Thomas Gent

Thomas Gent
Thomas Gent © The Life of Mr Thomas Gent

Thomas Gent was born of humble birth in 1693 and throughout his lifetime published more than sixty works. He saw great success but also criticism, as he was known for producing ‘primitive’ woodcuts [1] but also local histories of Hull, York and Ripon that contain examples of personal observation and research not noted anywhere else.[2] Gent once preserved the history of the city and its surrounding areas therefore, alongside our project to establish a print studio, we believe it is fitting to share the story of a life shaped by the letterpress community of York.

History of Hull (Annales Regioduni Hullini)
History of Hull (Annales Regioduni Hullini)

4th May 1693: Gent was born in Dublin, Ireland, to English parents.

1707: At the age of 15 he became a printer’s apprentice in Dublin. He was mistreated by his master, Mr Powell, and entered into a relationship with one of Powell’s servants.[3]

1710: Taking inspiration from a schoolfellow who intended to travel to England, Gent decided to flee from his apprenticeship (having only served half the time). With one shilling, three penny loaves and his best suit, he moved to England and settled in London.[4]

1710-1713: His first employer was Mr Edward Midwinter of Pie Corner, Smithfield. He specialised in printing both pamphlets and broadsides. Gent initially had a difficult time at Midwinter’s establishment, being beaten and overworked.[5] Then, as Gent turned twenty, he was promoted as an apprentice and Midwinter began treating him as an equal. Soon after this, Midwinter received a letter from Mr John White. White was a York Quaker and printer who was searching for his own apprentice. Gent was initially reluctant to take the offer, but was begged by White who offered him the reasonable ‘181 shillings a year, with board and washing included.’[6]

20th April 1714: Gent began the long journey from London to York and it took six days as the majority of the trip was taken on foot. The printing business was located in Coffee Yard, Stonegate and on arrival Gent noted how ‘the door was opened by the head-maiden, who is now my dear spouse.’[7] The woman was Alice Guy, a servant of John White at the time.

1716: In this year Gent visited Ireland for the last time and saw his parents before they died. His correspondence with Alice Guy details problems with their relationship due to Gent’s work and location, and he even wrote that she must give up hope of his ability ‘to fulfil those tender engagements that had passed between them.’[8] After returning to England, and briefly working for another business, he returned to Midwinter. He had also earned enough money at this point to purchase his own pica font, albeit second hand, and his own small press.

1724: Gent moved to York permanently to marry Alice Guy, who had been widowed by Charles Bourne (the grandson of John White, who had inherited the York printing business in 1721). Thomas Gent and Alice Guy married at the Church of St Peters in December, and through this marriage Gent became the owner of the printing business.

1730: Gent expanded his printing business and published his own History of York, which gained 170 subscribers.[9]

Winter 1739: The Great Frost turned all the rivers of York into ice and Gent set up a press on the River Ouse (revealing the origins behind the name ‘Thin Ice Press’). Gent wrote about his experience:

‘The frost having been extremely intense, the rivers became so frozen that I printed names upon the ice. It was a dangerous spot on the south side of the bridge where I first up, as it were, a new kind of press, only a roller wrapt with blankets.

The event received many spectators, but the crackling ice soon caused the audience to flee.[10]

Verses on the frozen River Ouse, 1740
Verses on the frozen River Ouse, 1740. Image courtesy of the Chapter of York.

1742: Fragility was soon seen in other areas of his life, as the competition between other printers in York quickly caused a decline in Gent’s business. He began to quarrel with his landlord and was evicted from the Coffee Yard, so moved his business to Petergate and used a house he had purchased years earlier.

1746: Gent began his autobiography at the age of 53. It was discovered and published in 1892.

1st April 1761: Alice Guy died.

1762: His work began to decline. He published A History of the East Window of York Minster and the pamphlet “Historical Delights” but both received negative reviews and were said to be not at the standard of Gent’s previous work.[11]

19th May 1778: Gent died aged 87. He was buried at St Michael-le-Belfry, and tragically  this was against his own wish to be buried next to his wife and his infant son at St Olaves, Marygate.[12]

[1] Charles A. Federer, Yorkshire Chap-Books, (London: E.Stock 1889) 21.
[2] H. R. Tedder, Thomas Gent, (Oxford University Press 2004) 4.
[3] Robert Davies, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York with notices of authors, printers and stationers in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Westminster, Nichols and Sons, 1868) no page number.
[4] Thomas Gent, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York; Written by himself, (Printed by Thomas Thorpe, London 1892) 1-2.
[5] Charles Knight “Thomas Gent of York, Printer” The Penny Magazine of the Society for the diffusion of useful knowledge, April 10th 1841, 142.
[6] Robert Davies, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York
[7] Thomas Gent, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York, 19.

[8] Thomas Gent, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York, 85.
[9] Butler Wood, 7.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Thomas Gent, Mr Thomas Gent, Printer of York, 205.
[12] Butler Wood, Thomas Gent: Printer, Bookseller and Bookmaker, 11.

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