Ray recalls night town was bombed

Ray Blackburn with photographs taken inside the Free Press 'works'. Photo (TIM WILSON): SG220312-120TW
Ray Blackburn with photographs taken inside the Free Press 'works'. Photo (TIM WILSON): SG220312-120TW
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“STOP the press!” are words Ray Blackburn won’t quickly forget from the time it was he who had blundered and realised the pages of the Lincolnshire Free Press were being printed in the wrong sequence.

In fact Ray (86), of Park Road, Spalding, has forgotten very little of his 51 years in the newspaper print industry, starting as an errand boy aged 14.

Free Press printers Arthur Evans and Les Fiddies on aeroplane watch during an air raid, when the rest of the staff would head to the shelter until the all-clear was sounded. Photo: SG220312-121TW

Free Press printers Arthur Evans and Les Fiddies on aeroplane watch during an air raid, when the rest of the staff would head to the shelter until the all-clear was sounded. Photo: SG220312-121TW

He can describe in great detail the old method of relief printing or hot metal printing, when the print industry was littered with enchanting words, such as “nuts and muttons” to refer to the spaces between words compiled in metal letters in a printer’s stick.

Learning to set type was the first thing Ray did when he joined the jobbing department at the Free Press “works”, or the place where the old presses were operated off Gore Lane, although he was actually employed as a compositor machine monitor.

His first job at the Free Press in 1939 could be described as lowly, with the promise of a job as errand boy once he left school at 14 providing he worked after school and on Saturdays in the meantime.

“They wanted someone to start right away because the boy who was doing the job was going into the boys’ section of the Royal Navy on HMS Ganges,” explained Ray, who is married to Mary.

“I didn’t fancy being an errand boy but in those days you did what your parents told you.

“They said at the end of 12 months as an errand boy I would be offered an apprenticeship as a printer in the works.”

In those days the Free Press had a shop in Hall Place selling national newspapers and magazines and stationery as well as the local newspaper.

It was Ray’s job to go to the shop manager’s house first thing to collect the shop keys.

He would then cycle to the railway station to collect the daily newspapers, which be brought back to the shop before leaving for his paper round.

After 12 months Ray was offered a five-year apprenticeship in the “works”, a place he can remember in detail, from the “stoke hole”, or the big furnace fired by coke and used for heating and hot water, to the enormous wheel used to drive the print machinery in the works.

There were two presses, the Hoe rotary press used for the three editions of the Free Press that were printed on Monday afternoons, and the other press for commercial jobs, such as leaflets for the Regent Cinema in Spalding.

Ray still has the fist lino type bearing his name that he made to learn how to set type, and points to the way the letters read back to front in the old relief print method.

“You always read the print upside down and the printers got so used to it you could only read upside down,” says Ray, who was involved in printing envelopes, letter headings and even over-printing cheques with companies’ details.

Again, a mistake could be costly as each cheque cost 2d so errors had to be reported to the bank and the cheque cancelled.

Ray spent a total of 35 years at the Free Press in Spalding – apart from a spell in the RAF – before transferring to Peterborough with the paper’s then owner, Emap.

However, in 1940 Ray joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and it was while he was on duty that Spalding was bombed and much of the town was set alight.

Ray has memories of pumping water at High Bridge and going down the Crescent to the Liberal Club, formerly in the Free Press building, and seeing flames coming through the eaves.

He went down Gore Lane and discovered the works and warehouse were on fire.

In Hall Place, Penningtons was ablaze and Ray helped a policeman throw sandbags on to incendiaries that had fallen in the street.

“As a young boy, you don’t realise the danger,” confesses Ray.

“I walked further through the town and Woolworths was ablaze.

“I was just about to go over when all of a sudden there was a whistle and the fireman dropped to the ground because incendiaries were flying all over the place.”

Later, there was more whistling and five bombs were dropped between Stonegate and Welland Road, causing widespread destruction and a number of deaths. Ray knows he was lucky to escape with his life that night, and to be able to continue his career in the relative safety of the the nuts and muttons of the print industry.