From Lead to Laser: Printing Technology and the Coney Street Press

From the mid-nineteenth century the provincial press in Britain boomed. Newspapers were at the heart of Victorian culture and society, enabling mass communication of information and ideas in printed form.

As a contributor to the Printers’ Register noted in 1870, ‘Every city, town, village, and may we almost say hamlet, has now its local organ’. York was no different. By the end of the nineteenth century, the City of York had three main newspapers, two of which were printed on the iconic thoroughfare, Coney Street.

York Courant Office at 15 Coney Street, (c.1838)
Yorkshire Herald and Yorkshire Evening Press Offices, 15 Coney Street (1911)

The history of newspapers and printing news on Coney Street began much earlier, however, when the York Courant (est. 1725) moved to the street in the 1730s. In 1790 the York Herald was also established at number 15. Between 1813-1815 both newspapers and the premises of 15 Coney Street were purchased by the Hargrove family who, in 1882, set up the third and final paper on the street, the Yorkshire Evening Press.

The York Courant merged with the York Herald in 1848, but the Yorkshire Herald, as it became known from 1890, stayed on the street until the 1950s. The Press remained until 1989.

The Coney Street newspapers were a fundamental part of life in the city. These newspapers (as with the provincial press more broadly) are easily dismissed by historians and readers of news alike as fleeting, disposable objects. But the York papers were read by thousands of people each day, connecting the residents of York (and beyond) with the local community and broader British society through news reports, editorials, advertisements, reader contributions, and births, deaths, and marriages columns.

Creating these newspapers required specialist technology and the impressive skills of the printers, who were also based on Coney Street.

Herald Printworks on Coney Street (undated)
Sketch of a wooden hand press in William Skeen, Early Typography (1872)

Throughout the eighteenth century and into the Victorian period, the York Courant and the York Herald were printed using lead type and a wooden hand press. A skilled labourer could produce around 2,000 sheets in a 12-hour day using these presses. By 1814, newspapers including the London Times were being printed by a cylinder steam press, but the York provincial newspapers continued to use earlier technology.

The Courant finally upgraded its printing process when it purchased an iron Columbian press in 1827, designed by George Clymer from Philadelphia, but made in Britain. The Columbian became known for its impressive appearance. As Thomas Curzon Hansard, a printer who wrote a book on printing in 1825, insisted:

‘No British-made machinery was ever so lavishly embellished. If the merits of a machine were to be appreciated wholly by its ornamental appearance, certainly no other press could enter into competition with The Columbian.’
Thomas Hansard, Typographia (1825)

Despite the remarkable design of the Columbian press, a Napier press arrived on Coney Street in 1840. The Napier excelled the Columbian in terms of quality of product and speed of production. The York Herald, which had amalgamated with the Courant three decades earlier, was printed on the Napier press until 1877, when it was replaced with a Prestonian. The Prestonian press was a web-fed rotary steam press, the term ‘web’ referring to the rolls of paper that supplied the press. The Prestonian could print up to 10,000 folded sheets per hour and led to the rise of the ‘stop press column’, which allowed for the late insertion of news.

The final newspaper printed on Coney Street, the Yorkshire Evening Press, was produced on Crabtree presses. The Crabtree presses were in action for 38 years from 1951 to 1989. Crabtrees could produce a 64-page newspaper at the rate of 25,000 copies per hour. You can see footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive of printing presses from this era in action, which records the working practises of printers in West Yorkshire.

Printer and presses at work at the Yorkshire Evening Press (1982)

The advancement in the speed of production and mechanisation of the presses might seem worlds away from the hand presses used to produce the York Courant centuries before, but some of the key principles; a form of relief type, ink, and pressure on paper, ultimately remained the same.

Machine room staff at the Yorkshire Evening Press (1989)

The wheels of technological change were always in motion when the newspaper presses were based on Coney Street, as demonstrated by the developments in printing press technology over the 250 years that newspapers were produced there. When the Evening Press moved to Walmgate in 1989, the Crabtree presses and lino-type machines used to set the type for the press were all retired and replaced with laser technology and litho-machinery.

The rise of computers and then the internet was the real tidal wave for the industry. The two news articles below indicate the implications of new technology for York’s press, and the provincial press more broadly. The first was written retrospectively about the resistance to computers by printing staff in the 1980s. The second reported the moment in 1998, in the post-Coney Street era of the York Press, when the newspaper was launched in digital form. The Press continues to publish as both a printed and online newspaper today.

‘Farewell to Coney Street’ supplement, Yorkshire Evening Press, 1989
‘Press Ahead’ supplement, Evening Press, 1998

With thanks to the York Explore Archives, The Press (formerly Yorkshire Evening Press), and the Yorkshire Film Archive.

Further reading

  • William K. and E. Margaret Sessions, Printing in York from the 1490s to the Present Day (1976)
  • Van Wilson, York’s Golden Half Mile: The Story of Coney Street (2013)
  • Andrew Hobbs, A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 (2018)
  • Robert Davies, A Memoir of the York Press (1868)