Pickets’ memory lane is just a walk up the creek

Jul 09, 2021 at 11:40 am by admin

Who’d have thought it – that the once-polluted Milton creek I recall, makes a sailing mag’s best boating destinations.

With a paper mill at one end and one making newsprint at the other, the southeast English waterway I recall in the 1960s was anything but delightful.

In the UK’s Yachting Monthly (May), Nick Ardley talks of of a quiet anchorage where seals and wading birds abound, but flash back to 1968 when the dispute at regional publisher Parrett & Neves was in its second year and it’s a different picture altogether.

For a start Milton creek – reached via the Swale from the estuary of London’s mighty river Thames – was anything but pretty. The “industrial powerhouse” to which Ardley refers included not only bricks, cement and barge-building, but also papermaking and by then, the bleeding edge of newspaper production.

Parretts – who had local newspapers along the Kent coast, since sold or closed – had switched from a unionised letterpress plant in nearby Chatham, to a new factory at Milton’s Crown Quay where Goss Surburban (and later Urbanite) web-offset presses had been installed and – whisper it – trendy typist “chicks” were keying content and classifieds for the new phototypesetting machines.

The National Graphical Association – later to be partners with SOGAT in the 1986 dispute over Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping print site – were incensed but even pushing newsprint barges out into the creek didn’t secure them a victory.

As the war of attrition rolled on, some of the pickets found alternative work, among them a couple of linotype operators who spent a few days setting type for my widowed mother – who was running the local paper in neighbouring Sheerness after my father’s sudden death and prior to my joining the company – and three on the picket line.

I rocked up to the family business in 1968 – as editor at 21 – and watched from the sidelines as Graham Parett’s family business took on an additional challenge, battling with the rival Kent Messenger group, with each launching an evening newspaper. One promotion I recall was the KM’s Evening Post inserting an offset-printed supplement with pictures from the moon landing, inside their letterpress paper. In the end it was the Evening Mail which had to take down the neon sign which would have been visible from the creek.

Once making paper for publisher Edward Lloyd, the Sittingbourne mill – demolished in 2010 after last occupant Metsä Serla sold up, and now the site of a supermarket – was connected to the newsprint mill on the banks of the Swale by a private steam railway with rolling-stock that apparently still attracts attention. Predictably, newsprint has now given way to packaging papers.

I’ll look forward to walking past the part-dismantled minesweepers and cocooned spritsail barges Ardley mentions, one day when border restrictions permit, and perhaps navigating the creek itself.

And perhaps the water will be a little clearer and cleaner than the florid red I recall from the days when the creek made news.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Disputes in Sittingbourne and Warrington preceded Rupert Murdoch’s 1986 fight with print unions in Wapping


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