Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Les­lie Ged­des-brown

MY favourite book­mark is a chunky piece of brown card with, at the top, a horned and tailed red devil sprint­ing with a sheaf of pa­per and, un­der­neath, ‘I be­came a Printer’s Devil at Robert Smail’s’. The old print unions wouldn’t al­low me to tin­ker with type in the news­pa­per com­pos­ing rooms, but Smail’s pos­i­tively en­cour­aged it. I was al­lowed to pick up the metal up­per- and lower-case let­ters and com­pose my name in Rock­well type, which is gen­er­ally used for theatri­cal posters. I did be­come a printer’s devil—the book­mark has my name clearly printed on it.

Smail’s is an old Vic­to­rian print­ing works set up in 1866 in the high street of the small Scot­tish bor­der town of In­ner­lei­then. It printed ev­ery­thing the com­mu­nity might need—let­ter­heads, wed­ding an­nounce­ments, fly­ers and, be­tween 1893 and 1916, a weekly news­pa­per, al­though you might won­der how such a small town could fill out enough pages with lo­cal news. The print works stag­gered on un­til 1986, still owned by the Smail fam­ily, when, in an act of bril­liant fore­sight, the en­tire works and its con­tents were bought by the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land.

It was, es­sen­tially, still a Vic­to­rian print­works, with boxes of move­able metal type and hand­carved wooden type for large cap­i­tals. Its print­ing ma­chines in­cluded an Arab clamshell press, which was trea­dle-pow­ered and a belt-driven Wharfedale Re­liance orig­i­nally run by wa­ter power, hav­ing its own wa­ter­wheel. Its draw­ers are still filled with such ob­jects as seal­ing wax, pen nibs and bot­tles of ink. It’s an es­sen­tial pil­grim­age for any­one with a love of print­ing.

I looked up the ori­gin of ‘printer’s devil’ and found that, gen­er­ally, it meant the young boy ap­pren­tices learn­ing the trade. They would usu­ally be cov­ered in print­ing ink and black from head to toe. Fa­mous devils in­clude Ben­jamin Franklin, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Mark Twain and Pres­i­dent Lyndon John­son.

Another sug­ges­tion was that the orig­i­nal printer’s devil was a sprite that haunted com­pos­ing rooms. This fiend would turn type up­side down and cause spell­ing mis­takes. It would ‘pie’ com­plete pages of set type— drop­ping the whole made-up page to the ground where it split into thou­sands of pieces and looked like a pie.

It’s easy to un­der­stand, from my time in news­pa­per com­pos­ing rooms, why print­ers felt they were be­dev­illed. If any­thing could go wrong with move­able type, it would—just like when favourite knives and es­sen­tial spec­ta­cles go miss­ing in the home. (My par­ents used to be con­vinced that a pol­ter­geist was at work in our house.) Fur­ther sug­ges­tions are that Wil­liam Cax­ton had an ap­pren­tice called ‘Deville’ and that early print­ing was thought to be a work of the Devil—rather how some of us view com­put­ers to­day.

Smail’s has another at­trac­tion: I bought a dozen or so ‘rub­bish’ pads there. Th­ese are pads of mis­cel­la­neous of­f­cuts of pa­per of all colours and tex­tures, some with prints of old bi­cy­cles, the Forth Bridge and an­nounce­ments of events in In­ner­lei­then. One side of pa­per is al­ways clear, but my cur­rent pad has one sheet printed with an old­fash­ioned point­ing fin­ger and ‘This Way for Fun’. Its front cover an­nounces: ‘Rub­bish… this notepad is pro­duced us­ing printer’s waste sheets. The text and im­ages are pro­duced with re­us­able type AND blocks. It is printed on the Arab Clamshell Press which is trea­dle pow­ered.’ The whole is in a mix­ture of types—bold, italic, sans serif and serif.

I’ve or­dered another load of rub­bish pads from Smail’s. I love them: they’re a classier style of shop­ping list and seem to last for­ever and Hew has been con­verted from bor­ing, white pa­per pads. I’ll be a printer’s devil yet!

‘This fiend would turn type up­side down and cause spell­ing mis­takes’

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