Unearthing York’s print history with Lizzy Holling

Once the beating heart of messages, traditional printing is now on the red list of endangered crafts. We sat down with alumna Lizzy Holling to dive into a tradition of printing that goes back hundreds of years in the City of York. We also explore Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print, a new centre aiming to preserve this ancient craft for future generations.

Nowadays, printing a message is as easy as opening a document, typing a sentence and hitting ‘print’. In as little as 30 seconds later, the nearby printer magically delivers the finished document in all its glory. While printing is easy work today, the traditional craft is an immersive task with a vibrant history that stretches back hundreds of years. 

“Print has been in York since around 1510.” explains Lizzy Holling, alumna and manager of Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print. “The first book printed in York was an ecclesiastical text nicknamed the ‘Pica’, Latin for magpie, due to the black text and the white page.”

For those unfamiliar with traditional letterpress printing, the general process is this: “Printers used to produce text and images from a relief process called letterpress,” Lizzy explains. “Metal type in Europe dates to the mid-15th century, and wooden type was introduced in the mid-19th century to produce larger, lighter type for printing posters and advertisements.” “You bring together your letters on the bed of a printing press, then ink and pressure is applied so the raised letters meet the paper. That’s how you transfer the words from type onto the page.”

During her studies at York, Lizzy helped establish the University’s printing studio in Derwent College. “I started at York in 2017, studying English. I got involved through an internship that was advertised to set up a printing studio on campus. Those six weeks turned into two years of involvement during my undergraduate degree.”

Equipped with a range of historical equipment, the printing studio on campus is a time-capsule of the past. “We like to think that if the creator of that first text printed in York, Hugo Goes, stepped into our studio, they would be able to print something. We’re using the same techniques that have been used through 500 years of printing history.

“We like to think that if the creator of that first text printed in York, Hugo Goes, stepped into our studio, they would be able to print something. We’re using the same techniques that have been used through 500 years of printing history.”

We wanted students learning about the early modern period to be able to get hands-on experience. To be able to learn and see how early books and texts were produced. For those doing creative writing, you get to see how constructing your words in a tactile way changes your relationship with them.”

Called Thin Ice Press, the Derwent studio is aptly named after an interesting tale from York’s print history. “There was an eccentric 18th century printer in York called Thomas Gent, who was rather entrepreneurial. He decided during the frost of 1739 to take a makeshift press onto the River Ouse and print some broadsides for the tourists. He formed quite a crowd, but then the ice started cracking and people fled away. According to records, it was all fine in the end.

Our name is an homage to this moment in York’s printing past. All ventures feel slightly precarious at times, but we are channeling Gent’s perseverance and a similarly entrepreneurial spirit.

Our name is an homage to this moment in York’s printing past. All ventures feel slightly precarious at times, but we are channeling Gent’s perseverance and a similarly entrepreneurial spirit.”

Lizzy returned to York in 2021 to manage StreetLife, a Community Renewal Funded public gallery bringing a pop-up print studio and work of researchers from across the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to a former retail unit on Coney Street. 

“One of our exhibitions is on DeLittle of York, one of the most successful and the last wood type manufacturers in the UK. The firm was founded in 1888 when Robert Duncan DeLittle patented his process for printing white wood letter type. He called the new wood letter Eboracum, the Latin word for York. They were based on Vine Street in York, until they closed their doors in 1996.

We’re working with the Type Archive to bring parts of this collection back to York. We have the office that was carved by the founder of DeLittle, a pantograph which was a machine used to engineer and manufacture type, and examples from the many, around 300, different styles of type they designed.

“We’ve also done some oral history work with people who have memories of working at the Yorkshire Herald newspaper on Coney Street. Wonderfully, there were two men who met as a result, who hadn’t seen each other since they were apprentices together. It was a really lovely, emotional moment.”

One man also had a wonderful story of when he was printing pamphlets for opposing political parties. He accidentally printed too many pamphlets for one party. As with many others who have worked at the newspapers in York, he dumped the type in the River Ouse, along with the excess prints he didn’t need. His boss arrived in the morning and threw open the doors leading to the river, only to find that the Ouse was plastered with the posters! They made the intern go out in a boat and scrape them all up.”

“His boss arrived in the morning and threw open the doors leading to the river, only to find that the Ouse was plastered with the posters!”

Today letterpress printing is on the red list of endangered crafts, meaning it’s at serious risk of no longer being practised. With the StreetLife project wrapping up earlier this year, Lizzy is now working with Professor Helen Smith and Nick Gill to co-found Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print, to continue bringing print to new audiences and helping preserve traditional printing for future generations.  

“We want to do all that we can to ensure that these skills are passed onto the next generation. Like so many things in history, it’s really important to learn about how we’ve communicated, and where this technology has come from.

“Like so many things in history, it’s really important to learn about how we’ve communicated, and where this technology has come from.”

Anyone can get involved with the York Centre for Print, from experienced printmakers to those who have never pulled a print before. We’re working with local printmakers and artists to run the centre. This means we’ve expanded our workshop offerings beyond letterpress to linocut printing, bookbinding, and risograph printing, and we aim to also offer intaglio in the future.

We’re currently using the old StreetLife venue as incubator space and our landlords have broken the lease. We have several irons in the fire, and we’re raising our moving costs through a crowdfunding campaign. We have our eyes on an amazing historic building in the city centre that would be a perfect home and allow us to maintain the momentum of all we’ve built to date.

I’ve found my passion in print. I really want to pass that enthusiasm on to others and share the importance of how we’ve communicated for hundreds of years, and help make a new future for heritage print.”

The York Centre for Print is crowdfunding to launch at a long term home next year, and currently offers a range of workshops, taster sessions, and memberships. If you’d like to find out more or make a donation, you can do so here.

Recommended Articles

2 Comments

  1. Are you able to visit , if so what is the address and the opening hours? Is there an exhibition?

    1. Hi Caroline,

      The York Print Centre Team are currently finalising the lease at their new location in Peaseholme Green (York) and hoping to open in February. There will be a website launching with full details of opening hours, events and exhibitions soon.

      If you like, I can pass on your email address to Lizzy who will be able to add you to the mailing list and share the website with you when it’s live?

      Best wishes,
      Maya (Alumni Voices team)

Leave a Reply