BELL PRINTERS HISTORY
Bell Printers was started by James Bell Senior in the late 1930s. He started by hand lettering small posters that were displayed outside cinemas advertising the films that were going to be shown that week. The first posters he made were created on the kitchen floor of his home in Larkhall, he worked all night accompanied by his brother who sat with him all night, eating peanuts.
After getting married, he lived for many years at Duke Street Hamilton. The front room of the house was made into a work room for the production of posters, which by this time, he was employed making munitions at Bishopton on the Ayrshire Coast for World War 2, and was still producing posters for cinemas on a part time basis. On one occasion, when it was very warm, the window was opened wide and unfortunately “copy” for a poster he was working on, blew out the third story window, never to be seen again, don't know how he managed to finish the poster.
At about 1945, while still producing the posters by hand, and while knowing nothing about the printing industry, decided that he would need to mechanise to increase his production. He rented a small workshop in Chapel Street, had to install power etc. then he purchased a Wharfdale 1 colour press, with a printing area of 40 x 30 inches. By this time he was busy enough to be employed full time, and his brother would assist him on a part-time basis.
In 1947, John his first son, left school and joined the business. By this time they were producing material advertising the coming films for many private owned cinemas all over the central belt of Scotland. By about 1952 it was decided that they needed larger premises and to invest in a two colour press. A new workshop was built on railway property, (now the bus station in Brandon Street). The two colour press was purchased from The Arbroath Herald and installed in Hamilton. The two colour press measured about 20 ft. x 6 ft. and had ink rollers 6 ft. long and about 8 inches in diameter, with internal gear wheels about 3 ft. in diameter. To oil this press you literally crawled inside, beside the gear wheels, not before you made sure that the gear wheels were blocked off with wood, giant machines in relation to the existing litho machines used today by the business.
James, his second son, left school and joined the business, as by this time we were producing advertising material for many cinemas and theatres, The Kings, The Alhambra in Glasgow, others in Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee etc., as well as many other types of printing jobs. We had become one of the big four poster printers in Scotland.
We usually started work in the morning at 6 a.m., finishing at 6 p.m. have a meal and as James Senior had built a workroom in the loft space of the house, we climbed a rickety ladder up to the room where many cases of type had been installed, creating what was known as a "case room", typesetting for tickets, leaflets, programmes or whatever. Then carry the “jobs” next morning down to the workshop for production. Our average hourly week was about 70 hours.
From 1953 to 1955 John did his National Service with the Cameronian Scottish Rifles, serving in Germany. Jim did his with the RAF, from 1956 to 1958, serving in London. During his time in London he took the opportunity to attend evening classes at the London School of Printing with a course on the operation of Linotype machines, (which proved to invaluable later on.)
In the late 1950s, a friend of Johns (Jimmy Fleming) who worked for a company in Glasgow producing cake boxes etc. suggested that there was a market for a small producer of cake boxes etc. We purchased a small cylinder press which was suitable for printing and also die cutting. We started at first to produce 2 sizes of cake boxes and managed to sell them to small local bakeries, not in any great quantities - then we started to produce "Fish Supper" trays, again to small local shops etc. There was far too much effort required to remove the surplus waste from the die cut boxes, then had to burn the waste etc. We eventually had to give up the idea.
Very early on in the 1960s, when the television set was becoming popular, it was found that cinemas were starting to close, and it was getting to the point where it was becoming difficult to cover the wages of the family. Jim was in the process of applying to become a postman, however at this time a small printer in Hamilton, R.W. Dick, in the basement of the Masonic Buildings, was for sale, but as we knew nothing about printing business cards, letterheads etc., our posters sometimes were as large as 7ft x 10ft it was a major decision to buy R.W. Dick and take over the production of commercial stationery.
The very first job we printed at RW Dicks was a Parking Notice for the Police. The notice consisted of a couple of main headings and about 10 paragraphs of conditions. At this time, all text was set by hand, by assembling each letter, taken from a specific box in the type case and put onto a “setting stick”. We eventually run out of “letters” and had to print off what had been set, redistribute the type back into their boxes and start setting at the next paragraph, it took us three settings before we had completed the job. This job took the 3 Bells the whole of a Saturday Morning to complete.
To increase our production of text setting we purchase a second-hand Linotype machine from the Stranraer Gazette. We gradually moved from linotype setting and letterpress to offset litho, the advantages being that, as an example, a Time Sheet produced for a company named Nisbet Patfield took 10.5 hours using letterpress and when we produced it using litho it took 2 hours.
By the early 1960s, we were producing stationery for the Lanarkshire Health Board, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, Philips Electrical, Terex Earthmoving, Rolls Royce, Honeywell, Motherwell Bridge Engineers, as well as many other small and medium sized commercial businesses, and also producing stationery on a trade basis for various office supply companies, in Scotland and England.
For Terex we were producing large numbers of parts diagram sheets, sometimes as many as 100 copies from 300 to 400 masters on a weekly basis, also about once a year we had to produce a 1000 parts catalogue, which consisted of about 200 A4 pages with thousands of part numbers on them. We usually subcontracted the collating of this material, but on one occasion we decided to do the collating work ourselves - well everything was going along fine and we had stacks of pre-collated piles everywhere. Then one morning when we opened up we found that one pile had collapsed, domino fashion into others you can imagine the problems we had.
For Rolls Royce, we were approached by their own printing dept. in East Kilbride, to print off stock sheets from prepared masters. Their own department was producing from 3 or 4 masters per hour, and when we took over the production, depending on the quantities required we were producing from up to 17 masters per hour. We couldn’t get enough of this work. Then came 1971 when Rolls Royce collapsed.
By about 1965 “computer typesetting” was coming in and we purchased our first machine which cost many thousands of £’s. All that this machine could do was set type in straight lines, nothing else, from a couple of type fonts and about 8 different sizes compare this to a modern computer today costing anything from £300 - which will do 100s times more than the one in 1965 would ever do.
Around 1970, our accountant, Jim Watson of Sharles a longtime family friend, seeing how well we were doling, approached John and Jim, suggesting that we take over a failing printing business, he had an interest in, in East Kilbride. This was done but as the business was continuing to fail it was decided within a year to merge and move everything to Hamilton. This worked well for a time but we were bursting at the seams and needed to move to larger premises, fortunately we were able to purchases the Masonic Hall right next door in 1982.
Also, in 1982 we explored the possibility of using computers for costing and invoicing etc. but as there were no printers costing system available, we had our own costing and estimating programme written, the basics of which are still being used today.
By this time the sons of John and Jim were entering the business and it was obvious that we would need to increase our turnover. Previously we have tried salesmen, mailings, newspapers, with very little success, then it was suggested that we tried telephone selling, long before the big boys started. At first it was slow going but it soon produced a sizeable proportion of our turnover, and still does to this day.
In 1984 we moved next door to our new enlarged premises. Eventually as the sons developed, John and Jim did very little in the way of production, but kept quite busy costing, estimating and parcelling for despatch. In 1995 Jim, (Johns son) moved to Boston, USA, leaving Anthony, Keith and William still in the business.
In 2000 John and Jim decided to retire. The remaining sons took over the controls of running the business, carrying on the continual modernisation of plant where and when necessary, and to a point now when their grandfather who started the business would not recognise it as a printing shop.