History of Watford Printers and Printing Companies
I’ve been involved with printing all of my life and have worked in my family business, a firm of Watford Printers, since I was as school!
Of course the printing industry has changed beyond all recognition with firstly the huge development in desktop publishing and then of course with the way the internet has revolutionised all of our lives in so many ways!
When I was a kid, there were more printing companies in Watford than I can remember – and I’m not that old yet!! But sadly the trade has changed and the impact on the Watford Printers has been severe with only a handful of Watford printing companies left in existence.
I’m pleased to say that after some daliances into Buckinghamshire, PrintRepublic is now back in Watford where I first developed the idea of an online printing company a few years ago. We are in fact in the original Watford printers factory that my Dad first really developed and grew his printing company and we are now based where I first worked for him, more years ago than I care to remember!
Printing has had a major impact on my life and for many years, printing changed the way information was spread in the same way that the internet has done in the past decade. The printed word changed the world and helped educate and inform the world. At one stage, the only piece of printing the average man was likely to see was the Bible.
Of course newspaper printing developed very quickly as the technology and speed of printing enabled more widespread, detailed and fast spread of news, information and opinion on what was going on in the world.
Technology has now gone further than most printers ever thought possible and digital printing, variable data printing has seen some major advances in the way printing is used as a communication channel.
Of course, printing is nothing without a substrate to print on to and the main reason printing developed rapidly in Watford was the manufacture of paper locally.
The two major industries in Watford have traditionally been printing and brewing but the growth in The John Dickinson and Co. Print Mill beside the canal at Croxley that manufactured the Croxley brand of fine quality paper gave a local source of paper to the printers in Watford. Wood pulp from Scandinavia was brought up the Thames and then along the canal to the paper mill.
If you want to read more on the history of John Dickinson Stationery Ltd then check out the Wickipedia page HERE
History of Printing
Here is a fascinating video about the history of printing and many of the techniques shown I can just about remember the very end of as a very young boy. Of course there is never an abrupt end to a technology as re-investment is often gradual and some printing companies adopted new lithographic technology before others.
My Dad trained as a letterpress printer which was a 7 year apprenticeship!
When he started his own Watford printing company, it began initially in his garage at home with some letterpress printing equipment and when he quit his job and set up in business full time, he brought in litho printing equipment which worked in tandem with the letterpress machinery.
I can certainly remember one of his letterpress machines, a Heidelberg platen which is a machine still used by many printers, although generally not for printing, but for cutting and creasing paper!
So check out his video on the history of printing and then read on below about other Watford printing companies!
History of Watford Observer
The Watford Observer was first published on January 24, 1863, by Samuel Alexander Peacock, son of Watford printer and bookbinder, John Peacock, one of the founders of the town’s printing industry in the early 19th Century. A copy of the very first front page is pictured right.
Samuel Peacock was born into the printing industry and saw the area grow and prosper, particularly with the advent of the railway, but was struck by the absence of a newspaper to record parochial matters.
In a leading article on the front page of the first issue, Samuel Peacock explained his vision to provide Watford with a journal to give full and accurate reports of the courts, civic events and affairs, religious and scientific meetings, political issues and overseas news.
The four-page newspaper, called The Watford Observer and General Advertiser for Watford, Bushey and Rickmansworth, was intended to be a paper for the people and by the people. More than a century later, this sentiment holds true.
In those days, almost all small weekly newspapers were printed in London. Three pages of the Watford Observer were produced in the capital and were transported to Watford. These contained the week’s general news, political and foreign affairs. The front page, with local news, court reports, parish affairs and general advertising, was produced at the paper’s Queen Street offices on a handpress.
Every week, until 1880 when the paper was printed entirely in Watford, there was a period of tension before the pages from London arrived in Watford: would they be delivered in time for press day? Or would the intrepid delivery boys pictured right be kept waiting? Pages from London may be thing of the past for today’s newspaper team but the worries about looming deadlines will always be there.
A cylinder printing machine was introduced in 1865 to speed up production and, by 1866, the circulation increased to include Hemel Hempstead, Harrow, Kings Langley, Aldenham and St Albans.
Samuel Alexander Peacock died in 1880 and the business was left to his widow, Maria, and carried on by his eldest son, Thomas John Peacock. In 1894 Thomas sold his interest to Charles Herbert Peacock who became the sole proprietor.
By 1896, the paper had been expanded to eight pages and the following year the Herts Leader was bought and absorbed. In December 1902 the Berkhamsted Times, Tring Telegraph and Chesham News were incorporated and the title of West Herts and Watford Observer was adopted.
The company moved to 101 High Street, Watford, where it remained until 1961 when the printing works was transferred to premises in Rickmansworth Road where it was based until 2002. The editorial and advertising departments moved to Rickmansworth Road in 1973.
The move from the High Street was partly economic. The newspaper had grown and was selling around 46,000 copies in the late 1960’s. There was a need for a bigger press and the High Street offices were too small to cope. It was uneconomic to run two centres and, although the High Street spot seemed prestigious, the number of callers with advertising and editorial had fallen considerably over the years and nearly all transactions were undertaken by telephone.
The newspaper’s offices in Hemel Hempstead and Rickmansworth were closed in the 1970’s. Up until then, The Watford Observer had produced a front page for Hemel Hempstead and had a reporter permanently based there.
But newspaper economics were changing. The Evening Echo and Evening Post were launched from a Hemel Hempstead base in 1967. The Echo covered an area from Chesham to Bushey to the borders with St Albans and Hemel and Berkhamsted. The Post covered an area from St Albans to Bedford. Naturally, they took a slice of the advertising revenue.
But another threat to The Watford Observer was on the horizon: the development of free newspapers. In anticipation of a free rival in the town, The Midweek Observer was launched in 1969 and came out on a Tuesday. The strategy was to fill the void a potential rival might seek to exploit and protect the position of The Watford Observer. This publication later became the Watford Free Observer, and is now simply known as the Watford Free.
Another sister newspaper, the St Albans Observer, was launched as a broadsheet free newspaper in 1985. It turned tabloid, only to be relaunched as a paid-for broadsheet in September 1998.
Limited Edition, an upmarket community lifestyle magazine, joined the portfolio of titles in May 1995, and there are now three editions produced from the Watford centre.
In 1973 The Watford Observer scrapped the long-established ‘hot metal’ technique in which type was set in metal braces and introduced an off-set litho system.
The new system involved copy being keyed on computer terminals and output to a printer on special filmed paper. This would then be waxed, cut and pasted onto the page. The completed page was then photographed to create a negative.
The company’s presses had closed in the mid-1960’s. Printing machines were too expensive to lay idle for four or five nights a week, so newspaper groups developed printing centres.
By 1984 the Observer became one of the first regional papers to introduce direct input. Reporters keyed copy on computers rather than typing it out and then handing it to copytakers to rekey.
More progress was made in 1994 when computer setting was introduced allowing sub editors to create the news pages directly on computer screens.
Along with the change in premises and technology, there were a number of changes in ownership.
In 1910 a private limited company was formed and, on the death of Charles Peacock ten years later, his son, D.C. Kim Peacock, became chairman. Kim Peacock played private investigator Paul Temple in the popular radio programme.
In 1957, the Peacock family sold the business and in 1961 the entire share capital was acquired by printers and publishers Merritt and Hatcher Ltd of London and High Wycombe. They in turn were taken over by the Westminster Press division of Pearson, which owned the Financial Times.
In 1996 Westminster Press was sold to Newsquest. The new owners bought the Review Group of titles in St Albans and Watford in May 1998 and later launched a new Review title to cover Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield.
Newsquest was acquired by Gannett, the biggest newspaper publisher in the United States of America, in 1999.
In 2002 the newspaper moved to the specially built Observer House in the Watford Business Park’s Caxton Way.
The Watford Observer’s 140th anniversary in 2003 was marked with the production of a limited edition of miniature delivery vans. Just 140 and were made, one for each year.
The Watford Observer made a radical change to its appearance when it followed The Times and Independent newspapers and adopted compact format on September 10, 2004.
Here is more History of Watford Printers and Printing Companies
André & Sleigh Ltd.
This firm was one of the earliest process firms in Britain, producing work of very high quality. Owned by Cassell’s, it was originally formed by Richard André and nephews. David Greenhill became manager after leaving Bemrose Dalziel in 1909, and, together with Charles F. Cook (also of Bemrose) and A.G. Symmons, developed the firm’s gravure printing facilities. When André & Sleigh’s work was exhibited at the Agricultural Hall, London, in 1914, Edward Hunter of Anglo Engraving was sufficiently impressed by its quality to negotiate with Cassell’s for the purchase of the firm. The sale took place later that year.
André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
The company was created in August 1914 upon the acquisition of André & Sleigh and Bushey Colour Press by Edward Hunter’s Anglo Engraving Co. of London. Sir Arthur Spurgeon, of Cassell’s, was appointed chairman, and David Greenhill became a director and the company’s general manager. In 1916, André, Sleigh & Anglo acquired Ashworth, Meredith & Downer Ltd., a small blockmaking company in London. In 1919, André, Sleigh & Anglo acquired Menpes Printing and Engraving Co. and consolidated operations in the Menpes factory on Whippendell Road in Watford, under the banner of the Sun Engraving Company.
Anglo Engraving Co.
The company was founded in 1898 by Edward Hunter and J.A. (Archie) Hughes, both just out of their photoengraving apprenticeships. The firm was launched with a single employee, but grew quickly. In 1901, Anglo moved from its original Farringdon Avenue premises to larger offices in Raynes Park, where a trade letterpress printing department was soon set up. The partners would eventually be joined by two of Edward’s brothers, Hugh (around 1905) and Noel (in 1910). In 1906, Anglo purchased the Croydon firm of J.J. Waddington, acquiring its gravure facilities and expertise. In 1910, Anglo set up a small, separate firm in Barnes, Middlesex. This was the Mezzogravure Co., which concentrated on developing the new process of rotary photogravure printing. In 1914, Anglo acquired André & Sleigh Ltd. and Bushey Colour Press (both of Bushey, nr Watford) from Cassell’s, because Edward Hunter had been so impressed by the quality of the work they displayed at a printing exhibition in London. In the wake of these additions and acquisitions, Anglo was renamed André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
Ashworth, Meredith & Downer Ltd.
Ashworth, Meredith & Downer started as a process engraving partnership in 1901 in Bushey. In 1902, Ashworth made the first colour process engraving, for the cover of Motor magazine. The firm moved to Watford in 1906, and thereafter to London. It was acquired by André, Sleigh & Anglo in 1916.
Bushey Colour Press
Formed by Cassell’s in 1910, the firm was managed by David Greenhill and, in 1914, was acquired (along with André & Sleigh Ltd.) by Anglo Engraving. The resulting company was called André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd.
Geo.W. Jones Ltd.
This printing firm (which became a subsidiary of the department store Debenham & Freebody in 1904) was established by George Jones in London around 1890. Jones was involved in various aspects of production (including publishing) for a number of trade magazines dealing with the graphic arts, and his activities culminated in 1906 in the construction of a sizeable factory on Whippendell Road, Watford. At about that time, Jones was joined by artist Mortimer Menpes, who became art director of the company. In 1908, Jones left the company, whose name was then changed to Menpes Printing and Engraving Co.
Menpes Printing and Engraving Co.
Mortimer Menpes was an artist who became art director of Geo.W. Jones Ltd. (Printers), probably shortly before that firm moved from London to new premises on Whippendell Road in Watford. When, in 1908, George Jones resigned from the firm he had founded, Menpes seems to have acquired the business, which became known initially as the Menpes Press. Menpes undertook photoengraving and letterpress printing on quite a large scale. In 1918, the company’s assets were acquired by André, Sleigh & Anglo Ltd., which, a year later, consolidated its scattered production operations in the Whippendell Road plant after modifying and expanding it. The consolidated companies were renamed the Sun Engraving Company Ltd.
Mezzogravure Co. Ltd.
In 1910, Edward Hunter and J.A. (Archie) Hughes set up the Mezzogravure Co. in Barnes, Middlesex, and there they ran experiments on, and refined, the revolutionary process of rotary photogravure printing. It was the beginning of the photogravure work for which the Sun Engraving Co., and ultimately Sun Printers, would become famous. The work was done behind locked doors with a small staff sworn to secrecy. There was no unauthorized access. Possessed of a good knowledge of the process for hand-plate gravure, a small master screen, and a 15 in. calico printing machine made by John Wood of Ramsbottom, Hunter, Hughes, and works director John Threlfall (originally of Waddingtons, the Croydon photo engravers) were soon producing fine prints – chiefly calendar subjects and frontispieces for high-quality books – that won raves for their ‘rich velvet quality, the amazing depth of tone, and the inimitable shadow detail.’ The extraordinary work coming out of Barnes had a revolutionary effect on the rest of the trade, and the wider world began to take notice. During WWI the company was hired by the government to print a photogravure background on the nation’s food tickets, to make them hard to copy. The Mezzogravure Co. was absorbed into the Sun Engraving Co. around 1918.
Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co.
The company was formed in 1895 by Storey Brothers of Lancaster (calico printers and sail and cloth makers) on the advice of artist, photographer, and engraver Karl Klic. Technical development was carried out under the direction of Klic and Samuel Fawcett, a former Storey Bros employee, and by 1900 Rembrandt was producing gravure prints commercially and in large quantities. The firm enjoyed a de facto monopoly for several years. Examples of the work produced at Rembrandt at the turn of the century are the exquisite Burlington Art Miniatures, made for The Fine Arts Publishing Co. Ltd. of London. The monopoly crumbled after WWI as other gravure printers began to compete, using newer methods and offering a wider range of products. Rembrandt Intaglio moved to London in 1926 in an attempt to reinvent itself, but was relatively unsuccessful in developing new techniques. The company was bought by the Sun Engraving Co. in 1932 and renamed Rembrandt Photogravure Ltd.
Rembrandt Photogravure Ltd.
In 1932 Sun Engraving Co. of Watford acquired the Storey Brothers’ interest in Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co. when the Storeys made the decision to revert to producing strictly textiles. Sun Engraving moved the company from London to Watford, turned it into a sheet-fed gravure operation with modern equipment, and gave the firm its new name. Rembrandt Photogravure continued to operate as a separate entity in its new premises, producing high-quality art reproductions in colour, until 1961, when it was folded into Sun Printers Ltd., formerly the printing operation of the Sun Engraving Co.
Studio Sun was incorporated as a photographic studio in 1931 by Sun Engraving, and was located at 49a Blandford Street, London. As ‘photographers to the printed page,’ the studio specialised in fashion and art photography, and also produced some of the pictures in Sun Engraving’s promotional magazine Illustration. One of its later employees, W.J. Pilkington (a colour photography specialist and member of the Royal Photographic Society), became manager of Studio Sun, and purchased the firm from Sun Engraving in 1951.
Sun Engraving Co. Ltd.
In 1911, the name ‘Sun Engraving Co.’ became available. (Find out more about the name and the company’s visual identity by clicking on: the name.) Edward Hunter and his partners adopted this name for a new engraving firm they established at Milford House, just off the Strand, in London.
In 1919, while retaining Milford House as the company’s London head office, Sun Engraving absorbed André, Sleigh & Anglo, consolidated all production operations under one roof at Whippendell Road, Watford, in the premises that had formerly been known as Menpes Printing and Engraving Co., and began using the Sun Engraving name exclusively. The newly updated works were ‘christened’ in July 1919 with a sit-down luncheon for all staff, who by then numbered close to a thousand.
It was on Whippendell Road that Sun Engraving pioneered, in the early 1920s, the gravure printing of colour insets (black and one colour on one side of the sheet and black on the other) for use as magazine covers and inserts. In 1925, the company’s experiments proved that the chromium-coating of gravure cylinders would greatly reduce cylinder wear and vastly increase press productivity, allowing much longer press runs. In 1926, Sun Engraving made printing history by producing the first ever four-colour sheet on a rotary photogravure press. The Sun-designed press became the prototype of all subsequent four-colour rotary gravure presses.
Over the next decade, Sun Engraving developed a huge and ever-expanding rotary photogravure facility, dedicated to the production of magazines and catalogues. It has been estimated that by about 1935, the firm was producing 70% of Britain’s mass-market magazines.The company did pioneering work on titles such as Picture Post, for Hulton Press, breaking U.K. records with weekly production runs of over a million copies.
During those years, Sun Engraving enhanced its operations by launching Studio Sun, which would go on to become a pioneer in commercial colour photography, and by acquiring the Storey Brothers’ interest in Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co., moving the operations from London to Watford, renaming the company Rembrandt Photogravure, and equipping it as a modern sheet-fed gravure printing operation, whose quality remained consistently high. By 1938, Sun Engraving had become the largest combined gravure and letterpress printing company in the world.
During World War II, much of the Allies’ propaganda material, four years of crucial colour-coded charts for emergency ship-to-ship signals for the Admiralty, and all the manuals of aerial reconnaissance photographs used for the invasion of Europe were produced by Sun Engraving. The firm was also heavily involved in the production of munitions and in activities connected with the production of the atomic bomb.
At the end of the war, in 1945, the owners sold their burgeoning printing operations for just over £1 million to the smaller family firm of Hazell, Watson & Viney. The new owners renamed their acquisition Sun Printers Ltd.
Sun Engraving, solely an engraving company once again, continued in business until 1968, when it was sold to C. & E. Layton Ltd. and ceased operations at the Whippendell Road site.
Sun Printers Ltd.
In 1945 Sun Engraving’s massive printing operations were split off from the engraving operations and sold to the family firm of Hazell, Watson & Viney of Aylesbury, which then formed the Hazell-Sun Group as a holding company for its various production facilities. The Whippendell Road facility was renamed Sun Printers Ltd. and entered into a period of ambitious expansion. Between 1945 and 1965, Sun Printers continued Sun Engraving’s tradition of innovation, pioneering the application of electronics to rotary gravure printing (including colour scanning to produce separations, and electronic register control on the press), and researching and developing new kinds of inks. In 1962, the firm obtained the contract to produce the first-ever weekly colour magazine for a British newspaper. The Sunday Times Colour Magazine proved a huge success. Employment at Sun Printers peaked in 1963 with more than 3,600 people on the payroll.
That same year, Hazell-Sun Group merged with Purnell Group to create a formidable new printing conglomerate they called the British Printing Corporation (BPC). For many reasons, Sun Printers failed to flourish within the new configuration. The next fifteen years saw a high turn-over of senior management. There was also constant conflict between management and the unions, during a period when unions were becoming increasingly powerful in the U.K. It was also a period of rapid change within the printing industry. Letterpress was foundering, and gravure was losing ground to the new web-offset printing technology that, for self-serving reasons, a majority of BPC’s directors had rejected for Sun Printers. By 1975, sales were falling, and over 92% of company income was being eaten up by wages and salaries. The Sun’s letterpress department was forced to close in 1979 for lack of work. More and more gravure business was moving to the less-expensive web-offset printers, both in the U.K. and on the Continent. The much-delayed introduction of phototypesetting at the Sun in 1980 spelled the end of the large composition department. The ink factory was closed in 1981. By this time, the company was in grave financial difficulties.
Robert Maxwell bought a controlling interest in BPC in 1981 and changed its name to the British Printing and Communications Corporation (BPCC). He soon acquired Odhams, Watford’s other large gravure printing house, which was also struggling to survive, and, in 1983, merged it with the Sun at the Whippendell Road site to create Odhams-Sun Printers Ltd. He funded an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful. research-and-development project to engrave gravure cylinders by means of laser beams (it was an idea ahead of its time), brought web offset to ‘the Sun’ (as everyone still called the company), and oversaw the paring down of departments and workforce in an attempt to return the company to a position that would be competitive with other U.K. and European printers. But the Sun continued to lose contracts and failed to win bids for new work. In 1984, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers and quietly refurbished the vacant Odhams facility as a printing plant for the Daily Mirror. In 1987, the year that BPCC became a subsidiary of Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC), he began to poach the Sun’s web-offset operators to train on and run his new newspaper presses. Many Sun employees went to work for the Mirror, while others, who wished to stay with gravure, transferred to Purnell’s in Bristol.
Maxwell’s deputy and several other directors bought the BPCC Group from MCC in 1989. Most of the Whippendell Road site was abandoned after the deal went through, and a much-reduced printing operation was moved into the Sun’s refurbished former paper warehouse on Ascot Road. Web offset was the only printing method used on the new site, and employees of the once-mighty Sun now numbered around 200. The presses were kept busy, but the Sun (now called BPCC Sun Ltd.) seem to have lost its way and sense of self. Soon, it even lost its name, becoming BPCC Consumer Magazines (Watford) Ltd.
In 1996, BPCC (by then the British Printing Company Ltd.) merged with Watmoughs (Holdings) plc to form a new printing conglomerate called Polestar Group, of which the Sun became just a small satellite. Polestar removed the last printing presses from the Ascot Road site in 2004 and closed the site down.
During the 20th century, printing overtook brewing as Watford’s main trade. By the 1960s, thousands were employed in the industry, especially at Odhams and the Sun Engraving Company, owned by Robert Maxwell. Printing in Watford had been established in the town by John Peacock, who opened a printing works in 1820. His printing press, imported from Columbia, and used to print the first edition of the Watford Observer, is in Watford Museum.