The night a capsized ferry ended thoughts of an early cut


Compsing room overseer BOB CUMMINGS recalls the hubbub on the Daily Express in Manchester when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized outside Zeebrugge in March 1987 killing 193 people 

It was going to be a quiet night in the Manchester Express comp room. As usual on a Friday, most of the pages were full of features and holiday adverts and had been made up by the day staff or sent up from London. 

It was a difficult transition time because the comp room staff all knew their days were numbered – origination in Manchester was gradually dwindling prior to total abolition. The redundancy packages offered were extremely generous, the proviso being that there had to be no disruption before closure, otherwise the offer would be withdrawn. They had already seen the result of union negotiations at Wapping and Winwick Quay and had no illusions left.

As overseers supervising a staff who were looking towards the darkness at the end of the tunnel, motivation consisted of saying ‘you’re late’ when a shift trooped back in from The Edinburgh Castle or The Top Kings or The Wheatsheaf and giving them an early ‘blow’ as soon as it was reasonable to dispense with their services for the night. I seem to remember turning to my fellow officer that night and muttering ‘should be an early night’ or some such remark before the whole room took on a completely different atmosphere.

Then a sub came running into the room and excitedly informed us that we were going to scrap all the news pages and possibly some of the features as well. A ferry had left Belgium and there had been some kind of accident, new layouts to follow. 

The amount of work this would generate was immense. All thoughts of early cuts were abandoned, the lino lads (new technology, old keyboard layout ) ‘pulled their tripe out’ to use the expression current at the time. The stonehands, now ‘makeup artists’, and all the ancillary staff began to function with one aim only, to get the edition out as quickly as possible. I was due to be home for about 12.30 am. In the event it was closer to half past five in the morning and similar was true for all of us. 

Eventually it turned out that on Friday night, 6th March 1987, 193 passengers and crew had been killed due to the fact that someone forgot to close the bow doors. All we knew on the night was that there had been some tragic deaths and the news was constantly changing – as were the editions. For us it was a glimpse into the past when putting a paper to bed each night was an event of tension, excitement and every other emotion known to man. It also demonstrated that when push came to shove, in the Manchester Express Office, the editorial and comps could cooperate in a truly stunning way.

It is true to say that relations between composing room and editorial staff in Manchester were pretty good, unlike what we used to hear about the London office situation from subs sent ‘north of the wall’ who were quite often pleasantly surprised by the comp room atmosphere. We had interdepartmental cricket matches and both departments played bowls and golf on the same teams, not to mention the same watering holes of course. It all seems rather quaint in retrospect.

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