A Broken Board

I was shamed into doing a spot of somewhat overdue tidying-up the other day by my elder daughter.  “You’re becoming a HOARDER”, she said, “one of those creepy old men in their burrows you see on the television”.  I didn’t fully follow the cultural reference (What on earth has she been watching? And why?) — but this was plainly not a good thing to become.

Sitting mute in a long-neglected dark corner was a broken board — just a single board — of a nineteenth-century book.  I have no idea what the book was or where the board came from (although an old note on the pastedown indicates that the book was published in 1828) — a board of no-use to anyone — ripe for throwing away.  Discoloured, faded, bowed, a little damp-stained, evidently detached from the rest of the binding of its own volition, and not even of much merit for packing purposes — although, now I come to think of it, I believe it was as a piece of packing that it first arrived here.   

Of no use to anyone — except, except, except — and this is probably why I kept it in the first place (if indeed that was ever a conscious decision) — there on the paste-down was a circular and rather elegant bookseller’s label.  R. Stott of Coventry, bookseller and binder — and to judge from what was left of the binding — diced calf of about 1830, in what may originally have been a reddish-pink hue, with a broad band of gilt tooling (wheatsheaves and ears of corn, I think) round the outer edge — a craftsman of no mean accomplishment.

A quick search in a couple of reference books and on the internet seemed to make it certain that no-one knew anything much about him — his first name was Richard and he was active in Coventry in the first half of the nineteenth century — that was about it.  No examples of his work anywhere that I could see, beyond a single rather perfunctory and somewhat battered calf binding (with a different label design) currently for sale on e-Bay.

Any excuse to desist from the tidying-up, I suppose you will all think, but it seemed somehow important to pause for a while to flesh out his life-story.  Not a native of Coventry, Richard Stott (1783-1854), bookseller, bookbinder, and stationer, was baptised on 27th March 1784 at St. Mary the Virgin, at Leigh in Lancashire — about mid-way between Wigan and Manchester.  His stated age at various times in his life all point to his having been born the previous year.  He was a son of Josiah Stott (1752?-1828) and his wife Mary Winkley (1748-1826), who had married at Leigh in 1776.

Stott himself married Mary Clarke (1775-1855), from Rufford in Nottinghamshire, at Nottingham in 1811. This almost certainly indicates that it was in Nottingham that he learnt his trade. And he must have moved to Coventry and set up in business in the New Buildings there (his address throughout his career) at just this time.

Warwick Advertiser, 19th November 1836. © The British Library Board. 

He was an active freemason, becoming a member of the Shakespeare Lodge at Warwick in February 1818, and transferring to the Trinity Lodge in Coventry six years later.  An 1836 advertisement, noting his twenty-five years in Coventry, drew particular attention not only to a large stock of steel-engravings, but also to his binding department: “the Style of Binding will comprise every variety of modern and fashionable taste”.

It was a claim he was to repeat four years later, this time advertising for staff: “Wanted, Two or Three active intelligent Men, of good character, to solicit Orders and Travel the Country with Books”.  He probably found one in the young Scottish bookseller named Robert McGuffie, who was living with the Stotts on the night of the 1841 census.      

Coventry Herald, 24th January 1840.  © The British Library Board.

Stott was still advertising for one or two “active young men of good character” in 1842, but subsequently abandoned bookselling and became a house and land-agent in his final years.  He died on the 23rd September 1854, aged seventy-one, and was buried at the London Road Cemetery the following day.  His simple will, made out on 22nd December 1853, left more or less everything to his wife, with some mention also of his two married daughters, Mary Ann Allen and Susan Dalgliesh, born in 1812 and 1813 respectively.

Now back to the tidying-up — but what do I with the board?  Of no possible use to anyone — but also, as far as we know, a unique surviving fragment of a nineteenth-century craftsman’s life and skill.  Even at the risk of being called a HOARDER, I can’t now decently throw it away.  Any takers, anyone? — it’s yours for the asking (and my daughter would be very grateful).  

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