Industrial revelation

A LEEDS factory which twice rose from the ashes faces its final end. PETER LAZENBY reports on the unique history of a firm which is part of the city's industrial heritage

NOT many manufacturing plants can boast an ecclesiastical stained glass window with saints looking down on the labours of the workforce.

Alf Cooke's printing factory in south Leeds can.

It's just one of the intriguing factors in the history of a firm which began life as a one-man operation in 1866 and grew to become a pillar of Leeds' industrial base as the city developed as a centre for the printing industry, alongside other staples such as coal mining, tailoring and engineering.

The window came from St Jude's church, which was built in 1853 and served the people of Hunslet until the 1950s. The previous two decades had seen a population shift with hundreds of families moving out of industrial south Leeds to Seacroft and other new residential areas built away from the industrial heartland of Leeds.

The congregation dwindled and the church closed. The Alf Cooke factory next door expanded onto the site after the church was demolished, and the stained glass window was saved and installed in the extension as a lasting memorial to St Jude's.

Alf Cooke's Crown Point factory is now known as M.Y.Cartons, and the factory's owners plan to close it down and transfer its work to another plant in Dewsbury Road.

Era

If, or almost certainly when, it closes next year an era will end for a firm which at its height was a self-contained community with its own social life.

There have been three Alf Cookes in the history of the firm.

The first was born in 1842, the son of a printer and stationer in Dewsbury Road.

Alf launched the business when he was 24, the same year that he married. His first "factory" was a rented shop and house in Hunslet Road selling stationery and newspapers and undertaking letterpress printing.

The printing industry was making rapid technological advances, and he installed his first lithograph press within 12 months. Colour printing was introduced in 1868. Early in the 1870s he bought premises on the east side of Hunslet Road, near Crown Point Bridge, to expand his printing operations.

It burned down in 1880. He borrowed 31,000 and started again on the west side of Hunslet Road. The new factory opened with 12 months.

In 1885 he was honoured by Queen Victoria with a Warrant of Appointment as "Her Majesty's Colour Printer."

Disaster struck again in 1894 when another fire destroyed the new plant.

Alf Cooke was on holiday in Scarborough at the time and a specially-hired train took him back to Leeds. That was when he built the present factory at Crown Point in Hunslet Road. It is a Grade II listed building. The Crown Point factory is a beautiful building, and is a testament to the vision of Alf Cooke. When it was built in 1895 it was described by The British and Colonial Printer as "the largest, cleanest, healthiest and most completely fitted Printing works in the World."

Alf was a remarkable man who took remarkable action when he felt it necessary.

He decided that the price of wet fish being sold by Leeds fishmongers was too high, so he commissioned a pair of Scarborough fishing boats, and began selling fish in a marquee next to the factory at three-halfpence a pound (less than 1p), half the price of the city's fish retailers, much to their chagrin. His sales line was "from net to customer" and hundreds flocked to the fish sales. The two fishing boats displayed "Crown Point" on their mastheads. He looked after his dad, giving him an office in the works, though Mr Cooke the elder did little other than look on in wonder at his son's achievements as the business grew.

Determined

Alf was very much a hands-on boss, determined to encourage his workforce to give of their best, especially the young apprentices.

He used to carry out a "captain's inspection" of the works every Saturday morning. Apprentices who had been doing particularly well, or who had polished their machines until the brasses shone would be given a shilling bonus by Alf. One shilling is today 5p. It might not sound much but this was in the 1800s and at the time the apprentices' weekly wage was four shillings, so the bonus was a 25 per cent boost to their income.

At the same time as running his business he was involved in the municipal life of Leeds, serving as a City Councillor from 1883, and he was Mayor of Leeds in 1890. Alf had two sons, Harry, and Alf junior. When he died at the age of 60 in 1902 they took over.

In 1931 the Duke of York, later to become King George VI, visited the factory.

Harry died in 1935. Alf junior continued running the factory. He had a son, also called Alf, who was expected to take over the factory when his father passed on. The young son worked briefly at the factory but went into the Army in the Second World War. Tragically, young Alf, a Lieutenant, pictured right, was killed in the late stages of the war. A portrait of him was hung in the company's office in his memory, and a scholarship was established in his name at Leeds College of Technology.

During the war the firm printed "escape maps" on silk, used by British airmen if they were brought down in enemy territory. Alf jr died in 1947 at 62, ending the family's involvement in the company.

Extension

In 1955 it bought the site of St Jude's Church. The church was over 100 years old. No services had been held since 1950. It was deconsecrated in 1954 and later demolished. In 1962 the factory extension was built incorporating the stained glass window.

Beneath the window is the inscription: "This extension to our works was added in 1962. It occupies the site of St Jude's Church which was built in 1853. Due to the gradual exodus of its congregation to the outskirts of the city the church ultimately fell into disuse and thus in 1954 was deconsecrated and finally demolished. This section of the east window of the church which you see marks its site for perpetuity."

By the 1960s the workforce numbered more than 600 and the factory had become a community with its own social life. It had its own football teams, table tennis teams, netball teams, ten-pin bowling team, all competing in local leagues. It had an ex-servicemen's association, a Twenty Club for staff with 20 years service and over. The Twenty Club had 78 staff having a total of 2,229 years service.

The firm produced a quarterly magazine with sports reports, long-service awards, births, marriages and obituaries. There were regular social events, and the celebration of the firm's centenary in 1966 was attended by the Lord Mayor of Leeds.

In 1978 the company put up 2,000 to provide apprentices with outward bound weekends learning rock climbing, caving, fell walking, orienteering, camping and survival, over five separate weekends.

One of the factory's products was paper bags. They provided the bags used by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise for Eric's "invisible object falling into the bag" trick.

Name

The Alf Cooke name disappeared from the company in 1981 after the factory became part of the Derby-based Bemrose Corporation. Although it became Bemrose Cartons, the factory remained Alf Cooke's to generations of Leeds printing workers, and does so to this day.

Today it is part of M.Y. Cartons with a workforce of 213. Its owners want to close the factory for good and 107 jobs are expected to be lost. The firm plans to transfer the rest to its other Leeds plant in Dewsbury Road district. When it does so it will close another chapter in Leeds' industrial history.