Charing Cross and Neighborhood

By W. Roberts.

John Millan was one of the most famous of Charing Cross or Whitehall booksellers, for he was located here for over half a century, dying in 1784, aged over eighty-one years. Richard Gough drew the following picture of Millan's shop in March, 1772: 'On my return from Westminster last night, I penetrated the utmost recesses of Millan's shop, which, if I may borrow an idea from natural history, is incrusted with literature and curiosities like so many stalactitical exudations. Through a narrow alley, between piles of books, I reached a cell, or adytum, whose sides were so completely cased with the same supellex that the fireplace was literally enchâsse dans la muraille. In this cell sat the deity of the place, at the head of a whist party, which was interrupted by my inquiry after Dillenius in sheets. The answer was, he "had none in sheets or blankets." . . . I emerged from this shop, which I consider as a future Herculaneum, where we shall hereafter root out many scarce things now rotting on the floor, considerably sunk below the level of the new pavement.' Millan was succeeded by Thomas and John Egerton, the latter being 'a bookseller of great eminence'—the Black-letter Bookseller of Beloe—whose death occurred in 1795. 'It was in his time,' says Beloe, 'that Old English books, of a particular description both in prose and verse, were, for some cause or other—principally, perhaps, as they were of use in the illustration of Shakespeare—beginning to assume a new dignity and importance, and to increase in value at the rate of 500 per cent.' Another Charing Cross bookseller, Samuel Leacroft (who succeeded Charles Marsh), died in 1795, and it is rather curious that John Egerton was a son-in-law of Lockyer Davis, whilst his neighbour was an apprentice.

Of Samuel Baker, whose shop was in Russell Street, Covent Garden, we have already spoken in our account of book-auctioneers. One of his early—May, 1747—catalogues (not auction) comprises the libraries of Dr. Robert Uvedale, and of this divine's son and namesake, also a D.D., of Enfield; it enumerates over 3,000 items. Thomas Becket (an apprentice of Millar, and Sterne's first publisher) and P. De Hondt were successful Strand booksellers; the former finally settled himself in Pall Mall, and was one of the first to make a speciality of foreign books, of which he imported large quantities between 1761 and 1766. C. Heydinger, of the Strand, was a German bookseller who issued catalogues from 1771 to 1773, and who died in distressed circumstances about 1778. Henry Lasher Gardner, who died at a very advanced age in 1808, was a venerable bookseller, whose shop was opposite St. Clement's Church, Strand; he published catalogues between 1786 and 1793. William Otridge, at first alone, and afterwards in partnership with his son, issued catalogues from the Strand during the last quarter of the last century. In 1726 Joseph Pote was selling books at the Golden Door, over against Suffolk Street, Charing Cross. John Nourse (died 1780), bookseller to his Majesty, was another celebrated bibliopole of the Strand, and is described by John Nichols as 'a man of science, particularly in the mathematical line.' Francis Wingrave succeeded Nourse.

One of the most celebrated booksellers of this neighbourhood during the last half of the eighteenth century was Tom Davies, who sported his rubric posts in Russell Street, Covent Garden, and who was driven from his position as actor in Garrick's company by Churchill's killing satire:

'He mouths a sentence as curs mouth a bone.'

In spite of satirists, the verdict of his contemporaries is ratified, so to speak, in voting Tom Davies a good fellow. Dr. John Campbell described him as 'not a bookseller, but a gentleman dealing in books'; and the Rev. P. Stockdale described him as 'the most gentleman-like person of that trade whom I ever knew.' Dr. Johnson said he was 'learned enough for a clergyman,' which was an equivocal compliment, for the clergymen of the period were not, as a rule, learned. Davies was generally talkative, but at times quite the reverse, and sometimes uttered pious ejaculations. Between 1764 and 1776 Davies sold a number of interesting and valuable libraries—those, for example, of William Shenstone and William Oldys. Davies, like many other contemporary booksellers, was fond of scribbling, and was the author of 'Memoirs of Garrick,' and other books.

Probably the most famous bookseller of the Strand is Thomas Payne, who for over half a century (1740-1794) was selling books in this locality. 'Honest Tom Payne' started business in or about 1740, for in February of that year he issued a catalogue of 'curious books in divinity, history, classics, medicine, voyages, natural history,' etc., from the 'Round Court, in the Strand, opposite York Buildings.' About ten years later (January, 1750) he had removed to the Mews Gate to a shop shaped like the letter L, which became one of the most famous literary resorts of the period. Just before leaving Round Court, Tom Payne issued a sort of clearance catalogue, comprising 10,000 volumes, 'which will be sold very cheap.' The Mews Gate was near St. Martin's Church, and probably close to the bottom of the new thoroughfare, Charing Cross Road. It was at this shop that all the book-collectors of the day most congregated, for it was to Tom Payne's that the majority of libraries were consigned—e.g., those of Ralph Thoresby, Sir John Barnard, Francis Grose, Rev. S. Whisson, and many others whose names are now nothing but names, but who were at the time well-known collectors. Tom Payne's customers included all the bibliophiles of the period. 'Must I,' asks Mathias in the 'Pursuits of Literature'—

'Must I, as a wit with learned air,
Like Doctor Dewlap, to Tom Payne's repair,
Meet Cyril Jackson and mild Cracherode,
'Mid literary gods myself a god?

There make folks wonder at th' extent of genius
In the Greek Aldus or the Dutch Frobenius,
And then, to edify their learned souls,
Quote pleasant sayings from The Shippe of Foles.'

Mathias describes Tom Payne as 'that Trypho emeritus,' and as 'one of the honestest men living, to whom, as a bookseller, learning is under considerable obligations.' Beloe, in his 'Sexagenarian,' states that at Tom Payne's and at Peter Elmsley's, in the Strand, 'a wandering scholar in search of pabulum might be almost certain of meeting Cracherode, George Steevens, Malone, Wyndham, Lord Stormont, Sir John Hawkins, Lord Spencer, Porson, Burney, Thomas Grenville, Wakefield, Dean Dampier, King of Mansfield Street, Towneley, Colonel Stanley,' and others. Savage professed to have picked up his 'Author to Let' at 'the Mews Gate on my way from Charing Cross to Hedge Lane.' Tom Payne (who was a native of Brackley) came into possession of his famous shop at the Mews' Gate through his marriage with Elizabeth Taylor, whose brother built and for some time occupied it. About 1776 Tom Payne ('Bookseller Extraordinary to the Prince Regent, and Bookseller to the University of Oxford') took his son into partnership, to whom fourteen years later he relinquished the business, and died in February, 1799, in his eighty-second year. Thomas Payne the younger (to whom Dibdin dedicated his 'Library Companion,' 1825) remained here until 1806, when he removed to Pall Mall; in 1813 he took Henry Foss, who had been his apprentice, into partnership. The former died in 1831, and was succeeded by his nephew, John Payne, and Henry Foss, who retired from the trade in 1850, when their stock came under the hammer at Sotheby's. In the preface to his 'Library Companion,' 1825, Dibdin speaks very highly of the catalogue of Payne and Foss: 'Since the commencement of this work, Messrs. Payne and Foss have published a catalogue of 10,051 articles. I have smiled, in common with many friends, to observe rare and curious volumes selling for large sums at auctions, when sometimes better copies of them may be obtained in that incomparable repository in Pall Mall at two-thirds of the price. Whoever wants a classical fitting out must betake themselves to this repository.'

The bibliopolic history of the Mews Gate did not terminate with the younger Tom Payne. When he removed to a more aristocratic quarter, the shop passed into the occupation of William Sancho, the negro bookseller, whose father, Ignatius, was born in 1729 on board a ship in the slave trade soon after it had quitted the coast of Guinea. William Sancho died before 1817, and was succeeded at the Mews Gate by James Bain, who afterwards removed to No. 1, Haymarket, where the business is still carried on, 'in accordance with the best bookselling traditions, by his younger son, the second James Bain having died early in 1894.' The Mews was taken down in 1830, and was used in its latter days to shelter Cross's Menagerie from Exeter 'Change.

One of the oldest firms of Strand booksellers was that started in 1686 by Paul Vaillant, who, at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, escaped to England. His shop was opposite Southampton Street, and his chief dealings were in foreign books. He was succeeded by his sons Paul and Isaac, and then by his grandson, Paul III., the son of Paul II. The second Paul purchased a quantity of books at Freebairn's sale for the Earl of Sunderland, and his joy at securing the copy of Virgil's 'Opera,' printed 'per Zarothum,' 1472, is duly chronicled by Nichols; he was one of the booksellers employed by the Society for the Encouragement of Learning. He died in 1802, aged eighty-seven, and as both of his two sons had elected to follow other occupations, the business passed into the hands of Peter Elmsley, the great friend and companion of Gibbon, whose 'Decline and Fall,' however, he did not see his way to publish; he was a great linguist, and possessed 'an amount of general knowledge that fitted him for conversation and correspondence upon a familiar and equal footing with the most illustrious and accomplished of his day.' At the end of the last century he resigned the business to his shopman, David Bremner, 'whose anxiety for acquiring wealth rendered him wholly careless of indulging himself in the ordinary comforts of life, and hurried him prematurely to the grave.' He was succeeded by James Payne (the youngest son of the famous Tom) and J. Mackinlay, both of whom also came to premature ends, the former through being long confined as a prisoner in France.

Among the most famous of the Strand booksellers of the earlier part of the present century were Rivington and Cochran, of No. 148 (near Somerset House), and Thomas Thorpe, of 38, Bedford Street. With these two firms it really seemed a question as to which could issue the most bulky catalogues. The earliest example which we have seen of the former is dated 1825; it extends to over 800 pages, and comprises nearly 18,000 items in various languages and in every department of literature. Thomas Thorpe was undoubtedly the giant bibliopole of the period. If anything striking or original occurred in the bookselling world, it was generally Thorpe who did it. Dibdin describes him as 'indeed a man of might.' His catalogues, continues the same writer, 'are of never-ceasing production, thronged with the treasures which he has gallantly borne off, at the point of his lance, in many a hard day's fight, in the Pall Mall and Waterloo Place arenas. But these conquests are no sooner obtained than the public receives an account of them, and during the last year only his catalogues, in three parts, now before me, comprise no fewer than 179,059 articles. What a scale of buying and selling does this fact alone evince! But in this present year two parts have already appeared, containing upwards of 12,000 articles. Nor is this all. On September 24, 1823, there appeared the most marvellous phenomenon ever witnessed in the annals of bibliopolism. The Times had four of the five columns of its last page occupied by an advertisement of Mr. Thorpe, containing the third part of his catalogue for that year. On a moderate computation, this advertisement comprised 1,120 lines. The effect was most extraordinary. Many wondered, and some remonstrated; but Mr. Thorpe was master of his own mint, and he never mentions the circumstance but with perfect confidence, and even gaiety of heart, at its success.' Thorpe issued catalogues from 1829 to 1851, and during one year alone, 1843, his lists comprised over 16,000 lots. In 1836 he removed from Bedford Street to 178, Piccadilly. Thorpe was the first merchant in autographs, and Sir Thomas Phillipps was one of the first collectors who flourished in the iniquity of the pursuit, and it was the latter who on one occasion purchased the entire contents of one of Thorpe's autograph catalogues.

Another distinguished bibliopole of this locality, or, more correctly, of Great Newport Street, was Thomas Rodd, who died in April, 1849, in his fifty-third year. The business was really started by his father and namesake, who was a man of considerable literary ability, and who abandoned his intention of entering the Church when he became possessed of a secret for making imitation diamonds, rubies, garnets, etc. In 1809 he added bookselling to that of manufacturing sham stones. After getting into trouble with the Excise on account of the latter accomplishment, he devoted himself entirely to the book-trade. The elder Rodd died in 1822, and his son, the more famous bibliopole, succeeded to the business, which he developed in an extraordinary manner within a few years. His memory and knowledge of books were almost limitless, and, like Thomas Thorpe, most of his schemes were on a scale to create a sensation. Rodd's catalogues are of great bibliographical value. In spite of his extensive connections, his stock at the time of his death was enormous. It was sold, in ten different instalments, at Sotheby's, between November, 1849, and November, 1850.

Henry G. Bohn may be regarded as the connecting link between the old and the new school of booksellers. He was born in London on January 4, 1796, and died in August, 1884. His father was a bookbinder of Frith Street, Soho, but when he removed to Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, he added (in 1814) a business in second-hand books. Between this year and 1830, H. G. Bohn paid repeated visits to the Continent as his father's buyer. In 1831 he married a daughter of Mr. Simpkin, of Simpkin, Marshall and Co. He started in business for himself, and rapidly built up an extensive trade, far exceeding any of his rivals. At about the same time his brother James also started on his own account, at 12, King William Street, Charing Cross, whilst the third brother, John Hutter Bohn, who has been for nearly forty years the cataloguer at Sotheby's and is still living, attended to the original business. Bohn's famous 'Guinea Catalogue' was deservedly regarded as a great triumph in its way, although it has been far surpassed by the splendid catalogues of his whilom apprentice, B. Quaritch. Bohn's fame now rests almost exclusively in his publishing ventures, which proved a veritable gold-mine to the originator, and are still highly lucrative investments in the hands of Messrs. George Bell and Sons. He 'edited' an edition of Lowndes' 'Bibliographer's Manual,' and his name occurs on the title-pages of a great many books dealing with an extensive variety of subjects. It is scarcely necessary to say that Bohn has very little claim to be regarded either as an editor or as an author, unless the cash purchase of the product of other men's brain and study conferred either of these titles upon him. He was, however, a remarkable person, with a very wide knowledge of books. While quite a young man he catalogued the books of Dr. Parr. The growing extent of his publishing business killed the second-hand trade, so far as he was concerned, and his stock was disposed of at Sotheby's in the years 1868, 1870, and 1872, occupying fifty days in selling, and realizing a total of over £13,300. Both Henry G. Bohn and his brother James dealt largely in remainders, and of this class of merchandise each issued catalogues early in the year 1840 (and at other times), and the difference in the extent of the trade done by the two brothers may be indicated by the fact that the catalogue of the former extends to 132 pages, whilst that of the latter is only 16 pages. In this, as in everything else which he undertook, H. G. Bohn was first and his rivals nowhere. One of Bohn's rivals in the 'forties' was Joseph Lilly, who once undertook to purchase everything important in the book line which was offered, but he soon gave up the idea. His shop was for some time at 19, King Street, Covent Garden, and his catalogues always contained a large number of select books. He had served a short time at Lackington's, and was distinguished for the zeal with which he purchased First Folio Shakespeares. Lilly died in 1870, and his vast stock came under the hammer at Sotheby's in six batches, 1871-73.

King William Street, Strand, until the last three or four years, had been for nearly a century a famous emporium of second-hand bookshops. Its most famous inhabitant in this respect was Charles John Stewart (whom Henry Stevens, of Vermont, described as the last of the learned old booksellers), who was born in Scotland at the beginning of the present century, and died on September 17, 1883. He was one of Lackington's pupils, and started as a second-hand bookseller with Howell, subsequently carrying on the business alone. His chief commodity was theological books, and when his stock—perhaps the largest of its kind known—came to be sold, it realized close on £5,000. Joel Rowsell was another famous bibliopole who resided in this street, and he, like Stewart, retired in 1882. G. Bumstead (whose speciality was curious or eccentric books; he was distinctly an 'old' bookseller, for he rarely bought anything printed after 1800), Molini and Green, J. M. Stark, and J. W. Jarvis and Sons, were also, at one time or another, in this bookselling thoroughfare, which is now entirely deserted by the fraternity. Doubtless one of the most successful of modern bibliopoles who lived in the vicinity of the Strand is Mr. F. S. Ellis, who was an apprentice of James Toovey, and who in a comparatively few years built up a business second only to that of Quaritch. Mr. Ellis (who purchased the valuable freewill of T. and W. Boone's connection) compiled the greater portion of the catalogue of the celebrated Huth Library, and since he has retired to Torquay has taken up book-editing with all the zeal which characterized his earlier career as a bookseller. Mr. Ellis's shop was at 33, King Street, Covent Garden, and afterwards at 29, New Bond Street, and the prestige of his name is worthily maintained by his nephew, Mr. G. I. Ellis (with whom is Mr. Elvey), at the latter address. The whole neighbourhood of which Covent Garden may be taken as the centre, is full of a bibliopolic history, which dates back to the beginning of the last century. The time when Aldines were to be picked up at 1s. 6d. each, and when Shakespeare Folios were to be had for 30s. each round about the Piazza, has, it is true, long gone by; but a very large library, in almost any branch of literature, may be easily formed, at a very moderate cost, any day within a stone's-throw of London's great vegetable market. It may be mentioned, en passant, that George Willis, the editor-publisher of Willis's Current Notes, was for many years at the Great Piazza, Covent Garden. The firm subsequently became known as Willis and Sotheran, and is now Sotheran and Co.: this highly respectable house was established in Tower Street, E.C., as far back as 1816.


This is taken from The Book-Hunter in London.

Note: The above text has been amended to read, "In 1726 Joseph Pote was selling books at the Golden Door . . ." Originally, the year shown was 1796, which would have been incorrect since Mr. Pote, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, lived between 1704 and 1787. The error was brought to our attention by the Treasurer and Membership Secretary of The Bookplate Society, and we are grateful for his input.



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