Friday, 15 September 2017

Echoes of Poldark in Budleigh's past

Just to prove that I'm not totally gripped by Raleighmania, and that I do occasionally do other things like watching TV soaps, here’s an informative piece about a Budleigh character who raised a few hackles in his time and who might even catch the eye of a producer one day. 

Budleigh’s latest Blue Plaque, a tribute to 18th century bookseller James Lackington, has appeared at the town’s Temple Methodist Church on Fore Street.  The plaque was unveiled by the Councillor for Exmouth and Budleigh Coastal Ward, Cllr Christine Channon, at the invitation of the Minister, the Reverend Jonathan Froggatt. 

An element of the story behind the project, initiated by Fairlynch Museum and supported by a Devon County Council grant, is very much part of the plotline of a BBC popular historical drama series. Except that the Budleigh hero honoured at today’s event was never as likely to set hearts a flutter as Poldark stars Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. But he was wealthy.

Lackington's portrait from A History of Booksellers, the Old and the New (1873)

The plaque honours James Lackington, a self-educated cobbler who became a successful London bookseller in the 1780s. It was the age of Methodism, the movement founded by John Wesley as a revival within the 18th century Church of England which became a separate denomination after Wesley's death. It was thanks to a loan of five pounds from Wesley that Lackington set up in business as a second-hand bookseller in London.

John Wesley  1703-91 
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For the Establishment, the movement represented a threat: Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by the clergy and magistrates for various reasons. When forbidden from preaching from the pulpits of parish churches, Wesley began open-air preaching.  

James Lackington was born in 1746 in Wellington, Somerset, the son of a shoemaker. He showed early initiative by selling pies and cakes in the street when aged 10 and teaching himself to read. By the age of 14 he was an apprentice shoemaker and found work in Bristol. His passion for reading developed, and he started to buy books. 

After his first marriage, to Nancy Smith, he arrived in London in August 1773 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 Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. His stock was a sack of old theological books for which he gave a guinea (£1.05) and some scraps of leather. But the loan from the Wesleyan fund – for much of his life he remained 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 the City, where in 1776 they both caught fever. Dorcas Turton, the young woman who was the couple’s landlady nursed them both, and fell ill herself. Nancy died, but Lackington and Dorcas survived, and shortly afterwards, as Lackington put it in his memoirs, this ‘charming young woman’ became the second Mrs Lackington. ‘Having drawn another prize in the lottery of wedlock’, he wrote, ‘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. The first printed catalogue of his stock listed 12,000 titles.

He firmly believed, as Jonathan Froggatt put it in his address, that books were the key to knowledge, reason and happiness and that everyone, no matter what their economic background, social class or gender, had the right to access books at cheap prices. Jonathan quoted the tale which exemplifies Lackington’s love of books. ‘On arriving in London with his wife, he spent their last half-crown on a book of poems. His explanation? “For had I bought a dinner, we should have eaten it to-morrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over, but should we live fifty years longer, we shall have these poems to feast upon.”’

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.   

By 1780 Lackington 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. 

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.  

At the peak of his career 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. The Finsbury Square bookstore sold over 100,000 books a year – no mean feat back then.  

By 1791, when his annual profits were £4,000 (approximately £250K in today’s money), 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.



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Perhaps remembering his debt to the founder of Methodism James Lackington used his wealth to build churches for the movement's followers. He gave the name Temple to all three of the churches that he built, the two others being at Sandown in the Isle of Wight , pictured above, and Taunton. 

The Taunton Temple Methodist Church on Upper High Street, rebuilt in 1868. Image credit: Derek Harper 

So where does Poldark come in? The BBC’s most recent adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels started in 2015 with Aidan Turner in the title role of Ross Poldark and Eleanor Tomlinson as his wife Demelza.

Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark.  As a mere blogger I probably don't have the right to reproduce actual BBC Poldark images to publicise  the series, which is what I seem to be doing in this article.  Stern warnings about copyright are a bit off-putting. Hence these images of the actors which seem to be in the public domain thanks to Wikipedia.  Bit of a shame really, but the lawyers probably insist.    

Eleanor Tomlinson plays Demelza

Betrayal, thwarted love, family feuds, economic hardship, Ross’s bare chest and Demelza’s gorgeous hair kept audiences gripped, and then Season 3 introduced Demelza’s brothers Sam and Drake Carne. Keen Methodists, they inevitably antagonized the dastardly George Warleggan, Ross’s sworn enemy. 

Desperate to be accepted by aristocratic society, Warleggan is keen to be seen as a supporter of the established Church of England. Like John Wesley's persecutors he bans the Methodists from the parish church. When Sam and Drake and their followers arrive for a church service they stand outside the fence, singing in defiance. Later, George hears that they have taken possession of the village’s derelict meeting house. He appoints a special constable to guard his house and find out the Methodists’ names.

The stone image of Lord John Rolle at Bicton Church, a few miles from Budleigh Salterton  

When James Lackington settled in retirement at Budleigh Salterton in 1807 and built a chapel for local Methodists it was apparently because he was so struck by the ‘spiritual Destitution of the place’.  But he faced determined opposition in the shape of the local landowner Lord Rolle, whose tenants were told not to help with the project. Lackington was obliged to bring workers and building materials from Exeter. His arrival in Budleigh had clearly presented a challenge to adherents to the established Church of England and antagonized local dignitaries like George Warleggan, the villain of ‘Poldark’.

The original Temple Methodist Church, with Ash Villa (left) which was demolished to make room for the car parking area
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

The chapel built by Lackington was sadly demolished in 1905 to make way for a larger building. All traces of Ash Villa, the adjacent house that Lackington built for himself, disappeared in the 1950s to be replaced by a car park.

The new Temple Church on Budleigh's Fore Street, now at last displaying a Blue Plaque in honour of a celebrated former resident  

Not too many Budleigh Salterton people realise how appropriate the use of the Temple Methodist Church is for the town’s Literary Festival. But this former 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 will be hosting some of the events being staged over this mid-September weekend.

James Lackington’s grave at All Saints Church in East Budleigh  

James Lackington died in 1815, and was buried at the then parish church for Budleigh Salterton at All Saints' Church, East Budleigh. 

The inscription on Lackington's grave

In an edition of his autobiography published in 2004 by the Merton Historical Society he tells his own story with relish and 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.’

Who knows? Maybe Budleigh Salterton will provide the setting for a future TV heart-throb series centered around such historical issues and social conflict. Could a bare-chested Lackington compete with Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark?  

An 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

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