The Book-Hunters of 1888 (6)


(14) Mr E. Stibbs – Returning to 1888 – no, I haven’t forgotten these book-hunters of yesteryear – seated to the right of (10) William Dobson Reeves we find a gnarled and bespectacled bookseller in an old-fashioned hat taking an evident interest in the book currently under the hammer.  The editors of “The Graphic” noted him merely as Mr. E. Stibbs, ‘veteran bookseller’, with both Roberts and Karslake subsequently identifying him as Edward W. Stibbs. Roberts added that his shop was in Holborn, that he died in the spring of 1891 at the age of eighty, and that his stock was sold at Sotheby’s the following year – “one of the veterans of the trade … essentially of the old school — the school which confined itself almost exclusively to classics”.  Karslake went on to say that, “Next to Mr. Reeves is E. W. Stibbs, whose business was the fore-runner of Willis and Sotheran’s [see below], and, consequently, of the present firm of Henry Sotheran & Co.  Mr. Stibbs was somewhat of a ‘character’, and was reputed to be the prototype of a bookseller in a play produced at the St. James’s Theatre about twenty years ago”.

Edward Cambridge Stibbs

Edward Cambridge Stibbs

All well and good, except that Edward William Stibbs (1846-1891), the Holborn bookseller of 25 New Oxford Street, whose stock was sold at Sotheby’s in 1892, was only forty-four when he died at his home (Lyndale, Essex Road, Acton) on 23rd April 1891. The bookseller depicted here is in fact his uncle, Edward Cambridge Stibbs (1812-1891), the founder of the firm, who outlived his nephew by a couple of months, dying at his own home (10 Monmouth Road, Bayswater) on 13th June 1891 in his seventy-ninth year.  Although by 1888 the firm had been known under the nephew’s name for a good many years (hence no doubt the confusion), the older man was still very much involved.


London Evening Standard – Friday 21 October 1892

Born at Berkeley in Gloucestershire, mid-way between Bristol and Gloucester, on 14th December 1812, Edward Cambridge Stibbs came to London as a young man. He married his first wife, Mary Poole, at Lambeth in 1834 and by 1839, if not earlier, had set up as a bookseller in Holywell Street – the famous ‘Booksellers’ Row’ of nineteenth-century London.  A catalogue from 1842 gives the flavour – “A Catalogue of Books in Good Condition, comprising History, Biography, Voyages and Travels, Poetry, Musical Treatises, &c., Selected from the Extensive Stock of E. C. Stibbs, 25, Holywell Street, Strand, (one door from Newcastle Street,) London”.  It was in these early years in Holywell Street that Stibbs gave rise to one of the great legends of the book trade – buying all the unsold remainder copies of the first edition of Keats’ “Endymion” (1818) for a nominal sum (reports vary, but somewhere between 1½d and 4d each – in either case less than 2p), having the sheets bound in boards for a similarly modest sum, and selling them off over the years at 1s/6d (7.5p) each – they would priced in thousands now of course (and that’s pounds, not shillings and pence).

stibbscatalogueBy the mid century Stibbs had moved to more prominent premises at 331 Strand. In 1853 he sold the stock and the business to Henry Sotheran (see below) and perhaps retired from the trade for a few years, although he was certainly a bookseller again by 1861.  On 25th March 1870 he took over the sixteen-year residue of a twenty-one year lease on 32 Museum Street, opposite the British Museum. His nephew, Edward William Stibbs, who married his cousin Fanny Johnson at exactly this time, appears to have lived over the shop and the business from that point became known under his name – an 1871 catalogue from Museum Street was issued as,  “A Catalogue of Books Comprising an Extraordinary Collection of Works on Angling, Hunting, Hawking, Fishing, and other Sporting Subjects, Emblems, Byroniana, Drama, and Belles Lettres, on Sale at the Prices Affixed by E. W.  Stibbs”.

At the expiry of the lease on Museum Street, in 1886, the Stibbs firm moved to one final address at 25 New Oxford Street. The relationship between uncle and nephew was perhaps an unusually  close one: Edward Cambridge Stibbs had no children of his own. Edward William Stibbs lost his mother at the age of two and was brought up in his uncle’s household (it is unclear whether his father also died or perhaps emigrated). His aunt Mary, his uncle’s first wife, who must have become a surrogate mother, died when he was eight. His widowed uncle married Anna Budding in 1856 and the revised household soon also came to include the orphaned boy’s cousin and future wife, Fanny Johnson. On his own early death in 1891, probate was granted to his widow, his estate eventually settled at £1,628,11s.10d, while his uncle’s estate tallied £7,073.17s.2d.

“He worked very hard all his life, and left very little”, was how William Carew Hazlitt remembered Edward Cambridge Stibbs in “The Hazlitts Part the Second : A Narrative of the Later Fortunes of the Family” (1912), adding that he “was accustomed to speak of himself as a Gloucester-sheer man, and would describe a superior binding as being extree …  A gentleman, who frequented Stibbs’s shop in Museum Street, never went out without putting a volume in his pocket.  S. noted where the gap was, usually remembered the item, and sent in a bill, which was always paid, or included it in the account”.

Henry Sotheran

Henry Sotheran?

(15) Mr. H. Sotheran – Not noticed by the editors of “The Graphic” and passed by without comment by Karslake (who would surely have known him), we have Roberts alone attesting that the bare-headed and patrician figure standing against the far wall behind Stibbs and to the right of Walter J. Leighton, is Henry Sotheran (1820-1905) – reckoned in his prime to have been one of the two handsomest men in England (the other was Lord Sandhurst) – “there never were more perfectly chiselled heads of the finest Grecian type”.  A rather later photograph, also from “The Graphic” (19th August 1905), certainly offers a distinct likeness and Roberts may well have been correct.

Henry Sotheran

Henry Sotheran

Although the still-surviving Sotheran firm can and does quite properly trace its origins to York in the eighteenth century, the history of the modern business really began with the arrival in London in 1803 of Thomas Sotheran (1782-1866), nephew and apprentice of the original Henry Sotheran.  Starting out as a journeyman bookseller with the Quaker brothers John and Arthur Arch of Gracechurch Street and later Cornhill, Sotheran’s time there overlapped with that of the young William Pickering, who was apprenticed to the Arch brothers in 1810 – two of the great and still-surviving names of the rare book world with a link in common stretching back over 200 years.  Thomas Sotheran became a freeman of the City of London in 1812 (Worshipful Company of Loriners), married Maria Price from Abergavenny at St. Pancras in the same year and set up for himself (with generous help from the Arch brothers) as a stationer and bookseller in Old Broad Street, near the Royal Exchange. By 1816 he was at 2 Little Tower Street and it was there that the third of his nine sons, Henry, was born on 29th May 1820. The child was baptised at the City church of St. Margaret Patten on 22nd June of that year. Three weeks later the family returned to the church to bury their first child, Thomas, born in 1813. The Sotherans were to know much pain in these years – only two of their eleven children, Henry and his brother Charles (1815-1851), survived to adulthood – and Charles, who had some success in early life as a manufacturer of water-filters, died in Kensington House Asylum of ‘acute mania’ at the age of thirty-five.

The business meanwhile had endured at a solid and respectable level, but Henry Sotheran, who had become a partner in 1841, was more ambitious. When he became a freeman of the City in 1846, he offered ‘particular reasons’ for wishing to take this up as a member of the Stationers’ Company, rather than his father’s company, the Loriners, which was the only company he was entitled to join by right of birth. Unusually and exceptionally he was allowed to do so, becoming a member of the Stationers by patrimony despite having no such right. The Stationers’ ancient position of power and influence in the book trade was by now in marked decline, but enough remained and the network of connections still strong enough for membership of the Company to be an attractive proposition to a bookseller with ambition.  Sotheran ended up as Master of the Stationers in 1895-1896.

From 1856, a ten-year partnership with the innovative and energetic George Willis took the business to another level. The “Yorkshire Gazette” (Saturday 3rd May 1862), in writing up the well-attended celebration of Thomas Sotheran’s golden wedding, went on to say, “Mr.  Henry Sotheran’s progress is noticeable. In 1853, he purchased the stock and business of Mr. E. C. Stibbs, of 331, Strand; and in 1856, joined Mr. George Willis, who at that time was becoming, what the united firm has since become, the largest retail bookseller in London. The firm of Willis and Sotheran now have four establishments: —1. The old house in Tower-street. 2. Another house in the same street for their Fine Art Establishment, where they carry on large trade in paintings and engravings. 3.  At 42, Charing Cross.  4. The establishment at 136, Strand. The stock of books in their houses cannot be less than 500,000 volumes, the largest, most valuable, and best-selected stock in London, perhaps in the world. Yet, large as is the stock, it is so well arranged that any work can be instantly found: their recently published catalogue, a goodly volume of 632 pages, contains 15,512 articles”.

sotheran-1870By 1871, Sotheran was employing twenty-two men and seven boys. Such was the firm that (3) Alexander Railton came down from Scotland to join and the great Sotheran triumphs of the latter part of the century have already been outlined in a previous instalment of this record – except perhaps two, the purchase by Henry Sotheran in 1878 of Charles Dickens’ own library at Gad’s Hill, and a few years later the purchase (for a sum said to be in excess of £5,000) of the remaining stock of prints from the ornithological works of John Gould, wonderful examples of which can still be bought from Sotheran’s today.

In private life, Henry Sotheran married Rosetta Sarah Ann Hunot (1834-1892), daughter of a London watchmaker, in 1860 and before long the couple were settled in one of those grand houses up on Beulah Hill in South London. His son and successor, Henry Cecil Sotheran (1861-1928) was born there in 1861. A second son died in infancy, but there were three daughters who lived on into the twentieth century.

Sotheran largely retired from an active role in the business in 1893, but lived on to the age of eighty-five, dying on 30th July 1905. Such was his celebrity that the newspapers even carried reports of the contents of his will. Here is one from the “London Daily News” (Saturday 11th November 1905): “Mr. Henry Sotheran, of Heathside, Beulah-hill, Norwood, Past Master of the Loriners’ and Stationers’ Companies, the well-known bookseller, who died on the 30th July last, aged 85 years, left estate the gross value of £101,674. To each of his daughters, Alice Augusta Gertrude, Beatrice Maria Rosa, and Rosetta Florence Annie, he left policies on their respective lives and £20,000 each, of which £500 is payable immediately and the rest retained upon trust for their benefit. To his son, Henry Cecil, he left several life policies, his personal jewellery, etc., and he forgave him a bond of £20,000. His residence, Heathside, Beulah-hill, and his effects there, including family portraits, certain chests, the Sotheran Family Bible, and the Price Family Bible, he left to his three daughters. He bequeathed the following sums for charitable purposes: £300 to the Stationers’ Company, of which £200 is to found prizes for the boys in the Stationers’ Schools, best qualified in English Literature, and the balance of £100 to be applied in founding a Boys’ Library of English Literature in the Schools. £200 to the Loriners’ Company in memory of his late father, who was for 54 years a member of that Company, to be applied for the relief of the pensioners of that Company. £l00 to the Booksellers’ Provident Institution. £100 to the Booksellers’ Provident Retreat for providing a suitable dinner for the inmates on New Year’s Day. £100 to the Cottage Hospital, Upper Norwood. £50 to the Printers’ Pension Almshouses. £50 to the Printers’ Seaside Home at Eastbourne. £25 each for the poor boxes at the Guildhall and Mansion House Police Courts. £20 for the poor boxes at Bow-street, Worship-street, Marlborough-street, and Westminster Police Courts. The residue of his estate he left upon trust for his children in equal shares”.

James Westell

James Westell

(16) – Mr Westell.  Incorrectly identified in “The Graphic” as James Roche, Roberts and Karslake both agree that the next figure to the right, “wearing a tall hat, is Mr. James Westell” (1829-1908), a general bookseller with a speciality in theology, who had premises at this time at 114 Oxford Street.  Westell was born in Soho on 7th August 1829. His father, also James Westell, was a journeyman bookseller who may conceivably have set up in business for himself before his death early in 1841. The business always claimed to have been founded in that year, in its earliest years owned and operated by Westell’s mother, Jane Chamberlen Westell, née Hurst (1803-1861).

westell advertisement 1870The original shop was at 5 Bozier’s Court, a small passageway leading from Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road.  It was a shop which achieved some fame through a passing reference in Bulwer Lytton’s “My Novel” (1853) – “One day three persons were standing before an old bookstall in a passage leading from Oxford Street into Tottenham Court Road. ‘Look’, said one of the gentlemen to the other, ‘I have discovered here what I have searched for in vain the last ten years—the Horace of 1580, the Horace of the Forty Commentators!’”  The bookseller, apparently lurking within his hole like a spider after flies, was called out. According to “Notes & Queries” (1900), “The shopman who lurked was the esteemed Mr. Westell, who perfectly remembers seeing the Lyttons, father and son, walk into his shop one day, not to buy a 1580 Horace, but to inquire the price of some three-volume novel”.

James Westell's, 114 Oxford Street

James Westell’s, 114 Oxford Street

Jane Westell was still in charge of the firm in 1856, now with two shops in Bozier’s Court (5 and 14), but by 1861 the Westells had moved  to 549 New Oxford Street. After his mother’s death early in that year, James Westell was assisted by his younger brother John, and two sisters, Mary Jane and Eleanor Westell, all of whom were described as booksellers on the 1861 Census. The four siblings remained at this address working together for many more years, before Mary Jane died in 1876 and then Eleanor in 1879. Shortly after the death of John Westell early in 1882, the last survivor, James Westell , threw off the bachelor habits of a lifetime and married Agnes Taylor, a Scotswoman half his age. There followed rather a frantic few years, the birth of five children, four of whom survived to adulthood, the  move to 114 Oxford Street and several changes of private address – Kensington, Maida Vale, Battersea, Bloomsbury in quick succession – perhaps to accommodate a rapidly expanding family.

James Westell died on 1st February 1908 at 101 Camden Road. Probate of a somewhat meagre estate of £371.18s.4d was granted to his widow, who herself lived on until 1942. His son, James Chamberlen Westell (1887-1936) was a bookseller on the Charing Cross Road for a few years before the Great War.


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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1 Response to The Book-Hunters of 1888 (6)

  1. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Lawrence Worms exudes pure genius;


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