Press & media
Griffiths, Dennis (1 of 6). Oral History of the British Press
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newspaper production; newspaper history; journalists
Interviewee's home, Cornwall
Griffiths, Dennis, 1933-2015 (speaker, male)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 1: Dennis Griffiths [DG] was born in 1933 in Swansea. His father worked for the South Wales Evening Post, for whom he sold copies during the First World War. He worked for 70 years on the same paper, partly as a stonehand, becoming a senior shop steward. He was always interested in racing and betting. Although he was offered better jobs, DG’s mother would never leave Swansea DG had a sister and a brother. Claude Morris bought the press. They had one plant for 20 weeklies. DG went to see CM in Welbeck Street later. [9:28] DG went to Terrace Road Primary School. He remembers war being declared and the docks being bombed. He had diphtheria and he and his brother sheltered under the bed in hospital. The centre of the city was devastated by bombs. When DG was 10, he went to Swansea Grammar school and got his leaving certificate at age 14. After being offered (but refusing) a job with the Western Mail as a junior reporter aged 15, he became an apprentice for the Evening Post in 1949, composing, making up the front and back pages. In 1952, aged 18 he went on the linotype, and took over when someone died. [13:51] DG’s mother’s family came from Dublin, her father was a member of the Swansea Labour party, a quiet man. One of DG’s aunts was beautiful and Hitler and dated his officers. DG played lots of cricket and football while growing up. His father was a steward at Swansea races, but DG never gambled. [18:38] The paper had three editions a day, with the late news being revamped. It was produced in the castle building. They had a five day week on a rota system. DG’s sister was 14 years older and his brother 7 years older than he, so that by the time he was 14 he was the only one at home. They went to Burton-on-Trent for holidays sometimes, and by the time DG was 18 he was going to Butlins. He went to the cinema three times a week, and used the public library. English and history were his favourite subjects. [28:14] At the newspaper, dealing with the type was like a jigsaw, with 80 different pockets. Learning, it would be tipped up for the apprentice to sort back into its right place, with the aid of a chart, till they had it in mind. Then they could put their hand on the right letter. Every paper was done like this at the time. They could do 60 words a minute. [34:14] This was a provincial evening paper. Copy was collected overnight and 80% of it used. The sub editor set the style of the house. More details of the works sequence. For sports linotype you had to know the name spellings. With 40 years service they knew the people, errors are made by newcomers now. Heavy metal plates were made by the foundry. This process was used till the 1970s. [40:22] The editorial department was on the first floor. National news came in to the wire room over the teleprinter. There was the smell of food and cigarette smoke. There were three presses, and vans for deliveries. About 60 to 100 people would be working there. [43:10] There was war between proprietors in the late 1920s. Northcliff had a chain of 8 regional evening newspapers. People did not transfer between them very much, communication was not good. [48:16] They would heat their meat pies on the hot metal pot. More details of the process. DG was earning £12 a week, which was good money, £7 was average. [51:39] The apprentices used a dummy key board till they knew it backwards. They could work the type upside down. There was a guild of young printers, the Typographical Association outside London, or the London Typographical Society. [56:34] DG has had a close link with the unions for 40 years. There were many unions involved when he was building the Jersey plant later. Jersey came under Cardiff regionally. The National Graphical Association [NGA] were formed from an amalgamation. The craft unions were generally honest guys. Story. And story of changing page one of the Post. [1:03:08] The day started at 8 am and they worked till 5pm with an hour for lunch and a ten minute break morning and afternoon. For the last edition they waited for the cricket score at 4.45 pm and any new late racing tips. Stories. [1:08:40] After war time bombing, the paper had to be produced 20 miles away by their rivals, and they came back to Swansea afterwards. There were many tragedies during wartime. The famous open air market was blitzed. DG’s family were evacuated to the country. They did have good food there. Montgomery came to visit their grammar school in 1945. [1:17:33] Through DG’s apprenticeship, he delayed going into the army, and finally went into the Royal Signals, where they wanted compositors. It was excellent. He was at Catterick for 9 months, where he learnt a new trade with keyboard and wireless. Then he went to the Canal Zone where he played cricket for the regiment. They did training in the Red Sea. There were quiet periods and he learnt shorthand and French. He went to Cyprus for the new operation, about 2000 of them, and 40 girls. They sent messages in Murray code, which was a very good training. An incident recalled. He was demobbed just before the Suez crisis, and spent his last 2 nights in Nicosia. Story of having to send death notices of 18 British soldiers. Story of his last night on guard duty in Nicosia. DG liked the discipline of the army. Public school boys got on better because they were used to dormitories. DG learnt to touch type at 60 words a minute [1:30:18] Back in Swansea as a linotype operator, he had one week in six off, doing a 44 hour week for £14. He caught up with his grammar school pals, went to the casino in Mumbles and the cinema. [1:34:06] He met Liz, his future wife, at dances, and she was working in Barclays Bank. They were married two and a half years later. DG saw a job advertised at the News Chronicle in London, with King and Hutchings [K&H] and started on 5 October 1960. He got £13 a week with a £2 bonus, working Saturdays with Sundays as overtime, a 60 hour week. [1:40:02] They published other papers too around the world. He was selected to represent the union and did an NGA course for a week. Then one day he had an urgent call from Liz, went home, and while he was there the plant had burnt down. Nine months later Liz saw an advertisement for an assistant production manger for the Evening Standard and he got the job. Circulation was 650,000 and they did six editions [1:48:23] In Wales his parents would rather he stayed at home. Meanwhile working for K&H they found a house in Hillingdon, oak panelled 1930s for 5 guineas a week. Charlie Gordon at K&H gave them £50 for the deposit. DG was earning £40 a week. Their baby Mark had been born. They bought the house for the asking price of £5,500. [1:53:46] Then Jane was born. K&H were slick. CG was a good manager. They did the New York Herald Tribune satellite. CG had a bad heart, he gave a leg up to many young people [1:58:14] Technically they were ahead. Details. They also had a work study department. DG was doing an A level in history in his spare time. There were never any disputes at K&H [2:02:04] They did sporting results and property queries. He went to the theatre and played cricket for Middlesex seconds. Sir Frank Barlow from the Daily Mirror came to take over at K&H [2:06:21] Liz met other young mothers at Uxbridge. It was a dreamy market town with kind people. They had the last smog in London. The plant was five minutes away, and they normally had clean air in Uxbridge. [2:10:35] DG left K&H but met them all round the country later. DG remembers going to London to see the Man of La Mancha and knew that he wanted to work in Fleet Street. When he got to the Evening Standard he was overseeing men, all of the NGA. Word of mouth had got through from the Father of the Chapel (union shop steward) that he was one of them. The 1960s were a fabulous atmosphere. They had very good writers, Milton Schulman, Max Hastings, Mary Kenny, Valerie Grove, Janet Street-Porter among others. [2:16:12] The first edition, with racing went out at 11 am, and the pubs opened then. Story. The football edition went out at Saturday 12 noon. DG discovered the City of London by walking around, then at 4.30 pm the paper was buzzing again, and they had a sort of bingo board with results. Details of the process of production which was fantastic. They could change page one speedily. [2:21:42] They did a work study in Fleet Street. The Evening News beat them getting the edition out. Jocelyn Stevens said “It won’t happen again”. Story of selling the ES outside the EN office to prove the point. One day, a Friday afternoon at 4 pm, there was a phone call from the chairman, Charles Wintour.[CW] DG flung his arms up in the machine room “Stop the presses!” The story that had just come in was of Greville Wynn defecting to Warsaw. But he hadn’t and their paper was the only one not to be sued. Shortly afterwards, Jocelyn Stephens [JS] called them in to say that he was going to gamble about the man landing successfully on the moon. Colour took longer to produce, and they made up the paper on the Thursday before the landing on the Monday. [2:28:07] When they started to use colour they were printing 1.2 million copies and 11 editions It was an exciting day and champagne was opened. Story about getting free bottles of Booths gin, and having to get rid of it before the police found it.
Life story interview with journalist and newspaper historian Dennis Griffiths