his waiting chauffeur at the front entrance. “He knows where to take you,” he said, “and you won’t be coming back.”

It was hardly a surprise. I was about to join a select band of executives who had vanished from the Sun’s office months before. Their disappearances had been explained away with a range of cover stories, some almost believable – such as the mooted launch of a London paper – and some hopelessly far-fetched. Who would believe that the feted night editor had really taken early retirement?

It was an open secret among the journalists that our colleagues had succumbed to the “Wapping cough” and were really learning how to operate the computers that were supposed to transform the way we produced newspapers. Not that many of us gave that plan much credence.

Newspaper owners had been talking about introducing what was laughably called “new technology” for years and several of them had even gone so far as to install computers in their offices only for the print unions to prevent them being used. Surely the unions would use their industrial muscle once again to prevent Rupert Murdoch from switching production of his four papers – the Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times – away from the traditional headquarters?

An Embarrassing Farce

On the drive to Wapping I remember thinking I was due to take part in an embarrassing farce. I thought Murdoch would fail because I was imbued with a culture in which the print unions always seemed to come out as winners. It was true that the miners had been defeated two years before and there were new laws circumscribing industrial action, but the printers were invincible, were they not?

All my newspaper life, stretching back to the beginning of my apprenticeship on a local weekly in 1963, I had been overawed by the strength of the print unions. In Fleet Street I discovered that they ran the show. Indeed, throughout the 1970s I had been a militant member of the National Union of Journalists, so I had first-hand experience of wielding union power.

During the winter months of 1985 it was obvious that MacKenzie was convinced that the Big Bang was about to happen, often confiding to us that “the boss [Murdoch] is going to show those bastards”. On occasion he openly taunted compositors: “You lot haven’t got much f**king longer… You’re history.” The printers were baffled – was he just being his usual obnoxious self or did he know something they didn’t? Asked to explain, he would simply hold a finger to his lips and give an exaggerated wink.

The very idea of a wholesale sacking of the mechanical staff was too impossible to imagine. How could a paper be prepared without the linotype operators, compositors and proof readers? How could it be printed without the hundreds of skilled men who manned the presses? Even if it could be produced, how could it be distributed when the rail unions would support their printing brothers?

I soon changed my mind after entering the place that was soon to become known as Fortress Wapping. I stepped first into the clean, airy press hall to see shiny blue machines being tended by men in spotless overalls.

Upstairs, in what was to become the Sun’s rough and ready editorial office for the following couple of years, were lines of new desks. On each one sat a computer terminal and keyboard. A posse of electricians scurried around, tugging at wires snaking through open ducts in the floor. The Wapping vanguard of journalists under the guidance of the giant figure of a night desk executive, David Banks, were working frantically, readying themselves for the moment the unions walked into Murdoch’s trap and he ordered the moonlight flit from Bouverie Street and Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping.

Murdoch had prepared the ground well for his great revolution. First, he had the money, having benefited from the flotation of Reuters, and knew there was a lot more to come when he sold the Bouverie Street building. Second, the Conservative government’s Trade Union Act outlawed secondary picketing. Third, there was the parallel planning of a non-unionised paper by Eddy Shah, a diversion for the unions. Fourth, Murdoch’s managers had organised a distribution system, including the purchase of a fleet of lorries and vans, to avoid the need to use trains. Fifth, and most important of all, he had negotiated a deal with Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union, the EETPU, to provide all the manual staff. Hundreds of electrical workers were then covertly trained to run the presses while many of their relatives were schooled in the composing room tasks that pre-dated the on-screen make-up now in use.

Murdoch opened the trap in the autumn of 1985 when he gave the print unions a three-month ultimatum to agree substantial staff cuts. Their response was a ballot giving them the right to call a strike if Murdoch tried to impose compulsory redundancies. In the following months Murdoch grew so confident that he dared, on January 18, to print a special section of the Sunday Times at Wapping.

At an edgy meeting with all the print unions five days later Murdoch told them that “the horse has bolted”. As he anticipated, the unions issued a strike threat and Murdoch closed his trap by ordering the wholesale move of the journalists on his four papers to Wapping.

The Sun and News of the World staff, with very few exceptions, quickly packed their bags. They were heavily influenced by a history of antagonism with printers who had refused to support them when they took industrial action. Journalists at the Times and Sunday Times, despite similar experiences, agonised longer and many more of them decided not to go, earning the nickname “refuseniks”.

But Murdoch’s calculated gamble paid off. Despite the problems inside, not least the need for sub-editors to learn how to use a computer with hardly any training, and hostility outside due to the rapid formation of picket lines, the papers were published.


In the following weeks and months going to work in Wapping was disturbing. I often glimpsed compositors I had known since 1969, some of whom I counted as friends, screaming behind the police barriers, mouthing my name and shaking their fists.

The resentment and anger of the strikers, whose crafts had been eliminated for ever, often boiled over into violence, especially when joined on Saturday nights by hundreds of workers from other industries. There was bad behaviour on both sides of the conflict, with examples of unacceptable police heavy-handedness matched by mindless violence from pickets.

On one night in February alone, eight policemen were injured and 58 people were arrested as 5,000 demonstrators tried to storm the printing plant.

Inside, we journalists revelled in the joys of doing as we pleased, though there were many frustrations as we struggled to make edition times. I once spotted a figure in a grey sweater stooped over a paste-up board who seemed to be taking ages to stick down a piece of copy. “For f**k’s sake,” I shouted. “Are you going to take all night with that?” He turned slowly and I was about to add another epithet when I realised it was Murdoch. He simply smiled.

Nothing could upset the man who had led a revolution. Some 13 months later, after 1,262 arrests and countless people injured, the unions relented by agreeing to accept redundancy deals.

Every other newspaper proprietor followed Murdoch’s lead, moving away from Fleet Street and dispensing with their unions. Profits flowed in. A new national title, the Independent, was founded. All papers expanded in size, adding supplements and magazines. Colour pictures became the norm. Nowadays, hot metal printing is a faint memory and many journalists nowadays, possibly the majority, know only a post-Wapping world.

However much we older hacks may yearn for the village that was Fleet Street none of us would really wish to turn the clock back to the days when we never knew whether our papers were going to be published. And that’s the measure of Murdoch’s industrial transformation.

Last Hot Metal London Evening Standard

Roy Brachet, a Linotype operator on the paper for 25 years, took these pictures on the day of the last hot metal edition of the London Evening Standard.

Frank Matthews
Frank Matthews, main display ad setter
Evening Standard
Peter Knight, Peter Merchant and Frank Matthews again
New Technology
Says Roy: “what the rest of us who stayed post-hot metal got lumbered with: Notice the Lino keyboards specially made for us dumb-clucks who had never typed on a querty one.”
The Press
The last hot metal headlines, typical of the period (1980)
About that bagpiper: Eric Neller, one of our younger operators. I think he was booted out of the Dagenham Girl Pipers and was glad of this gig
Journalists at the stone
Journalists at the stone
Last-minute corrections
Last-minute corrections – “I’m sure there’s a journalist touching the type on this pic, it was always very much frowned upon.” – D.H.
Off the stone
Off the stone
Final pages
Final pages
Sending it off
Sending it off
Decorated comp room
Decorated comp room
Gathering under the clock
Gathering under the clock


Austrian Type Height

Many thanks to George Hamilton from Vienna, Austria for sending in this story.

I WAS in Bad Ischl (Austria) a week ago, sought out an antiquariat bookstore for anything on printing and was told by the prop that there was nothing, but on the way out I looked down and under a stack of stuff there was a case of what appeared to be wood type.

I told the prop I’d be back to have a closer look, to discover a couple of days later that it was a remarkably full font of relatively standard gothic with all kinds of accented letters, not in wood, as I had suspected, but foundry type metal – weighed half a ton!

Case was marked 72 pt, but looked larger. The type had been milled down, to what height I have no idea, and I don’t travel with a .918 caliper. Alas it was only lower case, so I passed it up.

Interesting part was that a couple of years ago at a street stall in Bad Ischl I had picked up a mounted electro just out of curiosity to find when I got home that it was to .918.

Seller wanted to know whether I knew what it was or not; my (positive and detailed) answer probably surprised him and likely raised the price, but what the hell.

It would/will take some more research, but I wonder if, in the postwar 1945-55 occupation period, there hadn’t been a printer in Bad Ischl who worked to the US standard. Relatively nearby Salzburg province was under US administration.

British Print Trade Union Cards

From the late Dave Bowles’ collection of London Fleet Street compositors items comes this great collection of trade union membership cards from 1946 right through to the 1990s.

A unique collection documenting the changing typographical styles through the years.

I noticed that some of the early 1980s ones were looking a little dog-eared, perhaps reflecting the number of meetings, or pickets, Dave was attending during this period when his union was battling for survival.

What’s your favourite? Mine’s 1950. Let me know yours in the comments.

London Society of Compositors 1946

London Society of Compositors 1947

London Society of Compositors 1948

London Society of Compositors 1949

London society of Compositors 1950

London Society of Compositors 1951

London Society of Compositors 1952

London Society of Compositors 1954

London Society of Compositors 1955

London Typographical Society 1956

London Typographical Society 1957

London Typographical Society 1959

London Typographical Society 1960

London Typographical Society 1961

London Typographical Society 1962

National Graphical Association 1968

National graphical Association 1969

National Graphical Association 1971

National Graphical Association 1972

National Graphical Association 1973

National Graphical Association 1976

National Graphical Association 1978

National Graphical Association 1979

National Graphical Association 1981

National Graphical Association 1983

National Graphical Association 1984

National Graphical Association 1985

National graphical Association 1986

National Graphical Association 1987
Thanks to Keith Thomas for sending in this one that was missing from Dave’s collection

National Graphical Association 1988

National Graphical Association 1989
1989 Front. A plastic bank card experiment
National Graphical Association 1989
1989 Back

National Graphical Association 1990

National graphical Association 1991

National Graphical Association 1992

National Graphical Association 1993

A card back
A card back
Political Section
A rubber stamp on the back of a card indicating membership of the union’s Political Section

As you may have noticed, some years are missing. If you have any missing years, please get in touch.

So, which was your favourite? Mine was 1950, let me know yours in the comments.

Book Impositions

Dave Gladwell, who spent his printing days in large book publishing houses, sheds some light on large impsosition schemes, and more.

Book imposition chart

Said Dave: “Given to me when Composing apprentice at Billings of Guildford when I moved on to the “Stones” for tuition, now coming on to 60 years ago!

“The question of a “Boy” was why these pages had to be laid in such a complex order on the Stone.

This explains why, because the sheets needed to be folded in a specific way to relate to the chosen imposition Scheme and form a “signature”.

The book lays out what extent the Stonehand’s life was governed by an exceptional memory and dexterity of hand with his tied-up pages slid from the galley into position, chased and locked into the forme.

These days I doubt whether a Clicker, or Journeyman would have the time and interest to produce by hand an explanatory document on his own typewriter, for the good of a succession of Apprentices under his charge.

I think it was Ralph Wheatley who went on to be Composing Manager at Billings the massive book and bible printers in Guildford, who produced the explanatory chart originally.

Note the final sheets of 4 feet by 2 feet 6inches. Even larger were monsters for the 128-page backed up imposition “N”, often churned out from the pair of sliding beds on the large letterpress flatbeds that broke your back in half if you were unlucky enough to be lumbered with the “Machine Revise”, not to mention doing it over a forme recently scrubbed with trichoethylene!

At Billings letterpress machines were situated in an old building’s bottom floor. In the 1960s and 70s the same system existed when I was at Richard Clays Bungay, the great Machine hall there was over 100 yards long, and bore these roaring monsters both sides, floating off the delivery tapes and rollers massive sheets of black on white words.

Interspersed with their lesser brethren with 1 bed and only 16pp or 32pp to view and the smell, of ink strong on the air, such were the days of pride in our Craft, Trade and Industry!

High-Speed Russian

Many thanks to Pete Roberts for sending in this amusing anecdote from his days at the Cambridge University Press.

WAY BACK in 1969 I was a young Monotype keyboard operator at Cambridge University Press. Keen to ‘get on’, I volunteered to study Russian at night class (unpaid) with a view to typesetting Russian at work.

This carried a premium of ten shillings (50p) a week. I also volunteered to demonstrate the Mono keyboard system for visiting groups of academics and as they gathered around my machine I would typeset Russian text at astonishing speed, probably 20,000 keystroke/hour in Cyrillic!

Of course the astonished onlookers had no idea I was rattling out total garbage as they only saw the punched tape chattering out of the machine.

This was a regular source of amusement to my colleagues as the impressed visitors wandered off muttering ‘genius’ and such like!

The tape ended in the bin of course but the exercise cheered up many a dull day.