"A large printing house can be an enlarged version of the master printer's office of the good old days…" (Company brochure, 1963)
At the heart of Aldershot life for more than a century, we explore the history of printers Gale and Polden, from its earliest days through to the turbulent take-over by Robert Maxwell. Despite becoming one of the largest military printers in the country, and one of Aldershot's leading employers, Gale and Polden retained its traditional family-run atmosphere.
Howard Cole was military sales manager at Gale and Polden for more than thirteen years after the Second World War. He was himself author of a number of the firm's military titles as well as 'The Story of Aldershot', one of the first histories of the town. This short history, tracing the development of Gale and Polden from its' early days in Chatham, Kent, was written by him and offered to Ernest Polden, the managing director, for publication. It was never published and this is the first time it has been reproduced.
It is fitting that the House of Gale and Polden should have been founded within the sound of the bugles from Brompton Barracks at Chatham. It was here, in 1868 that James Gale opened his shop, at No 1 High Street, Old Brompton, to commence trading as a Bookseller. It was not long, however, before James Gale began to increase the scope of his business. He acquired his first printing press, which he set up in a wooden shed in the garden at the rear of his house. His personal contacts with the Headquarters of the Chatham Military District bore fruit and his first major printing contract was the printing of the Garrison Directory.
It was but a short step to further expansion, and, in 1873, James Gale printed and published his first book entitled Campaign of 1870-1 The Operations of the Corps of General V. Werder by Ludwig Lohlein (late Captain 1st Baden Bodyguard Grenadier Regiment). The printing "works" was on quite a small scale and the plant, even for those days, could be described as primitive. It had just three hand presses and only enough metal type to print 16 pages at any one time. Gale's staff comprised three compositors, a bookbinder, a die stamper and three boys. Mrs Gale managed the book and stationery sales in the shop, assisted by one of the boys.
It was on the 29 September 1875 that James Gale took on his first apprentice. This was William T Nash, then a boy of fourteen, born and educated in Chatham. Nash lived to serve the Company for sixty-eight years. He rose to be Composing Room Overseer - a post he held for nearly forty years, until his death at the age of eighty-two in 1943. He was joined shortly afterwards by Thomas Ernest Polden a tall, active youth of sixteen. In the early 1880s James Gale extended his premises, and took over No. 3 High Street, formerly occupied by Ed. Barnes, a Dispensing Chemist.
By 1880 the bookselling side of the business was still flourishing. In publicising this service Mr Gale announced: "A selection of several hundreds of most modern and popular books will always be found in stock and, having made arrangements for receiving parcels from the principal London Houses daily, the book that should not happen to be in stock could be obtained immediately".
Gale was describing himself, in his advertisements, as "Printer, Bookseller, Stationer and Engraver". In one advertisement, printed on the inside cover of one of his own publications he "begged to announce that he was prepared to execute all kinds of Printing and Dispatch".
These developments were, in the main, due to the activities of T. Ernest Polden. He had graduated, from serving in the Bookshop, into the printing works where he gained a thorough knowledge of different printing processes by practical experience. It was not long before he was going out, visiting units in the garrison and ships in the Dockyard, and bringing back the orders. He travelled away from Chatham, to the garrisons at Gravesend, Dover, Canterbury, and then, even further a field, up and down the country, to bring the name and Gale and Polden before every Army Unit and Naval Establishment. In those days the range of subjects covered by official Army publications was extremely limited. Neither did Units receive supplies of official forms; record and account books. In most cases all the regimentals forms, such as Parade States, Ration Returns, Crime and Sick Reports, were completed by hand by the Orderly Room Staff.
It was here that Ernest Polden saw the potential for a specialist business. He had samples printed and suggested standardising forms, to be printed and marketed to meet Army requirements. The production of these printed forms met with universal approval and large orders resulted. This led to pressure on the small production unit and the wooden shed at the rear of No. 1 High Street became the scene of much activity. By then, the increasing business drove Mr & Mrs Gale to vacate their living accommodation above the shop, and they moved to Rochester. Their rooms being used to accommodate the Stamping, Binding and Ruling Departments, thereby giving more room in the garden shed for additional plant.
With the development of the Commercial printing side of the business, Mr Ernest Polden, who had by this time risen to be the dominant partner in the business, decided to establish a London Office. "A Company of our standing and associations", he declared "must have its centre in the hub of the Empire!" The business was increasing to such an extent that Mr Gale and Mr Polden were already examining the advisability of forming Gale & Polden into a limited liability Company, "and," said Mr Ernest "it must be registered in London!"
At that time the hub of the publishing world centred around Fleet Street, St Paul's Churchyard and Paternoster Row. It was in this area, bustling with the horse buses, hansom cabs and horse-drawn delivery vans, that Ernest Polden sought out a London Office for the growing Company. Here he found it, and, early in 1892, a brass plate bearing the inscription 'GALE & POLDEN', Printers, Publishers and Stationers was affixed to the wall at the office entrance to No. 2, Amen Corner.
At the outset the Company only occupied two rooms on the third floor but this was soon increased to four and gradually they were above to secure more accommodation until the entire building was taken over. In March 1892 the Company took over the basement and the ground floor. A retail and shop-cum-trade-counter and Reception Office came into being. The rather sombre yellow and brown walls of the shop were enlivened by framed copies of the brightly coloured wall sheets depicting the badges and crests, medals, colours and standards then recently published, whilst the shelves were filled with rows and rows of bright red cloth bound books of the Gale & Polden Military series.
To the new Offices, early in 1892, came Ernest Polden's younger brother, Russell Polden, who was then the General Manager of the North London Steam Tramways. "I need your help", said Mr Ernest, "this Company is growing, growing fast", "and what" asked Mr Russell "do you want me to do?" His elder brother looked at him - "Do?" his voice was raised, "go out and bring back orders!" "I see," replied Russell Polden, and out he went.
Out he went into the busy, thriving City; a City of ever expanding commercial enterprise; a City of top hats, frock coats and "pepper and salt" trousers; of bearded, hard, Victorian businessmen; a City jammed with horse-drawn traffic, and, he did bring back the orders. It was work of a different character than that previously handled by the Brompton Works.
At this time the Company were supplying upwards of 400 Canteens, 100 Officers' Messes, 200 Sergeants' Messes, and 250 Libraries, Recreation Rooms and Regimental Institutes throughout the services, and in addition had built up first-rate Commercial connections. The well-known Gale & Polden Military Series and other educational works were in use by Military Educational Department and by the London and other School Boards, and in the Colonial forces.
1892 marked a milestone in the Company's history. It was a prosperous year, and, on the 10th of November, the Company was incorporated as Gale & Polden Ltd. with a share capital of £30,000 in £5 shares. Exceptionally, for a business of this nature, the shares were offered widely to ordinary soldiers.
One of the first most vital and urgent matters to come before the Board was the proposal made by Ernest Polden to purchase land at Aldershot; build a new factory, and close the Brompton Works! The company had already acquired a small bookshop in Wellington Street, Aldershot but the decision to move the printing works to Aldershot was a momentous one. The choice of a suitable site in Aldershot for the building of the new factory did not present any difficulty, for T Ernest Polden had already seen a plot of land of sufficient size, and, in an ideal position near to the railway station.
The site he selected was but yards from the main station entrance, at the southwestern station corner of the crossroads formed by Station Road, Birchett road and The Grove. It was then a small market garden noted for its strawberry and watercress beds; with a small pond near the roadway used for watering the garden produce. The Grove - then known as The Grove Road - was one of the large private houses. A row of plane trees had been planted on the west side, whilst the east side was open grassland leading down to the railway sidings. Station Road was built up, and so was the north side of Birchett Road, but in the main these were small dwelling houses.
The site offered a commanding position, which would dominate the scene from the route from the station into the Town. Work proceeded apace and Ernest Polden was impatient to see the factory in operation. It was planned to complete one wing at a time, and it was intended to eventually have a four-sided building with a central courtyard, but first, the Grove wing was to be completed, then the Birchett Road wing, next the South wing and finally the Cavendish Road wing.
By September 1893 the Grove wing was complete, two high-powered gas engines with electrical generating plant were installed at the South End - and plans were made for its occupation. The larger machines were kept running at the Brompton Works right up to the last minute.
Speed was essential in order that the move could be effectively carried out with the least possible delay to production. At last all way ready. The machines at Brompton were stripped down, loaded into the Pickford's containers on horse-drawn drays, taken down to the Goods Siding at Chatham Station and sent through direct to Aldershot in special trucks. Unloaded in Aldershot Goods Siding they were brought across to The Grove, where they were lifted on gantries off the drays through the large windows facing The Grove and placed straight into position on the machine floor. The letterpress machines were in operation before the second floor was completed. As soon as each floor was ready for occupation it was immediately equipped with machinery and materials moved from Chatham. The Wellington Street shop was closed, and the business transferred to the new building.
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