The Wrington Wharfdale by Bernard Seward

Wrington wood typeIn about 1988 I went down to visit Organs with Bernard Seward, somewhere on the outskirts of Bristol. My recollection is of a large rather unprepossessing looking shed, inside which was a Printers’ Aladdin’s Cave. Most of the floor space was take up with the largest Wharfedale I had ever seen, an Extra-Quad Royal 2 colour used for printing the posters in which the firm specialised. Around it were sloping shelves containing a profusion of wood type, the like of which I had also never seen before, in all sizes, weights, and compressions imaginable.

John Organ told us on a second visit that this collection was destined for a ‘graphic designer in London called Alan Kitching’ whose story is told in Matrix 26, ‘Liberated by Letterpress’, ending with now much quoted phrase: ‘Though locked tight in metal, it’s amazing how liberating letterpress can be’.       John Randle

The following is written by Bernard Seward and was originally published in Matrix 9, 1989.

The printing works of G. & M. Organ is to be found tucked away in the village of Wrington, once Somerset; now (but only just) within the boundary of the County of Avon and a mile or so from the foot of the Mendip Hills.

Initial impression would suggest a typical country printer, but closer investigation reveals something rather more. Organs specialise in printing for theatres and places of entertainment which require tickets, programmes and posters. This is the kind of work for which many printers could quote, but few competitively; especially considering the production methods employed at Wrington.

The village itself does not have so much as a bingo hall, let alone a theatre, cinema, opera house or the like. So why here? The reason is family history.

In 1928, Mr George Organ, a person with no known printing experience, set up business with a partner in Pipe Lane, Bristol, quite close to Bristol Hippodrome. Although intending to be general city printers, the proximity of the theatre led to a greater volume of entertainment-oriented work being taken on, not only for the Hippodrome, but for the Theatre Royal and elsewhere in the West Country. Business was punctuated for a while by the disappearance of Organ’s partner together with company funds, but Marjorie (George’s sister) persuaded him to carry on and the business struggled to its feet, attracting work in this specialised field from a much wider clientele. The rates on premises in the centre of Bristol were such to discourage all but the stout-hearted and it came to pass that the senior member of the Organ family owned a house and some seventeenth century barn-like buildings in Wrington. He suggested that George and Marjorie uproot from the centre of Bristol and transfer to Wrington, to live and work in the village. This event seems to have taken place in the early 30s.

Wrington WharfdaleThe buildings themselves had been used variously as a tanners yard, a venue for poultry shows and, during the Second World War, a bonded food store.

The business continued and flourished. Additional poster work was picked up from the growing number of estate agents and auctioneers. The work was done mainly from hand-set type, machined on platen presses and a small Wharfedale.

After the War, and with the departure of the Ministry of Food, there was room for expansion. In 1947, during one of the worst winters on record, two more Wharfedale machines were purchased. John Organ, George’s son, recalls hoe the engineers struggled for weeks to move and install these two large presses. One, by Payne, was of Quad Crown size; and the other was an Extra-Quad Royal two-colour Elliott, thought to have been built originally circa 1906. Details of the previous ownership of both machines are uncertain.

For the visitor to Organ’s in today’s hi-tech printing environment, the centrepiece of attraction is undoubtedly the Elliott Wharfedale, closely followed by the vast array of wood letter which seems to occupy nearly every nook and cranny, the larger sizes (72 line and beyond) being piled on shelves literally to the ceiling. Many sliding racks contain founts in a more orderly state and while the preponderance of designs comes within the sans serif category, a striking feature is the number of two-colour faces available. Here, a borderline is superimposed in a contrasting colour around the profile of each solid letter. Subscribers to Matrix 1 should refer to the broadside accompanying the article by Ian Mortimer, and an example of Organ’s work is included opposite.

Two-colour works, whether by integrated letter, or alternate line-by-line contrast, is easily accomplished on the Elliott machine. Complementary formes are made up, locked on the long machine bed at their respective gripper pitch edges and inked separately from slabs at each end. The cylinder accepts the sheet and makes two complete revolutions, printing both colours, before coming to rest. At this point, the sheet is around the first of the skeleton wheel delivery drums, with virtually no possibility of ink rub or transfer marking.

At the following cylinder revolution, she sheet passes the printed side outwards around a more typical superimposed wood drum and on to an overhead tape controlled delivery. There are none of the flyer sticks seen on most of the early illustrations of two-colour Wharfedales. It is the type of delivery which makes this machine especially unique and important in the field of industrial archaeology. In everyday working on short runs, the sheets can be taken off by hand on what is essentially a slow-moving press.

The principle of the crank-driven bed, common to machines of the Wharfedale pattern, is somewhat elaborated in the case of the two-colour version. The driving gear wheels carrying the crank pin are very large and dip partially into a floor pit, while the small end of the connecting rod draws a compound traverse wheel: that is, a pair of small gear wheels meshing with fixed racks on the base frame, but on the same axle as a larger gear wheels in mesh with the bed racks.

Wrington 2 JPG

With this arrangement, the customary gain in mechanical advantage derived from adding the diameter of the traverse gear to the stroke of the crank pin is effectively doubled, thus giving the required length of bed movement. The momentum built up by such a load requires more control than normally afforded by the simple harmonic motion of the crank, so the reversing stresses are relieved by means of pneumatic buffer chambers, in pairs, at each end of the frame.

Although no longer used, both ink ducts are in position and, with a full complement of rollers fitted, the machine would have had enormously powerful inking. It is interesting to note the three-roller ink feed system which later appeared on the Dawson Payne and Elliott ‘Otley’ two-revolution presses (upon which the writer served much of his five-year apprenticeship).

It is difficult to conceive of an alternative method of producing not only short runs of large posters, but sheets of tickets requiring frequent alterations of date, time and seat price. In this respect the hot-metal Linotype and battery of Heidelberg Model T auto-platens serves the needs of John Organ and his family; and the small but dedicated group of local employees.

Time and technology have not passed them by however; despite the great and obvious age of their premises, a photo-typesetter, camera and studio facilities, together with a trio of immaculate Heidelberg K offset presses and a number of items of high-speed finishing and die-cutting equipment, have placed the firm of G.& M. Organ in as fine a competitive position as one might wish for; a happy and economic blend of the new with the old. A time capsule in some respects; but in no sense a museum.