The Book-Hunters of 1888 (2)

Sotheby's 1888

Returning to The Book-Hunters of 1888, following the Roberts enumeration round the room we come to:


George James Snowden

(1) Mr Snowden – The figure in the foreground at the desk, pondering a great deal of paperwork, is the auctioneer’s clerk, assiduously recording the proceedings.  His name is variously given as Snowdon or Snowden and his initials as G. or G. S., but as far as I can make out his name was actually George James Snowden (1853-1910).  Born In London, he was the son of a master tailor and originally trained as a printer and compositor before joining Sotheby’s, where he became the Senior Sales Clerk at the age of twenty in 1873.  It was a post he was to retain for the rest of his life, frequently bidding against the room on behalf of anonymous commission bidders.  It was he who had forced Bernard Quaritch up to an unprecedented bid of £3,700 on a Gutenberg Bible at the Syston Park Sale in 1884 (although the room was not yet done and the eventual hammer price was £3,900).  He lived in Deptford and later Brockley with his wife Rosa and died in the summer of 1910.  He was popular with the trade and Karslake speaks of his “unfailing courtesy, bred in the very atmosphere of the place”.


Abbots Langley

In a later volume of Book Auction Records, Karslake gives an account of a charity dramatic entertainment put on by Snowden and his West Kent Amateur Comedy Company at St. George’s Hall in 1905.  The evening was to raise funds for the Booksellers’ Provident Institution – a charity founded (according to Timperley) on 20th December 1836, “for the mutual assistance and support of decayed booksellers and booksellers’ assistants, being members of the trade, and of their widows.   For the support of this very laudable institution, all the principal booksellers, printers, and bookbinders of the metropolis became subscribers, either by donation or annual subscription”.  By 1845 the Institution had the funds to begin building a handsome retirement retreat with seven almshouses at Abbots Langley, near Watford.  It still survives (nowadays known as the Book Trade Benevolent Society or more simply as the Book Trade Charity) and still serves its original purpose.  The site at Abbots Langley now has an additional eighteen bungalows, four town-houses, four flats and a gatehouse as well as the original almshouses.  Given these kind of resources, I wonder now why the fledgling ABA (founded in 1906) felt that one of its first and most important tasks was to create its own separate Benevolent Fund, because it is plain that the rare book trade was actively supporting and fund-raising for the older charity (and presumably antiquarian booksellers were occasionally benefitting from its largesse) only a year earlier.

Snowden’s entertainment was an attractive double-bill of H. J. Byron’s long-popular The Upper Crust and the interesting early Pinero one-acter, Hester’s Mystery, plays twinned together since their first performances in 1880.  The hall was packed and most of the luminaries of the trade were there.  Snowden was given a warm ovation at the end but with “his natural modesty he declined the invitation to make a speech” (and it was nearly midnight).  The sum of £40 had been raised for the Institution and – as we were discussing ways of raising money for the ABA’s charities in Council only the other day – here is Karslake’s suggestion: “We want more of this kind of thing in bookselling.  Why should not the younger members of the trade form a Booksellers’ Dramatic Club and give two performances yearly for similar purposes?  I am much too busy to take any share in the work myself, but will gladly collect the names of any who like the idea, and will call a meeting of them. The feeling of comradeship evinced on the 14th [December 1905] was a very delightful feature, and the matter should not begin and end there”.  There we are.  Not too late to pick up on this 110 years on.  Over to you, young booksellers – you know who you are.  I await my invitation.


Edward Daniell

(2) Mr E. Daniell – the elderly gentleman sat behind the auctioneer, “patriarchal” Karslake justly calls him, is the octogenarian bookseller, printseller and publisher Edward Daniell (1807-1892).  Born in London and the son of a Baptist cabinet-maker, Daniell originally had premises in Wigmore Street, but by the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Bowring in 1835 he was working from 53 Mortimer Street, Cavendish Square, which remained his business address until his death at his home in Islington in 1892.  An 1838 catalogue of some six thousand second-hand books survives in the British Library and 1851 saw the publication of Daniell’s Musical Olio; or, Catalogue of his Miscellaneous Collection of Second-Hand Music, but Daniell was principally known for his expertise in old prints, especially portraits. A Catalogue of a Highly Interesting Collection of Engraved Portraits appeared in 1850, followed by The British Gallery of Historical Portraits (1854). Later highlights were Daniell’s Portrait Catalogue (1871) and Portraits of the Parliamentary Officers of the Great Civil War : Being the Facsimiles of a Rare Series Published in 1647; with New Brief Biographical Notices (1873). He had a staff of three in 1871 and a separate print department at 32 Cranbourne Street, Leicester Square, in 1877. Various of his numerous sons and daughters assisted him in the business, some starting businesses of their own, most notably Frederick Bowring Daniell (1853?-1932), who took over the Cranbourne Street premises and became a leading authority on early prints, later undertaking the external cataloguing of this kind of material for Sotheby’s.  Edward Daniell’s youngest son, Walter Vernon Daniell (1858-1928), who himself advised Sotheby’s on manuscript material, took over at Mortimer Street and became president of the ABA in 1911.


Alexander Balderston Railton

(3) Mr Railton – the bearded and bare-headed figure in the corner, looking almost as if he is just a passer-by who has wandered in to observe the proceedings for a minute or two, is the bookseller Alexander Balderston Railton (1844-1904).  Accounts of the book trade at this period tend to focus on Bernard Quaritch to the exclusion of his rivals and contemporaries, but a bookseller like Railton could boast a pretty impressive CV of his own.  Born in the Gorbals in 1844 and left fatherless when his father died only a few months later, his early life must have been limited in possibilities, but at seventeen he was working in a Glasgow bookshop.  At twenty-three he moved to London to work for Henry Sotheran, then at 136 Strand.  Working his way up in the rare book world, he eventually became the manager at Sotheran’s, which by now had premises at 37 Piccadilly and 140 Strand (as well as a branch in Manchester for a few years).


Sotheran’s 1870

In 1891 Railton discovered a First Folio in a coach-house at Canwick Hall in Lincolnshire.  Legend has it that an assistant handed it to him saying, “No good, sir, it is only old poetry” (we have all known assistants of this calibre).  It was the famous copy now known as the Vincent Folio – inscribed by its first owner, the herald and antiquary Augustine Vincent, with a note that he had received it from the Jaggard family, who of course had printed it.  Of all the multiple copies of the First Folio acquired by Henry Folger, this was his favourite and the first listed in his own enumeration.  He paid a then record of $48,700 for it and thought for some reason that it must have been the very first copy printed.  As far as he was concerned it was simply “the most precious book in the world”.

In 1892 it was Railton who engineered the purchase of the great Althorp Library by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands to become the foundation of the magnificent  library she wished to assemble in memory of her husband – now of course known across the world simply as The Rylands in Manchester.  American buyers were also interested and after an inspection Railton wrote to Mrs Rylands that the Althorp Library “stands first in the private collections of the world and its loss to England would be nothing short of a national calamity” (see D. A. Farnie, ‘Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library’  in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library  71:2, pp3-38, 1989).  The price soon agreed was probably £210,000, but may perhaps have been as high as £255,000: on the basis of average earnings, even the lower of these figures equates to some £85 million today.  It was and still is thought of in the rare book trade as the greatest sale ever made and there is a nice account of it by my colleague Beatie Wolfe on the ABA website under the title, The Greatest Book Sale of All Time?   It is said on good authority that Railton and Sotheran’s accepted a commission of just one per cent from Mrs Rylands, while Sotheby’s, acting for Earl Spencer, extracted nine per cent from him.  Plus ça change.

Railton became a partner in Sotheran’s on the retirement of the elder Henry Sotheran in 1893. If the Althorp Library had a weakness it was in the lack of really important manuscripts (as a perhaps slightly piqued Bernard Quaritch pointed out at the time).  Any perceived lack was spectacularly remedied in 1901 when Railton procured for Mrs Rylands Lord Crawford’s superb manuscript collection (some six thousand rolls, codices and tablets) for a price of £155,000. Sotheby’s were not involved on that occasion, but, in Frank Herrmann’s words, “It was, if anything, an even more astonishing purchase”.


64 Ritherdon Road

In private life, Railton married Marion (Minnie) Vallance Laird, a milliner and herself a fatherless Glaswegian, in 1872.  They lived with their two children (a boy and girl both bearing the same names as their respective parents) at addresses in Brixton and Balham, and in 1899 moved to a recently built semi-detached at 64 Ritherdon Road – I mention this merely because it is literally round the corner from where I sit.  I’ve just strolled down to take a snap.  It’s just a few doors from where my old cricketing companion Robert Frew used to live.  We played for a team somewhat prophetically called the President’s XI (or the President’s IX in the year of the dyslexic secretary).  Prophetic in that although it wasn’t a team of booksellers (more lawyers than booksellers, I seem to recall), three of the regulars eventually became presidents of the ABA – Robert (dashing bat, quondam wicket-keeper), myself (ponderous opener, right-arm swing) and Brian Lake (loopy spinner) – and I think a couple of other future ABA presidents also turned out for us at least once or twice, certainly Peter Miller and probably also Jonathan Potter.  

I digress, but I wonder now whether these Book-Hunters of 1888 also sometimes kept each other’s company in their social, leisure or recreational hours.  I suppose they must have done.  It’s what chaps do.  It’s how the world goes.

Railton and his family moved to Sutton in Surrey shortly before he died at the age of sixty in September 1904.  Probate was granted for the then handsome sum of £7,827.4s.11d.  A contemporary recalled the “delight and enthusiasm with which he would impart bibliographical information from his own vast stores”.  He was also apparently an earnest worker for Christian causes in his spare time, while an obituary notice in The Athenæum recorded that “his personality won the regard of all who came in contact with him”.  He was certainly one of the greatest booksellers of his or any other era.

More to come …

Roberts Key Plate

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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7 Responses to The Book-Hunters of 1888 (2)

  1. Dear Laurence,

    I have been researching some of the deceased buried in Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries -SE London and lighted on your fascinating webste earlier. It was gratifying to find’ at least’ two of those featured above are buried here & will now merit greater historical attention. GJ Snowden & G B Smith. I will now be looking out for others who you have featured with local links to add to the mounting list of deceased luminaries.


    Mike Guilfoyle
    Vice-Chair : Friends of Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this, please do keep me informed of any other booksellers, engravers, etc., that you come across at Brockley & Ladywell. I shall make it my business to have a stroll around the cemetery when the current epidemic has fully subsided. All best wishes, LW.


  2. Hello Laurence,

    Hope you are well – I was musing earlier on links to sisters buried in Ladwyell cemetery called Mongredien, both artists whose father Augustus ( d.1888) was a friend of a ‘ notable’ book seller called Edward Rainford ( d.1876) who appears to have had some illustrious literary links & is also buried in Ladywell cemetery .( according to burial records from deceased on line )



    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike – I’ll add Rainford to my list of people to investigate. All best, Laurence.


      • Hello Laurence,

        Belated HNY….I located the headstone in Brockley cemetery last week of Alfred Henry Miles ( 1848-1929 ) whose profile on W’pedia notes ‘ a prolific Victorian-age author, editor, anthologist, journalist, composer and lecturer who published hundreds of works’! Is he someone who would fall under your literary purview?



      • Thanks Mike, He’s probably too well documented for me to be able to add much – but his books are great, e.g. “Heroines of the Home”, “A Book of Brave Boys”, etc.

        All best, Laurence.


  3. Hello Laurence ,

    Happy New Year –

    Just poring over some cemetery links for possible guided walks in 2022 & came across a William Spon bookseller and then a publisher. A bookseller at 46 Charing Cross Road. Seemingly in partnership with a brother, Francis Nicholas Spon ( d.1911 ) buried Brockley cemetery. Seems they opened a Book Shop in New York mid.19c ( mainly technical/scientific texts?)
    Quite a rare name – so wondered if you had anything of interest on them ?




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