Fourth estate brought to life

10th July 2009 at 01:00
The importance of knowing how to spell made an impression on Innerleithen pupils on a living history trip to a printing works

"Apprentices wanted," reads the sign in the window in an old-style playbill font. "Any person interested in the trying out for aspects of the printing trade should present themselves to RSmail amp; Sons. Your prompt attention is much appreciated."

Stepping inside Robert Smail's printing works in Innerleithen, in the Borders, is stepping back in time. Upstairs in the case room, the head compositor, Bill Murray, is setting letters in a setting stick. He and his assistant compositor, Gen Harrison, have a deadline looming: they have to finish setting the weekly four-page newspaper, The St Ronan's Standard and Effective Advertiser, or their readership of 800 will be hammering down the door. The date? April 23, 1896.

Two would-be apprentices - pupils from Eddleston Primary - are picking out the letters of their names. "You put them in from left to right, upside down, with the nick facing out, so the compositer can tell by running a finger along the edge whether the letters are in correctly," says Mr Murray, who is formally attired in Victorian garb, with flat cap, white shirt and waistcoat.

He explains that the letters are arranged by frequency of use. The largest compartment contains a collection of "e's". The component letters of common words are close to each other - "t, h, e"; "i, s"; "t, o". Surveying the assembled hopefuls, Mr Murray tells them: "To become a compositer, you have to be good at spelling."

One of a team of National Trust for Scotland volunteers, Mr Murray rolls ink over the upturned letters, carefully positions a piece of pink card on top, slides the setting stick and card into the proofing press, counts to five, then removes it. The underside of the card is perfectly imprinted with two names.

Thirty-four P4-7 children from the Peeblesshire school are touring the NTS property for a living history trip. Split into three groups, they each have a session in the case room, the machine room and the office.

"We've been working on a whole-school project on Scotland, linked with A Curriculum for Excellence, involving a lot of cross-curricular work," explains P6-7 teacher Lorraine Mulholland. "A hands-on experience like this brings it to life for the children."

The clatter of industry emerges from the downstairs machine room, a rhythmic and metallic whirr of rollers and belts as the foreman, Mr McGregor, puts trainee Mr Hope through his paces. He is hand-feeding leaflets into an old clam shell, or "Arab" platen printing press, operating it with a foot pedal. Mr McGregor expects an output of 800 to 900 forms an hour. Mr Hope is struggling.

They also show the assembled children two other kinds of printing press and a guillotine which has caused a few finger-crush injuries. In 1896, the machines were powered by a water wheel, but they have been electrically powered since the 1950s.

"This is not a museum; this is a working factory," explains Mr McGregor. The works is still busy with print jobs that come its way - wedding stationery, amateur dramatics posters, cards and local commissions; each one hand-set.

A sample of every job done at Smail's for more than a century has been kept. Messrs Smail hoarded record books which today serve as a "phenomenal resource", according to Mrs Harrison, the property manager and compositor, and one of two full-time staff at the NTS property. "Any income we generate goes back into the property," she explains.

In the office, Miss Mays is selling tickets for emigration to America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Surrounded by shelves stacked with books and parcels, an old till, telephone and typewriter, she comments on the children's unusual timepieces and asks if any have visited these far-flung lands, and how they got there.

"A plane? What is a plane? Is it a kind of steamship?" She is rather dubious when the children think they could reach the south of Africa by plane in less than two weeks, and explains that it would be six pounds and five shillings - a full month's wages for Mr Murray, who is paid "a very handsome wage" - to travel from Liverpool to New York. An apprentice, meanwhile, would earn nine shillings a fortnight: 22-and-a-half pence a week for a 54-hour week.

A Curriculum for Excellence has enabled the print works to expand its educational scope, with relevance to reading, writing, spelling, geography, history and power and communication, says Mrs Harrison: "Schools phone us and come in for a day or just a morning."

"I've learned that it took 13 hours to set one page of a newspaper," says Chloe Harran, P6.

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