During the course of the exhibition in Leicester, I was contacted by two or three ex-employees of Ladybird books. One of these was Gordon Hill, who worked as a lithographic printer for Ladybird (Wills & Hepworth) between 1966 and 1977 – spanning the time when Ladybird was still based in the cramped buildings on Angel Yard in Loughborough, seeing the move to much larger premises on Beeches Road and right through the peak of Ladybird’s success as a publisher.
The small size of a Ladybird book was the result of creating a book entirely out of one sheet of paper, printed front and back, with the pages, endpapers and dustwrapper all laid out on the sheet. Initially in Angel Yard a two-colour press was used, which meant that each sheet had to be printed twice to get the range of colours. Later, much bigger 4-colour presses were purchased, which meant that two books could be produced from one huge sheet of paper. The process is explained, rather aptly, in a Ladybird book: How it Works The Printing Process.
I went to visit Gordon recently and he and his wife could not have been more friendly or welcoming. In the course of our conversation, I began to realise that there was a lot more of an art and a craft to lithographic printing than I had appreciated. Before our conversation, I imagined vaguely that the printing process involved firstly ‘setting things up’, then maybe pressing a button and watching the identical sheets emerge off the rollers that would then be cut up and bound into a Ladybird book. But there was a great deal more to the process – as Gordon explained in this audio clip:
In a later conversation I asked Gordon to clarify a few points. Here’s what he said:
“When we were ‘making ready’ a job, we are making sure the four colours are all exactly on top of each other and are printing a ‘sharp’ picture
When we adjust the colours to make it look as near to our ‘pass sheet’ as possible it will take a lot more waste sheets to achieve the result. So we adjust the colours, run about 150 sheets of waste, stop, and have another look. When we are fairly close, we get running.
Now, it has to be said that some printers are more capable than others at this, and some, undoubtedly, have a better eye for colour. When you think you are close to your previous pass sheet or proof copy it’s time to fetch Sam Goldsmith (or a shift foreman) to sign off the new pass sheet. Very often, they would want you to make subtle changes but the challenge for me, was to get them to sign the sheet you presented to them.
H: “So if they signed the sheet, the buck stopped with them if a batch of books were thought to be below standard?”
G: “Exactly, but to be honest, all managers were striving for perfection, and I speak from thirty years of personal experience in such a role.”
H: “That’s what I, as a child-reader, would have wanted it hear! The quality of the colours – the reproduction – these were all reasons – often subconsious – why a new Ladybird was a joy to acquire. Can you remind me when you switched from printing one book on a sheet to printing two books?”
G: “The big Roland Ultra four colour presses printed two, the smaller presses printed one.
H: “So did that coincide with the move to Beeches Road?”
G: “The first Ultra was installed in Angel Yard. Initially I was not on this press but as the move to Beeches Road got underway I was appointed second minder on it, John Price was first minder (and thus in charge of what we did). John and I were the last printers to move from Angel Yard. It was a ghost factory then, no binding girls to chat up or flirt with, none of the binding lads to banter with, it was a lonely existence, albeit for a short while.
Getting back to the quality side of it, the printer’s role was vital. The job succeeded (or failed) because of him. Printing is a close community, and good printers are known by the management of rival firms. Thus, you may be approached by another firm to join them. More money etc was expected, or other perks, to encourage you to leave your current employer. Good printers made a huge difference in any firm.
I think a little inside information helps you to appreciate the books even more. By having an understanding of the process involved, you will understand there is an awful lot that could potentially go wrong.
And of course, it was the skill of the printer which also makes a book a treasure.
So definitely a craft, Helen.”
(Just in case that wasn’t enough geeky detail for you, you can find a lot more about the printing process used by Ladybird here )