Back Hill's hidden history

The seminal videos for Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome were shot in the cavernous basement now occupied by Theatre Design courses at LCP's Back Hill site.

Baroness Thatcher, Jack Nicholson, the Rolling Stones and many page three girls were photographed here through the 1980s when the space was leased by Holborn Studios Ltd. And Coach & Horses landlord Brian Phillips remembers a heavy CIA presence prior to the photographing of Ronald Reagan's daughter.

Photographers Lartigue, Donovan, and Duffy worked here, as did Chris King whose father, Harry was a printer here when it was a Daily Mirror machine room.

Only when a delivery of LCP's heating oil overflowed1,000 gallons through the basement in June 1991 did Holborn Studios relocate, leaving the London Institute with full possession of what is now Herbal House.

It is 70 years since the Daily Mirror was granted planning permission to build on the site that in 1928 was a timber yard for C. B. N. Snewin & Sons. On 8 May 1930 the Mirror moved into what was then a two storey building. Third and fourth floors were completed in June 1939.

Main Mirror production remained on ancient presses at Rolls Buildings, in Fetter Lane,Ó says 74-year-old Harry King who before World War II was an apprentice when the Mirror was substantially printed on Back HillÕs faster rotary presses.

Harry King's father had been a printer at Back Hill and used to take turns fire-watching on the roof during the blitz. Paper rationing meant that circulation was restricted by law and the Mirror had only four pages. There was so much spare capacity that, when the Daily Sketch was bombed out, it was printed at Back Hill for some time, along with the racing paper Sporting Life .

The building was named Revelle House after an obscure weekly journal selling under100,000 copies to servicemen before the Mirror bought it in 1945 but its circulation rose to three million by 1951. There were even plans to put neon signs around the building saying 'Reveille for the weekend'.

In1949 the Mirror offered the upper floors to the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts on a 35-year lease. The school's chairman wrote in 1951: "Space is being provided which should fulfil all our needs and in time we will have excellent facilities for indoor games and a study room."

In1952 Harry King became a full-time machine minder on £2.18s.10d per shift, having started as a casual jobbing hand on £32 a week. "It was damned good money," says King whose previous job paid £5 10s a week.

In the fifties Reveille House was surrounded by bomb sites. TedÕs Italian cafe remained on the junction of Ray Street and Crawford Passage open 24 hours a day because the area was full of print workers on shifts around the clock. Post-war paper shortages meant the Daily Mirror was limited to eight pages and printers found this hard to produce on machines that were not designed for such a small quantity of paper.

"It was like a club in a way." says King, "There was very little supervision because, the minute anybody misbehaved, that machine would be down. One machine would have two outlets for print. So you've got two lots of print missing. We used to run those at 22,000 an hour. But the job was built to produce so many copies and to catch the trains. So the minute there was a little bit of an argument, the machine stopped. And all the chapel officials and all the overseers would get together and it might take an hour or two to sort it out. Well, of course if they lost a train that meant getting coaches, or aircraft sometimes, to take the papers - which cost the company a lot of money. And they would turn around to the guv'nor of the night and say to him ÕYou ought to know better. Why didn't you give them what they wanted? And your job is to keep Õem running, not shut Õem down.Õ You could get what you wanted because the press room management werenÕt allowed to stand up and do the right thing."

King says the Back Hill plant ran faster than the Rolls Building plant and it had more capacity. There was just enough space in the press room for an additional half a line of Goss presses and these were later moved to the Mirror plant at Stamford Street SE1.

The Mirror built a printing plant in Stamford Street SE1 and closed down the Back Hill site. Reveille's editorial offices moved to the Back Hill site. But the new Hoe and Goss presses at Stamford Street gave a lot of trouble. King says: "We suddenly saw this gold stuff mixed with oil running out of the presses and of course it was the phosphor-bronze bearings going. The whole lot had to be taken down and new bearings put in. So they had to re-open Back Hill again. So then they had three plants printing in London."

The Back Hill plant provided the Mirror with spare production capacity which by using all three plants flat-out it achieved record circulation of seven million copies on the death of Queen Mary on Mar 24, 1953. "That occurred in the middle of the night" says King, "And all of a sudden we had to clean out the red and put in a mauve. They did a lovely mauve edition. It made it late everywhere but it was very nice. And then we ran mauve until the night after her funeral."

Tony Amoss printed Reveille, the Mirror, and the Sunday Pictorial at Back Hill from1955. "It was a dirty hole," he says, "It was noisy. It had old, clapped-out machines but it was a living."

He says: "You learned a lot of sign language at Back Hill. I was a machine minder and I had a NATSOPA assistant but if I wanted him to do something I had to say it with hand signals because he couldn't hear me otherwise."

By 1961 some 7,300 students a week were passing through the School of PrintingÕs premises above the press room. Students were looking forward to moving to a wonderful new site at Elephant & Castle while Mirror printers were looking forward to new premises at Holborn Circus.

The last of the presses was removed in the 1970s and the building was renamed Herbal House when Reveille, ceased publication.

Clothing manufacturer Harold Ingram took warehouse space here because rollers installed to move newspapers came in handy for the movement of womenÕs knitwear - and George Lazenby's stunt-double slid down them in the shooting of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

Love it or loathe it, the Back Hill site remains a living piece of media history that we share with movie stars and three generations of Kings. But as two Back Hill students wrote in 1961: "Reveille House is an unsuitable building and the area is unpleasant to work in. The difficulties of having the school divided into two parts are becoming more and more apparent each year." 37 years later there are many more who would agree.

© Michael Burgess 1998