THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Alf Cooke (1842-1902)
The Queen’s Printer
In the 1890s a fine coach with gleaming brass fittings and a liveried coachman with a cockade was a familiar daily sight on the road through Headingley, taking Alf Cooke the printer from his mansion at Weetwood Hall down to his works in Hunslet. He believed in living in style.
Alf Cooke (he was never Alfred) was born in Hunslet, the son of a shopkeeper in Meadow Lane with a small stationery business. His upbringing was strict, maybe the source of his later determination and toughness. When he was 24 he married and set himself up in a small shop in Hunslet Lane, where he sold newspapers and stationery and did some letterpress printing. Ambitious to progress, he installed his first lithographic press a year later, making colour illustrations possible. He had the bright idea of printing picture almanacs for local shopkeepers to give their customers at Christmas. They were a sell-out. His business prospered and by the early 1870s he was able to expand into new premises near Crown Point Bridge. Around the same time he and his wife Annie moved from Hunslet to the more pleasant surroundings of Cottage Road, Headingley, with their five young children – five more were to follow. All went well until a terrible fire in 1880 gutted his works, leaving him with nothing. Undeterred, he borrowed enough money to buy another site in Hunslet Road and build anew. He proudly decorated the new entrance hall with plants and cages of songbirds.
He took on all sorts of jobs, from wrappers and packaging to advertising leaflets and posters, but increasingly he took an interest in coloured art reproductions, particularly portraits of the great and the good, for which there was a huge demand – there were no ‘celebrity’ newspaper photographs then. He commissioned artists to create the portraits and reproduced them in colour by the hundreds of thousands. In 1885 his portrait of Queen Victoria, framed in a wreath of roses, was a best-seller at home and abroad – 100,000 were distributed in Australia alone with the Christmas edition of the Sydney Evening News. His colour printing was admired for its high ‘artistic’ quality, and his achievements were crowned in 1885 when he was granted a Royal Warrant as ‘Chromolithographer to Her Majesty ’. From then on he styled himself ‘Queen’s Printer’ and enjoyed his new status to the full, moving further out to live in the historic grandeur of Weetwood Hall.
He took a leading role in Leeds as a Liberal councillor, and in 1890 was elected Mayor, later an Alderman and JP. He was known for his active charity work. In 1886 when harsh winter weather was causing terrible hardship to outside workers in Hunslet he opened a soup kitchen under his personal supervision. When he heard that Leeds housewives were being overcharged by local fishmongers he bought two Scarborough fishing boats himself and had the fish brought to Leeds for sale at much lower prices. These were practical, worthwhile schemes, and good publicity too! But a further blow awaited. In 1894 his works (ever vulnerable to fire) were burnt down yet again, leaving only a shell. He was not defeated and commissioned the distinguished architect Thomas Ambler to design a fine new building – galleried, with a glass roof, lit by electricity, ‘the largest, cleanest, healthiest printing works in the world’, the third Crown Point Works (with its own fire engine in readiness). This handsome building with its distinctive clock tower remains a familiar landmark on Hunslet Road.
Alf died in 1902 and his sons took over the business, expanding and diversifying into playing cards, posters, books etc. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with two others to become Universal Printers, later the Bemrose Corporation. Sadly the family connection ended when Alf’s grandson was killed in World War II, but for many years the firm kept its separate identity and preserved Alf Cooke’s name. The printworks closed in 2006 and awaits re-development.
Update 2016: In 2013 the printworks building (listed) was taken over and completely refurbished by Leeds City College for use as one of its campuses.