Memories of the Gazette’s place in town story

Linotype machines like this one were used in the first half of the 20th century to create hot metal type for newspapers all over the country
Linotype machines like this one were used in the first half of the 20th century to create hot metal type for newspapers all over the country

In response to recent reports about the Gazette’s long association with Hemel Hempstead town centre after the paper’s departure from its historic base in Marlowes, Jennifer Honour – whose grandfather became the title’s owner in 1901, has contributed her own memories:

‘The abolition of the newspaper tax in 1855 opened the gates for the establishment of daily and weekly local newspapers all over the country.

Frederick Mason published the first Hemel Hempstead Gazette, with a cover price of 1½d, in 1858.

It was later claimed to be the second oldest newspaper in the county.

Mr Mason was a general printer at 83 High Street, when the Sun Inn was at No. 81.

The building is now occupied by accountancy firm Hicks & Co, with the original carriage arch now leading to Sun Square.

At some point the Gazette moved offices to 3 Alexandra Road to the property which later became H G Gibbons, Heating Engineers.

This site is now occupied by the head office of oil and gas pipeline experts BPA, and there is still a small open space that was part of the original yard.

The Hertfordshire, Hemel Hempstead Gazette and West Herts Advertiser had a population of more than 100,000 people within the radius of its circulation.

Posters, handbills, book work, cards, note heads, billheads, cheques, reports, sermons, rules, addresses, circulars, programmes, tickets, pamphlets and memorial cards all featured on its jobbing printing list.

That was in 1901, when my grandfather Edgar Needham purchased the newspaper.

He previously had an advertising agency with an office at 142 Fleet Street, London.

At the age of 32 and already the father of five children, it must have been quite an exciting challenge for him to move his family from the relatively countrified Walthamstow to the small market town of Hemel Hempstead to run a newspaper.

He made a success of the business and three years later, on October 1, 1904, he founded the Berkhamsted Gazette and Tring and District News with the first office in Lower Kings Road, Berkhamsted.

The Needham home was the Red House in Alexandra Road, where the family grew to a total of nine children.

However, great sadness came to the family when the eldest son, Walter, died in the First World War in 1917, aged just 19. He was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

Further tragedy followed in 1923 when their third son, Wilfred, who was a reporter for the Gazette, died aged 21 as the result of an accident playing rugby for the Camelots – now the Hemel Hempstead (Camelot) Rugby Union Football Club.

My grandfather later bought Warwick House at 39 Marlowes, to become the offices for the expanding staff.

The large house had previously belonged to the local doctor and was complete with a stable and carriage house to enable him to visit his patients.

At around the same time, Edgar also took control of the Star Brewery at Bury Mill End.

I loved going to ‘the works’ with my father, where it always seemed noisy and busy with the typesetters at work and the clatter of the monotype and linotype machines.

The atmosphere was amazing on a Thursday night, when the huge Cossor machine was thundering away printing, folding and presenting the finished paper in batches of a dozen to be sorted and counted for each individual retailer. There was always an evocative and pervading smell of printing ink in the air.

The paper was delivered by the firm’s own horse-drawn delivery vehicle until 1936, when the first Morris 8 van was purchased from Messrs Snoxalls of Boxmoor and Berkhamsted.

It was very colourful in green with a cream upper half and Gazette written in gold and red. An Austin followed and several blue Bedford vans made up the fleet in the 1950s and 1960s.

The works staff used to go on an annual summer outing, or ‘wayzgoose’ as it was known in the printing trade.

These were usually to the seaside, or a trip on the Royal Daffodil down the Thames to Southend, and included a traditional dinner.

On August 17, 1951, a dinner was held to mark the completion by Edgar Needham of 50 years’ association with the Gazette.

Listed on the back of the souvenir menu are the names of the 187 members of staff during these 50 years, including five of his sons and two sons-in-law.

I agree with the observation that Charles Dickens might well have felt at home in the Gazette offices and works. Neither he nor my father could ever have imagined the huge changes to come in the printing world with the rapid development of computer systems.

Sadly, my father, ‘Mr Lyonel’ Needham, died in the Bury Mill End Printing Works in 1968, aged 63.

When my uncle ‘Mr Douglas’ Needham wanted to retire, the firm was sold in 1971 to the company which published the Bucks Herald in Aylesbury.

This was a heart-breaking but necessary decision by the six elderly family members who owned the company at the time. Having proudly printed the Gazette every week for 70 years, it was the end of an era – and I still miss the smell of printing ink!