Peer-to-peer learning was in action at the Forbury recently when local historian, Arthur Davis, dropped in to share his local knowledge. Sprightly though he is, Arthur is no spring chicken at 91. He has boundless energy, however, and he entertained us all with his tales – and pictures – of old Leominster.
Today, Arthur lives in the same pretty black and white cottage near Kimbolton that he bought with his late wife, Sheila. While this has been his home for the last 41 years, he comes with a strong Leominster lineage that reaches back to three generations of proud tradesmen: father was fishmonger, poulterer and fruiterer, other brothers of his father were respectively, a plumber, butcher, painter and decorator and a tailor, all running their own businesses in the town, and a sister, Dorothy, a former town beauty Queen. But Arthur and his older brother, Percy, were a little different and went into the thriving printing trade serving indentured apprenticeships.
Arthur said: “My father pressed me to ‘go get a trade’, so I joined the Leominster News as an apprentice printer.”
“A Thursday night was when the Leominster News would be ready, hot off the presses. There would be crowds waiting at the back door of the printing works eager to get their hands on the paper.”
All that remains of those newspaper glory days can be seen in the Leominster Tourist Office in Corn Square. Next time you pass the entrance look closely: it still says: Leominster News in the glass on one of the doors.
Arthur was aged 15-years-old when he first set foot into the noisy print room of the Leominster News for the start of his 6-year apprenticeship. He had little idea he would eventually retire from the print trade 55 years later. It was older brother, Percy, who had also been an apprentice at the Leominster News that gave him the desire to go into printing.
He said: “For my first year I was given a broom and encouraged to get to know my way around the print room, looking over people shoulders chatting and learning what they were doing. It was the best way to learn in those days.
“On other occasions, I would run errands for the older men, sometimes running up to the bakery to grab Chelsea buns from Pewtress’ on Broad Street and hiding them away from the boss under my jersey when I returned.”
Other times he bought snuff for the men at Brewster’s tobacconist shop in Drapers Lane. Snuff was an antidote to wave off the desire to smoke cigarettes which was banned throughout all parts of the printing office.
“Crowds would converge on the Corn Square office when the paper was published on Thursday afternoons at around 6pm. Leominster News was the priority paper, and the main source of news for local people was their paper. The business also had a large stationers shop in Draper’s Lane.
“It was always greeted with great interest. If there had been a big event in the town, like Mayor Making or a fascinating court case, the crowd would be even bigger, enough to fill Corn Square, all of them waiting for the paper to emerge. Bundles would be passed out to various newsagents, who would be waiting to sell from the steps at the alleyway of the works entrance by the side of Wetherspoons, at that time it was the main post office.”
In the years leading up to the war, most of Leominster was without electricity, with the streets lit by gaslight. As an apprentice, Arthur would take turns to stoke the huge coke boiler that served as the works central heating system.
As a second-year apprentice, Arthur, had earned the privilege of going to the Leominster magistrates court that used to stand in Burgess Street, with one of the newspaper’s reporter.
“Court proceedings took place on a Thursday, which was also our print day. I went with the reporter, who would speed write then I would creep out with the report and run up to to the works in Corn Square and hand over the court report to the linotype operatives so they could carry on setting for the afternoon print run. Then I would run back to the court and collect another lot of notes. It was quite exciting and kept you very fit.”
Printing was a reserve occupation during WWII and Arthur could have served out the conflict at home bringing news to the town. But, with his two brothers, including Percy, away fighting, Arthur wanted to ‘do his bit’ and soon joined up when he reached the age of 18. After the war, he rejoined Leominsters News again.
Many of the old photographs Arthur brought in prompted a lot of discussion. One in particular caught the eye of C, 96. It pictured a line of young women outside Woolworths. Among them was Dorothy, Arthur’s sister. C, 96, surprised Arthur when she said she had known Dorothy as a young woman. An exchange of questions, and it quickly became clear that our visiting historian had known C’s late husband. There was further surprise when she revealed she had once bought a treadle sewing machine from his late wife.
You couldn’t make any of this up.
Picture of Arthur Davis courtesy of photographer Christopher Preece.