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Typewriters, hot metal and a thunderous printing press
8:10am Saturday 30th June 2012 in Craven History
Life at the Craven Herald as it was in the austere 1940s remains clear and dramatic in the mind of Dr Bill Mitchell, of Giggleswick. He recalls a time, over 60 years ago, when as a junior reporter he had a pencil, notebook, a share in a dilapidated typewriter and a husky voice from incessant proof-reading. The newspaper was printed on a second-hand rotary press acquired from a daily newspaper in 1936. On Thursday evenings, when the newspaper was being printed, it created a noise like thunder.
John Mitchell, editor-manager of the Craven Herald & Pioneer for many years, had a large and elegant first-floor office, with broad views of Skipton High Street. On the wall of his sanctum was a framed motto: “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday - and all is well.” The editorial staff ascended a further flight of uncarpeted steps to a top-floor room, the view from which took in a roofscape.
When I applied for a job, in 1943, I was given a choice - secretarial or journalistic. There was a staff shortage. Some of the staff had been called up for military service. To me, the term journalistic sounded most interesting. I had been taught shorthand and typing - vital elements of the work - at classes I attended in Keighley. My first wage was 12s.6d a week.
My first glance at the reporters’ room at the Herald took in an open fire, battered furniture and drifts of yellowing newsprint. I was introduced to Don Mosey, a fellow reporter, and to a very special sound. It was the thwack of wood against a door in the printers’ domain down below. It signified to us that there was a proof to be collected, read and corrected.
At mid-morning, I heard a clump of footsteps on the stairs, followed by the clatter of a piece of lead attached by chain to the office door in a form that ensured its automatic closure. Into the room strode tweed-clad, pipe-smoking Harry J Scott, a Leeds journalist who had left his daily newspaper in 1935 to freelance in the Dales. On our first encounter, Harry might have said “hello” or “good morning”. He greeted me with joyful words: “Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit.”
Harry Scott was to play a major part in my journalistic life. In April, 1939, he had founded a monthly magazine initially named The Yorkshire Dalesman. Three thousand copies had been hand-set and printed by Lamberts of Settle at a charge of £25. (I would spend most of my journalistic life with this highly popular magazine).
In the 1940s, the premises of the Craven Herald were, of course, on a much bigger scale, extending from the High Street to within a stones’ throw of the Springs Canal. At the front of the building, on the ground floor, was a bookshop belonging to the firm and run by the Turfords. At the other end of the sprawling premises was the huge printing room. On Thursday evenings, the impressions from flat pages of lead type and the illustrative plates, were transformed into curved metal plates that fit the rollers of the press. The scene, vast, hot, fiery, made me think of Dante’s Inferno.
Another top-floor position was occupied by two Monotype operators, Messrs Atkinson and Firth, whose work at what looked like giant typewriters consisted of punching holes on rolls of stiffened paper which were sent to the casting department at ground floor by a simple process. Strong twine connected a window at the top floor with the casting department at ground floor. The rolls were fed on to the twine and descended conspicuously to Fred Fruish, who was in charge of casting.
Fred was also the photographer. When a Sunday School was re-decorated, he lined up those who had helped, then ignited flash-powder in a tray held high to light them up. When the smoke cleared, there was a large brown mark on the newly-decorated ceiling.
In those wartime years, we coped with the basic fact that newsprint that was rationed. Editorially, we must submit to a censor at Leeds any items which might have helped the enemy. There must be no mention of the weather. In the low-tech world of the 1940s we used a single telephone - frugally - and most of the copy came in by post.
The Misses Seed, who sent us news from Dent, put multi-headings on their reports, even when a report was of nothing more exciting than a whist drive. The pages of copy were attached to each other using needle and thread. Sam Stables, who dealt with Grassington news, reported that an albino carrion crow had been seen locally. When this item was ignored, Sam shot the bird and posted the corpse to us.
Reading proofs was tedious and also a strain on the eyes. The newspaper had relatively few pages. This meant that the typeface was reduced in size to accommodate all the news. In size, it became not much better than that used for diaries. I held a mass of “copy” as someone read some smudged six-point type with a voice that was in monotone, like a medieval chant. It was a sound that might occur for half a day.
Looking back on the Herald days I recall the gales of laughter on a Friday morning when there was evidence of the pressure of heavy equipment on slivers of type. One week, it was the bigamy case. The accused was supposed to have “married his lawful wife”. The sliver of lead representing the first “l” went missing. Adverts were the commercial lifeblood of the Herald. The front page was decked with dozens of adverts. There were occasional titters, such as when an advert for Carleton Brass Band and its various services was mistakenly placed under “At Stud”. At what was then called a police court, the magistrates pondered on a dispute between neighbours over a clothes line. The case fizzled out with reconciliation. The two ladies left the court, arm in arm, vowing to share the costs.
There being not even a bicycle available at the Herald, public transport was used. When the funeral of CJ Cutcliffe Hyne, the celebrated novelist, took place at Kettlewell, I caught a bus to Grassington and walked from here to Kettlewell. Happily, there was a bus available for the whole of the return journey.
I recall many such memories of the Craven Herald with clarity - and joy!