Transcript of Virginia Murray's talk

The John Murray Lecture 2007

  • Transcript of the talk by Virginia Murray at the National Library of Scotland on 1 November 2007. Virginia Murray's talk followed that of her husband, John. Their joint lecture was entitled: '50 Albemarle Street: Ledgers and legends'.

I arrived on the archive scene in l974 to help John's father Jock with the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition on Byron. We were lending almost half of the exhibits. It certainly was a scary experience, surrounded by a whole team of Byron experts, Jock himself, Doris Langley Moore, Leslie Marchand, Jerry McGann, and Roy Strong. But what a way to learn!

This was one of the last block-busting exhibitions that the V&A was to mount for many years. It included Byron letters, manuscripts, printed books, works of art, clothing, boots and bones, and all sorts of memorabilia, including lots of hanks of hair! Best of all was our Byron screen, made by Byron and Gentleman Jackson from cut-out prints, representing actors on one side and pugilists on the other. This is now on loan to Newstead Abbey, Byron's home. The V&A even recreated the drawing at 50 Albemarle Street, rather like the NLS have done here.

Jock was immersed in the manuscripts in the archive as he had lived at Number 50, and he knew them inside out. It would not be disloyal of me to describe his handling of them as rough! He would lick his thumb and proceed to turn the pages of 'Childe Harold' with such vigour as if he was editing them, and I could only look away in terror and hope nothing dreadful was happening. He would also spring surprises on unsuspecting researchers by popping his head round the door unannounced and asking them what they were studying. When the researchers had told him who it was they were spending so much time on, Jock's reply would be: 'Oh, I wouldn't spend time on him, he's an awfully dull dog!' and then he'd vanish. I was left to explain who on earth this person was.

Jock was paranoid about lending anything from the archives to overseas exhibitions. He could still vividly remember as a boy, his grandfather John Murray IV, before the outbreak of war in l9l4, lending an important collection of manuscripts which included Byron and Scott, to an exhibition in Leipzig. Then war broke out and there was no way of getting them back. John Murray was resigned to the fact that he'd never see them again. And so it remained until l920, when there was a knock on the door of Number 50 and the German Cultural Attaché was there, returning all the manuscripts in tact. They had been stored safely during hostilities somewhere in Leipzig for over six years.

Back in l974, there weren't many researchers and fewer written inquiries and Jock and John were able to deal with them. Gradually, these increased and so after the Byron exhibition, I stayed on to look after all this growing number of researchers.

Description of the archive

Just to give you an idea of the archive, I will describe it. It originated with the founding of the business by John Murray I in l768, and comprises a vast quantity of incoming letters from authors and friends, politicians and clerics, scientists and travellers, many of whom were pre-eminent figures of their day. There are also important manuscripts from Byron, Scott, Livingstone, Gladstone and many others and a complete run of ledgers, cashbooks, stock books and other business records.

The earliest letters are written on rag paper which is very strong and survives well. The later letters from the mid-l9th century onwards are written on wood pulp paper, which is more brittle and needs much more careful handling. There are some fabulous red and black seals, amazingly elaborate handwriting, letters written in both directions making them impossible to read, and some of those from the Middle East have quarantine slashes cut into them. Many letters have penny blacks and blues and interesting foreign stamps, and some are addressed simply to 'John Murray, London'.

One of my first jobs was to go through, sort out and catalogue, all the incoming correspondence from about l880-l920. This was housed in concertina files, A-Z, about six of these for each year. They were filthy, as they'd been stored in the attic for a long time, and the job took me over two years to complete.

No-one thought this section of the archive would be remotely interesting, but surprise, surprise, what treasures were to emerge! There was an extraordinary sequence of letters from George Bernard Shaw to John Murray about publishing 'Man and Superman', a long correspondence from Edith Wharton about her early novels and one particularly cross letter from her railing against the Murray editor who had dared to correct her spelling and punctuation, and a bunch of totally dotty letters from Baron Corvo Frederick Rolfe.

These and many other unexpected discoveries, make this sequence - which was known as the 'Ginnie letters', I'm proud to say - almost as interesting in their way, as the better known earlier correspondence.

Apart from offering researchers full access to the archive, they have made an enormous contribution to what we know about it. They have fed back their discoveries, and sent me off-prints of articles and books where this information has been used. This has widened our knowledge of the archive and showed us what a vital contribution it has made to people's research.

Long-stay researchers

Some researchers came for a few visits only, but others seemed to spend a lifetime with us! These I called my 'long-stay researchers', and I want to talk to you about just a few of them and their work. They formed a sort of club and always seemed to meet up at Number 50. We even thought of designing a John Murray researchers' tie!

It all began back in l985 with a chance letter from the first of this group, and I quote: '23 Blackwood Crescent, Edinburgh, l7th June l985. Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to you in the hope of locating the correspondence between the first John Murray and the historian and reviewer Gilbert Stuart. Stuart is the subject of my doctoral thesis which I am pursuing at the University of Edinburgh. Might I be permitted to bring a portable typewriter to facilitate the process of transcription.' No prizes for guessing who that was!

It transpired we that we did have a lot of letters from Gilbert Stuart, who was an important Scottish Enlightenment figure and while in London had contributed to John Murray's 'English Review'. He always struck me as rather a peppery character and I never really took to him, but Bill Zachs did him proud in his biography called 'Without Regard to Good Manners'.

During the research, we identified a pencil miniature of Gilbert Stuart, which Bill used on the front cover of the book. Bill also discovered that John Murray I had assiduously copied out all his own out-going correspondence into a series of letterbooks right up to his death in 1793, and that all the earliest ledgers and record books were also still in tact. From them, Bill was able to follow all John Murray's business letters and transactions with fellow booksellers, customers and authors. This all threw a fascinating new light on the booktrade of that period, and gave Bill the idea for his second book, 'The First John Murray and the late l8th century London Booktrade'.

Bill drew on all this unexplored material to give us a picture of John Murray I and all his contradictions. He was straight-laced, but also a drunkard, generous, but could also be quite a schemer, he was frequently litigious and a bit of a lecher, especially when away from home in Ireland.

But his success as a bookseller was due to the imaginative use of all the new practices that were revolutionising the book trade at the time in London and beyond. He paid £1,000 to buy William Sandby's bookselling business at 32 Fleet Street in l768. With his usual swagger he announced to friends: 'Many blockheads in the trade are making fortunes …' and by the time he died in l793 after 25 years in the trade, his business was valued at over £12,000 and nearly l,000 publications included his name on the title page.

John Murray's motto was 'Undertake only what you can perform, and perform it well.' He certainly did and laid the firm foundations of the hugely successful John Murray publishing dynasty. All this we now know from Bill's amazing book and it has become the model which has set the standard for all subsequent books on the book trade. On the anniversary of John Murray I's death in l993, Bill had a commemorative plaque put up on the wall outside Number 32 Fleet Street and we all drank a health to the founder of the firm.

Bill was responsible for getting together the team who compiled the six new John Murray entries for the new DNB [Dictionary of National Biography].

Bill spent so many years at Number 50 that everyone thought he'd joined the publishing staff and he even became a member of the Murray Marauders softball team. He broke all the rules by arriving for work with the cleaners at 6am in the morning, and would be let in by our caretaker with a bribe of coffee and croissants. No-one but Bill could get away with this kind of behaviour!

Charles Elliot letterbooks and ledgers

While Bill was working in the archive, he identified another important sequence of early letterbooks and ledgers of an exact contemporary of John Murray I, which belonged to Charles Elliot. It was through Bill that Warren McDougall began coming to London to work on this material, and he was welcomed into the long-stay researchers club.

Charles Elliot was active from l770-l790 in Edinburgh, a dynamic bookseller and businessman, but because he died young and the business died with him, few people have ever heard of him and he has become totally forgotten. His daughter Anne married John Murray II in l807 and came to live in London, bringing with her all her father's letterbooks and ledgers and there they languished unnoticed in the archive. So now we know that this John Murray, John Murray VII, is descended from not one but two of the greatest publishers and booksellers of their generation!

Elliot exported books to America, the West Indies, India and Europe, as well as the length and breadth of the UK. He dealt mainly in medical and self-help books and bibles, and also bought up and distributed large numbers of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'. He broke into the London market which was then dominated by a cartel of booksellers which included John Murray I.

He had ambitious plans, one of which was to send his shopman out to Philadelphia to set up a bookselling business importing Elliot's books from Edinburgh. Sadly this enterprise came to a sticky end when Dobson, the shopman, refused to remit the money he was making back to Elliot in Edinburgh. Elliot over-reached himself by buying expensive copyrights and ran up huge debts. He died in l790 at the young age of 4l.

Warren was bitten by Charles Elliot and set about his task by microfilming the entire collection of Elliot material. He converted one of our offices into his studio, got arc lamps and high-tech camera equipment, and could be seen bent in all sorts of awkward angles trying to get the best shots. This meant he could work from home as well as in London. He catalogued all the 3,000 plus letters and ledger entries and has written a number of interesting articles on Elliot, his bookselling business at home and abroad, and the vexed question of pirating on which Elliot took an ambivalent view.

Among his discoveries Warren found in the ledgers that Robbie Burns had bought a set of magnificently bound copies of the Encyclopaedia from Elliot's shop in Parliament Square. But the nicest discovery was Elliot's enormous correspondence with John Murray I in London, and John Murray's replies. Their letters link perfectly and you can follow their business transactions and their friendship during the 20 year period. We all look forward to Warren's great book on Elliot that will incorporate all this information and put Charles Elliot firmly back on the late l8th century bookselling scene where he belongs.

l9th-century printers

Another long-stay researcher was Peter Isaac who came to Number 50 to work on William Bulmer and other l9th-century printers such as Bensley, Rowath, and Davison. Peter had a distinguished career in the civil engineering department of Newcastle University but his real passion was the booktrade and every aspect of it. He wanted to find out more about the blockmakers, the engravers, the binders, papermakers and so on and would trawl through the letters and ledgers to pick up new names, as well as provincial booksellers and publishers. He had initiated the British Book Trade Index to make sure that all this kind of information was recorded.

While looking through letters from Thomas Davison, the printer who printed all John Murray's Byron editions, Peter made a fascinating discovery. In a letter from Davison of l822 to John Murray he defends himself against criticisms of poor printing by explaining how his experiments with the angel of the plattern and the thickness of the paper, have resulted in a much more even and higher standard of printing. 'No-one but yourself has reaped the advantage as your books have always been my first object …'

Peter also wanted to know more about the day to day workings of the business. He was particularly thrilled by the letters from John Murray's shopman reporting back to John Murray during one of his absences from London. The particular shopman I have in mind was George Smith the elder, father of the great George Smith of Smith Elder, the firm that John Murray was to take over in l9l7, on the death of the last member of the Smith family.

Smith would report daily to John Murray on what was happening, who had called in, which manuscripts had been deposited, what bills had or had not been paid and any other London booktrade gossip. These letters really give a vivid picture of the business of running the shop.

Peter's other great passion was the subscription books that give details of all John Murray's trade dinners held for the London booksellers. At these occasions, John Murray would launch his new titles and the booksellers would subscribe the numbers of books they wanted. These subscription books were in a terrible state, with broken boards and spines. Both Peter and I did bookbinding classes and we decided that if I mended the books, he would print out the bright red labels for me, which are now on the spines of these books. Sadly he died in 2002 with so many projects unfinished.

Account books

My next long-stay researcher was Angus Fraser. He came to Albemarle Street to work on his bibliography of George Borrow. He was obsessed with Borrow and gypsies and had written extensively about both. He spent hours pouring over the ledgers to check dates and editions and he became totally hooked. He had recently retired from being Chairman of Customs and Excise and had been an adviser to Mrs Thatcher and John Major. He was extremely knowledgeable about copyright and was a wizard with numbers.

It is entirely thanks to him that we now understand the mysterious world of the ledgers, daybooks and account books and how they all interlink. Opening up this area of the archives has been invaluable. So many people have benefited and as a matter of course I always suggested to researchers that a look at the ledgers would really add greatly to their work.

Angus made two other great contributions to the archive - his work on the Home and Colonial Library and the Murray Readers. The Home and Colonial Library began in l843 following the death of John Murray II. To quote from the prospectus announcing the venture: 'The main object of this undertaking is to furnish the inhabitants of the Colonies of Great Britain with the highest Literature of the day … at the lowest possible prices.' In l830 John Murray II had also launched a similar venture called the Family Library, but he had over-extended himself and had to sell his stock to another publisher, who was also a remainder merchant called Tegg.

The Home and Colonial Library had 37 titles, uniformly bound and they came out over a period of l0 years. A sample of the titles were: 'Recollections of Bush Life in Australia', 'A Residence in Sierra Leone', 'Adventures in the Libyan Desert', of which about 4,000 were printed of each. The runaway favourite though was Sir Francis Bond Head's 'Stokers and Pokers', with a print run of l3,000. This book obviously satisfied the railway mania that was sweeping the country in the l840s.

The series was more successful at home than in the colonies, partly due to copyright problems, but the idea of cheap books was a good one and other publishers were quick to copy it.

Advice on manuscripts

Angus's other pet subject was the publishers reader 'invisible behind his employer's arras, the author's unknown, unsuspected enemy'. During John Murray II's time, those who read and gave advice on manuscripts are known to us - people like Gifford, Barrow, Croker and Lockhart - but with John Murray III it has never been obvious who was performing this role.

Angus stumbled on the Milton family, while looking through the ledgers. He noticed large payments being made to them for reading and editing, so decided to investigate. John Murray III recruited Henry Milton through his sister Fanny, who was married to Trollope's father, and whose book on Belgium and the Low Countries John Murray had published. Three generations of the Milton family were employed as readers, sifting through incoming manuscripts and commenting on them. 'Does not contain one single interesting fact' was the verdict on one manuscript.

Once a manuscript had been accepted, they would edit it and prepare it for printing, much as today. However, many authors were not happy with their corrections or suggestions, and would resist them. David Livingstone was one who wrote to John Murray saying 'every iota of his labours must go.' It was thanks to the Milton family's narrow-minded and conservative outlook and damning comments on manuscripts, which made John Murray turn down some important books, most notably Kinglake's 'Eothen'.

Angus always maintained that the Miltons were a dead hand on the John Murray editorial rudder and he had plans to pursue this subject further, but died suddenly in 2001. He left all his great George Borrow collection to the NLS.

The Murray Handbooks

My next researcher had a passion for the Murray Handbooks, the pioneering travel guides of the l9th century, launched by John Murray III in l836. 'The Englishman trusts to his Murray as he would trust to his razor.' So wrote 'The Times' about this series, which went on being published right up to l900 when it was sold to Stanford. The guides covered all the counties of the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Japan, India and even New Zealand.

Bill Lister was a solicitor from Southport, who had an almost complete collection of these handbooks and knew everything about them. He wanted to compile a bibliography of them, which entailed hours of trawling through the ledgers checking dates and editions. This took him about five years.

His great revelation was that John Murray was not producing completely new and updated editions of the handbooks as often as we had thought. On occasions, all he was doing was printing up new title pages and revising the date to make them look like new editions.

Bill Lister also managed to identify all the editors and contributors who up till then had been anonymous. By combing through the ledgers he picked up names of people and payments they had received for work on the various handbooks. Then we would look out all their letters. Bill managed to follow most of them up and fill in their backgrounds.

This was fascinating, as we found that Ruskin, Augustus Hare, Francis Palgrave, Richard Ford, George Borrow and other important people were contributors to the handbooks. We also found a charming letter from Mendelsohnn to John Murray recommending a small, clean and well-run guest house in Switzerland that he thought worthy of inclusion in the next edition of the Swiss Handbook. When we check the next edition, sure enough, there was the entry for this particular guest house.

The 'Bibliography of Handbooks for Travellers' was the result of all this hard work. It is one of the most useful reference books we have, and I use constantly, but sadly it's now out of print.

Clapperton and African exploration

Now on to Jamie Bruce Lockhart, who was interested in Clapperton and African exploration, particularly the course of the river Niger. He had been a diplomat in West Africa, so when he came to research I showed him a water-stained pig-skin journal, which mentioned the Niger.

The history attached to this journal is fascinating. It belonged to John Lander, who, with his brother Richard, set out on a voyage to follow the mysterious route of the Niger from its source to the sea in l830. Richard had previously been on Clapperton's fatal mission to the Niger in l827, Clapperton had died of fever and Richard had returned with the official account of the expedition that was published by John Murray. Richard wanted to write a version of his own experiences in Africa, but not being good with words, got his brother John to ghost write it for him. This account was offered to John Murray who asked John Barrow to comment on it.

Barrow clung to the notion that the Niger eventually flowed into the Nile and out into the Mediterranean and did not want to be proved wrong. He wrote a withering report on Richard's book, saying the work was 'deplorably meagre in notices connected with botany and zoology, utterly unimportant and uninteresting'. This damning report is still to be found in the archive and on the strength of it John Murray did not publish Richard's book: he took it elsewhere.

A year later, Richard was off to Africa again to track the Niger, this time with his brother John. Throughout their hazardous journey, canoeing down the river, they both kept a journal of their days' activities. John tells of a frightening encounter with a native chief and all his warriors armed to the teeth threatening to kill them. They survived this drama, only to be attacked by pirates and all their possessions including this journal, were lost in the river.

It wasn't until l835 when the brothers were back in England and their book had been published, that this journal was returned to John. It had been in a trunk which was retrieved from the water, and had made its way via local warlords to the coast and been brought back to England by an English sea captain. John Lander then brought it to John Murray in case he needed to revise the text for a second edition. But soon afterwards, John Lander died and the journal remained in the archive. Looking at it you can see the water stains but the writing is perfectly clear and legible.

Byron biography research

My final long-stay researcher Fiona MacCarthy approached us to look at the Byron material as she wanted to write a new biography of Byron. We were delighted to welcome her and she spent five years researching, sitting on Byron's cushion underneath his portrait, so he could keep an eye on her while she was working. Murray's had previously published Leslie Marchand's major Byron biography in l957, but he had been constrained by the times as to what he could say, especially about Byron's private life.

Fifty years on, Fiona had no such constraints. After reading through all his letters, journals and poetry, she reinterpreted Byron's life for a new generation. She looked closely at Byron's relationships with adolescent boys, a hidden subject in earlier biographies, and laid new emphasis on his close male friendships, which included John Murray II. We were able to show her all John Murray II's letter to Byron, which had rarely been seen before. Through them she followed the course of their friendship from its beginnings in l8ll, to its high-point when Byron was in Venice, to its fizzling out and sad abrupt end when Byron died in l824. To her Byron was the first superstar in the modern sense, a celebrity in his own time.

We gave Fiona access to everything in the Byron archive, which includes letters in French, Italian and Greek. She could read the French and Italian, but no one could read the 60 or so Greek letters in uneducated handwriting that looked like illegible scrawls. They obviously contained interesting material that no-one had read since Byron had received them while in Greece all those years ago, but how could we get them translated?

Help was at hand through an author who had just written an excellent book on the Greek War of Independence. Through him we tracked down Michael Ward to do the job. He had been in the SOE in Greece during the war, married a Greek girl and remained in Athens ever since, so he was just the person we needed. I tentatively wrote to him enclosing photocopies of some of the worst looking letters in Greek script to get his reaction. 'The scratchings of chickens' is what he called them, but he set to work and within three months he had translated them all.

We were astonished. They date from l8ll, Byron's first visit to Greece and these are mainly from local friends wanting to borrow money. The later ones of l823-24 are elaborately and effusively expressed and, as Fiona says in her book, 'suggest there was a real sense of wonder at the sudden apparition of the lame English lord allying himself so unequivocally with the Greek cause.' All the Greek warlords were vying for Byron's support and his money for their particular faction, and there is one letter from Byron himself, written by a scribe resisting demands for providing guns recently shipped into Greece by the Greek Committee from London. All this added greatly to her biography as it was completely new information about the last phase of Byron's life.

Just as a postscript on this, amongst the letters in French, I found a saucy but rather fascinating letter from Caroline Lamb to Byron l8l2, offering to provide two pretty girls for his enjoyment. ''Antoinette et Georgine sont tous les deux a votre service' …' ['Antoinette and Georgine are both at your service'] This extraordinary letter had been languishing unnoticed amongst the others, so I was very excited to have tracked it down and Fiona was delighted and just managed to include a paragraph about it as her book went to press.

There have been so many other interesting researchers whose work has been vital to opening up the archives, but sadly I haven't got enough time to tell you about them all.

John Murray ledgers

Lastly I want to describe briefly the ledgers which have been so important to so many researchers. They are huge books in which the clerks wrote in magnificent copper plate handwriting and even if you don't like figures, it's a real thrill just to look through them. All the books ever published by John Murray since l768 feature in them, with all the production costs itemised.

These are the sort of entries which appear. Firstly, the publishing arrangement agreed between John Murray and the author, whether the copyright had been bought outright, or whether John Murray and the author went half and half on any profit or loss made by the book.

Next, the cost of the paper which was one of the highest costs in book production in the early l9th century. Then a list of all the trades involved, the printers and the print run, which could be 500, 750 or l,000 copies. The first quarto edition of 'Childe Harold' published in l8l2 had a print run of just 500, but so great was the demand, that just a few weeks later, this was into the thousands.

Then the artists used to make the watercolours from which the steel or wood engravers and block makers could work. Turner, Prout, Clarkson Stanfield and many other well-known artists were frequently employed. Also the mapmakers - it has been said that John Murrays made a great contribution to mapmaking in l9th-century. And of course the NLS houses the great Bartholomew archives who did a lot of work for John Murray.

Finally the binding costs and the profit or loss. There is often the ominous entry 'Sold to Tegg'. This would refer to overstocks being sold to Tegg who, I have already mentioned, was a publisher, but also a remainder merchant with outlets in Australia. But worse still was the entry 'wasted' which of course means pulped, or sent off to be used as linings for trunks and attaché cases.

Jane Austen's 'Emma'

The ledger for 'Emma' reveals that Jane Austen paid for the cost of the production of her book. There is also a list of people receiving early copies. This includes the Prince Regent who received his copy, bound in morocco costing one pound four shillings. This copy is still preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor. The dedication of 'Emma' to the Prince Regent was originally written by John Murray, as Jane Austen couldn't bring herself to be so obsequious!

I was very sad to see the archive go and did not like saying good bye to all my friends in the boxes, who I had got to know so well over the last 30 years. But it is now in excellent hands here at the NLS. First Ruth Boreham, and now David McClay, Rachel Thomas and the rest of the team have all made great in-roads into cataloguing and interpreting it. They are finding all sorts of undiscovered treasures that will bring even more researchers to the NLS to enjoy!

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