A Lifetime in Hot Metal

Bill Harness has spent 40 years on the stone. Story: Janina Struk. Pictures: Philip Wolmuth

Bill Harness, the sole surviving hot metal compositor at Barnard & Westwood of London, is retiring in August after joining the family firm 42 years ago. He's been FOC for almost as long, but these days it's a bit difficult when you're the only one. 

Bill started his career in print at the age of 15. It wasn't a planned career: "I didn't know what I wanted to do but when I got into printing I never wanted to do anything else", he says.

It was as an apprentice at Harold Trills of Camden, north London, at the age of 18, that Bill first joined the union, then the LTS (London Typographical Society). "In the days of the closed shop it seemed part of the job to become a union member but I knew it was a strong union and I wanted to join". But to his dismay, during a strike at the company lasting several weeks, he was not allowed, as an indentured apprentice, to join the dispute. "There was no bad feeling from the other workers; they just told us not to be too enthusiastic at work", he says smiling.

A year after he became a qualified compositor, Bill moved to Barnard & Westwood's letterpress printing works at Winchmore Hill, north London. It was here that in the 1960s, as FOC, he led the chapel in a dispute over pay and conditions which lead to a six week strike. But in 1984, Winchmore Hill closed, he was given the option of redundancy or a choice of two jobs at the Kings Cross plant: compositor or assistant to the managing director. Naturally, Bill chose the former. "Even though the assistant to the MD meant an improvement in wages, that wasn't my main consideraton. I didn't want to work in an office. I was quite happy and knew I would have more job satisfaction being a comp" 

Barnard & Westwood, general promotional printers and one of the very few printshops still using sheet-fed letterpress, was established in 1921. Current managing director Austen Kopley's grandfather bought into the firm in 1940. His son then became a director, until his death three years ago, and now Austen Kopley and his mother, also a director, jointly own the firm. 

With 15 per cent of their business still in hot metal, Austen and Bill agree that there are still some things that can be done better and more economically by letterpress. Some of their customers prefer the old method. 

But there are fewer workers with letterpress skills. "If it was necessary we would consider training someone in letterpress but, with job prospects and opportunities limited, few young people would be interested", Austen says. 

Bills applies the same clarity and straightforwardness to his forthcoming retirement as he has to his work. "I've built up to my retirement. I could continue to work if I wanted to but I've always known that I would retire at 65. That has been my deadline". Besides, he already has other thing planned for the autumn: bowls, fishing, gardening, and a return to the Allotment Committee in Enfield, still his home.

Bill will be missed by all his colleagues, not least Austen, whose age is less than Bill's years of service with the firm. "We'll miss him for his craftsmanship, attention to detail and cheerful disposition", he says. 

But Bill is modest about his work achievements: 'I've had a very ordinary life as a comp and I've been happy to do it. I wouldn't have changed anything and I'm contented with what I've done. As far as I'm concerned, that sums it all up"

© Janina Struk, 1998