A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
64: Booksellers in a time of change
Beside the printers and publishers already discussed, there were firms in Exeter which concentrated on bookselling. The City Librarian Harry Tapley-Soper was in a good position to provide vignettes of several of them in 1908. Apart from Commin and Wheaton, who have already been discussed as publisher and printer respectively, he described the premises of H.G.Drayton at 201 High Street, next to the Guildhall. Founded as long ago as 1838 by Richard Drayton who died in January the following year, it had been carried on by his widow Sarah, assisted by her two sons, under the style of S.Drayton & Sons. H.G.Drayton was the grandson of the founder and, as to his premises "although it is an old building it is commodious, with two windows and a convenient passage at the side for the display of the secondhand dealer's inevitable cheap box. Mr. Drayton deals in all classes of second-hand books, makes rather a speciality of theology, for which he has a separate room on the first floor, and does a little in local books and prints. He also conducts a popular and up-to-date circulating library." He goes on to add a personal detail "Mr. Drayton is a great lover of music and is a regular singer at the Oratorio Society."
In Martins Lane, at the corner which opens onto the Cathedral Close, the present site of the SPCK Bookshop, was to be found in 1908 "Ye Olde Booke Shoppe" run by J.A.Martin. "It is small and old, and embodies that untidy and "piled-up" appearance which was the delight of the bookworms who frequented the now departed Booksellers Row of London - the sort of shop in whichone can imagine that there are rare and unknown editions lurking in every corner. Mr. Martin does a general trade in cheap standard editions and remainders." Unlike Drayton, Martin was a first generation bookseller in Exeter. Born in Hampton-on-Thames, he had served an apprenticeship to Thomas Bosworth in London. On medical advice he had moved to Exeter, working as an assistant to Commin before setting up on his own.
Not far from Drayton's premises at 236 High Street, was the shop of Messrs. Eland, a firm which has survived to the present day. In 1908 it was "noted for its large stock of modern literature and its circulating library. Fancy articles are also dealt in, and a special feature is modern local art. Henry S.Eland had taken over the business of William Clifford at 24 High Street in 1869 and moved to 236 High Street the following year. He died in 1901 but the family continued to be represented in the business, which continued under the style of Eland Bros. at 236 High Street until World War 2. After the war it continued in premises at 7 Southernhay East in the 1950s, then at 29 Eastgate, at 22 Bedford Street from the 1960s to the 1990s, moving then to Mol's Coffee House in the Cathedral Close. For many years it has specialised in maps, being the local agent for Ordnance Survey, as well as selling articles of stationery (Tapley-Soper 1908).
As in the eighteenth century, not all booksellers in Exeter could make a living solely from retailing books, and the presence of a circulating library provided an income for several booksellers in Exeter at that time. The availability of stationery, fancy goods and works of art also helped to attract a wider range of customers.
But Tapley-Soper was writing in 1908 for the bibliophiles who subscribed to Book auction records and was above mentioning alternative sources of literature. On 12 September 1896 the Exeter flying post had lamented that the young in Exeter were being tempted by "the most pernicious publications ... openly vended in alleys and byways" and commented that "the great boon of a free press" was "not without is drawbacks, not to say its evils". Among such salacious items of literature available in this way was probably Three pretty sisters; or, Paris after dark, which the Flying post had noted on 3 August 1895 was being advertised for one shilling in the local press, a "startling new form of sensationalism". Evidence of the type of popular literature which was available in Devon for those with a little persistence comes from an unlikely source, the library of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. The polymath vicar of Lew Trenchard collected popular literature to provide background for his studies of folksong and popular traditions. Much of his collection was made up of early broadsheet ballads, garlands and chapbooks but in the late 1880s and early 1890s he was collecting the output of several contemporary publishers. He eschewed the more outrageous products of the presses but appears to have had standing orders with publishers such as C.H.Johnson in Leeds and John Heywood in Manchester, who published the Royal pocket library in the 1880s. These poorly printed 32 page items included abridgements of such classics as The man with the iron mask, The barber of Fleet Street or Sweeny Todd as well as books of fortune telling and folk medicine. From this period spelling books and some other children's items are also represented. Also present are many sheets produced by H.P.Such of 183 Union Street, Borough with the title A collection of popular songs, printed on sheets of newsprint and including such items as "Just a song at twilight". These appeared in about 1890, a little before a similar series, often entitled A collection of favourite songs, by W.S.Fortey of Great St Andrew Street, which included such items as Dan Leno's latest hits.
H.P.Such was one of the leading successors to London producers of popular literature like Catnach and Pitts. His output was typographically of a lower quality than theirs and he adopted the worst aspects of the technical progress that had taken place since they were at work. He used poor quality newsprint and his wretched typography was inadequately laid out and poorly inked. Nevertheless he looked to Devon for sources of some of his publications, producing broadsheets on the Babbacombe murderer John Lee, reprieved in Exeter after the gallows had failed to operate three times in 1884, and the disastrous fire at the Theatre Royal in Exeter in which more than 180 people perished in 1887.
A special form of popular literature that reached its zenith in this period was writing in local dialect. The publications of Andrew Brice, especially his Exmoor scolding had reached several editions in the eighteenth century and this title was again reprinted in 1839. In 1837 Mrs Mary Palmer, the sister of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who lived in Great Torrington, wrote A dialogue in the Devonshire dialect published by Longman & Co. in London and Hannaford in Exeter and this lead to a series of similar works, including many in verse. In 1842 G.P.R.Pulman, organist at Axminster parish church produced Rustic sketches; being poems on angling, humorous and descriptive, in the dialect of east Devon, published by W.Bragg in Taunton. His introductory poem shows their origin as contributions to newspapers as well as giving a flavour of much of this type of writing:
I can't deny - but must confess -
That I long time wiz wishin',
Ta zee th' vases out in purnt
I've made about vly-vishin'.
Zo t'other day thought I, by gar,
I'll write to Sherbon town,
An' ax th' voke wot purnts th' news
Ta pleyze to putt 'em down.
Wull, zo they did, an' I zot ta work,
Till all my stock wiz done,
A-hatchin up a lot of zongs -
An' ev'ry wick zeynd one.
Pulman went on to found his own newspaper Pulman's weekly news at Crewkerne in 1857 and was a noted antiquarian writer beside being a printer and bookseller for many years. He must therefore have been well aware of the demands placed on the printers by dialect texts, not only requiring the careful following of non-standard orthography, but also the unusual demands it placed on lesser used sorts, such as 'z' and the apostrophe. It may also explain why a relatively limited number of publishers and printers dedicated themselves to this popular genre. Among London publishers was John Russell Smith, who published the work of the Dorset poet William Barnes, probably the leading literary figure in the Westcountry to indulge in this type of writing, while in Devonport William Wood made the most of his location on the Tamar estuary to publish both Devon and Cornwall dialect material. After something of a lull there was a revival at the turn of the century, perhaps because hot-metal composing machines were not dependent on the distribution of individual letters in a font of type. In Exeter Besley & Co. published the works of W.S.Pasmore in the 1890s and, most popular of all, A.J.Coles, alias Jan Stewer, whose work appeared from about 1905 in book form, having appeared in the Devon and Exeter gazette as "Our weekly dialect story". Items by Jan Stewer such as his Rules and regillations of the new milk and dairies order (1928) would have made good party pieces and some publications were actually so designated, for example the publications by William Pollard in Exeter of works by William Weeks including Bits o' broad Devon, for parish entertainments (1900) and Devonshire yarns, for parish enertainments (1907).
This interest in dialect may also be linked to a new awareness of regional identity. Devon literature was no longer just of interest to antiquarians or tourists but there was a growing market among Devonians, including those expatriates who formed Devonian associations in London and elsewhere. The London Devonian Association even published a yearbook for many years. This new market is reflected in a catalogue published by James G.Commin in 1902, a 22 page item entitled West Country: a selected list of new and old books relating to the counties of Devon and Cornwall. This is well produced with half-tone illustrations and descriptive text outlining the scope of many of the items listed.
In Dorset Hardy had created the literary landscape of Wessex, but in Devon and Cornwall the term "West Country", sometimes as one word, sometimes as two, was coming into use. It is remarkable that this combination of words is rarely found in book titles before 1890, the older phrase "western counties" not having the same feeling of a regional identity.
This page last updated 9 Jan 2007
© Ian Maxted, 2001.