There were reports in the Watford Observer from the 1930s that shoppers in the town were complaining that they could never get seats on the buses because they were so full of printers!

It has been estimated that one in 13 of Watford’s entire population – not just the working population – was involved in the printing industry, making it, from the 1920s through to the 1960s, the largest centre of printing in the world.

“It’s really difficult to conceive just how big an industry printing and the allied trades were in Watford,“ says Dr Caroline Archer, the woman behind a new exhibition being produced in collaboration with Watford Museum, the Typographic Hub in Birmingham, and with the support of the University of the Third Age and West Herts College100 Years of Printing Education in Watford.

History of printing in Watford

From the mid-15th Century when Hertfordshire printed its first book to the late 20th Century when Robert Maxwell’s newspaper empire came to the region, printing has been the county’s main industry, and printing started in Watford in 1832 when John Peacock – the father of Samuel, who founded the Watford Observer in 1863 – set up the town’s first printing press.

By the turn of the 19th Century, Watford was well on its way to becoming a major international printing centre, a position it had consolidated by the 1950s and 60s.

“Watford’s greatest contribution to printing is all the innovative work that was done at the beginning of the 20th Century in colour reproduction,“ continues Caroline, who was born in Watford and lived in the town until she moved to Birmingham four years ago to take up her role at the Typographic Hub, a research centre for typographic and printing history in the UK.

“Rotary photogravure was a technique which was first used in Watford to reproduce very fine, high quality fine art prints and then it went on to be used to produce colour magazines. All the ladies’ colour magazines, like Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Own, were all printed in Watford, as well as most of the colour supplements for the Sunday newspapers.“

Watford’s place in the printing industry grew and grew as it attracted a ‘critical mass’ of capable, experienced, specialist craftspeople, and as, concurrently, the industries that supported printing – suppliers of inks, printing machinery and papers – started to grow as well.

Decline of the trade

Things began to change from the 1980s, as the technology started to change, with printers shifting from mechanical printing and typesetting to digital, and economic pressures meant fewer machinists and typesetters, for example, were now needed.

“A lot of printers started to fall by the wayside,“ says Caroline, 52. “But we’ve still got Trinity Mirror Printing in North Watford and they still print The Independent, Sporting Life and the Mirror. They’re one of the biggest printers in the country.“

Skills and education

The exhibition that Caroline is curating takes this history and focuses on 100 years of printing education in Watford, celebrating in particular the 60th anniversary of the official opening of the department of printing at the Watford College of Technology, which used to be on the Hempstead Road.

“We did have printing education before that,“ says Caroline, “and we can trace that back to the beginning of the 20th Century, to about 1911 or 1912. That was done from the School of Technology and Art, which was a beautiful, ornate Victorian building on Queens Road, that isn’t there anymore. They started having evening classes there in art and design, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that education started to be linked to industry.“

The printing exhibition

The exhibition shows work produced by students and staff of the Watford College of Technology, such as books, booklets, posters and invitations, alongside approximately 12 information boards, describing the beginnings of the college and about the Hempstead Road and Queens Road sites, and setting the college within the larger context of the printing industry and Watford’s place within it.

The college had one of the largest and best-equipped printing departments in the country, and it was the first of its kind to offer degrees and post-graduate degrees.

“It was influential in its teaching and in the volume of people who went through its doors and then took what they’d learnt away with them,“ Caroline says.

“Watford would have been a big employer so many of the students did stay in the area, but some of them went all over the country and the world.

“And people came from lots of different countries to study printing here, and would have then taken their knowledge back to their own countries, places like India, Singapore, Thailand and parts of Africa. So Watford’s influence has been huge in that sense, as well.“

The vast majority of the material on display has come from Caroline herself – her father, John Archer, helped set up the composing room in the school in the 1950s and taught hand composition – setting metal type by hand – and then using computers, and he was “quite good at saving nice pieces of work“.

The remainder Caroline acquired from the college’s library, when the college closed in the early 2000s, and in the archives of Watford Central Library.

Your memories of the industry

“I’ve been in printing all my life,“ Caroline explains, “I was always in and out of the college with dad, who sadly passed away in 1998. It was through him and the work he did that I learnt typography and how to be a designer, and about Watford’s significance in printing.“

Caroline is hoping to use the exhibition to launch a long-term research project which will look in-depth at the history of printing in Watford, and would love to hear from anyone who has any connection with the industry in the town.

“I really don’t care what they did,“ she says, “they might have been the cleaner or the manager or anybody in between. If you’ve got memories, photographs or materials, I’d be really interested in hearing from you.“

  • To contact Caroline about your memories email her at
  • 100 Years of Printing Education in Watford is at West Herts College, Hempstead Road from Tuesday, January 28 to Friday, February 7, Tuesday to Thursday 8am to 9pm, and Monday, Friday and Saturday 2am to 4pm. Details: contact Watford Museum on 01923 232297,