Thomas Gent

Thursday, December 13th 2018

There, when the Winter’s children, bleak and cold,
Are through December’s gloomy regions led;
The church-yard tale of sheeted ghost is told,
While fix’d attention dares not turn its head.

Or if the tale of ghost, or pigmy sprite,
Is stripp’d by theme more cheerful of its power,
The song employs the early dim of night,
Till village-curfew counts a later hour.

from ‘Content’ by Thomas Gent

lluded to within what I sincerely hope is the diverting prose that constitutes our article on The Red Devil is the entrance to Coffee Yard, named for accommodating York’s original coffeehouse in the 17th century. The area subsequently became home to the business owned by printer and publisher Thomas Gent and, if the reader will indulge our desire for continuity of theme, we hereby present enlightenment as to the particulars of this most notable historical inhabitant.
    Born in Ireland in 1693, Gent is oft described as eccentric, although in truth the man’s only eccentric element appears to be the rather charmingly naive woodcuts he produced for his various publications. Although apprenticed as a printer in Dublin in his youth the unfortunate nature of an initiation rite for a printer by the name of Mears in Blackfriars, London seems to have created a temporary antipathy toward the industry and he left to become a labourer. [1]
    Patently recovering his wits, Gent moved to York shortly after and took up employment with John White, no less a gentleman than the King’s printer for York. During this period he became acquainted with Alice Guy, the upper maiden to his employer’s wife Grace and became decidedly smitten with her. Unfortunately for our hapless suitor she decided to marry Charles Bourne, the grandson of John White. Far be it for us to assume any kind of lofty judgement appertaining to the proceedings, but with Alice being in the employ of Bourne’s grandfather it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the poor girl was in some way deferential in her decision. But none alive today were there to bear witness so we must, in all good conscience, assume that she was a willing participant in the matrimonial arrangement.
    That said, upon the demise of Mr. Bourne in 1724 Alice appeared, some might say rather disrespectfully, to waste no time in hurrying Gent’s return to York and marrying him. As such, Gent acquired the print business that he’d always aspired to and as a result assumed responsibility for York’s first ever newspaper, the York Mercury. [2]
    At this juncture we must cast our minds northwards to the mighty city of Newcastle, wherein lay the established print business of none other than John White the younger, son of John and Grace and publisher of the Newcastle Courant. Decidedly irked by the circamstances that resulted in Gent taking over the family business in York as oppose to himself, White Jr. happened upon the notion of establishing his own print business and publishing a rival paper entitled (rather unimaginatively) the York Courant. [3]
    Consequently Gent, who although an experienced tradesman was, by judgement of his peers, a bit rubbish, became painfully aware of the potential for his fortunes to decline, a feeling no doubt exacerbated by the death of his and Alice’s only child in 1926. By way of response he began to write and publish historical works; The York Mercury ceased publication in 1928 but A History of York appeared in 1930, two years after and with further histories of Ripon and Hull following in 1733 and 1735 respectively. In addition, 1734 was blessed with the publication of Miscellanea Curiosa, Or Entertainments For The Ingenious Of Both Sexes. Or not so blessed as the publication was a commercial failure.
    As was originally feared, the period following the birth of 1740 saw a diminishing of Gent’s status and after suffering the loss of his lease on both the print premises and also his house, Thomas Gent was forced to move to a residence in nearby Petergate where his publishing output significantly decreased. A number of publications covered religious themes and poetry and he became known for his output of chapbooks. [4]
    At the risk of generating a morbid state of melancholy amongst those readers with a more sensitive disposition it must be duly documented that the ill-fated Thomas Gent’s fortunes did not improve. Following the passing of his cherished Alice on the first day of April 1761his income continued to decline and he suffered from ill-health. Benefactors in the form of friends allowed him to continue what had become a somewhat miserable existence, until he joined Alice on the 19th day of 1778 and was buried opposite York Minster at St. Michael-le-Belfry.

  1. According to Gent’s memoirs the right seems to have been instigated by the ‘chapel’ , an internal brotherhood common amongst printers at the time and whose role was to establish regulations to maintain the employees discipline:
”…I was obliged to submit to that immemorial custom, the origin of which they could not then explain to me. It commenced by walking round the chapel … singing an alphabetical anthem, tuned literally to the vowels; striking me, kneeling, with a broadsword; and pouring ale upon my head: my titles were exhibited much to this effect, ‘Thomas Gent, baron of College Green, earl of Fingall, with power to the limits of Dublin bar, captain general of the Teagues, near the Lake of Allen, and lord high admiral over all the bogs in Ireland.’ To confirm which, and that I might not pay over again for the same ceremony, through forgetfulness, they allowed me godfathers, the first I ever had before… and these, my new pious fathers, were the un-reverend Mr. Holt and Mr. Palmer.”
  2. The inaugural issue of TheYork Mercury was published in February 1719 by John White’s wife, Grace, who inherited the print business after her husband’s death.
  3. Established in Stonegate, the first issue of the York Courant was published in either August or September 1725.
  4. Chapbooks came into being in the sixteenth century as a result of booklet printing becoming affordable and were chiefly used for the dissemination of popular culture amongst the less privileged members of society.

Artist unknown.
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