AFTER painting Swindon red, blue, green and every colour of the rainbow since 1999, Arkell’s signwriter Ron Harper hung up his paintbrush for the final time yesterday.
After 14 years of lovingly hand painting the pub signs that hang inside and outside all the brewery’s pubs, Ron retired alongside Arkell’s drayman Trevor Blackford, 65, who has served 44 years.
Brewery chairman James Arkell said: “The traditional art of pub signwriting is in danger of dying out; few breweries have retained their signwriters, but it’s still going strong at Arkell’s.
“We’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while now. So last year we took on Sara Bromley, an apprentice signwriter, so Ron can retire but our signwriting skills are retained. A painted pub sign is a good indication of quality within.”
Ron learned his craft in the 1960s when he became a signwriter for the Great Western Railway.
“I joined the railways as an office boy, then in the rivet-hotting department before being offered an apprenticeship as signwriter,” he said.
Ron’s training consisted of being given a palette, a stick and dipper, five brushes and told to practise.
“I saw how the other fellows did it and learned as I went along.”
Semi-skilled signwriters worked on the wagons, with the skilled signwriters being allowed on the coaches.
“You had to learn fast because we were paid piece-work,” said Ron, 69. “In the beginning the apprentices were supported by the skilled signwriters, and as we got better we supported the younger ones.”
In 1985, a year before the Great Western works hit the buffers, Ron left to set up his own signwriting business. He said: “When the railway works finally closed in 1986, men left in tears. For many it was the only life they’d ever known and for the older ones, job prospects looked grim.”
Luckily for Ron, his signwriting business prospered for some years, until the mid 1990s and the advent of cheap vinyl lettering, when his business dried up almost overnight.
His luck turned when Arkell’s signwriter Graham Compton dropped by to ask if he’d be interested in working for Arkell’s.
“I was offered the job on December 31, 1999. I started the following March and I’ve never enjoyed myself so much,” he said.
“I may not have painted the town red over the last few years, but I’ve painted thousands of pub signs.”