Tapping into the newsmaking of yesteryear

READ ALL ABOUT IT! A machine installed at the newspaper office in Yarmouths Regent Street in the 195

READ ALL ABOUT IT! A machine installed at the newspaper office in Yarmouths Regent Street in the 1950s enabled late news and sports results to be added in a blank stop press column on the back page of the Eastern Evening News printed in Norwich - before it was distributed to shops and street vendors. Feeding the papers into the fudge press is Mercury compositor Sid Williamson (centre).Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

OCCASIONALLY I puzzle as to why most journalists working for the Yarmouth Mercury and its sister newspapers across Norfolk and into Suffolk postwar had to provide their own typewriters in our offices in the early years of my career in the mid-Fifties.

Management maintained that a typewriter was an essential tool of our trade, no different from many occupations where workers had to have their own tools. We were no different, said those on high whose secretaries tapped out their letters and memoranda on company machines.

In our head office in Norwich, company typewriters were used in the newsroom. But a stranger walking into any reporters’ offices from King’s Lynn in the west to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the east, and all the small towns where we had a presence, might well have been perplexed to see a hotch-potch of typewriters of all makes and vintages on our desks.

They were usually half-hidden by piles of old newspapers, the lethal “spike” through which we forcibly threaded cuttings and sheets of typescript and notes we needed to keep, overflowing ash-trays and half-empty cigarette packets, jam-jars of blunt pencils and useless pens, a bottle of gummed-up glue with a sticky-handled brush, outdated reference books...

In the Yarmouth office in Regent Street, Mercury chief reporter Ralph Sherwin-White – long-standing author of the outspoken Scout column - grappled with a second-hand typewriter that had once belonged to a bank and had an extra-wide carriage to accommodate what today would be called a spreadsheet. A vigorous return of the carriage meant one platen (roller) knob struck the side wall, the spot marked by cracked plaster and a hole relentlessly increasing in depth.

Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News reporter Peter Bagshaw rattled along furiously on an unusual ancient three-bank portable that did not have a standard QWERTY keyboard like that on other typewriters and today’s computers. When a teleprinter was installed to link us with head office in Norwich for faster communication, he briskly typed his copy on his out-of-sync three-bank museum piece...but then slowed down as he retyped it on the new technology’s QWERTY layout.

Teleprinters had no lower-case letters, only capitals, and no correction facility – you typed half a-dozen XXXXXXs to indicate the mis-type’s location and continued with the right version. Nonetheless, Peter never missed a deadline which, in the case of the EDP and EEN, could be in a few minutes’ time.

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When I became a trainee reporter at Yarmouth in 1955, I bought on the never-never a swish Remington Quiet-Riter portable typewriter, grey dimpled metallic and not the conventional black, with modern squarish green plastic keys - similar to those on computers - rather than the circular shiny-edged sort. I loved it.

Regularly I lugged it on the bus between home and office, but although it was undoubtedly portable, it was heavy because the carrying case was over-sized and wooden. Later Remington introduced a lightweight case shaped to updated machines.

The main thing was, I could work at a fair old pace on that elegant machine, having learned to touch-type and use all fingers and thumbs and not just one finger on each hand. That was at secretarial evening classes at Yarmouth Technical College on Lichfield Road before I did National Service and then entered journalism.

First we had a woman tutor, I recall, then a man, Cleveland Campbell, to whose family home in Bernard Road in Gorleston I had delivered greengrocery orders on my clunky trade-bike from Fred and Ivy Mitchell’s Bells Road shop when I was their errand boy.

I remember those classes clearly, despite the passage of 60-plus years. There were only two of us lads among a score of teenage girls anxious to become secretaries or office workers. We novices poised our eight fingers above the “home keys” (asdf ;lkj) awaiting an old gramophone special record to announce scratchily: “Begin after six taps!”

Whereupon staccato “music” would play a steady beat, we students hopefully keeping time, striving to return our fingertips to those home keys after every single stroke while copying accurately the exercise sentences on the desk beside us without looking at the keyboard itself. Vaguely I recall tutors sometimes covering each key with a little cap so we were typing blind.

Another evening I went to that night-school to learn Pitman’s Shorthand, also an essential requisite for an aspiring journalist.

Recently I could not help thinking back to my pre-computer years in press offices when I read a national newspaper report (headlined “Last writes”) about the closure of the only surviving typewriter factory in Britain, ending a 130-year era. The Brother plant in Wales had produced nearly six million machines but apparently computers have replaced typewriters in Europe although they are still popular in the United States, the Far East supplying its demands.

My final few years in journalism involved using computers (provided by the company, not individually by staff) after a worrying fortnight’s training during which I doubted if I would ever master these new skills, a fear exacerbated by being with young colleagues who had been taught IT at school. The word “dinosaur” often came to mind as I struggled to remember whether to click my mouse once or twice...

After retiring from full-time journalism in the Nineties, I continued to write this column on my Remington Quiet-Riter portable at home in Peggotty’s Hut, using a piece of carbon paper (“What’s that?”, a younger reader might well ask) so I had a copy if the original got lost. The columns were delivered by hand to the Mercury editor each week or two.

Then, inevitably, I acquired a computer, grumbled that it was controlling me rather than me being in charge of it, but got the hang of it. Now Through the Porthole and its scanned illustrations are emailed direct to the Mercury editor...subject, of course, to the occasional glitch and vows never to touch or trust another computer because of that helpless feeling and frustration factor.

My Remington Quiet-Riter portable? It was relegated to the loft and probably still languishes there, smothered under glass-fibre attic insulation.