Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gent, Thomas (1693-1778)
GENT, THOMAS (1693–1778), printer, was born in Ireland on 4 May 1693, ‘of meek and gentle parents … rich in grace, though not in shining ore’ (Life, p. 23). His father was an Englishman, descended from a Staffordshire family. About the age of thirteen Gent was apprenticed to Powell, a Dublin printer, ‘a Turk’ and ‘tyrant,’ with whom he ‘strove to live’ three years (ib. p. 26). He absconded from his master, and arrived in London during August 1710, and got employment with Edward Midwinter of Pie Corner, Smithfield, a producer of ballads and broadsides for hawkers. Here he stayed three years, and then did ‘smouting’ or jobbing work for one or two other printers. Afterwards he went to John White of York, leaving London on foot on 20 April 1714, and performing the journey in six days. He remained at York a year, when the fact of his having run away from apprenticeship became known. His old master, Powell, drove him from Dublin when he visited his parents. In 1716 he was working for Midwinter in London again. Gent was made a member of the Company of Stationers on 9 Oct. 1717, and admitted to the freedom of the city by virtue of his service with Midwinter (Gent, Historia Compend. Anglicana, Preface, p. 1). He worked with William Wilkins of Little Britain, a proprietor of newspapers, and subsequently with John Watts, printer, of Covent Garden, known as the partner of Jacob Tonson and the employer of Benjamin Franklin. Gent left Watts to enter the service of Francis Clifton, a Roman catholic, with whom he paid a mysterious visit to Dr. Atterbury at Westminster about some illicit printing (Life, pp. 87–90). Clifton issued for Gent a satirical jibe upon his fellow-workmen, entitled ‘Teague's Ramble,’ 1719 (reprinted by Owen, Univ. Mag. i. 194). He resumed employment with Midwinter, and set up an abridgment of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ 1722, 12mo, with thirty woodcuts from his own rude designs. Together with Clifton and Midwinter he incurred suspicion for printing seditious libels. He opened an office in Fleet Street, and produced some books, besides Grub Street ballads and other compositions of his own, among them ‘A Collection of Songs,’ ‘The Bishop of Rochester's Effigy,’ &c. In 1724 he printed a Latin ode on the return of George I from Germany, and ‘Divine Entertainments,’ a book of emblems, with woodcuts, the last work he did in London of any consequence. The secret list of printers in London and Westminster presented to Lord Townshend in 1724 enumerates ‘Gent, Pye-Corner,’ among those ‘said to be high-flyers’ (Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, i. 303). Among his employers were Henry Woodfall and Samuel Richardson. On 10 Dec. 1724 he married Alice, widow of Charles Bourne, printer of York, whose business he had taken up. On 23 Nov. he issued the first number of the ‘Original York Journal,’ which he continued with an altered title to 1741 (Life, p. 193). He had now a fair prospect of commercial success, being the sole printer in the city and county of York. Newcastle was the only town in England north of the Trent which possessed a printing-press and local newspaper. Gent met with opposition from John White, a relative of his wife, who set up as printer in the city, but suffered more from the effects of his own quarrelsome temper. The first of his York printed books was a sermon by Thomas Clarke, 1724, 8vo. Two years later he issued several translations by John Clarke, schoolmaster in Hull. In 1730 appeared the ‘History of York,’ the first of his own works there printed and published. Proposals had been circulated the previous year, and a list of about 170 subscribers obtained. The ‘History of Rippon,’ on a similar plan, came out in 1734. About 16 June of the same year he set up the first printing-office at Scarborough. ‘The Pattern of Piety,’ with seven grotesque woodcuts, is the only known production of this press, which had no success.
Perhaps the earliest attempt to establish a serial in a country town was ‘Miscellaneæ Curiosæ’ (1734), a quarterly, devoted to ‘enigmas and mathematical questions.’ It only ran to six numbers. The projector was Edward Hauxley, a grammar school master. Gent printed and partly edited it. Next year his ‘Annales Regioduni Hullini’ came out, and six years later (1741) his quaint ‘Historia Compendiosa Anglicana.’ His temper did not improve with a failing business. At Martinmas 1742 he removed to a house in Petergate, where the first work produced was a poem of his own on St. Winifred. His curious shop-bill or advertisement of 1743 is reproduced by Charles Knight (Shadows of the Old Booksellers, 1865, p. 99). About eight more books were printed when Gent brought out the prospectus of a ‘History of the Ancient Militia in Yorkshire’ (1760), which never came to anything. He was now in great poverty, and in 1761 was reduced to presenting a puppet-show of the tragedy of ‘Jane Shore.’ On Wednesday, 1 April 1761, his wife died, and in 1762 he published a ‘History of the great Eastern Window in York Cathedral,’ with many miserable woodcuts, the poorest of his topographical books. While passing it through the press he had to peddle lists of carriers, and to beg for alms. His last publication appears to have been ‘Judas Iscariot’ (1772), ‘originally written in London at the age of eighteen, and late improved at eighty.’ The last twenty years of Gent's life was one long struggle against want and disease; he died at Petergate, York, on 19 May 1778, in his eighty-sixth year, and was buried in the church of St. Michael-le-Belfry. He had only one child, who died at the age of six months (Great Eastern Window, p. 184).
His personal appearance, showing luxuriant hair, flowing beard, and irritable face, is believed to be admirably portrayed in the well-known mezzotint (1771) by V. Green, after a picture by N. Drake, which was painted and exhibited for his benefit. Mr. J. Chaloner Smith describes another print by Pether (British Mezzotinto Portraits, pp. 555–6, 983). There is an uncouth woodcut representing the printer sitting under a shelf full of his works, with a fiddle hanging on the wall. An engraving of his press in Coffee Yard, York, is given in many of his books; it is reproduced by Davies (York Press, p. 232).
His poetry is beneath criticism, but his topographical publications are still of value and in demand. They are not mere compilations from earlier writers, but are full of minute examples of personal research, and contain many descriptions of objects now lost. He ‘studied music on the harp, flute, and other instruments.’ His ‘Life’ is very interesting, and deserves to be reprinted in its entirety. It is full of odd facts about printers and printing, quaint traits of character and curious gossip, throwing light on manners and habits in the early eighteenth century. Davies (ib. pp. 144–232) describes sixty-nine books printed by Gent, and the list is still incomplete. Besides the small pieces mentioned above Gent wrote: 1. ‘Divine Entertainments, or Penitential Desires, Sighs and Groans of the Wounded Soul,’ London, 1724, 12mo (verse; dedicated to the Princess of Wales). 2. ‘The Ancient and Modern History of the famous City of York, and in a particular manner of York-minster,’ York, 1730, small 8vo (a later edition with the same title has additions and alterations). 3. ‘The Antient and Modern History of the loyal Town of Rippon, besides Travels into other parts of Yorkshire,’ York, 1733, 8vo (contains a poem on Studley Park, with a Description of Fountains Abbey by Peter Aram, father of the murderer). 4. ‘The Pattern of Piety, being the Spiritual Songs of the Life and Death of Job,’ Scarborough, 1734, 12mo (verse). 5. ‘Annales Regioduni Hullini, or the History of the royal and beautiful town of Kingston-upon-Hull,’ York, 1735, 8vo (two editions; among the subscribers was Mr. Eugenius Aram; ‘a facsimile of the original of 1735, with life by Rev. George Ohlson,’ was printed at Hull, 1869, 8vo). 6. ‘Pater Patriæ, being an elegiac Pastoral Dialogue, occasioned by the Death of Charles Howard, Earl of Carlisle’ [York, 1738], 12mo (verse). 7. ‘Historia Compendiosa Anglicana, or a Compendious History of England, as likewise a succinct History of Rome, annexed an Appendix relating to York,’ York, 1741, 2 vols. sm. 8vo (the appendix contains life of St. Robert of Knaresborough, account of Pontefract, Pater Patriæ, Britain in Tears for Queen Caroline, review of the churches in York, and other pieces). 8. ‘The Holy Life and Death of St. Winifred, and other religious Persons,’ York, 1743, 12mo (in verse, five parts, and an epitome; some copies of this and others of Gent's pieces were collected together and issued with a title as ‘The Pious and Poetical Works of Mr. Thomas Gent’). 9. ‘The Contingencies, Vicissitudes, or Changes of this transitory Life, set forth in a Prologue spoken for the most part 18th and 20th February, 1761, at the Tragedy of Jane Shore, with a benedictive Epilogue of thanks’ [York, 1761], 8vo (in verse; ‘price 3d., but left to the charity of the gentry’). 10. ‘History of the famous great Eastern Window in St. Peter's Cathedral, York, previous thereto the History of Histories, likewise a Chronological Account of some Eminent Personages,’ York, 1763, 8vo. 11. ‘Divine Justice and Mercy displayed, set forth in the Birth, Life, and End of Judas Iscariot,’ York, 1772, 12mo (reproduced as miniature 4to reprints, No. 1, S. & J. Palmer , 12mo). 12. ‘Historical Antiquities,’ a translation into English, with some additions, of Dr. Heneage Dering's poem, ‘Reliquiæ Eboracenses’ [York, 1772?], 8vo (rudely printed on coarse paper, without title; it was never regularly published, see Life, p. 208, and Davies, York Press, pp. 220–1). 13. ‘History of the Life and Miracles of Jesus Christ,’ York [n. d.], 12mo (verse). 14. ‘Piety displayed in the Holy Life and Death of St. Robert, Hermit of Knaresborough,’ York [n. d.], 12mo (there is a second edition with additions). 15. ‘The Life of Mr. Thomas Gent, Printer of York, written by himself’ [edited by the Rev. Joseph Hunter], London, 1832, 8vo (written by Gent in 1746, in his fifty-third year; the manuscript was discovered by Thorpe the bookseller in a collection from Ireland; many interesting passages used by Davies are entirely omitted by the editor).[Gent's own life is the chief source of information; the original manuscript is in the possession of Mr. Edward Hailstone, who also owns Gent's manuscript book of music, as well as the most extensive collection of his publications known. See also R. Davies's Memoir of the York Press, 1868; Life by the Rev. George Ohlson (see No. 5 above); Southey's The Doctor, 1837, iv. 92–131; Ch. Knight's Shadows of the Old Booksellers, 1865; The Bibliographer, ii. 154–7; Upcott's English Topogr. ii. 1356, 1376, 1411; Gough's British Topogr. ii. 428; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. ii. 217, 7th ser. i. 308, 356, 436, 471, ii. 149, 218, 329.]