Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Keith Miller

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CWS Voices 2015

Interview Notes Keith Miller, Pelaw Printing 1970-1981

Interviewer Kath Connolly at Pelaw Library on 09.04.2014

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Keith was born In Gateshead 9.7.53, his father from Wrekenton and mother from Whitley Bay. He attended local schools, completing his education at St. James/St Joseph’s at Hebburn. Keith left school at 16 in 1969/70 had a short term job in retailing and then worked for a local sign maker.

(fragment lost) months of his five year apprenticeship as a Ruler/Book Binder at CWS Printing.

Keith had applied for the apprenticeship while still in school and was offered the job in 1970. He remembers using wooden framed Shaw pen ruling machines equipment ink replenishment being by means of paint brushes and pots of different coloured ink (not out of place in C16th) to rule lines onto paper. Individual sheets were fed into the machine by women and girls and then the finished sheets were later stitched into bespoke ledgers. Customers were organisations such as the Churches, Local Authorities and Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages

They also used two offset printing presses (Rotaprint) in their part of the print works. These machines

be produced in one were considered too small to be under the control of the Printers Union NGA, instead they were, in this heavily unionised factory, under the control of SOGAT (Society of Graphical and Allied Trades).

Any large runs/quantities such as note books/exercise books were produced mechanically- tens of thousands of sheets could day.

The Printing works were set out as follows;

Basement- paper store/warehouse

First Floor Press Room(all printing presses)

Square donut-Second floor- Bindery and Composing Room

Top Floor – Ruling Dept. and bag making (flour, sugar, carrier bags etc), Storage

The huge rolls of paper were very heavy and Keith remembered the time a reel of paper being pushed too far by the reach truck and it crashed through the window, landing on the roof of the meter shed (three to four floors) below.

CWS Printing was a wonderful place to learn a trade, there was such a wide range of equipment. They varied greatly in age and power source- everything from a steam powered guillotine (being dismantled) to belt and pulley systems as well as electrical equipment – ball and claw feet Victorian machines to the latest state of the art fully automatic models.

Pelaw Printing ,in common with other sections of the industry at that time was heavily unionised. You had to be in the union to get the job, if you lost your union card then the job went too. Dues were collected by the ‘Father of the Chapel’ (FOC) or for the female staff the ‘Mother of the Chapel’ (MOC) and paid weekly.

There were not many industrial disputes at Pelaw, the FOC displayed common sense and disputes were settled by discussion. Up to a point they worked with the management, remembering it was their primary responsibility to represent their members. Apprentices (according to Union regulations) were not allowed to join in disputes- they would go into work and tidy up or use whatever equipment was permitted without normal supervision – there was not a lot to do because the apprentice worked alongside a journeyman.

As an apprentice he (only male apprentices) used all of the machines. The women hand sewed bound copies of periodical collections for University Libraries. The work in the 70’s was approximately 50/50 Co-op/ Political Groups, Co-op MPs, universities and other Outside Work. They were printing huge quantities of Co-op Stamp books producing approximately 100,000 books per shift and working 7 day week. The Co-op stamps which had a nominal face value were printed at the more secure Shieldhall site in Glasgow. In addition there were also CWS Printing Works at Redditch and Manchester. Pelaw even had a celebration (office staff only) at the end of the financial year, having made the smallest loss of all the Co-op Printing Works- Keith wasn’t aware of any of the PWs making a profit. Private customers may have been given less preferential treatment than Co-op and regular customers. They produced weekly instalments for Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia and a locally produced Science Fiction short story publication They also a contract to produce regional editions of a magazine for a German publisher- the printing plates would arrive at 4 pm on Thursday and had to be on the loading bay ready for export on Saturday afternoon.

Keith doesn’t remember any perks to the job that were given as a right but recalls a couple of times in a year, lists of CWS goods being held in a local warehouse, were circulated. They were allowed to buy these surplus goods, but details were limited so you didn’t know if you were buying a small jar of pickles or a catering jar. Occasionally suits which had not sold/excess to an order were wheeled in on a rack and you tried on a jacket- hoping the trousers would fit. A suit could be bought for £5 rather than the full price £20.

Nationwide inflation generated huge wage rises in the 1970’s the era of the 3 Day Week. Keith remembers that while he was initially paid £5 each week as an apprentice, his own apprentice was making £120 five or six years later. There were wage rises practically every month due to the effect of inflation.

At that time the Printing works were working 24/7 and shop floor staff were making a lot of overtime wages. The printers would regularly compare wage slips to see who worked the most hours or paid the most income tax in one week. Keith talked of only two bank holiday breaks at that time Easter and Christmas- the only time the PW closed.

Many staff either ate at the workplace or used the Dining Room- one of the last places to be demolished at Pelaw. It was very well used, especially for Fish and Chips on Friday. A few, other than the CWS workers used the facility – delivery drivers and one man regularly picked up three hot dinners and carried them over the road for himself and his two sisters.

When asked about how his family felt about him working at the Print Works, Keith explained that at the time you were lucky to have a job, in addition living within walking distance meant no travelling expenses. He had always loved books and enjoyed working with them. Had he chosen another career it would have been in photography and he did attend night class while working at the PW and got a City and Guilds Qualification in photography.

In the main the Printing Works was a friendly place to work, people got on well together. Apprentices were sent for ‘a long stand’ etc. There were characters too – they seem to have disappeared from modern day communities.

The compositors still shared a communal snuff box which they took in turns to replenish. Although the snuff taking habit was dying out by then.

Women’s work was essentially as bench hands such as stripping adverts out of periodicals leaving only the papers/articles to be bound, hand sewing, box making, stapling, stripping beer mats from printed sheets- most today would be regarded as menial jobs. Keith did not know of the gender difference in wages- people generally didn’t discuss their wages. Everyone up to and including foreman had to clock in.

Office staff and shop floor were separate and didn’t mix other than a possible romance out of work. He remembers being told off by the factory manager for being in the office- “YOU shouldn’t be in here, it says PRIVATE on that door” Keith replied it said OFFICE on the door he came through at the works end of the corridor.

Keith left in 1981 to work as a buyer for HMSO- HMSO only recruited technical staff from the respective trades, and as a buyer he had to have served an apprenticeship.