Even after all these years, I’m still astonished at how little valued and appreciated many old books are. Here’s a case in point — a book I bought inexpensively on my travels last summer. Just how inexpensively, you can gauge from the fact that it was listed on my last catalogue at a modest £40. And just how little appreciated, you can gauge from the additional fact that no-one has bought it or even shown a flicker of interest (the same is, alas, true of most of the other books on the catalogue).
Well, we like a book with some context, we always say. A book with a back-story. A book with its own narrative — and this has plenty. It’s a life of George Moore (1806-1876) by the indefatigable Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), author of that ultimate Victorian book, Self-Help (1859). Moore was a typical Smiles hero, an entirely self-made man who made a fortune in the lace trade by sheer doggedness, energy and perseverance, and then became a magnificent philanthropist in the best of ways — quietly, behind the scenes, and for the most part anonymously.
I know and understand that the Smiles view of the universe has been out of fashion for over 100 years (although no real idea why). I get that. You may not care for the content — but look at the binding. At first glance, a run-of-the-mill Victorian calf, but on closer inspection it’s much better than that. It’s lost a little of its original lustre, it’s true, but a closer study reveals some first-rate work in the detail. Good quality leather. Pretty headbands. And then there are the gorgeous marbled endpapers — a design known as “antique spot”, if I’m not mistaken — and all with matching edges.
And — importantly — we know exactly who bound it, and when, and for whom — J. B. Hawes of Cambridge says the stamp. A morning’s work was needed fully to identify him, but this is John Bird Hawes (1820-1885). He was born in Birmingham on 17th July 1820, the son of John Hawes, a carpenter, and his wife Rosetta Bird (1796-1870), who had married in London the previous year. Their sojourn in Birmingham must have been relatively brief, as they were back in London and living in Smith Street, St. Pancras, by 1823, when they baptised both John and his younger sister, Rosetta, at St. George Bloomsbury on 28th September of that year.
Where John Bird Hawes trained is not known, but he was presumably related to the slightly older Benjamin Hawes (1810-1895), active as a bookbinder in Cambridge from the 1830s. The younger Hawes was himself in Cambridge from at least 1851. He married Mary Maria Brown (1827-1898) there at St. Andrew’s on 24th March 1853 and the couple lived at various houses in Earl Street for the next thirty years. From at least 1862 until the time of his death the bookbinding was carried out from retail premises at 30 Green Street. By 1871, Hawes was employing six men, four girls and two boys. He died towards the end of 1885 and was buried at Mill Road Cemetery, where the headstone still stands — here it is in a photograph borrowed from the Mill Road Cemetery website. Probate on a reasonable estate of over £1,500 was granted to his widow on the following 8th January. A brief notice in the magazine Book Lore appears to be his only obituary — “Mr. John Bird Hawes, the celebrated Cambridge binder, died 17th December, 1885, after a long illness. His death will be regretted by many book-lovers, and especially by those who hail from Cambridge”.
Just as a postscript to that, the business in Green Street was taken over by George Frederick Stoakley (1835-1911), previously employed as a forwarder — presumably by Hawes. And under Stoakley and his various sons, it survived for a great many years — a story for another time.
The narrative of this particular book doesn’t quite end with having identified the work of this highly skilled Cambridge binder. The book is also inscribed. Inscribed to a twelve-year-old boy called Desmond Beale-Browne — a boy who went on to become Brigadier-General Desmond John Edward Beale-Browne D.S.O., J.P., D.L. (1870-1953), Old Etonian and Cambridge man, much-medalled veteran of both the Boer War and the Great War, Deputy-Lieutenant of Sussex, etc. Inscribed to him as a prize for drawing by the headmaster of his prep school, another Old Etonian and Cambridge man in Arthur Henry Aylmer Morton (1835-1913), Fellow of King’s, clergyman, politician — and from 1872 to 1886 headmaster of Castleden Hall School at Farnborough. Morton must have known Hawes since his Cambridge days and used to him to bind the school prize books. Not worth £40? – I beg to differ.
PS. The book is now sold — although I’m not sure I’ve ever had to work quite so hard to sell a £40 book before.