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19 Aug 2021

Keeping the craft alive at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

Written by Jack Conkie, Compositor at Robert Smail’s Printing Works
Rows of wooden letter blocks, used for printing, are lined up in special wooden cases.
Meet Jack Conkie, our compositor at Smail’s, who welcomes us into the world of the UK’s oldest working commercial letterpress printers.

I’ve known about Robert Smail’s Printing Works for most of my life. I’m from the local area and I remember coming here on school visits. On top of that, the printmaking process has always interested me. I have a master’s in fine art; I specialised in illustration and studied relief printing, including linocut, letterpress and engraving.

Robert Smail’s is different from other Trust places because we’re still using the historical collection every day for commercial jobs. We print a mixture of things, from wedding stationery to business cards, as well as greetings cards for our shop, all using the old techniques. My job as a compositor is to set the type.

“Some of the type we use is more than 100 years old – not so old compared to some of the things looked after by the Trust, but I love that it’s all still in use. It’s alive, in a way.”
Jack Conkie
Compositor at Robert Smail's Printing Works

Smail’s has substantial local history archives. A newspaper was produced here from 1893 until 1916, with the first edition promising it would not be ‘merely a medium for claptrap and gossip’. It was embedded in the area – the local history society often delves into our archives for research.

A wall in an old-style office, with green-painted shelves of all shapes and sizes which are stacked with a variety of boxes and bundles wrapped in brown paper and string. A single lightbulb hangs from the ceiling above.
On the shelves at Smail's: brown paper packages, tied up with string

The newspaper is only part of our archive. The Smail family didn’t throw anything away, and so we have ledgers, invoices, receipts, photographs and copies of all of the printed materials up to 1956.

We also run workshops – you don’t fully understand typesetting until you’ve had a day to play with it in one of our workshops!

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