The Hive Printers Ltd.

Originally printed issue 49  March 1992

Registered on the 21st May 1946, The Hive Printers Ltd., is probably one of the oldest surviving companies in Letchworth.

After the Second World War, John Thompson, in common with many others, wanted to make a new start, and where better to make it than in Letchworth, the place where he had been born in 1910. His parents had come to Letchworth in 1908 and his father worked for affirm called Wheeler and Ode11 which later became Letchworth Printers. 

John had gained his experience working for large printing companies throughout the British Isles, but what appealed to him, was the idea of just doing the very high class, good printing, that he chose. 

There was plenty of work to be done, but there was a shortage of materials, (paper was rationed), a shortage of accommodation, and a shortage of equipment. 

However, he did obtain an almost defunct printing business being carried out in a shed ( behind a shop at that time occupied by Woolworths) in the centre of town, which had been the premises of Bradley and Pass, one of the earliest hardware merchants in Letchworth.

Of course the business needed a name, and John, who is a beekeeper, decided that like the beehive, his business would be a "Hive" of activity. A house of industry, efficiently producing a quality product. 

Of course the economic conditions meant that John's highest ambitions could not be met, but with second hand plant he made a start, his family helping out with the deliveries. As it is today, it was then important to keep an open door to business, so he took on an apprentice, Ken Burrell, who has since started his own company.

Originally five garages in the Wynd, now called Openshaw Way, The Hive Printers occupies all of the single-story part of Fenners Buildings, and I recalled that I'd first met John, when my father rented one of them during the 1950s and the Hive used the smallest, odd shaped one on the end. 

"Yes, originally I rented just one as a storeroom, then as the garages became vacant I took more on until we eventually left the hut and moved in here. At the time, the only other industry was the Stoddard Brush Manufacturing Company, which used the top floor of Fenners Buildings. The hut was eventually pulled down by Argos."

My father had had great difficulty in obtaining a DC motor to drive his lathe, which was needed because the Wynd was still supplied with 250 volts DC (Direct Current) by the Garden City Electricity Supply Company. So I asked John had he experienced problems when they eventually changed over to AC like the rest of the town? 

"No, they were very good. When the time came, of changing to alternating current, they replaced everything that was needed, free of charge, and we had new motors on all the equipment."

Monotype Machine

Things have changed over the years, and printing like all other industries has had the benefits of modern technology. Which has been a mixed blessing, for it has meant that many of the manual jobs such as typesetting have been automated. Before he owned his own Monotype machine it all had to be done by hand or he had to travel twenty miles to Hertford to have it done. 

That in turn has been superseded by photo typesetting, which in turn.... But the other side of the coin, is that modern technology has also meant that lots of small printers have sprung up, and they have taken away the small printing jobs such as tickets and posters. 

This has meant that "The Hive" has had to look for new customers and John is now a supplier to Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Norwich. 

Not an improvement in printing technology, John considers the FAX to be a boon to his working practices, for the customer can send orders and John can supply proofs so much quicker. 

John is also aware of his client's needs, and helps them to agree and formalise their vaguely expressed requirements. At some point the text which is printed has to be originated, and John offers a complete service including graphical design.

One of the things that John does miss, is the camaraderie which used to exist between the master printers, when there used to be J.M Dent, Garden City Press, St Christopher Press, Letchworth Printers. "We all helped each other".

John has certainly helped through the years, for as well as being Managing Director of The Hive Printers Ltd., he has also found time to be:
President of the Hertfordshire Beekeepers' Association, 
President of the Hertfordshire Master Printers' Association, 
President of the Letchworth Chamber of Trade, 
a member of Howard Cottage Society, 
Secretary of the Letchworth Morris Men, 
a Churchwarden at Radwell, 
and Chairman of the Radwell Parish Meeting.

John Thompson & Staff, 1979

John's daughter had an early introduction to the printing business when her mother used to drive her around, usually asleep in their 1935 Ford 8, delivering the finished printing orders. Ann is a director of the company and will take over "The Hive" - with those productive bees that don't sting - when John decides he is old enough to retire.