Out and about in the hilly hinterlands of South London this week – and very pleased to have picked this up at an auction. I suspect I’ve remarked before on how cheaply very good examples of English provincial bindings can still be bought: delighted to prove it with this lovely masonic binding of about 1800. The book is Stephen Jones’ Masonic Miscellanies – the 1797 first edition: uncommon enough in itself, no copies at all of the first edition currently listed for sale on the internet, although not truly rare. The ESTC locates five copies in UK institutions and others in the USA – but a copy bound in a beautifully appropriate contemporary masonic binding by a known binder? Yes, truly rare and quite possibly unique.
“Povey, Binder” says the little pink label on the front pastedown. And just look at those beautiful marbled endleaves – a style I think known as Stormont and very much the dernier cri in the early years of the nineteenth century. I say a known binder, but in this case perhaps half-known would be more accurate: so far we only have a surname. But then I like half-known – I like the scope it offers to do a little delving and fleshing out of the record. The usual sources are reticent. There is nothing by Povey in the British Library database of bindings – and in fact there are only three illustrated examples of English masonic bindings in all, which I find odd in that for so long this was a highly distinct and decorative genre of binding. Ramsden notes only that he had seen a ticket reading “Bound by Povey,Wotton” on a half calf binding on a book dated 1802, identifying this, wrongly as it turns out, with the small Buckinghamshire village of Wotton (or Wotton Underwood as it is now more usually known). Beyond that, Maggs Bros. offered an 1815 book bound in tree calf by Povey & Bailey of Wotton in their 1996 catalogue of Bookbinding in the British Isles : Part One (item 222).
There the trail more or less runs cold, but a switch in geographical direction teases out some fresh information. It’s not Wotton in Buckinghamshire, but Wotton-under-Edge, the small market town in Gloucestershire. And that eventually leads us to William Povey (1773?-1851), a provincial bookbinder with (unless perhaps he borrowed them from somewhere) a quite remarkable range of specialised tools for masonic binding work – the all-seeing eye, the square and compasses, the crescent moon, the trowel, the plumb line, the cluster of seven stars, the crossed keys of the treasurer, the crossed quills of the secretary, and more. Originally from Wiltshire, he was recorded as a bookbinder at Wotton-under-Edge in 1803, when he took on George Gainer as an apprentice, and as a bookseller in the following year, when he took on a second apprentice in John Powell. His name appears in a handful of imprints between 1808 and 1816, and he was further described at various times as a printer and stationer.
He registered a press with Richard Bailey in 1820 and their partnership was formally dissolved on 20th June 1823. Perhaps annoyingly, perhaps damagingly, Bailey then opened up a separate establishment nearby and was still in Long Street at Wotton-under-Edge on into the 1840s. By 1839, or perhaps earlier, the Povey business, also in Long Street, had passed to Lewis Povey, presumably a son or nephew, who was described as a printer, bookseller and stationer (although not bookbinder) when he was declared bankrupt in 1848. Lewis Povey recovered and was back in business employing one man by 1851. He later moved to nearby Berkeley, where he died in 1870, leaving a modest inheritance.
William Povey had not been so fortunate. Almost the last record we have of this skilled craftsman is that on the night of Sunday 31st March 1851, the night of the census, at the age of seventy-eight, he was formally listed alongside his wife Mary as a pauper, previously a stationer, confined to the grim workhouse at Stroud. Almost the last record: he had only weeks to live, but there was at least some respite before the end. With a certain pleasing circularity, his old masonic connections came to his aid. Before his death on 9th May 1851 he had been moved to the altogether more pleasant Freemasons’ Alms Houses on Croydon Common, from where he was buried two days later.