When it entered the century, DeLittle's factory in York was filled with noise and sawdust. Craftsmen, hunched close over their benches, were busy creating wood block type that would be used to print a million posters across the world.

Now, at the end of the century, the only noise is made by staff of a specialist removal firm dismantling the machinery. The plan is to rebuild the entire interior of the workshop inside a London museum.

This marks the end of the last working wood type manufacturer in the country, possibly the world. And it is also the conclusion of a chapter in York's illustrious printing history that began with the birth of Robert Duncan DeLittle in 1858.

He was one of a family of 15 children, and served as an apprentice in his father's printing premises.

After working for a Leeds newspaper as a compositor and engraver, he left York for Australia. While out there he patented a design for a new style of type, returning to York in 1888 to start his own business.

The Eboracum Letter Factory's first premises were on the site of the former Presto supermarket in Railway Street (now George Hudson Street), next to his father's works.

With five employees he began to carve wood type. This was lighter than its metal equivalent, and so was perfect for the larger printing jobs such as theatre bills, shop sale boards advertisements and railway posters.

By 1899, business was flourishing. The letters were manufactured to such a high standard that other firms tried to pass off their inferior product as DeLittle's. Every letter 'A' was stamped with the York firm's name after that.

The premises in Vine Street, off Bishopthorpe Road, were built at the turn of the century. And the firm was renamed Robert DeLittle Wood Printers Type Manufacturer.

Robert DeLittle was a genius, according to his grandson Robert James DeLittle, who joined the family business in 1950. "He always had an eye for design. Evidently, he could sit down and draw a fount freehand."

Many of those distinctive theatre variety bills across the country were produced with DeLittle type. Special tall, thin lettering was needed.

"If you were more important than the other chap, your name had to be in larger letters," explained R James. "If you were unfortunate enough to have a long-winded name you had great difficulty in fitting it into those narrow theatrical bills."

DeLittle's could produce type up to three feet in height. "Travelling on trains I used to see on the side of buildings 'God Loves You' in large letters and I would think, we made the blocks for that."

The founder's son, Robert Geoffrey, was 16 when he joined the firm in 1915. In 1938 DeLittle's celebrated its 50th birthday by giving all the workers a day off.

Three years later Robert Duncan died and Robert Geoffrey took the helm. He saw the firm safely through the war. Then, in 1950, disaster struck. An arsonist attacked the Vine Street premises. The fire could be seen for miles.

Much of the machinery was badly damaged and the roof was destroyed. Nevertheless, the factory was open again only 10 days later.

At its height, DeLittle's employed 28 people and sent its products around the world: Europe, America and Australia all used type from York.

The printers in one small Pacific island complained that their DeLittle's type was inferior. It turned out that one of the staff was 'borrowing' the letters to imprint names on concrete tombstones, damaging them as he did so.

The process of creating wood type has hardly changed down the years. DeLittle's bought French hornbeam or Canadian maple, because of its hardy quality, and cut it into pieces that were left to season in the timber yard.

It was then cut into type size, and one side was polished. The carving was done using a pentagraph machine. A craftsman traced around the template of a letter, and the pentagraph simultaneously created up to two letters in different sizes of the same design.

"It's a bit like patting your head and rubbing your chest," said R James. "You have got to be able to co-ordinate two hands. We couldn't employ anybody who was left-handed, that was the only thing - all the machinery was the wrong way round."

The type was then finished by hand and dipped in oil to harden it off.

An order of five and a half dozen letters in a basic fount could be completed in a single day.

DeLittle's also made Perspex lettering. York City fans will have seen the words and badge marking the David Longhurst Stand. That was created at the Vine Street workshop.

R James has also carved gift items from special wood, including some from Viking times, from the Ark Royal, York Minster and even wood reclaimed from the dais used by the Pope on his visit to York.

For the last three years he has been working alone. But the company once boasted a staff that included five people who had worked there for 50 years or more. It was a family firm in every sense.

"They seemed to get a lot of satisfaction from their work. You did produce something at the end of the day.

"And it would last many, many years. We have had type sent back to us with a request for replacement letters. When we checked our records it was from an original order sent out 40 years before."

Compare that to the built-in obsolescence of the computers that have destroyed the wood type industry. Robert James DeLittle is sad to see the end of the family business. He will supervise the workshop's reconstruction at the Type Museum in Stockwell, London.

It is taking everything, from the wooden type itself to catalogues of printing founts to a display created for the York 1900 celebrations. They will be probably placed in a room that used to house elephants and giraffes from London's circuses.

Once the contents of the Vine Street building have been stripped and shipped, Mr DeLittle will close the door for the last time. After 120 years, the sawdust will be left to settle in the silence.

Pictures please

The Evening Press is preparing a series of supplements telling the story of the century. If you have an old photograph that might be suitable for these publications, taken any time from 1900 on, please send it to Chris Titley, Evening Press, 76-86 Walmgate, York YO1 9YN, along with some details about the picture and your daytime telephone number. All pictures will be returned.

PICTURE: Robert James DeLittle with wooden printing blocks at his factory in Vine Street, York, which is closing down Picture: Mike Tipping