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24 September 2014

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You are in: Somerset > History > Like father like son: Purnell's printing firm was a family affair

Douglas at his typing station

Staff had seven days holiday per year

Like father like son: Purnell's printing firm was a family affair

Douglas Barnett volunteers at Radstock Museum showing people around the exhibits. As one of the longest serving members of Purnell's printing company his story is also worth documenting.

By the mid 1800s printing had taken over from mining as the dominant occupation in Paulton. Although mining continued in the wider area until the 1970s, the last pit in the village closed down in 1864.

In 1839, in the heart of the old coal mining community, Charles Dando Purnell established what was to become Europe's biggest printing firm.

Chapter one

A strict Methodist, his main aim was to alleviate the poverty and unemployment caused by the reduction in mining and closure of Flook's boot factory in Paulton.

The company passed from father to son until in 1924 Charles' youngest son Clifford brought in Wilfred Harvey, an accountant, to help out. The company rapidly expanded and more members of Mr Harvey's family were recruited.

At this time Purnell printed bills, books and postcards. In 1908 it produced a postcard to commemorate the Norton Hill mining disaster in which ten men died.

The rapid expansion meant the company needed to raise more capital for machinery. Clifford and Wilfred asked their own members of staff for cash loans. They raised £6,000 in this way, which gave the staff a sense of ownership and ensured loyalty to the firm.         

A matrix die case

Douglas saved some items when he left

At this time Douglas Barnett's father was employed as a machine minder. Douglas has early childhood memories of being sent into Purnell’s factory to bring his father hot tea and cake, when he was working overtime.   

Following in his father's footsteps

His father worked for Purnell for 41 years and Douglas was determined to follow in his footsteps as soon as he could.

He said: “I think I just saw what he did and wanted to do the same. My father didn’t approve of us working in the same department, so he got me a job as an apprentice key board operator.” 

At its height Purnell employed around 2,000 staff and on 2 November, 1942, Douglas began a seven year apprenticeship. He was 14, had just left school and was getting paid £1.06 per week.

“Back in those days you had to sign up to all sorts of terms and conditions. It’s written into my indenture that I will not play cards or enter a public tavern for the whole seven years.

“Well I signed it, but of course I didn’t live by it.  All the boys used to play cards of an evening. But you had to make sure no-one saw you betting in public places.”

Douglas' apprenticeship contract

He wishes he'd kept more printing paraphanalia

He lived seven minutes walk from the factory and would pop home for a cooked dinner at mid-day. Douglas started at 8am and was home for tea at 6pm. 

“I had an hour lunch break and my mum used to cook meat and vegetables. Then in the evening we would have tea and cakes for supper.”   

A career is born

He started off in the composing room and worked his way up to key board operator. It was a noisy environment but Douglas learnt to raise his voice above the whirr of the machines. When the process went digital in the 1950s he recalls it being ‘deadly silent’.

The trickiest text he ever had to type was a version of the Bible in Swahili and Norwegian. It was the era of hot metal printing and the work was very labour intensive. A single mistake within a paragraph would require the whole sheet to be reset.

The Methodist ethos and the family run environment promoted strong staff loyalty and enduring friendships between workers.

Douglas said: “I made lots of friends at Purnell’s.
“Of course a lot of them have died now but there are still one or two around. George, one very good friend of mine, still lives in Paulton. He worked with me as a keyboard operator and is coming up to 93.”

As Douglas made his living from his hands, he was forced to take good care of them, much to his annoyance.

“I loved cricket but I could never allow myself to play in case I damaged one of my fingers.

Letters from the key bank

The keys Douglas used for 42 years

“The only exception was at company sports days and crickets days, when the whole family was invited down. But there was no sick pay in those days, so one accident and that would have been it for me. I wouldn’t have been able to work.

“Young people today don’t know they’re born. There was no such thing as stress in my day or this repetitive strain injury you hear about now. You just got on with it and you managed.”

Life without print

An unintended consequence of reading millions of pages over almost half a century is that Douglas has no interest in reading now whatsoever.

“I used to read lots of adventure novels, but now I prefer to listen to the radio or watch TV. I just have no desire to read a book. Occasionally I will look at a magazine but not very often. I suppose that’s what comes of reading for a living.”
The work rate shot up with the development of digital printing techniques in the 50's but mass redundancies didn’t take place until Robert Maxwell took over in the 70’s. 

Douglas’ department shrunk from 45 to just nine virtually overnight and around 700 jobs were axed. The employment situation in Paulton had become as dire as it was when Charles Dando Purnell established the company back in 1839.

Douglas said: “It was devastating for Paulton. It was the major employer and whole families were being laid off. Sometimes all the men in one family would be made unemployed.

“Paulton was a small village and everyone knew everyone else. It was terrible. A lot of men never went back to work again. They only kept me on because I had been there for so long.”

The end

For Douglas, the nature of printing had changed forever. The era of the family run business he had known as an apprentice, where he called his masters by their first name, was at an end.

Douglas Barnett, Radstock museum volunteer

Douglas has given his collection to the museum

He was given a standard silver tray and sherry set for completing 25 years service and retired in 1985 without ceremony after 42 years. When Douglas left he took a few items he had used throughout his career. He has since handed them over to the museum collection. 

Printing must be in the Barnett genes though because Douglas' son has also entered the printing trade as a digital collator. Apprenticeships were scarce when he joined. He never worked for Purnell, but got a job in Midsomer Norton.

last updated: 14/04/2008 at 21:19
created: 14/04/2008

You are in: Somerset > History > Like father like son: Purnell's printing firm was a family affair

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