Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 19. Bell’s Poets and Johnson’s Poets; Paternoster Row Numbers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 19. Bell’s Poets and Johnson’s Poets; Paternoster Row Numbers

Perhaps the largest combine for the issue of a trade book, was that which brought out the edition of English Poets for which Johnson wrote the Lives. In this undertaking, some forty booksellers were concerned, and the names of the proprietors included, as Edward Dilly, one of the partners, said in a letter to Boswell, “almost all the booksellers in London, of consequence.” The object was to defeat what they deemed to be an invasion of their literary property, in the shape of a comprehensive issue of British Poets, printed at the Apollo press in Edinburgh, in a hundred cheap and handy volumes, and sold by John Bell of the Strand. This John Bell, founder of Bell’s Weekly Messenger, was a pioneer in the production of cheap books, and, being a man of modern ideas, he initiated, so it is said, the abolition of the long s. Another form of cheap literature which had come into vogue, was the “Paternoster Row numbers,” so called from the Row being their chief place of issue. These publications, which came out in the form of weekly parts, consisted of standard works such as family Bibles with notes, Foxe’s Martyrs, the works of Josephus, the life of Christ, histories of England and the like, which, if not read, at least gave a good air to the home. One of the earliest to make a speciality of this form of publishing was Alexander Hogg, who seems to have been possessed of all the arts and wiles of the modern book canvasser; and his assistant, John Cooke, after starting in the same line of business on his own account, made an even better thing of it. He is said to have cleared some thousands of pounds by Southwell’s Notes and Illustrations on the Bible, and his were the little “whity-brown” covered sixpenny numbers of the British poets on which Leigh Hunt “doted.” This series of books, running, in all, to several hundred weekly parts, consisted of three sections: select novels, select classics and select poets—select, no doubt, meaning then, as now, those which could be reprinted with impunity.