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Leeds: a history in print

We’re a print management company based in Leeds, and when you think about it, there’s no more appropriate city in the country in which to work in our industry. Print has been a major part of Leeds’ economy since the industrial revolution, and continues to influence the city to this day. In this article we’re going to take a look at Leeds’ history in print and find out how the industry shaped the city during one of the most important periods in British history.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution, as you’ll no doubt remember from school, was the time when the UK transformed from a rural nation of small-scale producers and ‘cottage industries’ to a mechanised country at the forefront of technological innovation. New manufacturing processes, clanking machines and busy factory floors replaced the pastoral bakers, tailors and carpenters’ shops of the past, paving the way for today’s world of big business and venture capitalism.

Britain’s cities were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, and no more so than in the North of England. Cities including Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Stoke-On-Trent were to become almost unrecognisable over the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, expanding and transforming in the white hot heat of industry. Sectors including textile manufacture, mining, agriculture, machine tooling, paper manufacture and printing were embracing contemporary technologies – changing city life and industrial working conditions for good.

Alf Cooke

In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution brought improved transport links in the form of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the railways, a massive boom in population and – by 1893 – city status. Local man Alf Cooke was to capitalise on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, turning his printworks into one of the most successful business ventures of the time.

Alf Cooke’s printing business was founded in 1866, and from the very start seemed beset by bad luck. Cooke’s printworks burned to the ground twice in the space of 20 years, but the entrepreneur wasn’t about to be deterred. His third and final printworks, built on Hunslet Road, was described at the time by the British and Colonial Printer as ‘the largest, cleanest, healthiest and most completely fitted printing works in the World‘. Built in 1895, this final printworks remained active until 2006, and today houses the Printworks Campus of Leeds University.

Despite his earlier setbacks, Cooke’s printing business was to become a rousing success. In 1885, just 19 years after founding his business, Cooke’s printworks were officially appointed ‘Her Majesty’s Colour Printer‘ by Queen Victoria, helping to cement Leeds as the centre of print in the UK. Cooke was seen as such an influential figure in the city that he was made mayor in 1890. The business continued to thrive under the stewardship of Cooke’s sons following his death in 1902, producing (among other things) a range of hugely successful playing cards under the guise of the Universal Playing Card Company Limited.

Alf Cooke’s legacy remains today, and Leeds continues to be an important centre for print in the UK. PMG Print Management are based in Leeds, and we’re proud to be a part of a city so historically linked to our industry. If you’d like to transform your own company’s relationship with print, contact us today and find out about how our print management services can help.

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