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Preserving the past…for the future*

Thursday, 31 August 2017
By James Cryer

ASOOF members mingle with the Museum’s volunteers.

Earlier this week, a dozen dubious-looking characters assembled outside what looked like a replica of one of Glenn Murcat’s award-winning corrugated-iron sheds, out in the back-blocks of Penrith. 

No, this was not some shady group of undesirables meeting for nefarious purposes. This was the illustrious Australian Society of Old Friends (ASOOF) meeting, which was being held at the famous Penrith Museum of Printing.

Newly-rejoicing over its recent $70K’s worth of refurbishment, kindly donated by industry supporters, the Museum – proudly run by a dedicated band of volunteers, was keen to thrown open its doors on this beautiful, sunny spring day.

And what a display! Without doubt, this is the finest collection of working letterpress printing presses in the country and probably the Southern Hemisphere.

With no thanks to governments – who can find a lazy billion to relocate the Powerhouse – the Museum has struggled on, with little or no government assistance but with lots of TLC from a tight-knit group of loyal supporters and the half-dozen gentlemen who, like retired train-drivers, just can’t stay away from their lifelong love affair with their chosen trade.

What these men have done is nothing less than remarkable. Working sometimes with only the aid of an oily rag – literally to lubricate the presses! – these men have breathed life back into great hunks of iron which otherwise would have disappeared forever from our collective consciousness. That would have been a tragedy, given the very foundations of our industry were built upon the letterpress process.

The idea of the Museum came about when a local, Allan Connell, former employee of ‘’The Nepean News’’ looked through the window of the closed-down building and saw the old Wharfedale press from the 1880s (see video) and an old Linotype machine from the same era. By chance – as sometimes happens – he tracked down what must have been a very rare breed, indeed – a Linotype mechanic, in the form of the late Neville James, who performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and literally restored them back to life.

Since then, the Museum has grown in size and stature and today it ranks as the absolute jewel-in-the-crown, in terms of being Australia’s premier ”home” of working letterpress machines.

We should never forget that print was virtually the only medium of mass communication and these giant Iron Horses pumped out everything from brochures to books and of course – newspapers. In fact, many country towns had not just their own printery, but a newspaper! And the local buildings probably shook to their very foundations as Wharfedales and Meihles around the country pumped out the local newspaper, which you had a whole week to read before the next edition ”hot off the press” came out.

The Museum will be officially re-opening soon, and holds training courses for anyone who’s interested and hopes to raise badly-needed revenue from these programs.

I’m sure there are printing companies in Sydney, and elsewhere, who may wish to become partners or sponsors in some way – the Museum would certainly welcome all the support – and publicity, they can get. Perhaps even the PIAA could lend some support, especially in navigating their way around obtaining government grants?

But more than that, I believe the Penrith Museum of Printing is a slender but vital link to our past: a reminder of our once craft-based origins. In our modern, anodyne age of press-buttons, we like to pay lip service to that word, “craft.” Why not create some award or other recognition dedicated to letterpress printing? Just a thought.

On behalf of the Australian Society of Old Friends, I salute the efforts of these volunteers for reviving and promoting the almost lost art of letterpress printing.

Special thanks to Stephanus Peters of Pegras, and to Scott Telfer, president of ASOOF, for helping to organise the event.

[James Cryer is secretary of the Australian Society of Old Friends (ASOOF)]

* The motto of the Penrith Museum of Printing.


One Response to “Preserving the past…for the future*”

  1. September 01, 2017 at 5:36 pm,

    Nathan Wakefield

    This is fantastic!
    I wondered what had happened to the museum as I live “just up the hill” in the Lower Blue Mountains and pass that area all the time.
    Great to see an old workmate in the photo – Peter Butterworth!
    I will make sure I enrol in a course once they start back up.

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