It is quite normal these days to see small shops close down in High Streets up and down the land. And, after a few weeks or maybe months, the passing shoppers don’t even notice they have gone or forget what was there before. But just occasionally, a shop is so well loved by its regular customers that its closure is a genuine shock.
This was the case for me recently when I popped to W L Langsbury, the local printers in Suffolk Road.
I arrived to find a simple notice on the door saying, ‘closed due to bereavement’. My heart missed a beat on reading this. I hoped that it was not the lovely old printer who was known to me, and all of his regular customers, as Bill Langsbury and to his family as Lionel.
I used to pop in to Bill if I wanted anything special printed for school in my teaching days, before we had computers and photocopiers in the school office. Then after retirement, when I became the secretary of our WI. Many of our older members did not have email but they all needed monthly minutes and agendas as well as occasional newsletters. I produced a master copy on my computer and then Bill printed out enough for everyone. He did the job to perfection ~ quickly, efficiently and cheaply. He took great delight in telling me that there is no VAT on newsletters.
It was always a joy to step inside the door of his shop. The smell of metal, ink, wood and paper is a heady mixture, like a steam train in a timber yard. It was for all the world like the living museums at Blist’s Hill or Beamish and yet the jobs got done if not immediately, always by the end of the day! The machinery looked ancient, in fact one of the printing presses was a 1938 Heidelberg and it still worked perfectly. On the walls there were pictures of Cheltenham in days gone by and posters from the 1940’s warning that ‘careless talk costs lives’! Almost every inch of wall and floor space in the front shop was used to store boxes of paper of all sizes and colours. There was also a wonderful selection of notepads which Bill made himself from the paper offcuts. These he sold for pennies and they were great for shopping lists or jotters. Some were so old they still had the price in pre-decimal currency.
In the back room of the shop where the serious work was done there was a treasure trove of vintage wooden shelves and drawers full of cast metal numbers and lettering of different sizes and fonts.
High up on the walls was the ‘filing system’, which I am sure only Bill or his brother and workmate Ken could understand. Beyond, there was a narrow hallway with a staircase leading to where Bill lived, above the shop.
I suppose I find all this a delight because my grandad had a general store in the 1950s after he left the army. He and my grandma lived above the shop and I loved staying there.
But of course the shop would be nothing without the character of the printer himself. I was full of admiration for him and the life he had lived over 83 years. It is the living history that fascinates me.
Bill was born in Shepherd’s Bush, London, in December 1932 when King George V was on the throne. He moved to Ealing with his parents where his brother Ken was born in 1938. There they lived through the short reign of King Edward V111 who abdicated in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcee. He was a young lad of 7 when the bombs started dropping on London during the Blitz of WW2 in the reign of King George V1. When a neighbouring house was destroyed by the bombs his parents, Harry and Queenie Langsbury moved the family to Cheltenham for safety.
After a brief stay with in-laws they lived in a cottage behind the King’s Head Pub in the Lower High Street where Queenie worked. The boys went to church 3 times on a Sundays and went to local schools. Bill was a keen student and talented artist enjoying cartoon drawing. So he went on to the art college which is where he learned his printing skills. By this time our Queen Elizabeth 11 was on the throne.
Leaving college he got a printing job in a pharmaceutical company but he had an entrepreneurial streak. He managed to save his money, and, with the help of his brother’s paper round money, he bought his own second hand printing press by the time he was 16 and set up business in the family home.
Bill did his National Service in the catering corps with the RAF in the early 1950’s and returned to Cheltenham where his mum had bought the terraced house in what was Andover Road and is now Suffolk Road.
At first Bill, aged just 24, was printing in the front room while the family lived in the rest. However, Bill got so many orders that he took over the back room too and the family were relegated to upstairs.
Bill’s brother Ken married and moved on to have his own family. Bill, staying single, lived with his mum until she died aged 93.
Eventually Bill had so much work that his brother Ken came to work with him. It is wonderful to think that these two brothers got on so well that they worked together for over 40 years. But you couldn’t not get on with Bill. He was an eccentric, sweet, kind gentleman. He loved his work, his shop and his machinery. He lived a simple life with few mod cons and no visible luxuries, but he was always cheerful. Printing was his passion.
In 2016 W L Langsbury Printer’s celebrates 60 years in business. To commemorate this Bill produced a special edition of his letterpress Gloucester bold calendar, containing a selection of proverbs from a collection first published in 1640.
Bill worked a normal day in his printer’s shop on 14th January 2016. He had a problem with his leg but didn’t bother anyone about it. This was typical, as according to his brother, Bill had not visited a doctor between 1948 and 2015 and he only went in 1948 because the National Health Service had just started and his father took the boys for a free health check! He ran a bath and sitting on the edge his kind heart finally and peacefully took its rest. His brother found him there next morning.
The shop is now closed and the fittings will no doubt go to letterpress collectors or to auction. I feel sad that this delightful, Dickensian shop with its vintage machinery, which is a feast for the senses, will be open no more.
But mostly I feel sad that Cheltenham has lost a truly irreplaceable character. I, and many other customers I’m sure will miss him greatly.