Etched in the past: ILN engraver Brian Williams

I recently met former Illustrated London News engraver Brian Clifford Williams at his home in the Essex town of Billericay. An extremely pleasant and cheerful man, he immediately welcomed me with a warm handshake and a cup of tea, and we soon sat down to talk about the fascinating experiences he had working for ILN.

8 May 2015

by Patrick Wingrove

Brian Williams

Brian Williams in 1951 and in 2015

Brian, at the age of 15, found his first job at The Illustrated London News through his father, John Lionel Williams,  a “jobber” employed to bundle up magazines and do various other odd jobs. “I thought, Dad’s there, he’ll find something,” recalls Brian. “Sure enough, he did. He got me a job by chatting to his friends in the pub! That’s how it worked back then.”

Brian began working for The Illustrated London News as an errand boy, running messages, sweeping the floors, buying meat for the guys he worked with and, on one occasion, was sent to Scotland Yard to have an image for the magazine approved. He left a year later to begin an apprenticeship with Lascelles, the company that printed The Illustrated London News and its sister titles (known as the Great Eight publications).

As we talk, he transports himself back to the small printing factory on London’s Essex Street more than 60 years ago and recalls the constant and tremendous smell of vinegar and the scolding heat of the burners: “The images were burnt into copper plates with the help of Bunsen burners, ready to be transferred to that week’s edition of The Illustrated London News. They’d be cut on a guillotine to fit the pictures, and when finished with were washed in an acid bath ready to be printed again… You go back to Essex Street now and you wouldn’t believe that a factory was once there with this going on!”

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An example of a copper-plate etching, given to us by Brian

Brian worked side by side with a team of specialists to ensure that The Illustrated London Newsand Great Eight publications were filled with magnificent etchings and photographs on a weekly basis. There were dozens of jobs at Lascelles and the factory roared with the mad rush of glass cleaners, camera operators, metal printers and managers.

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Brian Williams, fourth from right, with his work colleagues at a company event

Brian also met a few celebrities while he was at Lascelles: “One day, they were making a film there – they liked the building’s doors, which were lovely. The guy being filmed was Dana Andrews, the famous 1940s actor. A while before that, I also met the actor Sam Kydd, who was a legend in his day.”

After years of working with Lascelles, Brian was called up for his National Service and served in Libya for more than a year: “I went into the Army and they told me I might be good as a guardsman. But I ended up in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), which was the unit responsible for keeping the British Army supplied with all its provisions. We called it the ‘Run Away Someone’s Coming’ army!”

Brian Williams

Brian Williams in the Royal Army Service Corps

In 1958, Brian finished his time in the Army and left Lascelles a little while after that, finding employment at a different printing company. Although he loved his time with The Illustrated London News and Lascelles, he felt he had learned all he could and that it was time to move on. He got married in the same year he left Lascelles, has had several children and grandchildren, and will be celebrating his 80th birthday this month.

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