A Binding Agreement: Life as an apprentice at Gale and Polden
Before the advent of computers, printing was a labour intensive industry. It took highly skilled people to arrange the type, operate the printing press and fold and bind the pages to produce a finished book, newspaper or magazine. It often took an apprentice between six and seven years to learn these skills.
When you became an apprentice, you also signed an indenture agreement. This was a legally binding contract between an apprentice and a printing firm. The apprentice agreed to serve his employer faithfully and the employer promised to teach the apprentice his trade.
As one of the largest employers in Aldershot, Gale and Polden took on many apprentices each year. In the first year, an apprentice could be earning as little as 15% of the average wage of a qualified man. Each year, his wage would rise steadily until he finally earned the same as a skilled craftsman.
Experiences of apprenticeship
David Phelps worked for Gale and Polden for eleven years. He joined the firm as an apprentice to the letterpress department when he left school in 1964. David explains what it was like:
"For the first few months after I joined, I made cups of tea for the older staff or cleaned the machines but, after a while, I started going to Guildford College with the other apprentices.
It was really hard work. I would work full days on the machines and then go off to college one day a week. We also had to go to college for one evening every week, which was the really hard bit. So, for six years whilst my friends were going out with money in their pocket, I was earning poor wages and going to college. The difference was that my wages would keep on going up and I knew in the long run I'd be far better off."
After his six years were up and David qualified, he was rewarded by being "banged out", as he explains:
"Being banged out was really embarrassing. I was covered in flour in the courtyard and all the other people in the letterpress department stopped work and started banging bits of furniture [a printers' nickname for pieces of wood or metal used to block out spaces in a frame of type] on the machines. It was a kind of ritual which everyone went through when they finished their apprenticeship and I do remember feeling a real sense of achievement."
Formal apprenticeship was limited to men but the many women who worked for Gale and Polden in the binding and finishing department were themselves very highly skilled. Joan Taylor worked in the firm's bindery for 34 years. She started work aged 14 after leaving school and remembers her informal apprenticeship:
"It took nearly nine years to learn all the finishing processes like paper folding, ribbon cutting and the like. I spent the first four years just watching the other women. I was a gopher, which meant I fetched the paint pots and made the tea, but all the time they would be telling me how to do certain things. After a few more years I became one of the experienced staff and then I got my own gopher - that was the way it worked."