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13 April 2014

Exeter. Thomas Osborne

Thomas Osborne, bookseller of Exeter: the little crawling pamphleteer

Lurking beneath the respectable part of the book trade, which was largely made up of the names that appeared with monotonous regularity on the title-pages of eighteenth and early nineteenth century books, there was to be found a whole underworld of lesser mortals - journeymen, chapmen, newsboys, apprentices, hawkers - who only emerge rarely from their twilight zone. One of these was Tommy Osborne "the noted ... second-hand bookseller" who achieved the rare distinction of having his full-length portrait published as a lithograph, probably drawn in about 1826 by George Rowe (1796-1858), who was copying an earlier original.

Osborne was described on the portrait as "M.P. for the Antient & Loyal Borough of Ide, in 1812" but those who look in reference works of parliamentary history will seek him there in vain. He was born, probably in Exeter, in 1782, the son of Thomas Osborne, cordwainer, and may perhaps be identified with the Tomas Osborne, son of Thomas and Hannah, who was baptised at the Bow Meeting in Exeter on 16 March 1783. He is next met with on 3 October 1812 when he is described as a labourer on taking out the freedom of Exeter by succession, presumably so as to be able to vote in the election that was then taking place. It was during and immediately after this election that he was to achieve his brief hour of glory.

Since the early eighteenth century it had been the custom in Exeter to hold a burlesque election immediately following the parliamentary one. The unfortunate inhabitants of Ide, a normally tranquil village which lay two miles south-west of Exeter, and which was declared a parliamentary borough for the occasion, had to suffer the onslaughts of the revellers. Local characters stood as candidates, and the occasion was used to settle old scores in a host of allusions that mostly remain incomprehensible to the modern reader of the surviving squibs and mock election addresses. The election broadsheets, examples of which survive in the Westcountry Studies Library and other collections in Exeter, were produced by various local printers including Besley and Hedgeland, and were gathered into a volume by the Exeter printer R.Cullum in 1812 under the title The spirit of election wit, at the City of Exeter, and County of Devon: together with the burlesque election at Ide, in the year 1812.

In that year John Cooke was the first to offer himself as candidate. He was the captain of the sheriff of Devon's troop of javelin men, an honorary civic bodyguard. A saddler by trade, he had earned himself the reputation of a local character by such action as the production of a hand-written "loyal bulletin" of news which he would post up in his shop "to cheer people in the worst of times". He was an extreme loyalist and supporter of Pitt and, in 1793, published at his own expense handbills and advertisements "to avoid all such inflammatory pamphlets as Tom Paine's". His orthography did not match his loyalty, and he was able to laugh at this shortcoming in his election address dated 21 October: "I have placed a long list ... at the end of my Dictionary, where I look how to spell my bulletins, with some other hard Words and Meanings, not to be found in the said Dictionary." Another claim to fame was his responsibility for numbering the houses in the high Street: "I rose one morning before the people were up, and numbered every house in the Fore-Street with chalk, which made the people stare. I was told that I had not begun at the right end with the sun. I went over the ground again ... who would have done it beside?"

Who indeed could have stood against such a formidable contender? It was on 29 September that Thomas Aesop Osborne declared himself ready to do so but only, he claimed, because he understood that the gallant Capotain Cooke was absent in St Petersburgh "to obtain a Patent of the magnanimous Emperor Alexander, for his newly-invented Gallows for the exaltation of our arch enemy Buonaparte ..." He continued has address: "My claims to your patronage, Ladies and Gentlemen, I trust are indisputable - having been employed for the last thirty years in collecting the most valuable and scarce Literary Publications of the Antients, to adorn your Libraries. I was also concerned in suppressing and causing to be condemned to the Flames the Works of that all-levelling traitor Tom Paine." His rival Cooke paid a tribute to his erudition by calling him the learned Collector of Manuscripts Aesop Osborne". Thomas Baxter Thumb, standing on behalf of Captain Cooke, echoes his praise: "With respect to Sir Thomas Osborne's pretensions ... he is a man of vast erudition, and knows more of Books than any of his Competitors". In a mock playbill for The burlesque; or, Ide in convulsions! he even figure as Aesop Mr Lackington, a reference to James Lackington (1746-1815) the proprietor of the vast bookshop in Finsbury Square, London, named the Temple of the Muses, who had retired to Budleigh Salterton, the coastal resort near Exeter.

Others were not so generous about his intellectual or his business attainments. One candidate, writing under the name of Dido, says: "Of another Candidate, Mr. Aesop, I shall say but little; I too well know the noble Pride you possess, inherent from your Fathers, to suffer a little crawling Pamphletteer, a Hawker of dying speeches, to your Suffrages - Miles's Ourang-Outang would cut a better Figure on your Hustings." Anther, Tim Downright, goes so far as to refer to him as "Aesop -who is crooked I would allow; but I doubt much if he possesses any other quality to be compared to his namesake." This is a reference to the hunched back of the Greek fabulist.

Some facets of the original Thomas Osborne seem to emerge through the distorting mirror of these squibs. He appears to have had a weakness for drink, as he confesses in hs own election address: "I regret extremely, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I am deprived the pleasure of paying my personal respects to you this day; but having been induced, at the repeated solicitations of my friends ... to accompany them on a Nocturnal Peregrination with the worthy Candidate for the City, to witness their being made Members of the several Smoking Clubs, on Saturday last, I unfortunately made a little to free; and not having the support of either of my companions, (although the worthy candidate had the politeness to offer me his assistance,) I full into the Kennel, just by Stone's Court, on my way home, and most unluckily gamboged my best Breeches, and very much deranged the Cuticle of my Posterior. - In this sorry plight I was found and readily taken in my my kind friend Mother Rice, who ministered to my wants, and still continues to soothe my necessities."

This indiscretion was seized upoon by another candidate, the aptly- named Tim Downright. "Can it be conceived, Ladies and gentlemen", he writes, "that after having, in company with the candidate for this City, and his three followers, intruded into all the famous and infamous Smoking-Clubs in the town, that you, gentle Electors, would judge Mr. Aesop to be a fit and proper person to represent your ancient and loyal Borough? ... What pretensions has Mr. Aesop to your choice? - none. Has he not forfeited, by his conduct in keeping bad and dissolute company, all pretensions to virtue and modesty?" Even Thomas Thumb is moved to comment: "The scurrility of Mr. Aesop's address shews you he is a man fond of low company ..."

The raggedness of Tommy Osborne's attire, so apprent from the lithographed portrait which shows him with patched trousers and out at elbow, is also alluded to by Tim Downright: "N.B. The true cause of Mr. Aesop's dislike to the Candidate for this City and his three followers ... is because they would not permit him to sit down in his old breeches, at their Venison Feast, yesterday given at the Westgate Hotel." His shambling gait is referred to in the spoof playbill mentioned previously where it is mentioned that: "Mr. Lackington will exhibit his truly wonderful Pedestrian Performance; in which (to the Astonishment of the Audience) he will walk Once across the Stage in the short Space of an Hour!"

At last, on 22 October, the day of the poll arrived. The candidates "were taken on men's shoulders, from the Blue-Boy public-house, in Westgate-Quarter, Exeter, to the east entrance of the City, where a Coach was in readiness for the reception of their distinguished personages, decorated with laurels, &c ... At the back of the Coach was seated an old Blind Fiddler ... Placards were also posted in various parts of the Coach ... They then proceeded, accompanied by the pretended Sheriff, &c. &c. through the principal streets to the village of ide, at which place the Hustings had previously been erected; and, after having been copiously regaled by Sir John Barelycorn, the poll commenced: at the conclusion of which there appeared for

Thomas Thumb, ......................9980
Sir John Taffy, ........................9840
Sir Thomas Aesop Osborne, ...4600
Sir Harry Squintem, ................3640

consequently the two former were declared duly elected."

So, despite the statement on the lithograph, Tommy Osborne failed to be elected M.P. for Ide, and he appears to have returned to his old trade of itinerant bookseller, his first appearance after the election being Alphington goose-fair, according to his election address. Certainly he does not appear to have settled down in business, as he does not figure in trade directories for Exeter in 1816 or 1822.

Sadly the next we hear of him is a brief obituary in Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for 23 August 1823: "Died on Thursday [21 August], aged 41, after a long illness, Thomas Osborne, a freeman of this City; an itinerant bookseller, and so well knmown for the eccentricity of his character and appearance, as to have become the subject of a lithographic engraving." This was repeated verbatim in The Alfred on 26 August and Trewman's Exeter Flying Post on 28 August. Flindell's Western Luminary for 26 August has a slightly different text: "Died ... on Thursday last, in this City, aged 41, Thomas Osborne, dubbed by the populace Sir Thomas; distinguished by the singularity of his person, character and manners." A burial record has been sought in vain; no known grave marks the last resting place of Tommy Osborne. However he remained in people's memories for some years as a local character, and the lithograph of this pathetic, shabby, yet endearing figure, hopefully offering a volume to a prospective customer, bestows immortality not only on him but also on the whole army of itinerant booksellers of which he was a member.

A version of this paper first appeared in Antiquarian book monthly review, 13:11 (Nov 1985).
Copyright © Ian Maxted 2001
This page last updated 11 Dec 2001