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History of Gray’s Printing Press and John Dunlap

Written by
James MarksMid Ulster Volunteer, National Trust
Interior view of Grey's Printing Press, County Tyrone, where the large metal Columbian Printing Press stands in the middle of the attic room. There are other presses and display cases against the walls.
The Columbian Printing Press at Gray's Printing Press | © National Trust Images

Did you know that the American Declaration of Independence was first printed by a man from Strabane? Gray’s Printing Press is a treasure trove of history that tells the indelible story of ink, galleys, presses and emigration. Discover how the Fourth of July is founded on Tyrone talent through the legacy of Gray's Printing Press.

Printing in Strabane

Gray’s Printing Press was first listed as a printing press in the mid-18th century. Located behind a shop front in the heart of Strabane, the family-run business provided books, pamphlets and newspapers to its local communities.

Alongside others, the County Tyrone business outcompeted many printing presses across the UK and Ireland, which allowed it to play a significant role in the local economy.

John Dunlap, apprentice printer

A young Strabane native, John Dunlap, took advantage of the opportunities that this created. Arriving at the press as a young apprentice, Dunlap gained essential skills and an intricate knowledge of the printing process from an early age.

With 12 printing presses in Strabane, we don’t know exactly where John Dunlap obtained his apprenticeship. But as Gray’s is the last one standing, we have taken the liberty of calling him our own.

Voyage to Philadelphia

After completing his training, Dunlap set his sights across the Atlantic. John joined his uncle William in Philadelphia, who was an established printer and bookseller in the region. In 1766, William became a minister and transferred the printing business to his highly trained nephew.

Now having full creative control, Dunlap developed and expanded the small family business. In 1771, he started the publication of a weekly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet and by 1778 had made it into a tri-weekly paper. On 21 September 1784, he began publishing it as the first daily newspaper in the US.

Dunlap’s methods and practices from his time in Strabane proved critical in the expansion and reputation of his business. In 1773 Dunlap secured a contract with the Continental Congress. This would turn out to be a critical deal, resulting in the young apprentice from West Tyrone becoming one of the key players in world history.

Commemorative printed leaflet for the opening of Gray's Printing Press to the public in 1966, mentioning the legacy of John Dunlap
Printed leaflet commemorating the opening of Gray's Printing Press to the public in 1966, mentioning John Dunlap | © National Trust/Mervyn Robb

The Dunlap Broadside

In 1776, Dunlap’s office was responsible for printing the Declaration of Independence. Two hundred copies were printed from Thomas Jefferson’s original manuscript and circulated to all 13 colonial assemblies. These became known as the Dunlap Broadside.

Dunlap became a key player in the push for American independence. He went on to fight alongside George Washington in the battles of Trenton and Princeton for the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry.

The Declaration not only announced the birth of the USA but expressed theories which have become dynamic forces throughout the world. There were 56 signatures added to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence – three of these men were born in Ireland and five others had Irish parents.

Strabane in West Tyrone has exclusive ties to many significant people, including the grandfather of President Woodrow Wilson. His cottage sits only a couple of miles from Strabane.

Continued success

Until 1789, when the Federal Government was founded, Dunlap continued as printer to the Congress and was also responsible for the printing of the US Constitution.

John Dunlap’s migration to his new country was a real success story. When he died in 1812 aged 66, he had amassed a large fortune, held 98,000 acres in Virginia and Kentucky and owned land in Ohio. Dunlap also played his part in military affairs during the War of Independence.

John Dunlap's legacy

Though it's hard to pin John Dunlap down to Gray’s Printing Press, its story of inks, galleys and presses pave the way for the historical context to American Independence, famously celebrated across America on 4 July each year.

This little building, which represents the printing trade in a small border town, helped a man from Strabane to rub shoulders with America's founding fathers.

Interior view of Grey's Printing Press, County Tyrone, where the large metal Columbian Printing Press stands in the middle of the attic room. There are other presses and display cases against the walls.

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