As described last time, I started with the idea of a simple update to a 25-year-old church history and ended up doing much more. Reading church minute books led to investigating denominational records, the site history, local newspapers and much else. Now it was time to turn my copious notes into a book we could afford to print and which people would find interesting. Having unpicked the story of the dissolution of the church in 1879 and its re-formation in 1882, I suggested a Centenary weekend whose highlight would be the release of my finished history. Now I had a deadline to work to.
In 1979 I was one of the first people to get a home computer, a Commodore PET. I bought a word processing program, name long forgotten, written in BASIC, so customisable. It allowed text to be edited, saved to and retrieved from cassette tape. Output was limited to a monospace font with full space justification. Very limited – the superscript references to footnotes were written in by hand using a Rotring pen – but what a step change from repeatedly retyping manuscripts. Over many weeks I typed up my notes creating the first rough draft.
I approached a printer near my office, Emberbrook Print, and explained what I had in mind – a saddle-stitched (stapled) A5 book. Just their sort of job. The church agreed to underwrite the print cost on the basis that selling the print run would return this. This all led to settling on a 72-page book (including covers). The extra cost of the four-page centre photo section was met by a former member. After allowing for prelims, pictures and footnotes, each section would, on average, be limited to around two pages, 800 words. Impossible given the extent of my notes!
For several years my best friends Brian and Margaret Pearce had made me welcome for coffee on Sunday evenings. Now these turned into editorial meetings. Brian, when not working as a college librarian was a writer and poet, and Margaret acted as a fearless editor of his work. Just what I needed! I took the decision to divide my account up by pastorate. A few people criticised this, as placing too much emphasis on the part ministers play in the life of a church, but I hope that my text has the balance right. Over several months, each Sunday morning I handed over a dot-matrix printout of the latest section, vastly over-long yet containing nothing that could be left out (or so I thought). The same evening over coffee I was presented with my edited text, English and punctuation corrected as necessary by Brian, large chunks marked for deletion in red by Margaret. A healthy discussion followed! With some sections this process was repeated several times.
Finally the text was complete but eight lines over length! On a beautifully edited text finding any content that could be removed was hard work, but we managed it. In the meantime a friend’s father, Edmund Heller, took professional photographs of the inside and outside of the church building and my good friend Arthur Burgess organised copies of the obit pictures of former ministers originally printed in Congregation Yearbooks.
Now to the final stage. To keep the price down, the book was to be offset printed from camera-ready copy. This was produced on a Qume daisywheel printer, hired at vast expense from a firm in Old Street, carbon ribbon onto coated paper. I took a week off to produce the page masters. The body text was relatively straightforward, but each page took about ten minutes to print – I watched patiently as the WP program fathomed out each line’s justification. The double column appendices were harder work: the sheet was loaded into the printer and its position carefully marked with a process blue (invisible to a litho camera) pencil before printing the left-hand column. Then it was a question of reloading the paper, lining up the marks and printing the right-hand column. Any previously-missed error on the output meant another ten minute wait but eventually I had a set of page masters.
The front cover uses an enlarged extract from the 1863 OS map. The cover text was supplied by Emberbrook in the form of Letraset-style strips (one per line) which removed the need to manually space letters.
Page masters delivered, I waited with a mixture of expectancy and apprehension. I need not have worried: I was (and still am) very pleased with the result, though of course it reflects the technology available to me at the time. For the centenary weekend we invited back all those former members we had contact with and it was a great occasion, with Rev Richard Hall, URC Thames North Moderator preaching at our Sunday morning service. I was touched that with the book being just hours old, he quoted from it in his sermon.
Will a future church history ever be published in book form? 2035 will mark the 200th anniversary of the formation of the church. But the reality is that it’s much easier to assemble a body of knowledge as a series of web pages which can be updated as new information becomes available and which are readily searchable.