Cutting-Edge Tech: Getting the Edwardian Football Paper Out

The Football Star offices, Fleet Street, Christmas 1905:

There is a silence in the office still as death. The seconds are ticking off, the minutes are creeping past, and men stand with telephones to their ear, and others are hanging over the “tape” machines which send out results. The nervous strain is almost unbearable.

It’s a late kick-off that’s causing the bother, of course:

It is considered a calamity if, for some reason or other, an important game has been delayed for five minutes. The paper may be on all the machines, and the printer waiting for the fateful word “Go”. We may be waiting for a Cup tie between Aston Villa and Sunderland. The paper cannot go to press without it.

Absolutely not, because you can’t keep the world waiting:

The publicity-room and far out into the street is filled with a vast crowd of young men called “runners,” cyclists, men with Star carts, cabs, and motors. Several policemen are called in to see fair play, but no crowd could be noisier and better behaved at the same time. The papers come up from the printers hot from the machine on never-ending lifts. These lifts, with “arms” about a yard apart, never stop. The publisher and his assistants are busy seizing the papers as they come up, and throwing them over the counter in huge lots straight into the arms of cartmen and others who have handed in their orders earlier in the day.

And this being London, the race is on:

In the provinces it is the custom of the inhabitants to walk into town on Saturday night, and therefore it is quite easy to serve them with newspapers. In London it is just the reverse. Everyone practically lives in the suburbs, and the City of London on Saturday night is like a palace of the dead The people have therefore to be chased by bicycles, motors and light vans to their various haunts.

By bicycle, then:

An ordinary bicycle carries 30 quires, weighing about 80lb of paper. (The cyclist) dashes through slippery streets, amongst the traffic at break-neck speed, and he rarely meets with an injury. Their cleverness in avoiding collisions is marvellous. Some of them ride from 10 to 15 miles with their load, and they usually arrive far in front of the lots that go by train.

The train presents its own problems:

In another room are a score of expert packers making up huge parcels for the various railway stations. There are over 300 railway stations in London.

And yet the possibilities it presents to the 1905 football paper are remarkable:

It is possible for instance, to print the Football Star, pack it, send it by van to Paddington Station – five miles off – book the parcel, and send it to Reading, 40 miles distant, all within an hour. By this means the Football Star is sometimes selling on the streets of Reading as soon as the football paper which is published in the town of Reading. The paper is being despatched simultaneously to thousands of separate centres.

By ’05, the chances are that the paper would have raced to Reading behind one of Churchward’s  2-6-2 tank locomotives, brand new then but the standard for fast suburban travel out of Paddington until the days of the Beatles.

London football papers in ’05 sought to hit the stands as soon after 4.30 pm as was physically possible. It meant that they lacked the depth of reporting possible for their Glasgow rivals, which, although acknowledged to be the best of their kind, wouldn’t appear until half past six:

If a stranger were to come into a newspaper office while a football edition is going to press, he would think he had struck a regular inferno. Imagine a room not much larger than an ordinary dining-room fitted up with about twenty telephones less than a yard apart, with no partition between, and the men’s elbows touching. In the same room are several type machines belonging to rival News Agencies, all ticking out brief reports of matches, half-time scores, and results.  The telephone bells are ringing constantly..

For a new sport, new tech: the telephone – as old then as the IBM PC is now. Ticker-tape machines. Motor vans, less than ten years after their invention. Modern bicycles – less than twenty years old and running on equally youthful pneumatic tyres.

Life hadn’t always been so easy. Telegraphing results was over. And not just the telegraph:

One or two of the Glasgow papers used to employ pigeons, and a few country papers do so still, but the pigeon is a slow, clumsy, and uncertain messenger. Practically all the up-to-date newspapers now use the telephone for local reports.

The nearest football ground of importance(to Fleet Street) is the Crystal Palace, some six miles from Fleet Street, where the papers are printed. The football grounds vary from six miles to twelve miles distant from the newspaper offices. Distance is not now a matter of such importance as it was a few years ago – before the telephone came on the scene. At one time cyclists had to ride hard with the copy from places like Plumstead, Brentford and Park Royal, through the traffic of London – distances of from ten to twelve miles – and even in those days the paper was printed within a few minutes of the present hours of publishing.

But telephoning cost money:

For the London matches the telephone is laid on from the ground direct to the office. This means a dozen private telephones which are only used for football matches. The rental of these private lines in London alone will amount to something like £200 per annum.

At the time of writing, Christmas 1905, there is one football ground in the London district that does not possess a telephone. Would it be believed that the football papers of London have been trying to get the Post Office to erect a telephone on this particular ground for the past two years, and they have persistently refused on the ground that they have not a telephone exchange in the district! How is this for government enterprise! It is a remarkable fact that though there is no telephone on this ground, the Football Star gets its matches telephoned all the same! I dare not at present say how it is done.

Nor dare I.

The other crucial item was the linotype machine, itself also, like the bikes and cars and phones and tickers and Mitchell-Kenyon movie cameras and fast emulsion film and autochromes and indeed like League football, less than twenty years old. The elbow-to-elbow clerks would take down telephoned reports from the grounds, which would be linotyped into seven-column 12,000 word pages. These would be corrected, then “made up”. Then the plates for actual printing would be cast in the foundry. Next on the list:

the printing machines to be ‘clothed,’ that is to say, fitted with the cylindrical plates of molten matter..

Twenty plates would be fitted, then the fateful word “Go”….

Within an hour of the first results coming in, the paper was on the bikes, carts, motors and trains.

They weren’t really gentler, simpler times.

(All quotations taken, with minor editing, from Gibson and Pickford’s “Association Football and the Men Who Made It” Vol II p. 24 passim. Gibson owned the Football Star).

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4 responses to “Cutting-Edge Tech: Getting the Edwardian Football Paper Out

  1. Two oddities I can remember from visiting Palmerston Park in the 50s: (i) Before the game, people would consult the Wee Red Book. Was there an English equivalent?
    (ii) After the game, people leaving the ground would buy the pink football paper that carried the halftime scores. But the latter had been displayed at the ground anyway.

  2. “visiting”: lousy choice of word. What’s the best verb there?

  3. James Hamilton

    Replace your verb with this sentence: “shinning up the drainpipe outside”.

  4. “London football papers in ‘05 sought to hit the stands as soon after 4.30 pm…”

    4.30pm? No half-time break?