fonds SOY - Sessions of York Archive

Identity area

Reference code



Sessions of York Archive


  • [1900-2010] (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

7.25 cubic metres

approx. 376 boxes, 9 oversize folders, 20 rolls and assorted artefacts

Context area

Name of creator


Administrative history

Sessions of York was founded in 1811 by Quaker William Alexander (1768-1841). Advertising himself initially as a publisher, bookseller and stationer, Alexander published his first four books in 1811 in collaboration with his brother in law Henry Tuke and went on to publish over 200 books, largely on Quaker subjects, by 1839.

His eldest son, William Henry, joined the firm in 1813 but left in 1826 to join the family bank. He was replaced by a new apprentice, George Hope, who was to continue the bookbinding and stationary part of the business after William Alexander’s death in 1841.

However in 1839 the printing, publishing and bookselling part had been sold to John Lewis Linney, a Quaker printer from Ripon, and there followed a succession of Quaker owners of what would eventually become Sessions of York. Linney moved the business to 15 Low Ousegate, York, and continued to print there until 1851 when he sold the business to James Hunton. It was sold again in 1854 to William Simpson and then in 1858 to Thomas Brady, before being bought in 1865 by the 22 year old William Sessions (1843-1886).

William Sessions had come to York from Gloucester to be apprentice to Quaker grocer Joseph Rowntree. As such he knew little of printing and spent time at White & Pike in Birmingham to learn the trade after purchasing the business. Under his management the previously struggling firm began to make a steady profit and by 1878 the firm had five regular employees.

William Sessions died prematurely in May 1886 when his son, also William, was only eight years old. The business was continued by his widow, Mary Sessions née Haughton, until William II reached the age of 16 and was able to begin learning the family trade. In 1894 Mary oversaw the relocation of the business to a larger premises at 30 Coney Street, enabling the installation of bigger and more modern printing machinery. Within a year however the machines had to be moved to an additional site on Spurriergate where the noise would be less disruptive. The Coney Street site continued to act as the shop and home of the Sessions family.

William II took over the full management of the business in 1897 when he was nineteen and became a full partner at the age of twenty-one. In 1907 he made the decision to give up the Coney Street shop and the retail side of the business, despite its profitability, in order to focus fully on printing. In that same year he purchased a large building in North Street and this became the Ebor Printing Works, known from 1920 as the Ebor Press, which would go on to produce books, brochures and board games over its long history. From 1909 the business produced a regular journal, ‘The Ebor Business Monthly’, advertising its products to prospective customers.

In 1910 the firm made its first foray into label printing, producing a letterpress advertisement for York Shopping Week. In 1914 William II developed a successful scheme to produce gummed commodity labels to sell to grocers and foodpackers. Following the introduction of sugar rationing in 1916, he introduced a new sugar label condensing the complex instructions of the government’s ‘Sugar Distribution Scheme’ in such a way that the firm was soon overwhelmed with orders.

The success of this venture led to the firm specialising increasingly in label design and printing and business continued to grow. In 1919 Mary Sessions stepped down as a director and the firm was formed into a private limited company as William Sessions Ltd, moving to a newly built factory outside of central York on Huntington Road. At that time the company consisted of Composing, Letterpress Printing, Die Stamping, Bookbinding, General Bindery, Warehouse, Office and Studio departments.

In the 1920s, as the company’s label printing expanded, they began to show at the British Industries Fair in London. Sessions had three embossing machines for printing embossed seals by 1923 and in 1925 the factory was extended. The company began to take on more full time salesmen and in 1928 Herbert Hall joined the company as Works Manager, a position he held until 1966 when he became Works Director. In 1928 the company established a Works Council to represent all sections of the business, to organise welfare and social activities and address grievances, a feature also introduced at the Quaker owned Rowntree confectionary company. A Savings and Share Purchase Scheme was introduced in 1926 and the company pension fund was established in 1932.

In 1937-1938 the factory was extended again in response to growing demand. In the latter year William II’s son, William Kaye Sessions, joined the family business as Buyer and Office Manager after an education which included a tour of American and Canadian printing factories.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 brought changes to the factory, as William Kaye Sessions was despatched to London for war work and once again the company began producing aids for the government rationing system. The first was the company’s ‘Grocers’ Ration Records’ scheme, but this was soon followed by similar schemes for other trades and sectors who found themselves subject to the new restrictions, in addition to general informational leaflets and booklets.

In 1946 William Kaye Sessions, known as Bill, was made Managing Director, with his father continuing as Company Chairman. In 1947 the firm developed their first self-adhesive labels, working under the patents of their American inventor Stan Avery. By the 1950s Sessions was selling their self-adhesive labels across Europe and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand and in 1956 Sessions became the official Avery Franchise Holder for Great Britain and Ireland. From 1959 the company also began selling imprinting and hand operated labelling machines, largely sourced from overseas, and a Machine Products Division was set up in 1960 to service these, headed by John George. At this time the company employed around 170 people. In the 1970s the Machine Division began work on labelling machines with electronic controls and in the 1980s it began to sell computer controlled matrix printers. By 1985 the Machine Division accounted for 15 per cent of the company’s total sales.

William Kaye’s eldest son, William Mark Sessions, joined the firm in 1966 and was appointed Managing Director in 1976, the same year he became President of the York Printing Industries Association. He later became a member of the Institute of Printing. The company had expanded into a new purpose build office block alongside the main factory in 1970 and in 1972 and 1974 new warehouses were built to house company stock. In 1980 another extension was erected to house the sheet printing division and in 1985 William Mark formed Colourbright Designs Ltd to design, produce and market a new range of coloured collectors item stickers.

The company also expanded in York itself, purchasing a majority share in H. Morley & Sons Ltd, the oldest continuing printing company in York, in 1972 and renaming it Jackson Morley Sessions Ltd. In 1978 the business was moved to the main Sessions site on Huntington Road and reorganised into the Ebor Press Division, whilst the original Morley site in Grape Lane, York, became The Copy Shop Plus. In 1980 Sessions also acquired the UK subsidiary of label printing company Soabar Marking Systems Ltd from Avery International.

By the 2000s the company had three divisions, label printing, labelling machinery and commercial printing. However the fall in the value of the pound and the consequent rise in paper costs as a result of the global recession in the early twenty-first century made it increasingly difficult for the firm to continue.

The business went into administration in 2010 and the three divisions were separately sold. The commercial printing division was acquired by Leeds printer Technoprint, the self adhesive labelling division by Paragon Print and Packaging Group of Spalding, Leicestershire, and the machine division by York businessman Adrian Barraclough.

A replica of a Sessions of York shop can be seen in York Castle Museum.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The archive was deposited at the Borthwick Institute in 2010. Further additions were made to the archive in 2011 and 2012.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Directors’ Meeting reports, 1999-2000, 2005; memorandum on strategic planning, 1983; profit and loss accounts, 1998-2000; records of Machine Division, including accounts and business plans, 1988-2001; records of Label Division, including business plans, 1994-2003; records of Commercial Printing Division, including accounts and business plans, 1988-1994; records of Roll Label Division, including accounts and business plans, 1988-1994; sales tip sheets, 1967-1981; tip sheets, 1986-2010; general correspondence, 1950s-2000s; health and safety policy and reviews, 2000s; papers concerning Sessions winning Exporter of the Year at the Evening Press Business Awards, 2002; records relating to Colourbright Designs Ltd, 1986-1989; records relating to Quakers United in Publishing, 1986-1998.

Publicity material, including notes from a 1967 meeting of the Advertising Committee, editorials and articles on Sessions products in packaging magazines, 1975-1997, brochures, proofs, press cuttings, correspondence, photographs and other related material.

Records relating to books and other materials printed by Sessions, 1950s-2000s, including correspondence, accounts, notes, proofs, photographs, press cuttings and other material.

Historical notes and papers concerning the history of Sessions and the British Printing Industries Federation, Sessions personnel, and the Quaker faith, 20th century.

Additional unsorted material.


Further accruals are not expected.

System of arrangement

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Records are open to the public, subject to the overriding provisions of relevant legislation, including data protection laws. 24 hours' notice is required to access photographic material.

Conditions governing reproduction

A reprographics service is available to researchers subject to the access restrictions outlined above. Copying will not be undertaken if there is any risk of damage to the document. Copies are supplied in accordance with the Borthwick Institute for Archives' terms and conditions for the supply of copies, and under provisions of any relevant copyright legislation. Permission to reproduce images of documents in the custody of the Borthwick Institute must be sought.

Language of material

  • English

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Includes slides. Access to audiovisual material may be restricted due to technical requirements, please contact the Borthwick Institute for more information.

Finding aids

The archive has not yet been catalogued, please contact the Borthwick Institute for further information.

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Existence and location of copies

Related units of description

The archive of William Kaye Sessions, Managing Director of Sessions of York, is also deposited at the Borthwick Institute (Reference: WKS).

A collection of books from Sessions, including publications issued by Sessions and books on book and printing history, are held by the University of York Library as part of its Special Collections. The books can be found by going to the online library catalogue: Select 'Advanced Search' and then select 'Provenance' in the drop down menu and search for 'Sessions Book Trust'.

Related descriptions

Publication note

William Sessions Ltd, 'Sessions of York and their printing forbears' (York, 1985).

Notes area

Alternative identifier(s)

Access points

Place access points

Genre access points

Description control area

Description identifier

Institution identifier


Rules and/or conventions used

ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2000); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).

Level of detail

Dates of creation revision deletion

Created by S. A. Shearn, 21.03.17.




Accession area