Thanks to Don Hauser for allowing me to use this extract from his book “Printers of the Streets and Lanes of Melbourne” which he designed and typeset at his Nondescript Press. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for Don, the original limited edition print run of 1,000 copies entirely sold out and the book is no longer for sale.
The Government Printing Office was formed by Superintendent LaTrobe in January, 1851. Prior to this various firms undertook the work of Government as self-proclaimed Government printers.
Melbourne’s summer heat played havoc with the letterpress printing process which, at this time, had not greatly improved since the incunabular work produced prior to 1500.
The composition inking rollers melted so frequently that a well had to be sunk into the pressroom floor in order to stabilise the gelatinous rollers.
Government Printer John Ferres reported that “the immense clouds of dust which so frequently envelope the city are also found a great impediment.”
The dust and grit wore down the lead alloy type metal and woodcuts so quickly that frequent replacements were neccessary.
Sheets of paper were dampened prior to printing, flattened again under a powerful hydraulic press, then dried on racks in the folding and drying room.
These labour intensive methods produced work of surprising high quality difficult to duplicate today.
Neil Gay began his five year apprenticeship to “the Gov” as a compositor in 1958.
He recalls the 30 to 40 Wharfedale or Miehle letterpress printing machines all in line and many of them hand fed; the leather room that stored the binding leathers used to bind beautiful hand crafted, fully bound books and journals with gold lettering, leather corners and spines; the hydraulic water powered lifts that stopped mid floor when the water pressure was low and the gap between the floor and lift which sometimes allowed a chase locked up with 16 page sections of monotype to drop to the basement into a million pieces.
The type and storage area was known as the “dungeon” and was a haven for many a card game for malingering apprentices.
The dungeon also stored old formes of letterpress posters and displays. During a clean up day, no one thought twice about throwing out Ned Kelly’s reward poster composed of wooden type and blocks. Imagine its value today.