Bill Hughes: Obituary

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The Independent Online
Bill Hughes, typesetter, of Worcester, was the last of his kind. There is no one left who has either his skill or experience, and he must have been one of the very few men, or women, who had a working career of over 66 years in the same trade. He was apprenticed as a printer in Loughborough in 1928 and trained as a Monotype operator, a skill he practised until ill-health caused him to stop working some two years ago.

His father was a dentist but Bill did not want to follow him and on the advice of his headmaster he went into printing. After training at Leicester College of Art (where he took First Class honours in every subject) he moved around the country and in the Thirties settled in Worcester, where he remained for the rest of his life.

When he entered printing, the Monotype caster had more or less completed its takeover of the trade. For nearly 450 years after Gutenberg invented the technique of printing from movable type, every bit of printing, from Bibles to newspapers, was produced from type set by hand. That meant that every letter, every space, every bit of punctuation, was picked up from the case by an operator, arranged in lines, fastened together in a frame, was inked and had a sheet of paper pressed against it. And, after all that, every letter and so on had to be cleaned of ink and replaced in the correct compartment of the case.

In the last few years of the 19th century, mechanical typesetting was invented but did not have any impact on the trade until after the First World War. In the next decade Monotype machines took over all typesetting except for newspapers.

They were complicated affairs, in two parts: the keyboard which produced a roll of paper with holes punched in it, and the caster. The roll was fed into this and controlled the actual casting of molten metal into type, spaces, and punctuation which were then arranged into lines. The operator had to be a sort of cross between a competent typist, a highly skilled mechanic accustomed to working to micrometric tolerances, and a layout artist.

Such men rarely lacked work and Hughes found plenty in Worcester, which at that time had more printing firms than a city of its size warranted. When he retired in the early 1970s, as the computer revolution was beginning, he bought a couple of casters and a keyboard, and in 1973 set up in business for himself as Solotype. For over 20 years he cast type in his small workshop on the quayside at Upton-on-Severn, about eight miles from Worcester. Whenever the Severn flooded he had to sandbag his doors, and once or twice had to carry his electric motors up to his first-floor office.

For many years now type has all but disappeared from the printing trade. Bill Hughes made his living from the few small printers who continued using type - fewer and fewer as time went by. But the market in which he took most pride was the private presses, from the hobby-printer to those large presses which are run on commercial lines and produce magnificent volumes eagerly sought after by collectors.

His first customer was the late Dame Hildelith Cumming, who transformed the press at Stanbrook Abbey, outside Worcester, so that it became known throughout the world for its excellence. He set the type for most of her books and that fact alone is the best comment that can be made about Hughes's skill and workmanship. His later customers, including the Whittington, Fleece and Rocket Presses, regularly won printing awards with their books.

Bill Hughes was a delightful companion, whether gossiping in the local pub at Upton (there are three within 50 yards of his workshop) or in the shop itself, operating his machinery. He was so familiar with it that even when his eyes began to give him trouble towards the end of his life he was still able to keep up his standards.

Besides his widow, Nora, he leaves a son, Alan, and two grandsons; all three are printers.

William Hughes, printer: born Hammerwich, Staffordshire 20 September 1912; married 1937 Nora Lock (one son); died Worcester 21 May 1996.