A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
45: The market for books in the 18th century
The arrival of the provincial newspaper with its network of agents gave booksellers a changed role. In 1772 both Trewman and Brice listed some 22 persons who were agents for newspapers. Of these at least half were also booksellers, and it was the booksellers who benefited most from the advent of newspapers. In the Exeter flying post for 1772 there are five book advertisements in the issue for 15 May, three placed by W.Johnston, a London publisher who advertised widely in the Exeter flying post in this period. Beside this Francis Newbery advertised 29 children's books and William Chapple invited subscriptions for his ill-fated edition of Risdon's history of Devon. In the same week Brice and Thorn's Old Exeter journal contained five book advertisements only one, that of William Chapple, being common to both newspapers. Thus a reader in Barnstaple could place a subscription with Fidelio Murch, the local bookseller, for either newspaper, or could consult them in his shop, and could learn of the publication of some forty new books ranging from a pronouncing and spelling dictionary to The new merry companion; or, complete modern songster. He could read that he could buy or order them from the shop, and that he could place a subscription for Mr Chapple's work with Mr Colley in the same town. Also he would note from the advertisements that he could obtain from the obliging Mr Murch Maredant's drops to cure his leprosy, Dr Flugger's drops for his pimpled face, or even Velno's vegetable syrup for his venereal disease. Periodical publications, such as the Gentleman's magazine, were also widely advertised and these carried reviews and full listings of the month's publications, so that, in theory, the subscriber could have the newspaper or periodical delivered by the newsman, consult the advertisements, place an order at the time of the next delivery, and so build up his library without even setting foot through the bookseller's door.
If he were more energetic he could actually visit one of the booksellers listed in most advertisements. These usually reproduced the wording of the frequently verbose title-pages, but added to the imprint a list of local distributors. For example The christian's preparation for the worthy receiving of the holy sacrament of the Lord's supper, advertised in the Exeter flying post for 8 January 1773, "may be had of E.Score and W.Grigg in Exeter; J.Wallis in Plymouth; J.Trownson and W.Cleave in Totnes; W.Craven in Dartmouth; M.Allison in Falmouth; F.Murch in Barnstaple; J.Fursman in Ashburton; A.Brown in Honiton, and all other booksellers in Great Britain and Ireland".
Local booksellers too were willing to place advertisements on their own account, and these often show how enterprising they could be. Shirley Woolmer, an Exeter bookseller, proudly advertised in the Exeter flying post for 15 November 1787 that he had "just received from the continent a large collection of music ... which, with a continual supply of music from London as soon as announced there, enables him to exhibit for sale a grand assortment." He also takes the opportunity to say that he "has now 20,000 volumes of books on sale by catalogue with their prices ..." and concludes: "Utmost value in ready money given for libraries and parcels of books - likewise books exchanged". An indication of the range of goods stocked by Barnabas Thorn, bookseller and partner of Andrew Brice, printer of the Old Exeter journal is shown by the advertisement in the issue of 12 June 1772: "At the shop of Mr. Thorn may be had, books in all sorts and sciences, memorandum books of all sorts, accompt books, letter cases, writing paper of all sorts, magazines, warrants of all sorts, viz. land tax, window tax and highway &c. all sorts of paper hanging of the newest patterns, with every other article in the stationary way: likewise all sorts of patent medicines." Specific products advertised for sale by Thorn in that issue include the black-lead pencils of John Middleton, who had "lately purchased a quantity of superfine black lead from the proprietors of the Black Lead Mines in Cumberland", "Moore's marking instruments; by which either initials, names at length, or a verse may be impress'd on silk, muslin, linen or woollen ..." as well as Dr Hooper's female pills, Fryer's balsam, Dr. Storey's worm cakes and pine bud tea. As today, it was difficult to make a living from books alone.
Bookshops became important social centres in provinical towns. In Tiverton the cultured bookseller Philip Parkhouse was well respected. He was the father of the dramatist Hannah Cowley and on 11 December 1780 he wrote to Lord Harrowby to request a pension for his daughter, the success of whose plays did not make up the shortfall in the family income necessary to support the family of six: "her husband by your address has fifty pounds a year in ye Stamp Office and gets fifty pounds a year more by his writing in a newspaper and this is all." He was a regular correspenent of Lord Harrowby because "as a bookseller's shop is usually the resort of gentlemen I hear wt passes" (Chalk 1936, 242).
One method of distributing books was by catalogue. Munby and Coral's list of book sale catalogues indicates how widespread this was, both by auction and by sale at fixed prices. But the relative dearth of surviving provincial sale catalogues hides the true picture. The compilers list only four book sales by catalogue in Exeter up to 1800, in 1725, 1742, 1783 and 1786 (Munby 1977). Yet a search through Brice's Weekly journal from June to August 1729 reveals three auction sales in as many months for all of which sale catalogues were published, although none appears to have survived. The first, held on 30 June at the house of John Giles, behind the Guildhall, was for books described as "as fair as new", and it is known from Elizabeth Swaim's study of auctions in Yorkshire that new books were disposed of by auction. The second, held on 3 September at Dick's Coffee House, represented the collection of a late divine, and the third, held on 8 September and James's Coffee House, was described as being on "valuable books". This last collection could be viewed at the shop of Aaron Tozer the bookseller, who announced in the same paper that he bought all sorts of old books, particularly clergymen's and gentlemen's studies. Presumably this auction sale was made up of some of the items Tozer had recently been offered.
In auction sales too the printer could on occasion provide a service to his readers. In September 1728 the library of the Rev. George Fairchild was to be sold at auction in Barnstaple. Catalogues were available in Barnstaple and from Andrew Brice's printing officer on Exeter. On 30 August 1728 Brice took the opportunity of announcing in his Weekly journal: "N.B. As the printer hereof designs to be present at the sale, gentlemen in or near Exon, giving him commissions, may (for a reasonable satisfaction) depend upon being faithfully served by him."
Apart from the spread of popular literature there was a growing market for more substantial works toward the end of the eighteenth century and subscription lists enable us to look at the upper end of the book market in considerable detail. In 1764 Samuel Bamfield, a teacher of mathematics in Honiton had developed a new and very unorthodox theory of astronomy and the rotation of the planets around the sun. To promulgate this he published A new treatise of astronomy, which was printed for him in Exeter by Andrew Brice. In his introduction he states: "Having but little acquaintance with the world, and this treatise being of an uncommon nature, I have scarce sollicited any subscriptions abroad, consequently cannot expect the number to be great, but as some gentlemen of the neighbourhood have been pleased to encourage the work, I have presumed to insert their names." This modest disclaimer hides an astute knowledge of the book trade, although the author may have received some advice from Andrew Brice. He managed to persuade the major London bookseller Becket to take 100 copies, another London dealer took twenty, Fleming in Edinburgh, Fletcher in Oxford and Merrill in Cambridge each took fifty, thus ensuring good distribution in all the major centres of the trade. Local booksellers were less forthcoming; in Exeter Aaron Tozer took twenty, as did Arthur Brown in Honiton. The remaining 100 or so copies were made up mainly of subscriptions by individuals, all but about twenty from within Devon. Even within Devon the only towns to have more than a couple of subscribers were Exeter where twelve individuals subscribed, and Honiton where 27 people subscribed to 28 copies. In 1764 there would have been about 400 households in Honiton and, even allowing for the loyalty of past and present pupils, this reveals a remarkable proportion of some twelve per cent of the potential market showing an interest in a subject of considerably scientific complexity. The 86 individual subscribers include thirteen clergy, eight teachers, three surveyors, three surgeons, 34 people designated as Mr, in large part probably tradespeople, four gents and four Esquires.
By 1790 it is possible through trade directories to identify many subscribers more closely. When Martin Dunsford published his Historical memoirs of the town and parish of Tiverton in that year he managed to obtain 161 subscribers in Tiverton itself. Tiverton was then a town of about 1,000 households, so Dunsford achieved the remarkable feat of reaching perhaps fifteen per cent of the households in the town or, more impressive still, perhaps one quarter of literate households. As a man well-known for his radical ideas he may also have alienated some potential purchasers. Beside the expected representation of gentry, clergy and the professional classes - and two who preferred to remain anonymous, one claiming to be Oliver Cromwell - a little over half of the 413 subscribers were tradespeople. The Tiverton subscribers include a tanner, a serge maker, a saddler, a rope maker, a whitesmith, a linendraper, a cutler, a plumber and glazier, a fuller, a maltster and a tobacconist. Perhaps under the influence of his stock in trade a wine merchant actually subscribed to two copies. Like Bamfield's work, Dunsford's book was no light-weight tome, and the subscribers' lists provide an impressive indication of the depth of intellectual curiosity amongst many classes of late eighteenth century Devon society.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.