York is the setting for authors and libraries, for book fairs, archives, and literature. But this was also a place where they once really were made, printed, and sold. The characters of the book trade have printed themselves onto its streets, which are written all over with signs. Reading the second chapter of York’s literary history reveals a city making book history.
A printer’s devil grins away on the corner of the snickelway from Coffee Yard – York’s longest – just where it swings round into Stonegate. Flaming red, the small creature crouches in the jutting shadow of number 33’s eaves. It marked the premises of a printer. The sign’s name was shared by the apprentices of twelve or thirteen years of age. Handling the hot printing plates, their helping hands would be branded black with ink. More sinisterly, this title may also have referred to their being in cahoots with the mischief-making Titivillus that crept nightly about print shops. It was his devilish dark arts with the metal type, workers believed, that misspelled or stole away whole words under cover of darkness. But the ink-stained apprentices got the blame. York’s own hoofed devil is now held fast to the wall by a chain around his waist. When passing by, it could, even now, be fateful to catch this smiling devil’s eye.
With a bookish history reeling back through the centuries, Stonegate once was known for being ‘the street of the printers.’ Ducking past the devil, it is the snickelway, which cuts between this and Grape Lane – a street keeping its own, shady secrets – that contained printing presses. Following their invention publishing was, much like today, concentrated in the capital. Over 200 miles away, however, this northern city became only the fourth in England to possess one. 1510 bookmarked a new page in York’s history. That day, Hugo Goes printed the first book recorded as being made north of Oxford – an ecclesiastical calendar set in movable type on a wooden press. Each page of his Pica took an exhausting day to set by hand. In the late 1400s a foreign stationer began his printing activities here, whilst 1516 marked the first official registration of a York-based printer. The King’s Printers brought Charles I’s own travelling press close to the Minster’s east end just over a century later. And this city was also home to one of, if not the, earliest female printers in England. For much of the 1600s, printing was still officially limited to London, Cambridge, Oxford, and to York.
Back out on the street, the old printing shop watched over by the printer’s devil is neighbour to number 35. A bible is suspended above the doorway of this dwelling. Emblazoned with the year 1682, and painted with a gold-tooled jacket, this wooden book was another signpost for those lost in the streets. This, the signature of Francis Hildeyard’s ‘The Sign of the Bible’, overhangs what was once York’s very best bookshop. ‘The topping man in that city’ according to John Dunton, Hildeyard had lived through seven royal reigns by the time of his death in 1731. His shop passed from his son to John Hinxman in 1757, and then to business partners John Todd and Henry Southeran. Hitting on an intoxicating combination – books and brandy - Henry would later move to the square at the bottom of Stonegate. A book-selling spirit merchant, here ‘he mixed the sweets of learning’ with a ‘fragrant whiff’ of giddy alcoholic fumes. Another – Todd’s youngest son George – would never really recover from battling the flames of the Minster fire of 1829. The shop’s catalogue of 1751 numbered a miscellany of some 30,000 volumes. Among its curiosities were theological texts, as well as those of anatomy, divinity, physick and, of, course, novels.
It was here that Laurence Sterne’s classic was published. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a higgledy-piggledy book ‘written’, the author pens in his dedication, in this ‘bye corner of the kingdom.’ When the manuscript was turned down by a London publisher, it was John Hinxman who sold this ‘lean edition, in two small volumes’ that had been run on one of the city’s printing presses. ‘For as I live in York, and shall correct any proof myself, it shall go perfect into the world’ Sterne explained in 1759. It paid off. On release, the bookshop’s steps were ‘besieged for days by eager purchasers’. Throwing the city ‘into a perfect commotion’, T. P Cooper notes, this eccentric book sold two hundred copies in just two days. Some reviewers loved the haphazard novel; others despised it. But, when the writer himself hunted for a copy three months later, he found that ‘there was not such a Book to be had in London either for Love or money.’
Tristram Shandy’s voluminous ‘history of myself’ makes for a madcap read. Unborn for the first two volumes of his own story, the protagonist wriggles his way out of narrating his birth in a fictional act of escapology. When ‘brought forth’ at last ‘into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours’, he tells of ‘pitiful misadventures and cross accidents’ with balletic ease. Writing gangly sentences that stretch for pages, Shandy turns linguistical cartwheels with words such as ‘galligaskinish’. There are chapter-headings with no text, marbled pages randomly inserted into the book, and pages completely blackened by ink – all to befuddle his readers. It was only when this novel proved lucratively popular, then, that the following volumes were transferred to London for publication. When number 35’s very last literary tenant – Robert Sunter – left the shop in 1873, it was his death concluded nearly two centuries of bookselling virtually unrivalled by other provincial premises. Wander the street today, however, and you’ll find that traces. Even the old doorsteps trodden by these authors, booksellers, and purchasers alike.
A goddess drapes herself over the corner where Petergate, which runs perpendicular to Stonegate, and Minster Gates meet. Mulling over a stack of books with an owl at her shoulder, Minerva has reclined here in York for over 200 years. Carved for John Wolstenholme in 1801, the statue designated his shop: the ‘Sign of the Book’. The only one left on this street today is the Minster Gate bookshop, with its five creaky, crookedy floors. Other of the city’s vanished book signs included the Crown, the Angel and Bible, and the Pope’s Head. At the very top of these cobbles, which were once also named Bookbinders’ Alley, stationers kept shops huddled round the Minster’s South Transept. John Foster’s alone, which was built into one nook west of the great door, stored 3,000 books. Stonegate had become, then, ‘the chief haunt of old-time booksellers and publishers’; the city, ‘a great book centre.’
York’s a place underwritten by its associations with books. A muddle of booksellers and printers, of stationers, bookbinders, ink makers, and paper-stainers worked in this flourishing trade on the very same street. In signposting its business with books over centuries, the city continues to tell their never-ending narrative.