A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
49: Spreading the work: postboys, hawkers and billposters
Before producing large quantities of such material, the printer had to be certain of his distribution. The communications network of the book trade that must have developed piecemeal during the 17th century had been replaced through the institution of the newspaper. This network did not extend simply between London and the main provincial towns. The need to obtain as wide a circulation as possible meant that each provincial newspaper became the centre of a more local network that extended ultimately into the smallest village and the remotest farmstead in the peninsula. In May 1772 Trewman's Exeter flying post announced: "This paper is publish'd (by means of express) every Thursday morning in Exeter, and convey'd by the postmen on the Friday morning early to the following towns in Devon, viz. Plymouth, Oakhampton, Dartmouth, Tavistock, Torrington, Holsworthy, Bampton, and thro' the intermediate towns of Chudleigh, Ashburton, Totnes, Chumleigh, Southmolton, Bideford, Barnstaple, Crediton, Bow, Hatherliegh, Bradninch, Silverton, Cullumpon, and Tiverton; also to Topsham, Starcross, Dawlish and Teignmouth. It is further continued on the same day to the following places in the county of Cornwall, viz. Launceston, Newport, Callington, St. Germains, Saltash, Liskeard, Camelford, Lostwithiel, Bodmin, Fowey, Looe; and on the Saturday to Wadebridge, Truro, Falmouth, Redruth, Penzance, and all the intermediate towns, so that the advantage of advertising in so extensive a paper must appear obvious to every candid person." From this list of towns it is possible to chart the routes taken by a team of at least eight postboys who covered all of Devon and Cornwall within two days, taking in on their journeys a number of newsagents, frequently but not invariably booksellers.
There were sometimes problems with distribution. While men on horseback were used for more distant places, hawkers on foot were used for the more immediate environs. On 3 May 1717 Joseph Bliss had to warn readers of his Protestant mercury: "One Dame Bedford (a hawker that used to sell my news) being a very sottish and profane person, and being weary of her continuous abuses, this is to give notice that she sells the same no longer; and that those that used to take it of her may be supplied therewith for the future either by some other of my hawkers, or by my order." More serious problems could beset the long-distance distributors. In June 1737 the following announcement appeared in a conspicuous position on the first page of the Sherborne mercury, a newspaper which was widely distributed in Devon and Cornwall: "Whereas James Arnold, one of the hawkers of this Mercury, set out last week from Sherborne to Taunton as usual, with his numbers of papers for that walk, and has not since been heard of, 'tis feared he is either dead, or come to some misfortune ... whosoever shall give intelligence what is become of the said James Arnold, to the printers of this paper, shall be gratefully rewarded for their trouble."
Various pieces of evidence show that these postboys were a lifeline to scattered communities. Regularly once a week they took out the newspapers but ran other errands as well, not all of them official. Again the Exeter flying post of May 1772 gives some indications. After giving a list of the agents who took in advertisements in London, Bath and Bristol and seventeen towns in Devon and Cornwall it states that advertisements are also taken in "by the several men who carry this paper; of whom may also be had any of the medicines advertised therein." In the same issue an advertisement for the state Lottery gives details on the sale of tickets or shares in tickets, adding: "N.B. All orders by the newsmen, coachmen, or carriers duly observed ..." Doubtless the printer would also take the opportunity of using the newsmen to distribute books printed or stocked in his shop. Beside taking out newspapers, medicines and books, the newsman would bring back not only advertisements, orders for lottery tickets and the odd item of news, but also subscription money collected by the agents, orders placed with the agents for books advertised in the newspapers, or indeed on occasion other commodities advertised. In fact the newsmen, or Sherbornes as they were frequently called in the south west after the widely distributed Sherborne mercury, ended up running a wide range of errands. The following are extracts from the account book of William Borlase, the naturalist and antiquary, kept during the 1760s in his remote rectory in Ludgvan, within fifteen miles of Land's End:
To the Sherborn for 6 pds of coffee 10. 0. Pd Lobb the Sherborn man for a cheese salver from Mr. Halse of Truro 6. 0. Sent a present to Dr. B. of St. Mewan by the Sherborn 5. 5. 0. Sent money to John by his order by Lobb the Sherborn 10. 0. 0. To 3 handkerchiefs to the Sherborn 12. 6. To Frank the Sherborn. New Year's gift 5. 0.
Good Lobb's saddlebags must sometime have weighed heavy as he braved the mists on Bodmin Moor. It is good to know that he was trusted and well regarded, and the New Year's gift was quite a consideration, perhaps amounting to half a week's wages. (Wiles, 130).
But the network of printer, newsboy, agent and bookseller did not extend to every hamlet in the west of England. Robert Goadby inserted the following notice in the Sherborne mercury: "This is to inform all ... in the counties of Wilts, Dorset, Somerset, Devonshire and Cornwall, that the proprietor is ever willing to oblige every single person; but that it is impossible to contrive the circuits of the news carriers, as to take in every house or place: but if the inhabitants of any such parishes where this paper is not at present carried, would be so kind as to send a messenger to any place where it is brought in its usual circuit, for as many papers as are wanted in the parish, the proprietor will allow the person who comes for them a halfpenny on each paper he takes, beside a further allowance upon all the pamphlets, books &c. which he can sell in the said parishes." Recipients in remote areas has to pay delivery charges. There are a number of such payments in the account books of William Borlase of Ludgvan, near Penzance. From 1738 money was paid to Mrs Fudge and from 1758 to her successor Mrs Clies, probably the women who brought the paper to the rectory before the Sherborne began to call personally in the 1760s. The payments were for Jabez Harris and from 1741 Mr Dickerson, presumably the local agents in Penzance. (Wiles, 129-30).
Far more irregular but equally important was the army of flying stationers, chapmen, hawkers, patterers and travellers who were able to collect their stock from a number of centres in the region. Although certain centres, such as Banbury or Newcastle upon Tyne have been seen as important centres of the chapbook trade, perhaps because the products of their printers have survived better or have been the subject of research, there is scattered evidence from Exeter to suggest that popular literature was grist to the mill of printers in that city, as it probably was to the majority of provincial printers. An eight-page chapbook printed in the 1770s entitled The prodigal daughter: or, the disobedient lady reclaim'd has an imprint reading: "Exeter: Printed by R.Trewman, behingdthe Guildhall, where country shopkeepers, travellers and others, may be supplied with a variety of old and new ballads, patters, penny histories, &c &c &c." In about 1783 a similar chapbook The new art and msytery of gossipping states: "Printed by Thomas Brice in Goldsmith Street, where travellers and shopkeepers may be supplied." Joseph McKenzie, who is known to be active between 1793 and 1796 appended the following imprint to a broadsheet of religious verse with the title Paradise lost and paradise regained: "Exeter: Printed by M'Kenzie, High Steet, where shopkeepers and travellers may be supplied with a variety of godly books, songs &c. - and the most money given for all kinds of rags." This last request is explained by the fact that M'Kenzie was a partner with John Pim, a local paper maker. Clearly several printers in Exeter found street literature a profitable line.
A hawker's advertisement bill, printed in two columns on both sides of a quarter sheet of paper, survives in a small collection of largely Westcountry ephmemeral items, now in the Devon Record Office (DRO 997). It dates from 1776 and is headed "Licensed according to Act of Parliament, and to be had of the person that leaves this bill: who will call again." The dozen items listed are a good cross-section of the literary diet of a typical 18th century family with no great intellectual pretensions. The hawker could supply The guide to preferment, or, Powell's cookery (the twenty-fourth edition, greatly enlarged) "containing the newest and best receipts in cookery for roasting, boiling, broiling, frying, fricaseys, hashing (etc.) Likewise the best methods of marketing, to know the goodness and badness of the particular sort of eatable you want to buy of the butchers poulterers (etc.)" Having learned to appeal to a man's stomach it was possible to purchase The effectual love letters, and agreeable expressions of love, covering all eventualities from the gentleman writing to his new mistress on relinquishing his old one, to the Highlander on the island of Goree in Africa writing to his sweetheart in the Highlands of Scotland. The interest in spreading the skill of literacy amongst the young is catered for in The good child's primer and spelling book "containing a more easy knowledge to the letters, whereby a child may learn much sooner to read by this book than by any other hitherto published. The whole contains ninety-six pages, and is adorn'd with a great number of pretty pictures." Beside these eminently practical works the interest in current affairs is catered for by an account of "The contentions with the ministry; the proceeding of the British Americans, who struggle and fight for liberty against the British forces - the imposing taxes, blocking up their ports, the insults of the soldiers, and other cross purposes - the throwing the tea overbard - tarring and feathering &c." Entertainment is afforded by such titles as The entertaining medley and Mirth's vocal charm, the warbling Philomel, a new select number of blithe songs and also The merry companion which contained " humorous puns, brilliant jokes, smart quibbles, ridiculous bulls and lively repartees". The hunger for tales of romance and adventure is amply catered for by The admirable story of the happy lovers; the captive prince of Naples and the beautiful Princess Axa, or the rather more racy tale: A narrative of the life of the celebrated Miss C*tl*y, "the adventures of that lady in her public character of a singer and private one of a courtezan."
Gallows literature is also represented, in this case the Perreau twins, executed at Tyburn for forgery in 1776, but, as we have seen, there were sufficient executions in Exeter to keep the local presses busy.
The hawkers were a motley collection of individuals who at times became well-known characters. One early 19th century Exeter itinerant, Tommy Osborne even had his portrait lithographed. It shows him as a shabby person in a patched suit and battered hat hopefully offering an old bound volume while other books and papers are tucked under his arm and in a bag hung over his shoulder. He achieved the dubious distinction of being adopted as a candidate at the Ide burlesque election of 1812. The squibs which circulated on the occasion indicate that he was a shambling character and his fondness for the bottle let him down. On his way home he confesses, "I full into the Kennel ... and most unluckily gamboged my best breeches and very much deranged the cuticle of my posteriors". This may have cost him the election and the next we hear of him is that is is setting off for Alphington goose fair. He died in 1823 aged 41 and life on the road seems to have taken its toll as he looks older and quite broken down in his portrait (Maxted 1985).
Others survived the rigours of this way of life somewhat longer. Mrs. J.Drew died in Exeter in 1801 aged 99. During the winter months she had been a courrier or retailer of almanacks for the printer of the Exeter and Plymouth gazette. As Woolmer had only established that newspaper in 1792 she must have been braving the muddy lanes of Devon well into her nineties. Such a vagrant existence must have attracted many of the misfits in society. Thomas Liscombe, widely known as a hawker who supplied Devon and Cornwall with ballads and similar materials was arrested for the murder of Sarah Ford, the wife of a farmer in Kingsbridge, South Devon at the end of 1812. He also confessed to the murder of a girl named Margaret Huxtable in nearby Dodbrook (Monthly magazine 1801, 84; 1813, 568).
Such extremes of behaviour must have been exceptional but the hawkers were anxious to turn a penny as best they may. Brice in his Weekly journal for 17 April 1752 gives us a picture in the 1750s of the people in the country being eager to receive execution broadsheets and grabbing at the first to arrive, sometimes having the wit to demand if it is the authentic one and naturally "the honest vociferator would have fifty oaths ready to vomit forth, that 'tis the right, tho' the devil himself had been author and printer too." Therefore the hawker would take his parcel of broadsheets from the press that had it ready first even if it was a day before the execution "the better to secure the run, as the term is; that is to get the start of others. As a paper is a paper to the country-folk, contain what it will; so money is money to the patterer and the grub, come how it may ... "
The payments for dispersing official broadsheets are high in the case of the 300 quarto bills for the sale of materials for the wool market produced by Trewman for the Corporation on 30 June 1795, being one sixth of the cost of printing, and this could imply that bill posting was included as well as simply delivering. The extent of bill posting in 18th century Exeter is not clear, nevertheless it is the most immediate method of "spreading the word", so deserves some consideration.
As previously mentioned in 1698 Samuel Darker printed Sir Bartholomew Shower's speech at the Guildhall on declaring the results of the poll in the parliamentary election. In it Shower referred to two critical publications entitled "Queries" and "Little reflections" which had been posted at the Guildhall, although it is not clear whether these were printed or manuscript. Early illustrations of Exeter are not informative on the degree to which announcements and other material were posted around the city. Artists and engravers would tend to omit the ephemeral or disfiguring. Nevertheless an engraving of the Theatre in Exeter dated 1804 does show a large board hanging from the side wall and there is evidence of posters pasted on a wall of a neighbouring property (Somers Cocks no. 1000). An engraving of the Guildhall dated 1829 shows that notices were posted on the pillars of the arcade (Somers Cocks 984) and an engraving of St. John's Hospital in the High Street made in 1831 shows a considerable accretion of posters on one of the walls (Somers Cocks 892). At about that date there were a considerable number of "gentlemen of the paste and brush" as the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette designated them on 26 April 1833. It descibed them as "a jealous class of fellows, and not upon the best terms with each other. The placards of Mr. George R--- excited a considerable degree of envy ... and they determined to show him up in a new light; accordingly, in the bills for sale of the Bishop's Court estate, they permitted the first line to remain, where the celebrated auctioneer's name appeared in conspicuous characters, and underneath they posted the exhibition of a large sea monster, now showing here at 6d per head; and the placard consequently read "Mr. George R---, the Great Greenland Whale." By 1848 there was certainly a sufficient quantity of paper being pasted to walls in Exeter to occupy individuals full-time, for in that year John Knight of Smythen Street is listed as a bill poster in the local trade directory.
The fact that so many single sheets are printed on one side only indicates that there must have been a tradition of posting these up, even indoors. Paper was expensive and printers could have economised by printing on two sides using the technique of work and turn if there was any prospect of this type of material being widely accepted in that form. Where broadsheets are printed on two sides they are often using the back of waste paper. For example The speech of Oliver Cromell, [sic] upon dissolving the Parliament was printed by Elizabeth Brice to her usual atrocious standard on the verso of An account of a most daring highway-robbery, committed on Saturday night last, near Kingsbridge, a title which would soon lose its currency as it was clearly dated April 28 1784.
Thus by the end of the 18th century the means existed to make printed material widely available throughout Devon, from the shelves of the gentleman's library to the walls of public buildings. This very facility was to pose problems for the authorities after events in France during 1789.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.