In this modern age, and rightly so, computers dominate many industries, including printing. They are ideal where standard, mass produced work is required, such as for newspapers and books, but there is still a place for the specialist, who produces smaller quantities of high quality work for local companies, societies and institutions.

One of these is John Neave, who specialises in business documents, such as statements, compliment slips, labels, leaflets, business cards, and other items such as posters, programmes, admission and lottery draw tickets. In fact John must be one of the few printers in the West Midlands that still uses the traditional methods.

An old Franklin printing machine.

John’s interest in printing started at an early age. His father worked at Hobson’s in Stafford Road, Wolverhampton and when John attended a works’ Christmas party, he was given a present consisting of a roulette wheel and a gaming board. In order to play, he needed a quantity of paper money and began to consider ways of obtaining some.

John grew up at 97 Gordon Street, Wolverhampton and further up the street at number 70A was a small printers, run by Norman Robinson and Ken Fellows. John went to see them to ask if they could print some suitable money, and they duly offered to do so.

They suggested that he should come back after school and watch the work being done. This he did, and was so fascinated by the process that it changed his whole life.

From then on John was a frequent visitor, who greatly enjoyed seeing the printing machines in operation. In 1949 his father brought him a small Adana printing press that at the time was advertised in all of the Sunday newspapers. John was only 12 years old and obviously delighted with his present, which he started using to produce small orders. He printed thousands of labels on the machine and has been printing ever since. His first proper customer, Mr. Nock, sold foreign stamps and John used to print little labels for him, and received three shillings and three pence per thousand.

An Adana Eight Five printing machine.

A typesetter at work.

After leaving school, John went on a printing course at Wolverhampton College of Art, which at that time was in the basement of the Art Gallery. When the three year, full-time course ended he ran his own printing business, working in a garden shed at the back of number 97. He managed to make a living, thanks to regular jobs that came his way and remembers printing tickets for a local children’s party, held to celebrate the 1953 coronation. He also printed large numbers of labels for Reade Brothers, the manufacturing chemists.

Meanwhile Norman Robinson and Ken Fellows moved their printing business out of number 70A, and the property owner Chris Hill, used the now vacant premises to sell washing machine parts and such things as wooden mangle rollers. John’s business continued to thrive and by 1971 he had made enough money to rent the shop from Mr. Hill and he moved the business into what would become its future home.

In 1973 Mr. Hill asked John if he wanted to buy the shop and the house next door, and this he did.  John’s business has been in the same premises ever since and continues to thrive.

Today, John is ably assisted by his long-time friend Bill Howe who specialises is producing the pre-press work for their litho printers.

Number 70A Gordon Street.

John keeping an eye on one of his Heidelberg printing machines.
Over the years John has worked for many well-known local businesses and organisations, some of whom are long-gone.

One of his customers has been The Midland Metal Spinning Company Limited, who were in Wolverhampton and Wombourne. They produced domestic metalware using the Presto and Tower Brand names. In the past John has received large orders from them, for such things as 500,000 inspection complaint slips. The order for them arrived on a Thursday and they wanted the first 100,000 by the following Monday, which resulted in a hard weekend’s work.

John's order for 500,000 inspection complaint slips.

Another order from the same company demonstrates John’s extreme versatility. He produced 30,000 self-adhesive labels for use on their Teasmaids.

The labels were individually cut so that each one could be peeled from the backing and easily applied to the product. The Teasmaids were sold in America to help promote tea drinking.

One of the Teasmaid labels.

The front of John's shop. In the centre is the 1963 Heidelberg machine, and on the left and right are his litho machines.
A famous name from Wolverhampton’s past is Reade Brothers and over the years John has produced hundreds of thousands of bottle labels for them. One of their products was quarter pound tubs of bicarbonate of soda that were supplied in large quantities to Cadbury’s. John used to print the labels for them.

He also produced work for Chance Brothers of Birmingham. One of John’s long-standing customers is the Wombourne Players, originally called the Dunstall Players. John began printing for them in 1956 and still continues to do so.

John’s main workhorses are his two Heidelberg printing machines and two A3 litho machines. One of the Heidelbergs dates from 1953 and the other from 1963.  They are amazing machines and were commonly used by the jobbing printer.

They not only print, but can emboss, cut, perforate, and print automatically incremented numbers. The machines can also handle paper in many shapes and sizes. John’s specialty is to use them for producing individually numbered and perforated draw tickets for churches, societies and charities, that are supplied as small books. Orders vary from a few thousand up to 100,000 and often have to meet tight deadlines.

John at work on his 1953 Heidelberg machine.

One of John's two litho machines.

John's 1953 Heidelberg machine.

John is an experienced hand typesetter and has what must be one of the region’s largest collections of type, in many typefaces and styles. He has collected it over many years, often from old companies when they ceased trading.

Some of his type dates back to a time before the modern point system was introduced in the early 1890s. In those days names such as diamond and pearl were used for different sizes of text.

John examining some of his early type.

Drawers of type in the typesetting room.

Assembled type ready for use.

More of John's type cabinets.

Another corner of the type room.

John looking at some of his wooden type.

A freshly opened packet of 24 point Universe Bold type.

One of John's plates portraying a scene that's familiar to most Wulfrunians; Lindy Lou's in Victoria Street.
John also has a collection of engraved plates, some of which are very old. He has used many of them for jobs in the past and some of them feature names of well-known and long-gone Wolverhampton companies.

John’s oldest machine, which is still in use is a F/F Arab Platen printing machine that dates from 1895. John has fully restored the machine and has even run it from an electric motor. He uses the machine for special jobs and it works very well, the only disadvantage is that it is hand-fed.

Another plate portraying the Greyhound and Punchbowl in Bilston.
One of John's plates and what it produces.

A large poster printed by John.

John using his F/F Arab Platen printing machine from 1895.

Printing has been done at John’s premises since 1948 and John himself has been in business since 1949. In 2006 he celebrated his 57th year as a printer and has no intention of retiring just yet. His business is still successful, and John is as enthusiastic as ever about all aspects of the trade. Hopefully he will continue printing for many years to come.

Return to the
Printing Hall