In the past, going into the printing industry would usually have involved undergoing training and taking up an apprenticeship. This would mean working in a printing company, while continuing to learn a chosen role, whether as a compositor, machine minder, platemaker, camera operator, film assembler or retoucher. Most apprenticeships took four years. Many of these roles were thought of as being for men, and young women would not be advised to go into them by their careers advisers. In London most training and apprenticeships were undertaken at London College of Printing, now London College of Communication in Elephant & Castle.

Two men in printing workshop
Chris Bone (left) and Colin Nixon at London College of Printing, 1968. Courtesy of Colin Nixon.

Most printing companies would only employ people who belonged to unions, and these became known as ‘closed shops’. The exception to this was in workers’ co-operatives, where the structure meant that people who worked there were not employees and therefore could sometimes not join a union. Many of the radical presses took on people who wanted to be part of a political movement and so were not so strict about having completed the same levels of training.

In the 21st century printing apprenticeships are much more rare and the industry as a whole is not often presented as an attractive option to young people leaving school. Like the processes and the roles that used to be involved in the print industry, many of the printing courses found in London College of Communication’s archives now no longer exist.

I was treated quite well really, compared with some that I heard about. I was a loyal and energetic young lad at the time, and of course I was keen to learn and I used to get involved with the other areas of print by being nosy and watching other people work, so I had a fairly broad training really. I started work in 1937, and war broke out in 1939, so I had barely two years into my apprenticeship.

Les Wynn, The Malvern Press
Les Wynn of The Malvern Press talking about his apprenticeship that he started in the 1930s.

I noticed there was a printers down that road so I walked down there, entered the door and what met my eye the first thing was this huge great guillotine that was in process and it was really something titan­ic in size and noise, and there was a man stand­ing by the side there, and I said, ‘Have you got any jobs?’. I went upstairs to find another mem­ber of staff, who was an ageing man of quite large proportions wearing what could only be described as a top hat. So, I thought I’d entered into a scene of a Charles Dickens movie. And, he introduced himself as Mr Cooper. And Mr Cooper was what he was to be called, because he was a compositor, and compositors were a class above printers, and don’t you forget that, son!

Bob Hall

Peter Kurton talks about his experiences of being an apprentice

The funniest side is years ago with apprentices, when they come out and finish their apprenticeship. Some of the things that used to get done to them was incredible, you know. I mean, there was one guy I remember, they actually stripped him down to his underpants and smothered him in metallic ink. Because that’s what stupid things used to happen years ago, but unfortunately all this metallic ink they couldn’t get it off so he ended up in the London Hospital with them getting the metallic ink off, you know, it was this bright- coloured sparkly guy walking through London Hospital. You know they would do silly things like that when you finished your apprenticeship. It was a slog but everybody liked the slog because they earned plenty of money, and there was plenty of work years ago.

Barry Tucker, BMT Print Services