After leaving the Art School at the Technical College I spent half my time working for my father, writing signs and generally assisting when called upon and the other half working for Walter Rowland who ran a very good graphic art business called Illustra Signs. In the early thirties neon signs were for New York and London, they had not yet reached the East Midlands.
The Illustra Sign was a large metal casing fitted with illustrated glass panels illuminated from the inside by light bulbs; the case suspended on heavy brackets jutting out from the establishment it was intended to advertise. They were beautiful pieces of work and many were sold but being expensive to buy and operate the market was limited.
The bread and butter of the company was supplying cheap weekly handwritten posters in various sizes to local cinemas within a radius of seven miles. I learnt my trade in dashing out huge fifteen foot by thirty-foot garish posters in double quick time for very little money. They were bill posted late on a Saturday night and renewed with a different message on the hoardings around the town. The villages managed with somewhat smaller posters but I well remember a series of three sheet posters sixty inches high by thirty wide hand painted were supplied at one shilling and sixpence each that is seven and half pence in today’s currency. In 1935 it was the going rate.
The voice of Kate Emma Barlow Hill in 1937
The voice of Robert Eric Hill in 1937
Eventually I worked full time for Walter and enjoyed learning the various skills of cut-outs and art work with gun and spray brush used in window display which were then being used by the larger shops and stores on special occasions. The business flourished – a van and an outside salesman helped boost the sales. The brother-in-law of Walter Rowland, Bert Oaksford built a fifteen hundred-seat cinema, the Plaza with restaurant and every updated facility. A boost for a big advertising campaign. This triggered more posters, highlighting his others cinemas, the Hippodrome and the cinemas in Sutton the Kings and the Queens.
But the bubble burst. Bert Oaksford had been too successful. Other eyes were scouting the lucrative Midlands town. But his cinemas were not for sale. However there were many and devious ways in which things could be made to happen. Bert Oaksford began to find he was unable to hire the better films he needed to attract customers particularly for the splendid new cinema the Plaza. Film hire rates shot up to ridiculously high percentages. Good films were in short supply. The film travellers were fixed, feted, wined and dined but to little avail. Bert fell into a silly trap when one of the travellers suggested he double run a major film. Start it at the Plaza and two reels later pop reel one in a car, ferry it across town and begin showing it at the Hippodrome – that way he could fill both cinemas with one excellent film for the price of one hire. He did this for several weeks until he found himself up before the high court and went down for six months for fraud.
Before his sentence the Bernstein brothers appeared and made an offer that could not be refused. By the time Bert came out of jail the cinemas were going over to the Bernstein circuit. The Plaza was renamed the Granada.
Walter Rowland saw the writing on the wall and bought a large double fronted Regency style house in Northumberland Place, Teignmouth. In the large back yard he fixed up a studio and set up in business whilst his wife ran part of the house for selected “paying guests”. For a while I went down to Devon to work for him but I longed to return to my hometown and friends. Walter wanted to be rid of Illustra Signs but the lease of the building was not negotiable. Although I bought the business and the title from him for a song – he almost gave it to me I found to my dismay I could not find suitable premises. I found a printer in Woodhouse who had a very good light and airy studio – unused – on the top floor of his printing works. He didn’t want to let it but he made a deal with me – I sold him the business (I kept the title) and he employed me on a steady salary to be reviewed when business reached certain points.
At eighteen I decided a steady salary was worthwhile. I didn’t earn a fortune for the first year – some £130 – but I could live on it and each year the harder I worked the greater my salary grew. I knew he was making very little profit from me because I kept check on output and had a first hand knowledge of the day-to-day costs.
I had been working at E. L. Thomas and Son, for six months when I decided I needed an apprentice. I could work better and much quicker with an apprentice to teach and who could do the rough filling in. Owen Thomas was the son and printer, his mother was E. L. she ran the old established stationery shop in the village square and kept a tight reign on the purse strings. But the apprentice idea was agreed even welcomed. I knew a bright lad named Laurence Brindley who lived at Edwinstowe. He soon settled in and became a good writer. His graphic work was undeveloped but he was an asset on plain posters.
It was about this time a good order was obtained from Frank Williams for his families’ small circuit of village cinemas. This brought me into contact with Frank and his family. I formed a friendship with him and his wife Ella that lasted until her death when Frank remarried and went to live on the south coast.
I would often deliver on a Saturday afternoon last minute posters and canopy streamers to the big house in Gilcroft Street from which the cinema companies were run and where old man Williams, his gentle and hard working wife and his unwed daughter lived in some seclusion. Well the old man did anyway, he seldom left the house and for almost ten years never did. He had been a clerk for a firm of solicitors and colliery agents and had amassed a large string of properties that he rented at fair but regular rents. This income allowed him to live well and also invest in the early silent up and coming picture houses. He had two in town and three in outlying colliery villages.
Although I had finished work, for in those days we worked on Saturday mornings until twelve o’clock, and I was ready for my midday meal, I could not resist talking with the old man who was an ardent communist. My father’s politics were blue, but he had hidden beliefs or I should say, distractions for I prefer to think he had no deep convictions in the Third Reich even though he accepted without remark splendid copies of Freude und Arbeit until 1939.
Old E. D. Williams had a squeaky high-pitched laugh that tailed off into a giggle. It was this that managed to allow me to listen and at times present my views on his dissertations of the attractions and virtues of Soviet Communism. It seemed so unreal I looked forward to our weekly chat whilst his wife and my mother were fretting because our respective meals were getting cold.
These weekly chats took place in the middle living room. The front drawing room I never entered, I suspected all the heavy furniture was shrouded in dustsheets. The large handsome dining room filled with a large table and matching chairs seemed unused for years. On the one occasion I was taken into the room by Nora years later after the war, to talk to her father about finance one could not move for books ledgers and the like. The middle living room was warm, cosy and always smelled of baking bread.
Mrs E. D. seemed to spend her life cooking. E. D. would wield an unlit pipe, dripping shreds of tobacco ineffectively use a myriad paper spills in attempts to gain combustion whilst standing gesticulating and issuing forth in his high pitched voice and giggle whilst I stood first on one leg and then the other. I must have been fascinated or mad to endure such treatment. Yet it did me no harm.
Later, Laurence would some times make the delivery on a Saturday if I were held back at the Studio. E. D. would entice him into a study of the world and communism and I suspect he had more joy out of Laurence than he did from teasing me. Laurence even though quite young was less serious than me and could cut and thrust and present spurious facts to enliven and enrich his argument which I am sure appealed to the old man who never went out, never visited his cinemas, but read and wrote all day long.
But came the day, 3rd September 1939. I read the news poster whilst riding to work. I had a decision to make, and having done so felt quite calm and at ease.