Picture this. You are the sixth generation member of a family that has run a firm for 176 years. You take over as chief executive and nurse the business through good times and bad. Then you sell it — only to see the administrators called into the premises and most of the staff made redundant less than six months later.

Exactly that has happened to William Alden, who, with his father John, guided the Alden Press through recessions in the 1970s and early 1990s. He sold the business to the HenDi Group in June this year, but this week saw administrators KPMG arrive at the company’s Witney plant in De Haviland Way — where about 120 people were employed.

Arthur Gachowski, operations director of the HenDi Group, which employed another 40 workers in London, told The Oxford Times: “We could not extend our borrowing with the bank.”

Employees at the company were told an administrator had been appointed following consultations with the bank, Lloyds TSB. About 14 staff are being kept on at Witney, and 11 in London.

And so one of the county’s oldest printing companies, founded in 1832 to produce anti-slavery literature, was blown on to the rocks at the very start of this economic downturn, having survived so many earlier recessions.

Mr Alden said: “I am heartbroken, shocked. After all, it is a very good business.”

And then he added: “I would like to see what I can do —perhaps come back. I don’t want to raise hopes of staff or anyone else, but I would like to speak to the administrator.

“ I feel my father looking down at me and saying ‘Don’t think you can get out of it that easily’.”

He said: “The workforce was always remarkably loyal, and I don’t want to belittle what they are going through now, but this is a loss to me too in many ways, including financial, as I am a preferential shareholder.”

He remembered how, in the 1970s economic downturn, the workers had actually voted for a pay cut.

He added: “I think it is counter-intuitive for a family to hang on to a business too long.

“My sons were not going to take over, which is why I sold the business. But one of the saddest things, after the sale, was the lack of consultation. I was a non-executive director until I resigned at the start of November, but I was not consulted and there was never a board meeting.”

He said: “Of course it’s disappointing. I haven’t entirely written off the idea of coming back.”

Mr Gachowski confirmed that HenDi Group workers in Witney had not been paid for November.

Mark Orton of KPMG, appointed this week as joint administrator, said: "It is unfortunate that Alden HenDi has become a victim of the current economic climate. It is a particularly difficult time in the printing sector.”

He added that the redundancies were “disappointing, but unavoidable”.

Mr Alden, former chief executive, moved the company to Witney from Osney Mead, Oxford, in 2006. The new offices were officially opened the following year by Opposition leader and Witney MP David Cameron. Before that, Alden had been second only to Oxford University Press as the oldest representative of Oxford’s oldest industry. Until the advent of car making in the early 20th century, printing was the city’s largest employer.

Alden Press occupied its Osney Mead offices for 40 years. Before that, it had a long period of expansion, moving to ever-larger premises.

It started in 1832, when Henry Alden, a devout Baptist, used an inheritance to buy enough printing equipment to publish his own anti-slavery pamphlets. The business prospered. It published Oxford’s first guide book, Alden’s Oxford Guide, which remained in print until the end of the 20th century.

In the 1920s, the company established a reputation as a book printer, forming a close relationship with the publisher Jonathan Cape. The company later added academic journals and commercial colour work to its list of specialist capabilities, while investing in new technologies along the way.

In 1841, Henry Alden started the Bocardo Press near the site of the old prison (in which the martyrs Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer had been held in the 16th century), but that name vanished in 1926, when the business moved westwards to its next site in Binsey Lane, off Botley Road.

Witney industry is certainly taking some early knocks in the early days of this economic downturn. The arrival of the administrators at Alden Press follows closely on the heels of a similar event at another Witney company, Windrush Frozen Foods, which last year employed 75 people at its depots in Witney, Long Hanborough, and Park Royal (London).

Administrative receivers BDO Hayward have been appointed at the frozen food company, which turned over £28m a year. Its offices, at the Network Point Industrial Estate, were also opened by Mr Cameron in 2007.

The secretary of the Witney Chamber of Commerce, Iris Guntrip, said the news was worrying, but added: “Apart from Woolworths going into administration, Witney’s retail is doing well. Footfall has even increased since the development at Woolgate .”

Earlier this year another Witney firm, timber-frame house builder Stewart Milne, made 78 workers redundant as a result of the slump in the industry.

That redundancy programme contributed in September to a ten per cent jump in the number of Oxfordshire people claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. In October there were 4,563 jobless claiming benefit in Oxfordshire compared to 3,417 in the same month in 2007. And West Oxfordshire’s proud record of having one of the lowest unemployment figures in the country must surely be at risk.