Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 38. The Provincial Trade

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

§ 38. The Provincial Trade

In the provinces, the expansion of the book trade after the restoration was not less marked than in the metropolis, though the volume of business still remained insignificant compared with that of London. From early times, stationers had been established in certain important centres, but, between 1640 and 1647, there were bookshops in about forty different towns, and, in 1704, John Dunton speaks of three hundred booksellers now trading in country towns. Some of these enlarged their sphere of operations by itinerant visits to neighbouring places; in this way, the needs of Uttoxeter and Ashby-de-la-Zouch were supplied by the Lichfield bookseller, Michael Johnson—father of Samuel Johnson—who, also, on market days, made the journey to Birmingham and opened a shop there. In the middle of the eighteenth century, William Hutton, the historian of Birmingham, made similar visits from Birmingham to Bromsgrove market. In 1692, Nevill Simmons, booksellers, of Sheffield, held the first book-auction in Leeds, on which occasion, as related by Ralph Thoresby, who was a buyer at the sale, the room was so overcrowded that the floor gave way. A few years previous to this, the enterprising Edward Millington had introduced to the bookbuyers of Cambridge and other towns this attractive method of selling books; and Dunton, in 1698, startled Dublin booksellers by taking across a large quantity of books and selling them by auction there. Other supplies were carried into the country by certain London booksellers, who attended regularly the chief provincial fairs, such as Sturbridge and Bristol, which were still important centres of book-distribution; and a considerable number of books found their way direct from London to country customers, many of the clergy and other buyers of better-class literature having a bookseller in town from whom they ordered such books as they wanted. It might very well be expected that books to be found on the shelves of provincial shops would be chiefly of a popular nature, and this Lackington discovered to be the case when, towards the end of the eighteenth century, he made his progress through the principal towns in the north. He was struck by the scarcity of books of the better class in the shops he visited: in York and Leeds, it is true, there were a few good books to be seen, but in all the other towns between London and Edinburgh, he declares that nothing but trash was to be found.

Owing to legislative restrictions which permitted no presses to be set up outside London, except at Oxford, Cambridge and York, hardly any printing was done in other parts of the country before the end of the seventeenth century. By 1724, however, presses had been started in nearly thirty other places; but Oxford and Cambridge continued to be the chief provincial centres of book production.

At Oxford, the university press, which, in 1669, was installed in the new Sheldonian theatre, made great progress under the vigorous direction of John Fell, and the excellent work which it did during this period is seen in books like Wood’s Historia (1674), and Hudson’s Dionysius (1704). Clarendon’s gift of the copyright of his History of the Rebellion provided for it, in 1713, a new habitation and the title Clarendon press. At Cambridge, it was owing to the zeal of Richard Bentley that, at the end of the seventeenth century, the university press there experienced a corresponding revival and the real foundations of the modern institution were laid.

With the exception of John Baskerville’s work at Birmingham, the book printing done in other provincial towns in the eighteenth century is not of much account. At York, Thomas Gent combined topographical authorship, with the art of printing, but excelled in neither; and, in the same city, John Hinxman, in 1760, published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. The booksellers of Newcastle were numerous enough to have a Stationers’ company of their own about the same date. At Bristol, there was William Pine, the printer, also Joseph Cottle, the bookseller who published poems by Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth; while Eton’s bookseller, Joseph Pote, was well known for half a century. Of private presses, the most noteworthy was that which Horace Walpole maintained at Strawberry hill from 1757 to 1789. Unsatisfactory workmen were not his only trouble, for, in a letter of 1764, to Sir David Dalrymple, he complained that

  • the London booksellers play me all manner of tricks. If I do not allow them ridiculous profit they will do nothing to promote the sale; and when I do, they buy up the impression, and sell it at an advanced price before my face.