Walter Jerrold’s book collecting habits: A second peep into Autolycus of the Bookstalls (1902)

Jot 101 Farringdon road books 1966In our first Jot on Jerrold’s book we were rather harsh. We felt that he was too easily pleased by his discoveries among the book barrows and second hand bookshops. However, some of his adventures do shed some light on the second hand book trade in London around the turn of the nineteenth century. The book stalls in New Cut he describes may have gone, but selling books from street stalls has changed little since then. The only exception to this appears to be the methods of the veteran Jeffrey of Farringdon Road, who, if you asked what his ‘best price’ was had the habit of tearing the book in question in half before your startled eyes( see previous Jots).

Take the penultimate chapter of Autolycus entitled ‘The Twilight of the Gods ‘. Jerrold begins his anecdote by setting the scene for a discovery:

‘The scene is the New Cut, a few yards from where it turns out of the Westminster Bridge Road. We are standing at a regulation costermonger’s barrow, laden with a great variety…of literary wares…The air is heavy with the nauseating smell from a nearby cook-shop, of which the windows, steam clouded from within, bear in bold type, this simple legend: “ What are the wild waves saying? Come and get a good dinner for sixpence!”


The end of the barrow by which we are standing is piled high with odd numbers of the London Journal, the Family Herald, the London Reader, and various novelettes, the whole gathered together under one comprehensive label as sellable at “ Five for a penny”. We will not devote five seconds to these. The first of the other two sections into which the barrow is divided is filled with a higgledy-piggledy collection of sermons, schoolbooks, hymns and odd volumes to be sold at 3d. and 4d. each. ‘ Tis from such an odd lot of literary winnowings  that we may now and again gather up by lucky chance some precious ears of wheat. But no; we turn them over, one after another, with a practised hand, and scan their titles with as practised an eye—here are Doddridge’s Sermons, Watts’ Hymns, Ancient and Modern ditto, Cornelius Nepos, Colenso’s Algebra, a ragged Index to the Spectator, Tatler, and other Essayists, an odd volume of the Sermons of Mr Yorick, one or two much bescribbled Clarendon Press plays of Shakespeare—just, in fact, the usual miscellany which experience has taught us is generally to be found at such a stall. We pass to the next section, distinguished by a considerable advance in the price of its contents—for a roughly-written board, which had at one time done duty as part of the cover of a quarto Foxes’s Book of Martyrs, is marked with delicious vagueness, ‘ 6d’, ‘1s’, and 1s 6d  each’. We smile at the business-wisdom of the proprietor of the barrow, for he evidently wishes to catch his customer before finally fixing upon the price to be asked for any particularly volume. We have known this done before. Just to test our dealer in literary flotsam and jetsam, we pick up a volume —to which , in self-defence be it added, we would not accord shelf- room —‘ How much for this?’ in the simulated tone of the over-eager having lighted upon a find.


‘That, sir, says the man , with a hasty glance at our passing respectability, and another at the meretricious cloth covering of the Dodd’s  Beauties of Shakespeare we hold in our hand, ‘ that, sir, is eighteen pence.’


With an inward smile at our own perspicacity in gauging the man’s business method, we replace Dodd upon the board, and glance over its companions.


‘ I’ll take a shilling, says the man.


We murmur something about not wanting it particularly—fearing every moment that he will offer it for sixpence, and this place us in an awkward fix. The prices of the volumes in this last division of the truck seem to be based mainly upon the gaudy ‘ get up ‘ of their binding, and we are about to pass on to the next barrow when a title takes our eye—The Twilight of the Gods.

The book in question turns out to be a collection of unusual tales by the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, Richard Garnett, dated 1888. Hastily flicking through its pages, Jerrold is rather taken by this find, whose existence is unknown to him. Having paid a ‘ top price ‘ for it, he bears it away, only for the stall holder to shout after him. ‘You shall have it for sixpence, sir ‘.

Turning around, Jerrold is confronted by the vendor holding aloft the ‘ tawdry ‘ Beauties of Dodd ! Needless to say, Jerrold ignores this invitation and hurries away. [RR]

2 thoughts on “Walter Jerrold’s book collecting habits: A second peep into Autolycus of the Bookstalls (1902)

  1. Roger

    I’m surprised The Twilight of the Gods wasn’t widely known in 1902. I first heard of it because Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a comic opera based on one of the stories. T.E. Lawrence was an admirer.

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    It is surprising that Garnetts book would have been considered rare 17 years after ut came out. Of course the web can now instantly establish how common or rare a book is, then it would be down to personal experience, anecdotal evidence and book catalogues. Interestingly a new ‘augmented’ edition appeared the year after Autolycus’s book…


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