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 Some Book-Hunting Localities

(Note: This is taken from W. Roberts' The Book-Hunter in London.)

book hunting locales





There are few more attractive phases in the history of book-hunting in London than that of localities. Up to nearly the end of the last century, these localities were for the most part, and for close on 350 years, confined to within a narrow area. With the rapid expansion of London north, east, south, and west, the 'trade' has not only expanded, but its representatives have sprung up in every district, whilst many of the older ones have forsaken the limits of the City, and pitched their tents in Greater London. For centuries bookselling and publishing flourished side by side in St. Paul's Churchyard, Fleet Street, and their immediate neighbourhoods.

Of all the old bookselling localities close to the heart of London, none were more famous than Little Britain and Moorfields. Three years before the Great Fire of London—in 1663—Sorbière, in his 'Journey to England,' made the following observation: 'I am not to forget the vast number of booksellers' shops I have observed in London: for besides those who are set up here and there in the City, they have their particular quarters, such as St. Paul's Churchyard and Little Britain, where there is twice as many as in the Rue Saint Jacque in Paris, and who have each of them two or three warehouses.' The bookselling zenith of Little Britain was attained in the seventeenth century; it may almost be said to have commenced with the reign of Charles I., and to have begun a sort of retrogression with the Hanoverian succession. But there were printers and booksellers here at the latter part of the sixteenth century. From a newspaper published in this district in 1664, we learn that no less than 464 pamphlets were published here during four years. It was a sort of seventeenth-century combination of the Paternoster Row and Fleet Street of the present day. It is the place where, according to a widely circulated statement, first made in Richardson's 'Remarks on Paradise Lost,' 1734, an Earl of Dorset accidentally discovered, when on a book-hunt in 1667, a work hitherto unknown to him, entitled 'Paradise Lost.' He is said to have bought a copy, and the bookseller begged him to recommend it to his friends, as the copies lay on his hand like so much wastepaper. The noble Earl showed his copy to Dryden, who is reported to have exclaimed: 'This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.' Though this anecdote may be apocryphal, certain it is the poem is in a way connected with the neighbourhood, inasmuch as Simmons' shop was in Aldersgate Street. In addition to this fact, Richardson also tells us that Milton lodged for some time in Little Britain with Millington, the famous book-auctioneer, who had then quitted the rostrum and followed the more peaceful vocation of a dealer in old books.

Roger North, in his 'Life of the Right Hon. Francis North,' has an oft-quoted reference to Little Britain. From this interesting account we learn that during the latter part of the seventeenth century it was a plentiful and perpetual emporium of learned authors, and that men went thither as to a market. The trade of the place was, in consequence, an important one, the shops being large, and much resorted to by literary personages, wits, men-about-town, and fashionable notabilities generally. The booksellers then were men of intellect. But referring, by way of contrast, to the place during the earlier half of the eighteenth century, he laments that 'this emporium is vanished, and the trade contracted into the hands of two or three persons, who, to make good their monopoly, ransack, not only their neighbours of the trade that are scattered about the town, but all over England, ay, and beyond sea, too, and send abroad their circulators, and in this manner get into their hands all that is valuable. The rest of the trade are content to take their refuse, with which, and the fresh scum of the press, they furnish one side of the shop, which serves for the sign of a bookseller, rather than a real one; but instead of selling, deal as factors, and procure what the country divines and gentry send for; of whom each hath his book-factor, and, when wanting anything, writes to his bookseller and pays his bill. And it is wretched to consider what pickpocket work, with the help of the press, these demi-booksellers make. They crack their brains to find out selling subjects, and keep hirelings in garrets, at hard meat, to write and correct by the groat; and so puff up an octavo to a sufficient thickness; and there is six shillings current for an hour and half's reading, and perhaps never to be read or looked upon after. One that would go higher, must take his fortune at blank walls, and corners of streets, or repair to the sign of Bateman, King, and one or two more, where are best choice, and better pennyworths. I might touch other abuses, as bad paper, incorrect printing, and false advertising; and all of which and worse are to be expected, if a careful author is not at the heels of them.'

We get an interesting glimpse of a meeting of two book-lovers in this locality from Izaak Walton. In his 'Life of Bishop Sanderson,' Walton writes that about the time Sanderson was printing this excellent preface ('before his last twenty Sermons,' 1655), 'I met him accidentally in London, in sad-coloured clothes, and, God knows, far from costly. The place of our meeting was near to Little Britain, where he had been to buy a book, which he then had in his hand.'

The house of Bateman is worthy of an important chapter in the bookselling annals of Little Britain, and the best-known member (Christopher) of the family is described in the usual sugared style of John Dunton: 'There are few booksellers in England (if any) that understand books better than Mr. Bateman, nor does his diligence and industry come short of his knowledge. He is a man of great reputation and honesty.' Nichols states that Bateman would allow no person to look into books in his shop, and when asked a reason for this extraordinary rule, he answered: 'I suppose you may be a physician or an author, and want some recipe or quotation; and, if you buy it, I will engage it to be perfect before you leave me, but not after, as I have suffered by leaves being torn out, and the books returned, to my very great loss and prejudice.' Bateman's shop was a favourite resort of Swift, who several times speaks of it in his 'Journal to Stella:' 'I went to Bateman's, the bookseller, and laid out eight and forty shillings for books. I bought three little volumes of Lucian, in French, for our Stella, and so, and so' (January 6, 1710-11); and again: 'I was at Bateman's, to see a fine old library he has bought, and my fingers itched as yours would do at a china-shop' (July 9, 1711).

One of the most frequent visitors to Bateman's shop was Thomas Britton, 'the small-coal man,' who died in September, 1714. His knowledge of books, of music and chemistry was certainly extraordinary, having regard to his ostensible occupation. His collection of manuscripts and printed music and musical instruments was very large. Lord Somers gave £500 for his collection of pamphlets, and Sir Hans Sloane was also a purchaser of many curious articles. He was a very well-known character, and 'was so much distinguished that, when passing through the streets in his blue linen frock, and with his sack of small coal on his back, he was frequently accosted with the following expression: "There goes the famous small-coal man, who is a lover of learning, a performer in music, and a companion for gentlemen."' Saturday, when Parliament was not sitting during the winter, was the market day with the booksellers of Little Britain; and in the earlier part of the last century, the frequenters of this locality included such worthies as the Duke of Devonshire, Edward, Earl of Oxford, and the Earls of Pembroke, Sunderland, and Winchelsea. After the 'hunt' they often adjourned to the Mourning Bush in Aldersgate, where they dined and spent the remainder of the day.

Another famous Little Britain bookseller was Robert Scott whose sister was the Hon. and Rev. Dr. John North's 'grandmother's woman.' Scott was a man of 'good parts,' and was in his time, says Roger North, the 'greatest librarian in Europe; for besides his stock in England, he had warehouses at Frankfort, Paris, and other places, and dealt by factors.' When an old man, Scott 'contracted with one Mills, of St. Paul's Churchyard, near £10,000 deep, and articled not to open his shop any more. But Mills, with his auctioneering, atlases, and projects, failed, whereby poor Scott lost above half his means. . . . He was not only an expert bookseller, but a very conscientious, good man, and when he threw up his trade, Europe had no small loss of him.'

The most celebrated family of booksellers, perhaps, who lived in Little Britain, was that of Ballard, or Bullard, as the original name appears by the auction catalogues. The family were connected with the trade for over a century, and were noted, says Nichols, 'for the soundness of their principles in Church and State.' One Henry Ballard lived at the sign of the Bear without Temple Bar, over against St. Clement's Church, in 1597, but whether he was an ancestor of the family in question is not certain. Thomas Ballard, the founder of the bookselling branch, was described by Dunton, in 1705, as 'a young bookseller in Little Britain, but grown man in body now, but more in mind:

'His looks are in his mother's beauty drest,
And all the Father has inform'd the rest.'

Samuel Ballard, for many years Deputy of the Ward of Aldersgate Within, died August 27, 1761, and his only son, Edward, January 2, 1796, aged eighty-eight, in the same house in which he was born, having outlived his mental faculties. He was the last of the profession in Little Britain.

Among the scores of Little Britain men who combined publishing with second-hand bookselling, one of the more interesting is William Newton, who resided there during the earlier years of the last century. In 1712 he published Quincy's 'Medicina Statica,' at the end of which is this curious 'Advertisement' (minus the superfluity of capitals): 'Those persons who have any Librarys (sic) or small parcels of old books to dispose of, either in town or countrey, may have ready money for them of Will. Newton, Bookseller in Little Britain, London. Also all gentlemen, and schoolmasters, may be furnished with all sorts of classics, in usum Delphi, Variorum, etc. Likewise, he will exchange with any person, for any books they have read and done with.'

It was from the Dolphin, in Little Britain, that Samuel Buckley first issued the Spectator, March 1, 1711, et seq. Tom Rawlinson resided here for some years, as did another and different kind of celebrity, Benjamin Franklin, who worked at Palmer's famous printing-house in Bartholomew Close. 'While I lodged in Little Britain,' says Franklin, in his 'Autobiography,' 'I made an acquaintance with one Wilcox, a bookseller, whose shop was at the next door. He had an immense collection of second-hand books. Circulating libraries were not then in use; but we agreed that, on certain reasonable terms, which I have now forgotten, I might take, read, and return any of the books. This I esteemed a great advantage, and made as much use of as I could.'

But by Franklin's time the book trade of Little Britain had declined beyond any hope of recovery. In 1756 Maitland describes the place as 'very ruinous'; the part from 'the Pump to Duck Lane is well built, and though much inhabited formerly by booksellers, who dealt chiefly in old books, it is now much deserted and decayed.' A few years before Nichols published his 'Literary Anecdotes,' two booksellers used to sport their rubric posts close to each other here in Little Britain, and these rubric posts were once as much the type of a bookseller's shop as the pole is of a barber's.

Nearly all the numerous lanes and alleys immediately contiguous to Little Britain were more or less inhabited by second-hand booksellers. The most important in every respect of these was Duck Lane, subsequently rechristened Duke Street, and in 1885 as a part and parcel of Little Britain. It is the street which leads from West Smithfield to one end of Little Britain, and the change was a very foolish one. It was to this street that Swift conjectured that booksellers might send inquiries for his works.

'Some county squire to Lintot goes,
Inquires for Swift in verse and prose.
Says Lintot, "I have heard the name,
He died a year ago." "The same."
He searches all the shops in vain:
"Sir, you may find them in Duck Lane."'

And Garth tells how the learned Dr. Edward Tyson filled his library from the Duck Lane shops:

'Abandoned authors here a refuge meet,
And from the world to dust and worms retreat
Here dregs and sediments and authors reign,
Refuse of fairs and gleanings of Duck Lane.'

Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt has noted the fact that a copy of Zach. Ursinus' 'Summe of Christian Religion,' translated by H. Parry (1617), contains on the first leaf this note: 'Mary Rous her Booke, bought in Duck Lane bey Smithfelde, this year, 1644.'

Not very far from Little Britain is the Barbican, which at the earlier part of the century contained several bookshops, but has since degenerated into forbidding warehouses. Charles Lamb, under date March 25, 1829, writes: 'I have just come from town, where I have been to get my bit of quarterly pension, and have brought home from stalls in Barbican the old "Pilgrim's Progress," with the prints—Vanity Fair, etc.—now scarce. Four shillings; cheap. And also one of whom I have oft heard and had dreams, but never saw in the flesh—that is in sheepskin—"The Whole Theologic Works of Thomas Aquinas." My arms ached with lugging it a mile to the stage, but the burden was a pleasure, such as old Anchises was to the shoulders of Æneas, or the lady to the lover in the old romance, who, having to carry her to the top of a high mountain (the price of obtaining her), clambered with her to the top and fell dead with fatigue.'

The district to which the name of Moorfields was once applied has no great historic interest. It remained moorfields until it was first drained in 1527. In the reign of James I. it was first laid out into walks, and during the time of Charles II. some portions of it were built upon. It soon became famous for its musters and pleasant walks, its laundresses and bleachers, its cudgel-players and popular amusements, its bookstalls and ballad-sellers. Writing at the beginning of the last century, that pungent critic of the world in general, Tom Brown, observes: 'Well, this thing called prosperity makes a man strangely insolent and forgetful. How contemptibly a cutler looks at a poor grinder of knives; a physician in his coach at a farrier a-foot; and a well-grown Paul's Churchyard bookseller upon one of the trade that sells second-hand books under the trees in Moorfields!' In Thoresby's 'Diary' we have an entry under the year 1709 of a very rare edition of the New Testament in English, 1536, having been purchased in Moorfields.

By the middle of the last century Moorfields became an assemblage of small shops, particularly booksellers', and remained such until, in 1790, the handsome square of Finsbury arose on its site. That some of these booksellers of Moorfields had considerable stocks is seen by the fact that that of John King, of this place, occupied ten days in the dispersal at Samuel Baker's in 1760. Perhaps one of the most famous of the Moorfields booksellers was Thomas King, who published priced catalogues of books from 1780 to 1796, and who deserted Moorfields at about the latter date, to take premises in King Street, Covent Garden, as a book-auctioneer. Horace Walpole, referring to James West's sale in 1773, says: 'Mr. West's books are selling outrageously. His family will make a fortune by what he collected from stalls and Moorfields.' This sale, which occupied twenty-four days, included, as we have said on a previous page, books by Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, and others, and also works on Old English literature, voyages and travels, not a few of which were undoubtedly picked up in Moorfields. The Rev. John Brand, secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, who died in 1806, visited almost daily the bookstalls between Piccadilly and Mile End, and may be regarded as another Moorfields book-hunter; he generally returned from these excursions with his deep and wide pockets well laden. His books were chiefly collected in this way, and for comparatively small sums. Brand cared little for the condition of his books, many of which were imperfect, the defects being supplied in neatly-written MS. John Keats, the poet, was born in Moorfields, and Tom Dibdin was apprenticed to an upholsterer in this district.


Central and East London

Holborn and Neighborhood

St. Paul's Churchyard and Neighborhood

Fleet Street

The Strand

Charing Cross and Neighborhood

Westminster Hall

Bond Street and Piccadilly









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