The Red Devil

Wednesday, December 12th 2018

Enlightenment & Amusement with Regard to York, its Surrounding Areas & the British Isles
York Spotlight
WITH EACH VOLUME OF HAUNTED YORK we shall endeavour to enlighten our most curious of readers by giving prominence to a mysterious (or at the very least, interesting) feature within the York walls.
    Given the imminent addition to this online journal of an account of the trials and ghostly tribulations of York’s own Laurence Sterne and his connection with the Stonegate located print firm of Ann Ward, it seems entirely appropriate that our initiatory entry should concern a printer’s devil.
    It is said that a red devil was the traditional sign for a print shop [1] and the very house of which the aforementioned Sterne took up residence features a most prominent and colourful example on the outside of its front face. Painted a bright red and sporting a black beard (although perusing old photographs leads one to imagine that this was not always the case) our guardian friend overlooks the entrance to Coffee Yard and marks an area that once housed not just printers but also associated trades such as guild craftsmen, goldsmiths and glass painters.
    Although the representation is literal, the actual printer’s devils were the young apprentices that would run errands within the print workshop, Such duties would include the preparation of printing ink and the general scurrying around with the metal typefaces used in the presses. A number of notions as to the origin of the term exist, the most likely being that upon the completion of a day’s labouring the poor young chaps (for they were almost always male) were covered in so much black ink that their superiors were reminded of the devil, a being often associated in those times with the colour black.
    A somewhat droll superstition has also been attributed to the appellation that affirms the existence of a precursor to the gremlin, a creature of supernatural origin that would deliberately alter the type within the presses to create misspelled words or even nonsensical sentences (I believe the entire editorial team here at Haunted York are familiar with the creature).
    An additional tale involves the rather dubious practice of Johann Fust, the business partner of Johann Gutenberg, the German printer responsible for the development of the printing press and subsequent European print revolution. Fust sold a number of copies of the bible to King Louis XI of France that he deviously claimed to be hand written, despite them being printed on a Gutenberg press. When the court officials noticed that all the individual letters were identical, something deemed to be beyond the capabilities of even the most experienced of calligraphers, they accused Fust of conspiring with the Devil. It did not help the matter that elements of the text had been printed using red ink, allowing a further accusation of the use of blood in the tome’s creation. Although imprisoned for this blatant act of sacrilegious behaviour Fust was later set free when the actual production process of the bibles was revealed.
    It is also worth noting that upon the end of a print run the typefaces used would be discarded into a receptacle known as a ‘hellbox’. It was the unenviable task of the printer’s devil to sort the letters and replace them in the housing repository known as the job case. It is unclear whether the fanciful appellation ‘hellbox’ stems from the nickname of the apprentices or vice versa (or indeed whether it was just a bloody awful job).


  1. An interesting peculiarity arose during the necessary research that is the inevitable lot of the screed in that the ‘traditional sign of the printer’ only seems to refer to the red devil in York. As yet I have been unable to find any other devil, either extant or recorded in history, that marks the premises of a printer. It is entirely likely that this is a shortcoming on the part of my investigation, and that despite the many hours of candle burning I have merely failed to achieve my goal. As such I beg not only forgiveness for this nonfulfillment of obligation but also humbly ask that should any forgiving reader have any knowledge of such a devil that they hastily impart their wisdom via the letters’ page.

Francis Scott King, 1895. Graphite on wove paper, the original is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
To continue your journey of discovery, hasten forth to our contents’ page!


Your guide to the wonders that await!
If you wish to share this article, please use the buttons below…