Pressed for time

For a company which was once producing propaganda for Britain’s most seismic social change W. F. Arber & Co. was remarkably old fashioned, having hardly changed in over
70 years.

Much has been written about the East End’s oldest printers established in 1897 and still in the same family until its closure earlier this year, brought about by the draconian parking restrictions outside the shop.

[A]s one who once had ink coursing through his veins I felt CabbieBlog should put in its own two pennyworths for one of the few industry’s survivors until Gary Arber, the grandson of the founder retired.

The business had remained much the same as when Walter Arber began as a paper-bag maker printing his customer’s details (in the days when you weren’t charged if you needed a bag) and stationers from newly built premises in Roman Road, while his wife Emily sold toys.

Emily might have been a shopkeeper but that didn’t stop her becoming a supporter of the Suffragettes and knew the Pankhursts. On her insistence leaflets were printed at Arber & Co. for Emmeline Pankhurst for free.

Arber-Caseroom-PanoramaW. F. Arber caseroom

The company was a remarkable survivor in the 20th century. It remained open during World War I and expanded into bookbinding; somehow struggled through during the Depression mainly as a result of Walter Arber designing a new paper tea packages.

Government contracts during World War II kept the company afloat. During the Blitz an oil bomb flattened the shop’s garden, with Walter and Emily having a lucky escape, only getting out of their Anderson shelter before a wall flattened it. Walter’s brother Albert (who also worked at Arber’s alongside third brother Len) was less lucky, when he was crushed by a collapsing wall.

After the war the Krays were regular customers getting their boxing promotion material printed at Arber’s. Even as the change from hot metal to computer typesetting revolutionised the industry Arber’s continued in its quaint and trusted ways.

From its hay day when six printing presses were operating at once, Gary Arber has produced his last print run. A single notice reads:

Advance Notice – This shop will be closing at the end of May. We have been here for 117 years, printed for the Suffragettes, survived enemy bombing through two World Wars and now we are finished due to Tower Hamlets Council’s parking policy.

closing notice A property developer has bought the building from Gary and plans to convert it into flats.

Most of the presses have been taken to Catseye Press, Norfolk to form part of a private collection of vintage printing machines. London retains one, however, the 1900 Golding Press on which W. F. Arber & Co. printed leaflets for the Suffragettes. This printing press is to go on show at The Bishopsgate Institute. What will happen to the rest of the typesetting equipment, pages from past work tied with page cord, type cases and all manner of paraphernalia similar to that I once worked. It has probably been broken up and now resides as curios in those smart flats being converted in the building that once was used by a survivor of a proud industry.

Arber-Gary-in-Caseroom Gary Arber

On 12th June 2014 the Daily Mail ran the story Shop that beat Hitler but lost to the parking Nazis by Harry Mount; The Gentle Author from Spitalfield’s Life has written a series of pieces Gary Arber, printer; a post of mostly pictures Gary Arber’s Collection; Gary’s tarting up of his shop in anticipation for the 2012 Olympics Return to W. F. Arber & Co, Printing Works; a Christmas visit At W. F. Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works; and a final farewell just before Arber’s closed Last Days At WF Arber & Co Ltd. I am indebted to Ben Brundell at the website British Letterpress permission to reproduce pictures which featured in his visit to Arber’s.

6 thoughts on “Pressed for time”

  1. How very sad to read this both as a proud Londoner and ex-compositor. How sad no charities were able to assist in a relocation of the company. Soon, a large slice of London’s industrial heritage will be scattered. My friend Kevin who owned the recently closed and community-committed KTP press in Hanbury St E1 stumbled on the Frogmore paper mill in Watford within which he found a whole dept with letterpress equipment still being used for commercial and educational purposes. How I’d love to hear the sound of a platen again in Clerkenwell as I drove through its streets at night.


    1. Hi Brian
      Stefan from the Bishopsgate Institute has informed me that the 1900 Golding Press on which W. F. Arber & Co. printed leaflets for the Suffragettes will now not be going to them. Apparently too much time was wasted deciding health & safety issues regarding the machine’s weight. Yet another loss to London.


    2. Hello
      Thanks for replying. I’m sure such places are inundated with such offers, but the Museum of London, the Museum of Labour History in Manchester, etc, could surely find space? How good would it look in a Suffragette section with pamphlets beside it?


    3. We are starting the build up to the 100th anniversary of the First World War. When that ended in 1918 some women were given the right to vote. I would have thought museums would be falling over themselves to procure artifacts to illustrate this momentous event.


  2. I doubt whether the shop closed because of “draconian parking restrictions”. All the evidence suggests shop owners over-estimate *by an order of magnitude* how many people come to their shop by car. This is likely to be even greater in London, where almost no-one drives.


    1. As W. F. Arber’s main work was printed leaflets I would have thought most of his customers would pick up their orders by car. But yes you have a point, many business will blame anybody but themselves for their downfall.
      Thanks for the comment


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