Book collecting for fun & profit by Bill McBride (1997) Part 4


Music, vaudeville, movies, dance, theatre, television, radio, circus, the carnival, etc. If it amused, it was documented in books.

We have already looked at television and radio under ‘communication ‘. Under the heading ‘ music ‘ we can find bound volumes of sheet music going back to the mid eighteenth century, biographies of composers, songwriters and performers, and collections of folk music and old ballads. Some in the latter category are rare and sought after. Under the American term ‘ vaudeville ‘ are grouped the British Music Hall, Variety and Reviews and those interested in this type of entertainment may look for biographies of leading figures, such as Dan Leno or Marie Lloyd. However the most revealing ‘ literature ‘ relating to vaudeville are still theatre and concert programmes and copies of magazines devoted to this field, such as The Stage. One even more revealing source of information, particularly on Music Hall and Reviews are the manuscript Wages Books. Your Jotter found the Wage Book of the Wood Green Empire from 1912 – 24 in an auction a few years ago. From it he learnt that the leading performers of the day, such as George Robey and Marie Lloyd, were earning huge sums —£200 a week in some cases –compared to some lesser ‘turns’ who were lucky to receive £15 or £20. These star attractions were the movie stars of the day. The Wage Book also revealed the sad story of the faux Chinese illusionist, Chung Ling Soo, aka an American called William Ellsworth Robinson, who was shot on stage at the Empire in March 1918 after a bullet catching trick went horribly wrong. A real bullet had been loaded by mistake into the ‘gun’ aimed at him by his assistants. Robinson later died of his wounds. The Wages Book doesn’t pay tribute to the dead man, but it does record a large sum of money given in compensation to his widow. Boris Karloff later portrayed Robinson in a popular film.

Books on movies and movie stars, of which there are many, are collected by film buffs around the world. Years ago your Jotter interviewed one of the biggest dealers in the performing arts, the American Elliott Katt who revealed, that  most of his customers were professionals from the movie industry, notably in Hollywood, and that one particular star, Michael Jackson, always insisted that he close  his shop when he visited, such was the clamour from fans. Katt also had a fund of anecdotes relating to the very rare and valuable books on early cinema that he always kept in stock.

The history of dance is a popular field for collectors, though books on this subject are few. The most valuable items usually date from the eighteenth century and are often written by dancing masters. 

Books relating to the theatre can be plays dating back to the time of Shakespeare and here the most elusive ( and expensive) are the so-called ‘quartos’ of single plays by the Bard printed (often badly)  in small numbers for the use of actors and perhaps theatregoers at the time. Back then Shakespeare’s plays were well regarded and popular, but their author had yet to attain the status of genius and national figure that the appearance of the First Folio in 1623 helped to foster. Thus the original quartos weren’t valued and most were thrown away when they fell to pieces through over-use. If a quarto of one of his greatest plays were to come onto the market now it would cause an extraordinary furore and command a price close to a million pounds for its rarity value alone, particularly if it contained annotations by one of the Bard’s company. Copies of the First Folio and subsequent Folios also fetch large sums, but are much more common. More common still are the various, often bowdlerised editions of Shakespeare that appeared from the press throughout the eighteenth century. These are always quite cheap, reflecting as they do the tastes and morals of their editors rather than the inimitable greatness of the Bard. For this reason they are probably best avoided as texts, though they have a novelty value. 

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Slater on does and don’ts, fads and fashions,  in book collecting

J. H. Slater was often scathing about certain types of printed book and the dealers/collectors who handled them. However, he was positive concerning which books ought to be valued by collectors. Here are some of his views on what bibliophiles should avoid and what they must appreciate.

Privately printed books.

Slater was not a fan of this class of book.

Privately printed books are those which are issued either from a private press or for the benefit of private friends. They are never published in the ordinary acceptation of that term and cannot be bought at first hand. A good collection of these is of course difficult, though by no means impossible, to acquire; and for the benefit of those who may wish to devote themselves to this department –uninteresting though it undoubtedly is—Martin’s Privately Printed Books ( 1834, 2nd ed.,1854—in 1 vol. 8vo, is readily available . Many of these so- called ‘ books ‘ consist of single sheets of letterpress; others, on the contrary, are more pretentious….

Early printed American books.

‘Early printed American books, or those which in any way relate to the American Continent, provided only they were published during the 16th or 17th centuries, have lately become exceedingly scarce. In June 1888 one small quarto tract, bound in one volume, brought £66by auction, a record entirely surpassed by the preceding lot, which, consisting of twelve similar tracts only, brought no less a sum than £555. These prices of course are highly exceptional; but so great is the desire to obtain books of this class that the amounts in question, exorbitant though they may appear to be, were perhaps not excessive.’

Slater goes on to urge collectors not to pass by books printed in America, or indeed Scotland, before 1700.

‘In both cases it is probable that the specimen offered for sale will have a most unprepossessing exterior , and in some instances the price asked may be small. This frequently happens, since the more uneducated class of dealerscommence by valuing a book from its appearance (since) ….there is nothing about books of this kind which looks valuable. It is no disparagement to the trade as a whole to say that some booksellers, particularly those who carry on business in small provincial towns, are absolutely ignorant of anything more than the first principals of their trade, and it is out of them than bargains are made…

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The Early English Presses

Our old lawyer friend and bibliophile J. H. Slater seems to have been particularly attracted to English incunabula as well as some early sixteenth century books, such as those printed by John Day. It was the latter who printed the early editions of the great John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. By some good fortune your Jotter picked up, for the ridiculous sum of £50, a nice copy of the second and best edition of this very famous book, possibly in its original binding, and dated 1570, on one of Mr George Jeffries stalls in the Farringdon Road around 1988. Less than a month later a copy of a later edition, in a larger format but without a title page, was secured at the same establishment for the equally low price of £25. Such bargains were not uncommon features of the Farringdon Road stalls, at least in the period that your Jotter frequented them regularly, which was throughout the eighties and early nineties. It is quite possible that Slater himself acquired early English books there in the 1880s and 90’s, though the Jeffries family, who may have run the stalls back then, did not specialise in antiquarian books.

The rarity of fifteenth century books coming to light unexpectedly on bookstalls or in junk shops at any time is highlighted by Slater:

‘…a single discovery of a hitherto unknown book of the fifteenth century acquires an importance proportionate to the exceptional nature of the occurrence; and though the book hunter never despairs, he knows only too well that such rarities fall only to fortunate mortals like the French bibliophile Resbecq, whose extraordinary luck was proverbial , or to those whose ignorance is so dense that they seem provided , as compensation, with more than a fair share of attractive power. It seems a pity that the unappreciative should often obtain chances which are denied to those who could utilise them to advantage, but it is often the case. The merest tyro sometimes experiences a success which the experienced bibliophile sighs for in vain…’ 

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Books burnt in the Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London, which claimed most of the medieval and Tudor city in the summer of 1666, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guildhall, also destroyed the centre of the London book trade, Paternoster Row, which lay just south of St Paul’s . Doubtless there are many anecdotes concerning the efforts of booksellers and bibliophiles to rescue books before they were consumed. In exploring the smoking ruins of the city John Evelyn noted that the vaulted roof of St Paul’s had smashed  into St Faith’s church, ‘ which being filled with the magazines of books belonging to the Stationers, and carried thither for safety, they were all consumed, burning for a week following ‘. But the anecdote that most intrigues your Jotter has to do with Samuel Pepys, who buried his prize ‘Caxtons’ in his garden to protect them. That the diarist was a genuine bibliophile is obvious to anyone who has visited the Pepys Library in Magdalene College, Cambridge, but how many are aware of his interest in the earliest years of printing in England ? One wonders if Pepys’s ‘ Caxtons’ still form part of this library, and if they do, which books are they ?

Perhaps lesser known are the books which perished, either in whole or in part, in the conflagration. One of the most famous must be the Third Folio of Shakespeare, which was published in 1664. Apparently, many copies of it were still being warehoused when the fire broke out. We don’t know exactly how many volumes were stored in this warehouse, but we must assume that all of them were destroyed and that the only the volumes that survived were those that had already been sold. One of these is currently for sale at an eye-watering price . Not too long ago another copy ( perhaps the same one)  made a high price at Cheffins in Cambridge. I know because I was at the sale. 

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John Harris junior (1791 – 1873)—facsimile artist 

One of the more extraordinary figures in the art world of the early nineteenth century was not really an artist in the true sense of that word. He was not an imaginative  ‘creator’ of art, nevertheless in the annals of the British Museum, where he worked for much of his life, John Harris, in the words of a contemporary, was ‘ probably unrivalled ‘ in the curious field in which he chose to work. Harris was a ‘facsimile artist ‘, which meant that today he would be classed as a ‘conservator ‘. At the British Museum his job was to repair or replace sections of books where pages were missing or damaged and in this he was so expert that contemporary reports state that his facsimile work was entirely indistinguishable from the original’.

In his book conservation activity Harris worked almost entirely in pen and ink. He would trace the piece of missing text from another copy of the same book and apply the tracing onto old paper using a pen and black ink. Once completed, the facsimile text would be incorporated into the damaged book. Whole pages were sometimes replaced this way and although Harris signed his work ‘ by I.H. junr. ‘ it has fooled some scholars.

Harris’s accomplishments began a fashion for such facsimile work in the nineteenth century’s bibliomania. When such exacting work became too difficult for Harris, his   son replaced him as a facsimile artist at the British Museum. But there were other very skilful artists who were doing similar work. The current exhibition on ‘ Fakes and Forgeries ‘ at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the USA features a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton in which sixteen pages of missing text were replaced in facsimile, probably  by the printer and bibliographer William Blades, who had carefully studied Caxton’s typefaces.

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Rare book anecdotes from J. H. Slater’s Book Collecting

In Book Collecting ( 1892) J. H. Slater, that doyen of the rare book trade in late nineteenth century England, provides some wonderful anecdotes, the best of which  concerns a certain Mr Day, ‘ a well-known book hunter of the earlier part of the present century’:

‘One day, upon removing some books at the chambers of Sir William Jones, a large spider dropped upon the floor, upon Sir William with some warmth said “ Kill that spider, Day! Kill that spider!”  “ No”, said Mr Day, with that coolness for which he was so conspicuous, “I will not kill that spider, Jones: I do not know if I have a right to do so. Suppose, when you are going into your carriage to Westminster Hall, a superior being, who perhaps may have as much power over you as you have over this insect, should say to his companion, ‘ Kill that lawyer!’ Kill that lawyer!’ How should you like that? I am sure to most people a lawyer is a more noxious insect than a spider.” 

Slater evidently did not suffer fools gladly, and believe me back then, as now, there was a good deal of nonsense talked (and written) by so called bibliophiles. is chock full of Slater’s withering observations on his fellow dealers and collectors, of which one of the most withering can be found in his chapter on the venerable Elzevir Press.

 It seems to be an almost universal belief that all the works issued from the Elzevir press are small in bulk, and various terms, more or less foolish, have been invented by careless or incompetent persons to give expression to this idea. One of them, and perhaps the most hideous of them all, is “ dumpy” twelves. In the first place, works issued from the Elzevir press in 12mo are perfectly symmetrical in shape, and not at all dumpy; and, secondly, many books are in 4to and some even in folio…The amateur must avoid being misled by the poetical effusions which from time to time make their appearance, and which for the most part are written by persons who know nothing whatever of the subject…’

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Austin Dobson’s famous ‘ lost books ‘

In his Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) the writer and book collector Austin Dobson asks why early copies of certain famous books are so thin on the ground.  One of the books he has in mind is the first edition of Walton’s Compleat Angler, ‘ very few ‘ of which ‘ are in existence now ‘.

‘that little octavo of 246 pages, price eighteen pence, Printed by T. Maxey for Rich. Marriott in St Dunstan’s Church-yard, Fleet Street’ in 1653 ‘.

Dobson fancifully speculates that the copies of this first edition:

 ‘were worn out in the pockets of Honest Izaak’s  ‘Brothers of the Angle’, or left to bake and cockle in the sunny corners of wasp-haunted alehouse windows, or dropped in the deep grass by some casual owner, more careful for flies and caddis-worms, or possibly for the contents of a leathern bottle, than all the ‘ choicely-good ‘ madrigals of Maudlin the milk-maid’ .

Possibly so, as The Compleat Angler, may have been seen by anglers as a book of practical or technical advice rather than a work of rare literary qualities. It is certainly true that many a rare tome has been neglected by bibliophiles who ought to know better. When I interviewed Germaine Greer back in 1999, she shocked my by confessing that some of her more valuable old books ended up eaten by insects or ruined by the heat of the Italian sun while left on the window sills of her Tuscan villa.

Ale spilt over first editions in taverns doesn’t do them much good either. Vade mecums such as firsts by Walton can be left out in the rain, ruined and subsequently thrown away. There is possibly a whole book to be written on valuable tomes that were badly cared for and afterwards chucked out.

But Dobson isn’t just thinking about Walton’s masterpiece.

‘ That other eighteenpenny book, put forth by Nath. Ponder at the Peacock in the Poultrey near Cornhil’ five and twenty years later—The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That which is to come ‘; why is it that there are only five or six copies, none quite perfect, now extant, of which the best sold long since for more than £1,400? ‘

One copy, Dobson declared, was placed in a ‘ great library’ ( presumably the British Museum), but the others have ‘ all gone’. It could be that they, like Walton’s Angler, were regarded as practical guides and therefore were not valued as, say, a volume of poetry might be. Or were the editions small enough for copies to be ‘ dog-eared out of being?

We don’t know, of course. What we do know is that an exceedingly rare copy of the Compleat Angler was sold by Sotheby’s not too long ago with an estimate of £60,000 – £80,000 on it. It was an octavo, and as Dobson notes, it had an engraved title page and contained ten very cute engravings of fishes in the text and a double page of sheet music by the eminent composer Henry Lawes. This ‘ choice copy’ was once owned by the amateur chess player and collector of books on chess, Rimington-Wilson ( 1822 – 87). The most recent owner was Armin Goyder (1908 – 97), a businessman and Blake enthusiast.

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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!” Continue reading

A Maggs Catalogue for 1909

As we on Jot 101 have remarked before, the catalogues of antiquarian booksellers are often a reflection of the tastes or fashion of the time among collectors. Books which today might be downgraded for various reasons were once highly prized, especially in first edition form. Writers who were once the height of fashion are now almost forgotten, while firsts by ‘ classic ‘ authors, though often sought after over many decades, do not always retain their monetary value in real terms. The catalogue issued by Maggs Brothers in 1909, which we recently unearthed in the archives at Jot HQ, is a case in point. Although the craze for ‘modern  first editions ‘  had not really taken off , books by ‘ modern ‘ writers like  William Morris and Oscar Wilde were beginning to be seen as modern classics and were priced accordingly. Classic ‘ Romantic ‘ authors, like Keats and Shelley, have always kept their value, but the prices of  works by Charles Lamb have dipped in real terms since 1909, mainly due to the baleful influence of the critic Frank R. Leavis. The rise and rise of Jane Austen since 1909, mainly due to various TV and film adaptations, is probably unique among English novelists. In contrast compare the prices of work by George Meredith, then at the height of his popularity, but hardly read at all today.


Jot 101 Maggs catalogue 1909 cover 001


Books on certain sports have also become more sought after today. Not surprisingly, there is nothing on football or rugby, which were comparatively modern in origin, but plenty of rare material on cricket, horse-racing, angling, boxing and hunting. Of these only books on tennis and cricket, which are perhaps more popular today, seem to have increased in value.


With such a catalogue sometimes it’s good to play ‘Fantasy Book Buying ‘. This involves going back in time and seeking out bargains that one might have bought with our present day knowledge. Let’s start with Oscar Wilde. The great playwright and gay icon had only been dead for nine years, so wasn’t as appreciated as he is now. Continue reading

Wise words on values from an Edwardian book collector

Jot 101 The Private Library cover 001

A.L.Humphreys was a miscellaneous writer and bibliophile whose knowledge of books and book collecting surpassed that of most dealers and librarians. In The Private Library (1897 ) he has sound and revealing things to say, and although, as one reader has inscribed in pencil on the title –page of our copy, ‘ since 1897 many views expressed here have been superceded ‘, Humphreys is still worth reading.  One of his wisest chapters is entitled ‘ Book Values ‘. Here are some of the highlights from it:


‘…It would be impossible to tell all the causes which go toward determining the value of a book and which cause it to fluctuate in price. There is but one way to arrive at a reliable knowledge of book values, and that is to begin stall-hunting as soon as you leave school or college and continue until past middle age, absorbing information from stalls, from catalogues, and from sale-rooms. The records of prices at which books have been sold in the auction rooms, and which are regularly issued, are useless in the hands of an inexperienced person. To make up your mind on Monday that you are going to begin a career of successful bargain-hunting and book collecting is only to be defrauded on all the other five remaining days. Experience must be bought, and an eye for a good copy of a book, or for a bargain of any kind, only comes after years of practice…


According to Clement1), there are two sorts of rarity in books; the one absolute, the other conditional or contingent. There are rare editions of very common books. There are books of almost common occurrence in public libraries, which are rarely seen in the market. A book or an edition of which but very few copies exist is called ‘ necessarily rare;’ one which is only with difficulty to be met with—-however many copies may be extant—he calls ‘ contingently rare. ‘ Continue reading

Ransome on review copies, book stalls and bookshops

Jot 101 Ransome on book reviews Wych Street 1901We have seen ( previous Jot) how, in his first book, Bohemia in London, the young Arthur Ransome was happy to confess his bibliophilia. He seemed to love second hand books more than brand new ones, but he hated the practice of selling unwanted books ( whether new or second hand, he doesn’t say) given as gifts ending up on bookseller’s shelves. Certain people feel no guilt about doing this; they assume, wrongly, that they will never be found out, but if the gift is inscribed there is a reasonable chance that the bibliophile who gifted the book will discover it in some bookshop or bookstall eventually.


What is far more reprehensible, however, is the sense of betrayal felt by someone who having taken into their home a friend, colleague or relation down on their luck, discovers that this lodger has been stealing books from their shelves to sell to book dealers. This wouldn’t have happened to the impoverished young Ransome, of course, but it did happen to the comparatively well-off Geoffrey Grigson while editor of New Verse.Grigson, like Ransome in his time, would’ve been sent dozens of books to review each week, most of which he would have sold to second hand booksellers. Other books for review he would have kept for his own collection, particularly those published by fellow poets he particularly admired, such as Auden, MacNeice and Wyndham Lewis. Grigson also held regular parties for his New Versecontributors at his home in Keats Grove, and it is more than likely that on these occasions he would have asked some of his guests to sign the review copies he had retained for his own use. It is equally, likely, of course, that a grateful guest would have presented a signed copy of his book to Grigson.


Whatever the circumstances, Grigson must have assembled a decent collection of books, including ‘modern firsts’ at Keats Grove.  And it was at Keats Grove that Grigson and his American wife Frances first met the young Ruthven Todd, ‘an unemployable, persistent, rather squalid-looking tall, grey oddity ‘ who wrote poetry and  turned out to be a book thief. At one point he actually showed Grigson a copy of MacNeice’s Blind Fireworksinscribed by the poet to his wife. This could only have come from the library of MacNeice himself. Anyway, a few years later Grigson and his wife moved to Wildwood Terrace, not far from the Old Bush and Bush, and it was here that Todd turned up again, this time to take up the offer of bed and board for 10 shillings a week. Unfortunately, Todd couldn’t even afford this negligible sum, so he took to stealing from Grigson’s bookshelves.  The whole sorry story, as Grigson tells it in Recollections,is distinctly farcical:


‘…a bookseller whose shop I frequented in Cecil Court..…told me he had just bought ten shillings’ worth of books in one of which was a letter addressed to me. I was in that shop again some weeks later: the bookseller had bought more books—always ten shillings’ worth or thereabouts—from the same seller, in one of which this time was my signature, and the seller was—Ruthven Todd. Between us we kept the arrangement going for some time. Ruthven bought the books to Cecil Court, the bookseller paid him the required ten shillings. Ruthven with scrupulous regularity paid the ten shillings to me wife, and I went down to Cecil Court, and retrieved the books, for ten shillings… We never taxed the Innocent Thief with his theft, this generous creature who seldom came to see us without some present, paid for God knows how, for the children . Continue reading

William Barnes Rhodes: the banker as bibliophile

Epigrams Rhodes title 001Found among papers at Jot HQ is this distinctly battered copy of volume one of Select Epigrams(1797) by William Barnes Rhodes, a rather interesting writer. Our copy lacks boards, has its title, but lacks one leaf (pages 29 and 30), three leaves (pages 57 – 62 ) , part of page 73 and pages 159 – 188. These omissions don’t exactly add to the appeal of what is left, but the incomplete book is worth reading, not least for its defects.


For one thing, anyone encountering the volume for the first time, as your Jotter did, would assume that the book consisted of one volume only. This is because someone, for whatever reason, has seen fit to erase the words IN TWO VOLUMES and VOLUME ONE from the title page. We know that our copy is the first volume because the contents of volume two from the Bodleian Library, has been digitalised and appears online. It is not known why volume one has not been digitalised in the same way. Incidentally, both volumes of the first edition are currently for sale through abebooks, but the bookseller has erroneously declared that the first edition is the ‘sole edition’, when in fact a second edition, was brought out in 1803 by William Miller, who published Washington Irving’s Sketch Book in 1820.

William Barnes Rhodes, like Charles Lamb, had a full-time job as a clerk while he pursued a literary career, but while Lamb worked at the East India House in the City, Rhodes, who was born in Leeds in 1772, obtained in 1799 a post at the Bank of England, just down the road from Lamb. It is intriguing to speculate whether the two men ever met. It is very likely, given their respective avocations, but Rhodes does not feature in Lamb’s correspondence. Interestingly, in 1823 Rhodes was promoted to the office of Chief Teller at the Bank, just two years before Lamb took early retirement from East India House.

Like Lamb too, Rhodes was interested in the theatre, though we don’t know if he was a great playgoer. He was evidently a well-paid official. At the great Roxburghe sale in 1812, when one of only two copies of Boccaccio’s Decameron dated 1471 fetched well over £2,000, and other fabulous books and manuscripts did equally well, Rhodes made large purchases of theatrical material. It was on the eve of this famous sale that the Roxburghe Club was formed by a group of leading bibliophiles. It is not known if Rhodes became a member, but he would have been interested in the objectives of this coterie. We are not aware of the actual contents of his library, but we do know that it was sold in 1825. Perhaps Rhodes sensed that his demise was near and wanted to provide for his new wife, who he had married that same year. He died a year later aged just 54. Continue reading

Rupert Croft-Cooke—-novelist and dealer in rare books

In an earlier Jot we discussed the prison ordeal suffered by the prolific novelist Rupert Croft-Croft-Cooke memoirs cover 001Cooke for homosexual activity with two sailors, comparing it to the conviction of British hero and computer genius Dr Alan Turing for a similar offence at about the same time. We are now going to look at Croft-Cooke’s brief period as a second hand bookseller between the wars.


Working in a second hand bookshop is, for obvious reasons, a popular means of earning a crust for struggling writers. George Orwell is probably the best-known bookshop assistant, but there are others, including Brian Aldiss, whose debut publication, The Brightfount Diaries, was a fictionalised account of his days working in an Oxford antiquarian bookshop. However, more than a few writers actually ran bookshops themselves, including an American novelist. Another was the diminutive film director and actor- turned thriller writer Brian Forbes, who owned a rather glamorous bookshop in Virginia Water, just a mile or so from his distinctly swanky home near Wentworh golf course.


Some of these bookshop owners/writers began as collectors and, as in the case of Forbes, earned enough from their other occupations, both past and present, to continue their collecting activity. However, it seemed that Croft-Cooke was never a book collector in the classic sense when in 1928, at the age of 24, before he had established himself as a novelist, he decided to open a shop with his brother in Rochester High Street. Continue reading

The Prices of Books

Book prices title 001H.B.Wheatley’s Prices of Books (1898) is a real eye opener, not just for the prices realised by truly great and important books,  but also for those works which today would not fetch ( in real terms) anything like the sums that our Victorian forebears might have paid.


In view of the stunning Tate Gallery exhibition of works by Blaket hat closed recently, it’s a good time to look at some of his most significant books.


Songs of Innocence and Experience(1789). At the sale of Sir William Tite’s Library in 1874 a copy rebound in green morocco fetched £61. In 1882 a copy from the Library of William Beckford sold for £146.


Today a copy, even in poor condition, would attract a huge amount of attention. In 2001 Christies sold a copy for $941,000 in New York.


At the same Beckford sale a copy of Milton: a Poem fetched £230. Today, there doesn’t seem to have been a copy on the market for many years.


It has already been remarked in a recent post that the grasping Birmingham bookseller Edward Baker was only prepared to pay 25/- for Blake’s debut poem Poetical Sketches,which was not illustrated, but is possibly rarer than most of his subsequent illustrated works.


Robert Browning

Of Browning’s first publication, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833) only eight copies were thought to exist at the close of the nineteenth century. One with an inscription by the author made £145 in 1896. Though Browning is deeply unfashionable today, the emergence for sale of one of those eight copies would attract attention, though it’s anyone’s guess how much it would make. Continue reading

More gleanings from Ian Fleming’s 1946 book catalogue

The catalogue issued in 1946 (previous Jot) by the directors of Elkin Mathews Ltd of Takeley, Elkin Matthews book catalogue 1946 001near Bishops Stortford, probably contained descriptions of books and manuscripts by one of the directors, Ian Fleming, an avid book collector. It’s tempting to imagine the future creator of James Bond trawling through some of the items in the catalogue in search of likely material.

We don’t know what language skills his fellow directors, B. K. Muir and C. H. Muir had, but we know that before the Second World War Fleming attended universities in Munich and Geneva to work on his language skills and visited Moscow in 1933 while   working for Reuters. It is likely that he was responsible for translating some, if not  all, of the foreign language manuscripts being sold by Elkin Mathews.

First, he may have examined a letter from the disciple of Karl Marx and founder of the Social Democratic Party, A. Bebel (1840 – 1913), which was written in German in 1893.In it Bebel complains that ‘since the abolition of the ban very few intellectuals and university folk have joined the party, or if they have done so, have abandoned it later on, out of fear or for reasons of social ambition’. He attacks the evolutionary socialist Rodbertus, who was opposed to Marxism and the University- Socialists.

This  letter of ‘great importance ‘ was priced at 9 guineas.

There is also a holograph MS of Maxim Gorki’s “From my Diary” consisting of 12 folio pages in Russian and priced at a bargain £40—more than a  month’s salary for a British University lecturer in Russian in 1946.

You could also buy a letter from the Swedish Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlof ( who she ?,Ed ) for £2 10s,a ‘ very fine letter ‘ from the Nazarene painter J.F.Overbeck dated 1852 for 10/- less and ( a real bargain, this) ten letters from the German impressionist painter Liebermann, a victim of Nazi prejudice, for £2 15s. A single letter from the gifted German draughtsman A. von Menzel, to which were attached ‘ ‘three fine pen-and-ink drawings’, could be yours for £20. Continue reading

Book bargains in 1908


Baker's bookshop advert 001Before we report on the bargains available in May 1908 at Edward Baker’s Great Bookshop in John Bright Street, Birmingham (contrast it with Birmingham City Centre today, where there is not a single second hand bookshop ), let us examine what Mr Baker was prepared to give for top-end first editions in 1907 as advertised in The Bookman for May of that year.

For firsts of Keats’  Lamia and other poems (1820), Endymion (1818) and Poems (1817) Mr B. was prepared to shell out a measly £3 per item. We don’t know what his mark up was, but today Lamia would cost you £15,000 and Endymion£12,000.   For Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866) 25/- was offered. A good copy of that book today is priced at an eye watering £37,000 in abebooks. For Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice(1813) and Sense and Sensibility (1811) he’d give you 15/- per novel, which was 10/- less than he’d offer you for Andrew Lang’s Ballads and Lyrics of Old France (1872). Even second and thirds editions of the Austens would today cost you around £10,000 each. As for a first of  Lyrical Ballads(1798),  without doubt the most iconic item of Romanticism in English Literature, Mr Baker was prepared to offer a whole £2 !! That’s £1 less than he would give you for George Meredith’sPoems  (1851). But there’s worse to come. For that most extraordinarily rare debut collection by William Blake, Poetical Sketches (1783), you’d receive a paltry 25/- , which was 10/- lessthan he’d give you for Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon(1865. This is sheer madness.

In relief we turn to some of the bargains that your great grandfather might have acquired in Mr Baker’s emporium had he visited it in 1908. We have omitted those titles that have appeared in previous Jots on Mr Baker’s bookshop.

All are first editions unless otherwise stated.

Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray (privately printed 1890).  25/-                  Today £3,700

Charles Dickens, Joseph Grimaldi, two vols (1838)   £3. 10/-           Today £600

Aubrey Beardsley, The Story of Venus and Tannhauser(privately printed) 25/-  Today £300

Malcolm’s History of Persia, 2 vols, large paper 1815  £3 3/-     Today  £3,500

Barrington’s New South Wales, 1803  30/-                                   Today  £2000

Farmer’s Twixt Two Worlds, 1886  15/-                                         Today £350

  1. M. Whistler, Ten O’clock, 25/- Today £450
  2. B. Sheridan, The Rivals, £15 15s Today £850

Mrs Gatty, Book of Sundials, 25/-                                                 Today £285

Happy the grandson or granddaughter who might have inherited such books ! [RR]


Books do furnish a room: Philip Gosse on book collecting

Gosse go to the country jacketThe twentieth century writer Philip Gosse  was one of those many British physicians    who changed direction into literature. Others, including Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Smollett, John Keats, Samuel Warren, Robert Bridges, Francis Brett Young, and Somerset Maugham, took up poetry or fiction, but Gosse began with books on pirates. In the collection of essays entitled Go to the Country(1935) we learn that by the time he had given up medicine Gosse had managed to acquire a large country house called ‘Crossbows’ that was spacious enough to have threeguest rooms, which for a bibliophile like him ( his wife also collected) was the ideal environment. Moral: if you are a seriousbook collector make sure that you make enough money to acquire a home large enough to house your collection.


Gosse succeeds in making every less fortunate collector envious by writing glibly about all the space he owned in which to shelve his huge library, and then shocks us by mentioning that while a GP he was momentarily tempted to pocket perhaps the only book in the house of the patient he was visiting—a work entitled Fancy Mice for Pleasure and Profit.Gosse is good on the way books should be housed and displayed –scattered around on tables or on open shelves which allow air to circulate, rather than in caged bookcases, where damp and mildew are encouraged to thrive, although he later rather puzzlingly admits to owning ‘ three tall bookcases with glass fronts ‘ in which his rare association copies were housed.


Gosse’s four works on pirates grew out of his own mania for collecting books on this subject, which luckily for him was not one for which he had any rivals among collectors. Because of this he was able to buy nearly every edition of the two works published by the mysterious eighteenth century chronicler Charles Johnson, and by so doing brought out a Johnson bibliography. Continue reading

More bargains from Birmingham in 1913

Baker bargains from BrumEdward Baker, a bookseller from John Bright Street, Birmingham, frequently placed full page adverts in the Bookman magazine during the early years of the twentieth century. In previous jots we have looked at deleted items that a hundred or more years later were listed in Abebooks with large ( sometimes eye-watering )prices attached to them. This time we feature a selection of ‘ first and scarce editions ‘ taken from an advert of October 1913. Current Abebook prices are listed next to them. All books are first editions unless otherwise stated.

Oliver Goldsmith, Vicar of Wakefield, 2 vols 1766. £4 4s (£4 20p)

Today @ £4,000 – £5,000

Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales from the Hills, £6 6s (£6 30p)

Today @ £695.

Rudyard Kipling, Soldiers Three, 1888, £8 8s (£8 40p)

Today @ £2,800

Lord Alfred Douglas, City of the Soul, 1899. 15s (75p)

Today @ £488.

Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, fo., 1627. £6 6s (£6 30p)

Today a 1635 ed. @ £325

The Scourge, with 18 coloured plates by Cruikshank, 2 vols.,1811 -12. £3 3s (£3 60p)

Today 11 volumes @ £7,500

Southey & Coleridge, St Joan, 2nd ed inscribed, 1798. £21

Today same ed. inscribed to Chas. Lamb @ £4,800

Thos. Hughes, Tom Brown at Oxford, 1859. £6 6s (£6 30p)

Today @ £395

Capt. Dickinson, Narrative of the Operations for the Recovery of the Public Stores and Treasure Sunk in H.M.S. “Thetis“, 1836. Very rare. 10s 6d ( 52p)

Today this guide to the whereabouts of sunken treasure is yours for £500 !

Lady Caroline Lamb, Glenarvon, 1816. £7 10s (£7 50p)

Today this ‘mad, bad, and difficult to read ‘novel is yours for a mere £1,250. Continue reading

Shakespeare’s quartos


Quarto Hamlet cover 001When I studied textual criticism and palaeography at University under the legendary Peter Davison (editor of Orwell’s letters) I recall being impressed by the exceeding rarity of the original quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. Rarer than hen’s teeth was, I believe, the phrase used. This was because the actors who used them to learn their lines in Shakespeare’s time had no reason to keep them after their acting careers had ended. Shakespeare was just another playwright, and it was only with the posthumous publication of the First Folio in 1623, when all the plays were collected together, that his true greatness began to be recognised.

These pamphlet-like quartos—often badly printed and containing countless errors—were published in small numbers and were not surprisingly badly treated by the jobbing actors who used them every day. Very few survived, hence their great rarity. Despite this, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century, when American multi-millionaires came into the market, that the first quartos began to fetch startling prices—startling, that is, for the time. Today, such treasures might bring in six figure sums. Continue reading

Wilmarth Lewis—book collector extraordinaire

Strawberry Hill catalogue 1842Found in a copy of John O’London’s Weekly for 18th April 1952 is a review of Collector’s Progress by Wilmarth Lewis ( 1895 – 1979) in which the author reveals that the combination of wealth and a collector’s obsession brought about the greatest collection of manuscripts relating to Horace Walpole in the world.

In his book Lewis revealed that he had always been a born collector. At the age of five he collected house flies in a discarded cigar box. A year later he had turned to shells. Stamps, coins and butterflies followed. Eventually, he began to collect books, starting with standard works and moving on to first editions. On the way to Europe by ship to fight in the First World War he met John Masefield, who introduced him to the writings of Horace Walpole. As a result of this meeting he collected a complete set of Masefield first editions. In 1923, at the age of 28 he had $5,000 a year (a large sum in those days) to spend on books. He was an enthusiast for the eighteenth century, but had not yet decided which particular eighteenth century writer to collect. Eventually, in 1923,after buying in London a copy of Jesse’s George Selwyn and his Contemporaries annotated by the bluestocking Lady Louisa Stuart, he returned to Horace Walpole, vowing to assemble the finest collection of Walpoliana– mainly letters and Strawberry Hill books– in the world. In 1952 he described his Library thus: Continue reading