Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Hatchard's Bookshop

This fascinating article is taken from the July 5, 1919, issue of John O'London's Weekly.

Hatchard's. The Story of a Famous Bookshop.

A few months ago I happened to be staying with a friend of mine who writes successful novels. One morning at breakfast he showed me the following letter, which he had just received from a rich aunt:
I hear you have written a new book. I am so anxious to read it. How can I get hold of a copy?
Your affectionate Aunt.
Later in the day I had the privilege of seeing his reply:
Dear Aunt
Take a taxi or a bus (either will do) and get out in Piccadilly just before you come to Prince's. Close by you will find a shop called Hatchard's. Go inside, put down six shillings on the counter, and in a loud, clear voice ask for my book. It is very unlikely that you will have any further trouble.
Your affectionate Nephew

I do not know whether the lady acted on his suggestion, but she could hardly have received more sound advice. For anyone who is baffled by the obscure technicalities of obtaining a printed work Hatchard's offers the readiest and most pleasant solution in London. "A good pull-up" for bookmen and book lovers, it has stood its ground for over a hundred years - a cheerful literary refuge amid the roaring traffic of the most famous street in England.

John Hatchard.

The establishment, in which Mr. A.L. Humphreys is a well-known character, is not, however, the original building. Hatchard's has wandered in turn from 173 to 190, eventually coming to rest in its present home at 187.
John Hatchard, the founder, seems to have been a most worthy and respectable gentleman. From his portrait, which still survives, one might easily mistake him for a bishop, and the description of his dress, given by a contemporary, certainly assists to bear out the illusion. Knee-breeches and gaiters, a black frock-coat of episcopalian cut, and a waistcoat buttoning up to the throat, was the impressive habit in which he was accustomed to dispense his wares.
For all his dignity, however, there were, to use a distressingly vulgar expression, "no flies on" John. Starting business in 1797 with only five pounds in his pocket, he pursued his stately and successful course until 1849, when he died, worth nearly a hundred thousand of the same desirable articles.

His beginning.

The foundation of his fortune appears to have been the publication of a semi-religious pamphlet bearing the spirited title, "Reform or Ruin - take your Choice!" This was the work of one John Bowdler, father of the notorious Thomas, who immortalized himself by purging Shakespeare of some of his grosser obscurities. That it appealed to the taste of our forefathers is proved by the fact that it circulated in phenomenal numbers, and gave its enterprising publisher that first lift forward along the road to prosperity which was all that a gentleman of his attainment needed.
From that time forward the house that John built rose steadily in fame and fortune. There was some fear about being a bookseller during the earliest years of the nineteenth century. It was a transition period in the habits of literary men, when the despised Grub Street atmosphere was passing slowly but surely into the gilded respectability that surrounds the modern author. The old coffee-houses of Dryden's day had gone the way of all earthly things, and such rollicking resorts as the present Athenaeum Club had not yet come into existence. When poets and writers wished for a little congenial society, the bookseller's shop, or the publisher's office (they were still practically synonymous) was their natural resort. It was at Murray's, for instance, that Byron first met Scott and that those two prodigies of learning Gibbon and Porson, struck up their majestic acquaintance.

A centre of gossip.

As a centre for literary gossip Hatchard's was the most popular place in London. The majority of its patrons were on the Tory side in Politics, and in an Edinburgh review of 1810 Sydney Smith glances at them with the rather unkind humour that you might expect from a protege of Holland House.
"There is a set of well-dressed prosperous gentlemen who assemble daily at Mr. Hatchard's shop, clean, civil personages, well in with the people in power, delighted with every existing institution, and almost every existing circumstance, and every now and then one of these personages writes a little book, and the rest praise that little book, expecting to be praised in their turn for their own little books, and of these little books thus written by these clean, civil personages so expecting to be praised, the pamphlet before us appears to be one."

"Holy Hannah."

It must not be imagined, however, that the whole of John's clientele could be dismissed in this contemptuous fashion even by the redoubtable Sydney. In the list of his regular and occasional patrons may be found names of practically all the leading men of letters and the most distinguished public characters of his time.
Macaulay, when only little Tom and the son of his father, was accustomed to visit Hatchard's and make his precocious purchases. Readers of Trevelyan's "Life" will remember the many stories of Hannah More, and her various endeavours after the intellectual training of the young historian. On several occasions when she sent him money to buy a book she recommended Hatchard's as a suitable place at which to make the purchase. This was not surprising, for "Holy Hannah" herself (as Horace Walpole flippantly christened her) was a great friend of John's, and generally employed him to publish her own improving volumes.

Famous customers.

In that delightful life of George Crabbe, written by his son and so justly praised by Edward Fitzgerald, there is a charming sketch of the old poet caught in the act of neglecting his clerical duties. Mr. Crabbe says: "Calling one day at Mr. Hatchard's in Piccadilly, he (Mr. H.) said 'Look round,' and pointed to his inner room, and there stood my father reading intently, as his manner was, with his knees somewhat bent, insensible to all around him. How homelike was the sight of that venerable white head among a world of strangers!"
Other famous customers included George Canning (surely the most attractive Prime Minister we ever had), William Wilberforce, the Duke of Wellington, and those two well known actors, Liston and Charles Young. It is related that the latter dropped in one morning and inquired the name of the curate who had on the preceding day read, or rather murdered, the lesson at St. James's Church. He then requested to have a Bible handed to him, and, in the middle of the shop, he first imitated the sing-song tones of the offending curate, and then in his fine, trained, sonorous voice, showed how the business ought really to be done.

The old order.

The interior of Hatchard's was, of course very different in those days from the up-to-date book-lined establishment with which we are now acquinted. The lighting, no doubt, left something to be desired, for oil-lamps were the only illuminant. In the centre, by the fireplace, was a table, upon which were placed the daily papers - the Morning Herald (not to be confused with the Daily Herald), the Morning Chronicle, and the Times. There were also some old fashioned chairs to match the customary occupants. All this was considered a part of the business, and as much care as possible was taken not to disturb the slumbers of those who, as the chairman in "Pickwick" would say, were temporarily "in the arms of Porpus." Outside the door might be seen another instance of the proprietor's kindly forethought. This took the shape of a bench to accommodate the flunkeys who rode on the platforms behind their masters' carriages.
It is pleasant to reflect that, although all these exterior features except the outside benches have long since passed away, Hatchard's still retains the same atmosphere of friendly welcome which characterized the old bookshop.