19 October 2023

Milton Keynes Museum
brings back memories
of printers’ traditions
and days of ‘hot metal’

Memories of old print rooms and case rooms at Milton Keynes Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Charlotte and I have had a number of visits to Milton Keynes Museum in recent weeks, particularly to dedicated Printing Section, showcasing the printing industry, and which has brought back many happy memories of the days of ‘hot metal’ when I had student jobs in the late 1960s in a printing firm and later when I worked closely with printers when I was a journalist in Lichfield, Wexford and Dublin.

Milton Keynes Museum is set in beautiful farmland, close to Wolverton, Britain’s first railway town, and it tells the story of Milton Keynes from long before the New Town was planned and developed.

The museum is run mainly by volunteers and is based at Stacey Hill Farm, where the Victorian parlour, scullery and kitchen have been lovingly recreated in the old farmhouse.

One gallery tells the story of the Milton Keynes area from pre-history through to the 1800s, with a rich collection of archaeological finds. Another gallery tells the story of the new town’s creation and stories of Marshall Amplification, Red Bull Racing, the Parks Trust and the Open University. Regular events, displays, recreations and family days are part of the museum experience.

Milton Keynes Museum is based at the former Stacey Hill Farm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The museum is located on the outskirts of Wolverton. When Stacey Hill Farm was new, the farmstead was surrounded by countryside, but today it overlooks the new town of Milton Keynes.

Soon after the decision was taken in 1967 to build Milton Keynes, local residents formed the Stacey Hill Society and were collecting items representing their heritage. Many of these items came from farms and factories that were closed down to make way for the new development. These collections eventually became the basis of the museum.

With the support of Milton Keynes Development Corporation, the collection was stored at Stacey Hill Farm, part of an estate that had once been bought by the physician, Dr John Radcliffe, in 1713 when he became MP for Buckingham.

Milton Keynes Museum has a dedicated Printing Section, showcasing the printing industry that has been in the Wolverton area since 1878.

The presses and guillotines in the museum were manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and most were used by local firms. The two principal firms – McCorquodale & Co and Muscutt and Tompkins – followed a general pattern in printing. Printing books, newspapers and magazines for national circulation was concentrated in a few large firms, while printing of posters, bills, circulars and tickets provided a living for many small businesses.

McCorquodale opened a branch in Wolverton in 1878 to provide jobs for the daughters of men employed in Wolverton Carriage Works. It started with 20 employees aged from 13 to 21 years, who worked a 54-hour week.

The firm’s early work in Wolverton included printing registered envelopes for the General Post Office – envelope making was the only area of the printing industry consistently to employ more women than men. Other government work followed, as well as printing Bradshaw’s Guide to railway timetables. By 1886, the number of staff had risen to 120 women and 20 men.

The equipment used in the early years were the platen, sheet-fed rotary and Wharfedale presses. They were fairly slow machines, and many presses were required.

At one time, McCorquodale employed around 900 people in Wolverton. Now there are only around 240 due to the use of high speed presses, and numbers may fall even further as the company moves towards computer-controlled operations.

Muscutt and Tompkins was located a few hundred metres from McCorquodale. Originally a wholesale and retail newsagents, they moved into printing when William Tompkins bought a large Golding Jobber press, on display in the museum, and a small platen press at a sale in the late 1930s.

Printing did not begin until 1946 when Reg Tomalin returned to work for the family firm after World War II. The company work in general printing included headed notepaper, Christmas cards, dance tickets, and notepads. Although the demand was limited and orders were usually in small quantities, printing continued at Muscutt and Tompkins until Reg Tomalin died in 1967.

The museum’s Columbian hand press came from High Wycombe and takes pride of place in the Print Room. Beside it is the similar but much smaller Albion hand press, bearing the date 1845, that was used in Olney.

The jobbing platen presses range from a small hand fed treadle machines, through belt driven Golding Jobber and Cropper. The largest machine in the collection is an 1880s Wharfedale, stop cylinder manufactured by W Dawson and Sons, Otley. It has been modified with a flyer delivery added in 1906. A proofing press from McCorquodale’s is the most modern item in the collection. Among the wide range of associated artefacts is a Furnival Express guillotine that lacks any of the safety features required today.

Muscutt and Tompkins in Wolverton moved into printing after the late 1930s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

As a teenage schoolboy in the 1960s, I spent a number of summers working as a copyholder or proofreader’s assistant at Irish Printers, a large printing business in Dublin, located first off Aungier Street in the city centre and then at Donore Avenue, off the South Circular Road.

Those experiences gave a lifelong taste for and delight in the world of printing and graphic design, knowing and appreciating the differences in and uses of typefaces and point sizes.

They prepared me too for working with printers in the caseroom and on the stone as a subeditor, laying out making up pages first in the Wexford People and then in The Irish Times. I had acquired an instinctive knowledge of what would work in designing and making up the pages of newspapers and magazines.

But I also had an earlier foretaste at the Lichfield Mercury in the early 1970s of the changes that computerisation was going to bring to the newspaper industry. Those days of ‘hot metal’ vanished rapidly when I was working at The Irish Times.

As the changes swept through the newspapers, many printers – because they knew and understood how typefaces work and the importance of proofreading – made excellent sub-editors … I think of good colleagues and friends such as the late Seán O’Toole and Derek Richards, who died earlier this year.

However, these recent visits to the printing section in the Milton Keynes Museum have also brought back a vocabulary and language that is unique to the printing world. I knew my linotype from my monotype and my stereotype, my italics from Roman, a dash from a hyphen, and flat beds from rotaries; I learned about orphans and widows, why pages had even numbers on the left and odd numbers on the right, and how typefaces increased in point sizes; I even became a dab had at reading upside down and back-to-front.

One display in the museum is a reminder of many printers’ sayings that have passed into our everyday language, including:

‘Getting the wrong end of the stick’ – reversing the letters
‘Upper case and lower case’ – capitals and small letters
‘Minding your Ps and Qs’ – mixing up letters
‘Being a dab hand’ – using print ink dabbers
‘The devil is in the detail’ – the detailed work of typesetters?
‘Stereotype’ – method of printing from a plate
‘Cliché’ – solid cast metal plate
‘Against the grain’ – a reference to the grain in paper
‘Making a good impression’ – quality of print produce
‘Hot off the press’ – related to hot metal typeface
‘Out of sorts’ – running out of typeface
‘Come a Cropper’ – catching your fingers in the press.

That last phrase, ‘Come a Cropper’, reminded me of one colleague in Wexford who actually lost part of his finger. On the other hand, I always thought the saying ‘The devil is in the detail’ referred to the ‘printer’s devil,’ the printer’s apprentice who attended to details such as correctly mixing tubs of ink and fetching type while minding his Ps and Qs, or, more importantly telling q from p and d from b.

• Milton Keynes Museum continues to be open in October from Wednesdays to Sundays, 10:30 am to 4:30 pm, and from 1 November on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Minding my Ps and Qs and knowing the right type (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting history of printing!