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The Bookseller’s Wife

Dorcas Lackington, avid reader of novels

I took a small research trip last week to the ancient church of St Mary’s in Merton. Small, because it’s only a ten-minute walk from my mother’s house. As a child, I took ballet lessons in the parish hall, but I rarely ventured inside the church, which dates from the tenth century. My intention was to visit the place where Nelson worshiped and see his custom-made bench, which my Aunt Kathleen tells me was allowed to sit on when she was a seven-year-old bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding. But readers will know that I’m a huge fan of churchyards. Walking among the gravestones, one caught my eye.


Bookseller, Finsbury Square

Died January 27th 1795, aged 46 years.

What could be more intriguing? The church guide told me that Dorcas was an avid reader of novels and took a leading share in running her husband’s book shop – The ‘Temple of the Muses’, Finsbury Square. I had to know more!

Who was Dorcas Lackington?

Firstly, there’s her unusual name. If it was popular in the eighteenth century, it has certainly fallen out of fashion. I discover it’s of Greek origin, meaning ‘gazelle’. The version we’re more familiar with is Tabitha.

As always, with historical research, it’s always easier to find information about a man than it is about a woman, and so we turn first to her husband.

There is no shortage of information about James Lackington, who was a great self-promotor, as well as being an advocate of reading and bookseller. They key to Dorcas is her husband.

In 1776, Mr James Lackington and his first wife Nancy rented a property at 46 Chiswell Street from a Miss Dorcas Turton, which comprised of a shop/circulating library, parlour, kitchen and garret. When James and his wife Nancy both fell ill with the fever, it was Dorcas who nursed them. This may have been when Dorcas learned more about her tenants.

Humble beginnings

Born in 1746, James Lackington hailed from Wellington, Somerset, the eldest son of George Lackington, a journeyman shoemaker, and his wife, Joan. He was one of eleven children. His grandfather was a gentleman farmer at Langford, near Wellington, but, unhappily for his large family, George Lackington drank his earnings.

Despite having had little education, it seems that James was never lacking in confidence. In his own account of his life (Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington), he tells of how, at the age of ten, he watched a pie-man attempting to sell his wares and thought he could do better. Rather than keep his thoughts to himself, he passed the ‘advice’ along. What this wisdom was remains a secret, but it must have worked, because the pie-seller prevailed upon George Lackington to let the boy live in his household. James’s success in selling half-penny apple pies and plum puddings was such that the pie-seller was soon able to set himself up in business in a shop.

An appetite for reading

James didn’t remain a pie-seller for long. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a shoe-maker called Mr George Bowden. Having taken a liking to him, Mr Bowden took him without a premium and offered to bear all his costs, an arrangement that was very agreeable to the boy’s father! In the Bowden household, James found himself surrounded by readers, but with a very limited library of books: The Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, Culpepper’s Herbal and A History of the Gentle Craft. But reading had him hooked and when working as a journeyman in and round Bristol, he continued to read, and read widely, convinced that it would open doors for him.

Thirteenth century porch at St Mary’s Merton

The first Mrs Lackington

In 1770 he married his first wife, Nancy Smith. Later in life, revisiting Taunton, he would reminisce about his youth:

‘I also with renewed pleasure visited the banks of the delightful River Tome near Taunton, where formerly I had taken on many pleasing walks with Nancy Smith and Hannah Allen, and in imagination kissed them over and over again in all the resting places.’

Like many newly-weds setting up their first home, the Lackingtons were short of money, but on Christmas eve they decided to spend their last half crown on a Christmas dinner. Off James went to the market, but on passing by an old bookshop, he couldn’t resist going in; intending only to spend sixpence or ninepence out of his half-a-crown, and still have the money left for a feast. But when he stumbled upon Young’s Night Thoughts he forgot all about dinner and down went his half crown. When he arrived home, naturally, his wife asked what had happened to their Christmas dinner. He began to rhapsodise about the superiority of intellectual pleasures over sensual gratifications. ‘So,’ she said, ‘Instead of buying a dinner, I suppose you have, as you have done before, been buying books with the money?’ It seems this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. I can’t help feeling Nancy’s frustration. She married a dreamer!

To London

A combination of ambition and necessity soon took the couple to London, where, with money borrowed from ‘Mr Wesley’s people’ James opened a book and shoemaker’s stall in Featherstone Street. Starting his bookselling career with a consignment of old theological volumes, bought for a guinea, book sales soon outstripped shoe sales. Abandoning the idea of shoemaking, James moved to 46 Chiswell Street, and it is there that he met Dorcas Turton.

James’s memoirs provide details about her background. Her mother, Miss Jemima Turton, was grand-daughter of the Honourable Sir John Turton, Knight. Proud of her heritage, Jemima clung on to her maiden name after marriage. Her husband, Samuel, had a fortune of his own, and the family should have been comfortably off, but owing to ‘an unhappy turn for gaming’, Samuel lost nearly the whole of his (and presumably hers), and had to turn to trade. But even after setting himself up as a saddler’s ironmonger, he couldn’t give up the gambling. Jemima Turton didn’t live to see her husband’s financial ruin, dying in early 1773. Dorcas then supported her father, setting up a school and taking in plain work. She was clearly a practical and resourceful woman.

The second Mrs Lackington

With Dorcas’s care, James recovered from his illness. His wife Nancy wasn’t so fortunate. What drew James to think of Dorcas as more than his landlady was her love of books. He was ‘in raptures’ at the idea of having someone to read with, and who might read to him. On 30 January 1776 they married and Dorcas became central to his book business.

“My new wife’s attachment to books was very fortunate for us both, not only was it a perpetual source of rational amusement, but also it tended to promote my trade; her extreme love for books made her delight to be in the shop, so that she soon became acquainted with every part of it and (as my stock increased) with other rooms where I kept books, and could readily get any article that was asked for. Accordingly, when I was out on my business, my shop was well-attended. This constant attention and good usage procured many customers and I soon perceived that I could sell double and treble the quantity of books if I had a larger stock.”

Book stack @bioraven via Deposit Photos


After a short-lived partnership with John Denis, Lackington was joined by a Mr Allen, who’d worked in the business from boyhood, and it was as Lackington, Allen, & Co. that the firm became famous.

Lackington wasn’t only motivated by money, but by the belief that people could build on whatever natural abilities they possessed by reading. The teacher in Dorcas would no doubt have shared this belief. His aim was to ensure that books made their way into as many hands as possible, and with that in mind, he developed his sales strategy.

Small Profits Do Great Things

  • He observed that where businesses offered credit, most bills were not paid within six months, some not within two years, and some not at all. In need of ready money to acquire more stock, Lackington refused to offer credit.
  • He sold at the lowest possible price – much lower than market prices – while still making a profit.
  • He abhorred the trade practice of destroying retained stock, among them works of considerable merit, and instead sold it at rock bottom prices.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because his strategy has been adopted by many. (Amazon springs to mind.) And so it’s difficult for us to appreciate just how revolutionary his thinking was.

At first, his ideas were ridiculed. No credit? Even for nobility?

And what about business done by post? Surely he knew it was difficult for customers to send small sums that were below bankers’ notes?

Added to this, many would-be customers were suspicious. Lackington’s stock was cheap. It followed that its quality was inferior. They scoffed at descriptions of volumes being ‘elegantly bound’.

And when it came to acquiring stock, those who had libraries of books to sell assumed that because Lackington sold so cheaply, he wouldn’t pay the going rate.

It took him time to convince them that he was sincere. And, of course, his practices didn’t make him popular with other booksellers.

Making book-ownership affordable

‘With a book the poor man in his intervals from labour forgets his hard lot, or learns to bear it with pleasure, whilst in intellectual pleasures he can vie with kings.’ ~ James Lackington

There was an ferocious appetite for reading and self-improvement, and Lackington made book-ownership affordable.

“The poorer sort of farmers and even the poor country people in general, who before that period spend their winter evenings in relating stories of witches, ghosts, hobgoblins, etc., now shorten the winter nights by hearing their sons and daughters read tales, romances, etc.” ~ James Lackington

Children were taught to read at Sunday School, but Lackington noted that when children only read the bible, they didn’t make as rapid progress as when variety was on offer. And variety was what Lackington provided.

St Mary’s, Merton

To Merton

From the proceeds of selling books to the masses, James was able to set up a carriage which he had painted with the slogan, ‘Small profits do great things’. He also took out a lease on Spring House, on Merton’s Kingston Road, a handsome Georgian three-storey property. Like Nelson, who would in 1801 purchase nearby Merton Place, Lackington was attracted to the area’s country location, and relative ease of access to London:

“I intend during the summer to spend a few hours in the middle of every day three or four days a week in Chiswell Street, devoting the mornings and the remainder of the evening to my rural retreat.”

Of his fondness for Merton he wrote: “In fine weather, I never leave this place for London but with great reluctance. I have a good private library here, and with a book in my hand, I wander from field to field, and during such hours feel not a wish unsatisfied.”

The Temple of the Muses

As the book business expanded, its address changed from 46 Chiswell Street to 46-48 Chiswell Street, but Lackington was thinking bigger still – a temple to books, no less! It occupied one corner of Finsbury Square (32 Finsbury Place South). Designed by the architect George Dance, with a frontage of 140 feet and described as ‘the most extraordinary library in the world’, it rapidly became one of London’s must-see attractions. The shop’s name was another example of Lackington’s marketing savvy. Following the discovery of Pompei and Herculaneum, and reading about Captain Cook’s explorations of the South Seas, there was a great appetite for antiquities, and so Lackington designed his shop as a shrine to reading and knowledge. The name he chose was probably borrowed from the title of a 1738 book by Antoine de La Barre de Beaumarchais, a history of antiquity, which explored the origins of fables.

Customers always knew if Lackington was ‘in residence’. Like royalty, he hoisted a flag. In the centre of the shop floor, underneath a glass dome, was an immense circular counter, with space enough to drive a coach and four horses around it, as Lackington ably demonstrated at the shop’s opening. The shop boasted a stock of half a million volumes, displayed in a series of circular galleries. A broad staircase led to the ‘lounging rooms,’ intended for ladies and gentlemen for whom the bustle of the shop floor might prove distracting, but where anyone might relax and read a book for free. They became fashionable meeting places. As a schoolboy, John Keats used to visit this magical book emporium and gaze longingly at leather-bound volumes – it fact it is said that Keats first met his publishers, John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, at The Temple. Both worked there at the time.   

The first book token?

Always the salesman, in 1794 Lackington minted a token (a book token) featuring his image, which could only be spent at his shop. The reverse read, “Halfpenny of J. Lackington & Co. Cheapest booksellers in the world.”

Not content with bookselling and lending, Lackington set up his own publishing house. Later, in 1818, with James Lackington’s ‘nephew’ George at the helm, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones took a chance on an unknown author called Mary Shelley who had written a strange and challenging story (arguably the first science fiction novel) called Frankenstein.

Here is a good snug lying

But that is all in the future. In January 1795, the second Mrs Lackington, who had been so instrumental in his business died. Because Lackington penned his memoirs in 1791, we don’t know the circumstances of her passing. Whilst documenting his book-buying trips of the 1790s, James Lackington begins to mention his health (has been bad, but now tolerable) and his wife’s (flagging), but this was an age when a fever could carry you off. We do however, know, Lackington’s thoughts on the place that would be his wife’s final resting place.

“As my house at Merton is not far from the churchyard, I was a few evenings since walking in this receptacle of mortality and recollecting the scene between *Sir Lucius O’Trigger and Acres, and said to myself, ‘Here is a good snug lying’ in this place.”

* A reference to The Rivals, a 1775 play by Richard Sheridan

My summer sale

In the spirit of James Lackington (spurred on by Dorcas), I have reduced the price of my ebooks to 99p/99c. Credit is not available.


I’d like to buy I Stopped Time

I’d like to These Fragile Things

I’d like to buy A Funeral for an Owl

I’d like to buy An Unchoreographed Life (Only available from Amazon)

I’d like to buy An Unknown Woman (Only available from Amazon)

I’d like to buy My Counterfeit Self

I’d like to buy Smash all the Windows

I’d like to buy At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock

I’d like to buy Small Eden


I’d like to buy Second Chapter (contains three full-length novels: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things and A Funeral for an Owl)

I’d like to buy The London Collection (contains three full-length novels: My Counterfeit Self, Smash all the Windows and At the Stroke of Nine-O’Clock.)