Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Temple is apt setting for Literary Festival

Not too many Budleigh Salterton people realise how appropriate the use of the Temple Methodist Church is for next month’s Literary Festival.

A former noted Budleigh resident, who revolutionised the world of bookselling with the radical changes that he introduced some 200 years ago, would be delighted that the Fore Street church (pictured left) will be hosting seven of the twenty events being staged over the weekend of 18-20 September 2009.

The Temple Methodist Church stands on the site of an earlier chapel built by the 18th century bookseller James Lackington, who settled in Budleigh, ending his days here in 1815. Sadly the chapel was demolished in 1905 to make way for the larger building.

James Lackington was born in 1746 in Somerset, the son of a shoemaker. At ten a travelling pieman, and at 14 an apprentice shoemaker, he then found work in Bristol, where he started to read and buy books. After his first marriage, to Nancy Smith, he left for London, with half a crown (12.5p) in his pocket. He set up a combined bookstall and shoemaker's shop in Featherstone Street, just north of what became Bunhill Fields. His stock was a sack of old theological books for which he gave a guinea (£1.05) and some scraps of leather. But a loan of £5 from a Wesleyan fund – for much of his life he was a practising Methodist – his own hard work and his wife's thrift enabled him to build up a stock worth £25 and to give up shoemaking.

The Lackingtons moved to Chiswell Street, a little nearer in to the City, where in 1776 they both caught fever. Dorcas Turton, "the young woman that kept the house, and of whom [they] then rented the shop, parlour, kitchen and garret", nursed them both, and fell ill herself. Nancy died, but Lackington and Dorcas survived, and shortly afterwards this "charming young woman" became the second Mrs Lackington. "Having drawn another prize in the lottery of wedlock", wrote Lackington "I repaired the loss of one very valuable woman by the acquisition of another still more valuable". He was right; Dorcas loved books and proved most helpful in the business.

Above: Two sides of a 1794 half-penny token from Lackington, Allen & Co booksellers. This sort of token was the period equivalent of a gift certificate; it was good for the amount shown, but only at the specified location. James Lackington’s bookstore in London’s Finsbury Square sold over 100,000 books a year – no mean feat back then.

By 1780 he had developed the trading policies that were to bring him both fame and financial success. His terms became – unusually for the time – cash only; he sold at rock-bottom prices, and he was a pioneer dealer in large quantities of publishers' 'remainders', which he sold at cut price. He also bought up whole libraries, and was soon issuing catalogues of 30,000 volumes and more. By 1791, when his annual profits were £4,000, and he wrote the first version of his Memoirs, he had installed himself with Dorcas in a country house in Merton and set up his own carriage.

This was Spring House, the early 18th-century house in Kingston Road, which was demolished in the 1930s and replaced by the Spring House flats. As was quite usual at the time, the Lackingtons leased rather than bought their house, although they could have easily afforded to purchase.

Around this time Lackington became the proprietor of a shop with a frontage of 43 metres (140 feet) at the southwest corner of Finsbury Square. Crowned with a dome from which flew a flag, it was called 'The Temple of the Muses', and was one of the capital's tourist attractions. Within was an immense circular counter, round which it was said was room enough to drive a coach-and-six. 'Lounging rooms' were reached by way of a broad staircase, and there was a succession of Galleries, where the stock was cheaper and shabbier the higher one climbed.
Above: Image of James Lackington’s bookshop The Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square, London, by William Wallis (fl.1816-1855) after Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864), published in London: Jones & Co., 1828. Etching and aquatint with added hand-colouring.

Lackington was industrious, shrewd and vain. A tireless self-promoter, he would have been at home on today's chat-show circuit, and his vaunted love of books seems to have died once his fortune was made. But in an edition of his autobiography published in 2004 by the Merton Historical Society he tells his own story with relish and (apparent) candour, and it is an entertaining read.

The original edition of his autobiography merited the following comment from his editor in 1827:

"It is easy to find more important autobiographies than that of this pertinacious bookseller, sceptic and methodist, but few are more lively, curious, or characteristic."

This new abridged edition by Merton Historical Society of James Lackington’s autobiography is available at the price of £2.95 plus £1.00 postage from:

The Publications Secretary
Merton Historical Society
57 Templecombe Way
Surrey SM4 4JF

Cheques should be made payable to Merton Historical Society.

The full programme of Budleigh Salterton’s Literary Festival can be seen on the website at http://www.budlitfest.org.uk/

Text credit: Judith Goodman and Merton Historical Society
Photo credits: James Lackington coins reproduced courtesy http://amkeli.blogspot.com/; The Temple of the Muses reproduced courtesy of Julie Mellby, Graphic Arts Curator, Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University, NJ

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