Pressing ahead with printing works’ closure

AT one time Unwins’ printing works at Old Woking employed up to 200 people, but these photos show it during its final days after the presses fell silent.

Richard Christophers, an archivist at The Lightbox, gained access to the works and took these photos 12 years ago.

Unwins’ interior at closure

At that time, there were a few people still working on the firm’s final products and security staff were on the site. Richard said the building appeared somewhat dangerous, as the roof was falling in!

In one photo, cardboard boxes can be seen stacked up along with printed material on wooden pallets. Another shows someone’s old desk with a few items still on it, while sections of shelving next to it have already been ripped out.

There was a large mural on the history of printing which occupied a whole landing and Richard captured it for posterity in nine photos, one of which is seen here.

The Unwins’ mural on the history of printing

The story of Unwins does not start in Woking, but in Ludgate Hill, London.

It was there that Joseph Unwin started his business in 1826. After his death at the age of 52, the firm was taken over by his sons Edward and George.

In 1871, Unwins opened a new factory alongside the Tillingbourne Stream at Chilworth, not far from Guildford and near the famous gunpowder works. It was named the Gresham Press and a number of Unwins’ London employees transferred there, initially lodging with the locals.

The firm established The Greshambury Institute at the works in 1880 to further educate the workforce and as a place for them to socialise. There were classes in electricity, agriculture, science and art, as well as evenings of readings, singing and instrumental music.

A disastrous fire in 1895 destroyed the works and the foreman’s house. He and his family escaped unharmed, but afterwards they retrieved the remains of a mangled tin whose contents were a number of gold sovereigns that had been fused together by the heat of the fire.

An office space left desolate after Unwins’ closure

Unwins then took over a disused paper mill close to the River Wey at Old Woking. The firm partially rebuilt the mill with a characteristic brick façade in what has been called “a Flemish style”.

It was named The Saint Martha Printing Works, after St Martha’s Hill and church above Chilworth. The print works was extended in the 1930s, 1959 and 1966.

Unwins was a leader in print techniques and technology. It printed a wide range of books, magazines, directories, academic journals and trade guides. In 2007 Unwins merged with another print firm and production was moved to Chessington.

The Old Woking building and the site has been redeveloped as Gresham Mills, which features more than 80 apartments.

If you have some memories or old pictures relating to the Woking area, call David Rose on 01483 838960, or drop a line to the News & Mail.

David Rose is a local historian and writer who specialises in what he calls “the history within living memory” of people, places and events in the west Surrey area covering towns such as Woking and Guildford. He collects old photos and memorabilia relating to the area and the subject, and regularly gives illustrated local history talks to groups and societies. For enquiries and bookings please phone or email him at: davidrosemedia@gmail.com

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