Haddington | The East Lothian Courier

John Wood

Since I started work as a message boy in the Courier office in 1952 the printing trade has undergone a transformation. If many of the old tradesmen were able to return today they would find the trade as they knew it unrecognisable. The foreman when I started by apprenticeship as a compositor had begun his in 1904. And a retired linotype operator who used to visit the offices occasionally had started his apprenticeship with the Courier in 1886! (less than 30 years since the newspaper was founded)

These men had worked in the days when the newspaper and commercial work had been composed by hand. The work was labour intensive and the firm in those early days must have employed a large staff of compositors. The introduction of the linotype machines was to change this dramatically. For a long number of years until the advent of computers this hot metal mechanical method of producing type was widespread throughout the printing industry.

The first linotype machines may have come to the Courier office in the early part of the 20th century. There were three such machines producing the newspaper and doing other work when I joined the firm. Many jobs and advertisements however were still cut by hand from the case – a technique that had changed little since printing began. The apprentice compositor’s first task was to learn the layout of the case – a large tray containing the individual letters, capitals and lower case and spaces, each in their own separate little box. One served a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor.

The title of the newspaper was The Haddingtonshire Courier up until 1971 when it became The East Lothian Courier.

In the late 1920s the first signs of the computer age began in the office with the introduction of a photo-typesetting machine. This involved type being produced on to film and the gradual phasing out of the hot metal linotype machines. Over the years this modernisation programme has continued apace and today the Courier and other commercial work is set by the latest computers. The reporters also saw the typewriter replaced by the computer. These changes saw the letterpress way of printing from a raised surface of type giving way to litho-printing from flat plates.

Up until the introduction of a rotary press in 1971 the Courier had been printed by being hand-fed on a flat-bed machine and folded on another. This was time consuming with the first four pages of the eight-page edition reading to be on the press early in the week. The reverse four pages were printed and folded on a Thursday. This meant working all day Thursday often into the early hours of Friday morning. The three men who worked to produce the Courier always had Friday off.

The newsprint for today’s Courier comes in huge reels over four miles long if stretched out. Before the rotary press these came in large flat reams (500 sheets) which had to be carried by the staff up the narrow close from the lorry parked in Market Street.

Since I started work to when I retired the working week has been reduced by nearly a day. We worked on a Saturday morning and also on Christmas Day in those early days.

It is said that modernisation leads to a loss of jobs. Happily in the case of D. & J. Croal Ltd, the Courier printers, this has not been the case. The staff doubled in my time as did the circulation of the newspaper, today over 15,000 copies being printed each week.