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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter II. Childhood and Apprenticeship

GEORGE MILLER was born on January 14, 1771- His mother was Elizabeth Wilson, the daughter of a Dunbar wright and the second wife of her husband. “I might say,” he wrote, “that disappointment shook hands with me on my entrance into life, and marked me for her own from the moment of my birth.” The first Monday of the year was then kept in Scotland as a day of festivity perhaps more frequently than now. Presents were bestowed on children and others, and it was accordingly called “Hansel Monday.” The changes made in 1752 in the method of reckoning time, whereby eleven days were dropped from the calendar, had not been accepted by all, and the day was consequently observed on different dates even in the same locality. According to the old style Miller was born on the auspicious anniversary, but his parents did not recognize the day, being what he calls “New Style Folks.” He had therefore “come into the world a week too late for the feast”—an unhappy mischance which he was inclined to regard as the beginning of a life of misfortune.

But even that was not the only adverse circumstance that accompanied his birth. He “arrived in these regions,” he adds, “just upon the eve of what has been distinguished as the ‘Black Spring of 1771—a name he borrows from Dr. Johnson. That there was scarcity and want in the land he supports by a quotation from Gilbert White of Selborne: “At the end of March the face of the earth was naked to a surprising degree; wheat hardly to be seen, and no sign of any grass ; turnips all gone, and sheep in a starving way; and all provisions rising in price.” But though the land thus suffered, there is no evidence that either the infant or the family into which he had come experienced any hardship from the bad season. One favourable circumstance Miller did discover in his birth year. It was the year in which Henry Mackenzie published his famous “Man of Feeling,” a book that was for many a long day regarded as reaching the high-water mark of Scottish authorship. Miller describes it as “a dish well seasoned and accommodated to my palate before that palate was in sufficient readiness to receive it, or had sufficient relish to appropriate its sweets.” He traces to its early perusal the love he afterwards developed for literature and philosophy.

Miller’s first real misfortune was the death of his mother, which took place on the 9th of October, 1776, when he was in his sixth year. He retained only two recollections of her. One of them was certainly pathetic. “I recall,” he says, “the affecting circumstances of standing a voluntary sentinel over my mother’s coffin, forbidding the profane touch of any of my little comrades to come in contact with it, while old James Gray was in the act of preparing it in his shop.”

Miller’s schooldays began about 1776, and his first school was that conducted by an infant mistress of the ancient type, an old lady whose equipment for her profession was none of the best. Dunbar had several schools under the direction of the burgh council, and to each of these George thereafter went in turn. He gives a list of the books that formed the basis of the curriculum in the second school he attended :— “Catechisms, Proverbs of Solomon, spelling book, AEsop’s ‘Fables,’ Mason’s ‘Selections,’ and the Bible”—a list which in some respects was more liberal than many to be found in contemporary schools. , He had his share of Latin in the next school, but it does not appear to have made much impression on his mind if we may judge from the mistakes he makes in the few words he uses from that language. His last teacher bore the name of Cottman, and with him he continued till the autumn of 1785.

One famous schoolmaster, James Kirkwood, author of the “Grammatica Facilis,” that book of Latin rudiments which tormented seventeenth-century lads, had been born in the neighbourhood of Dunbar, but there is no evidence that the burgh schools of Miller’s time were of any special excellence. The truth is that like many local authorities of the day, the magnates of Dunbar had their troubles with unsatisfactory teachers, although Miller always spoke of his school-days in the highest terms. All his life he had a passion for books, and he traces his love for them to these early years. “Like the length of time that Jacob served for his beloved Rachel,” he says, “these years appeared to me as one year, and it was no wonder therefore that I was in no hurry to bring about their termination.” As late as 1815, when he himself was forty-four years of age and when it might have been supposed that his sense of gratitude for schoolday favours would have become somewhat dim, he was the prime mover in a scheme for having his old teachers publicly entertained to dinner by their former pupils. The event was intended to become an annual celebration, but it never got beyond this initial stage.

In after years, Miller came to have business relations with schoolmasters, and never lost this youthful enthusiasm for them. On every possible occasion he did what he could to further their interests individually and as a class. He showed considerable activity in regard to a measure that was intended to benefit their families, and takes much credit to himself for the fact that he afforded house-room for the meetings of the men who perfected the scheme. His share in the work had been kept secret, and he expected that the revelation which he now made of it would cause as much astonishment as “the declaration of the author of 'Waverley’ did the band of comedians and others assembled round him on a certain memorable occasion ” “It was,” he says, “in the little room off the back shop, the same now occupied by my son, over the way and nearly opposite to my present residence, on a Saturday afternoon, that the small coterie of country schoolmasters met and deposited in 1797 that small grain of mustard-seed which is as now well known to most of them, has become, in the year in which I write, a great tree under the designation of the ‘ Fund for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Burgh and Parochial Schoolmasters in Scotland ’—now affording a comfortable lodgment for many of such, among the branches.” Perhaps he takes too much credit to himself, and perhaps his part was chiefly to supply the printed literature required by the scheme. But there can be no doubt of his desire to do well by that “ highly useful and respectable body of men, the schoolmasters, not only in his own neighbourhood but over many of the parishes of Scotland, many of whom have been of great service to him in the various publications in which he has been engaged.”

One of the school games in which young Miller engaged has a peculiar interest in view of his subsequent career. He calls it “The Battle of the Books,” though it follows Swift’s satire in name only. “It was accomplished,” he says, “as follows, Some little fellows of sufficient hardihood to stand, and firmness of nerve to deal many a blow, were picked out from the general run of the scholars and pitted against each other, armed with a book or a volume of a book as massy as he could wield with effect against his opponent armed like himself, and each mounted on the back of a companion of larger growth who became dignified on that occasion with the appellation of the horse— hence the name of the game, playing at horsemen ; and a most dangerous sport or pastime it assuredly was, as the soreness of many a head and the havoc of many a book bore witness.” In these contests Miller had his part, and as “a sturdy unflinching schoolboy that could not easily be made to cry out for quarter,” endured many a buffet without complaint.

These schoolboy battles were no doubt in part suggested by the situation in which the town so frequently found itself. The almost continuous warlike operations in which the country was engaged had peculiar interest for Dunbar and its neighbourhood. Its position at the mouth of the Firth of Forth was of strategic importance, and its streets and shores were seldom without the presence of regiments of cavalry and infantry and of fields of artillery. It even experienced the alarms of actual warfare. In September 1779 the squadron of the redoubtable Paul Jones lay off the town for some days and caused consternation among its inhabitants. Miller distinctly remembered “the reported turn-out of old wives with all the red cloaks they could muster in order to make an imposing appearance on the heights.” Two years later a French privateer, under the command of the notorious Captain Fall, actually attempted a feeble bombardment of the town, one of the shots nearly ending the life of Miller’s brother John. Stirring events like these could not but have their influence on the youth of the town, and following the example of many of his schoolfellows, young Miller was for a time captivated by the glamour of the red coat.

Schooldays being over it was necessary that a profession should be chosen for the growing lad. His father gave him the choice of further attendance at his studies in case he should desire to become a schoolmaster. But George had no inclination in that direction and the other alternative was accordingly pressed upon him. This was to become a bookseller and stationer, and his father was induced, to make the suggestion because of his son’s fondness for “maps and prints.” George gave a ready consent and almost immediately repented of it. His secret desire was for a seafaring life, and it required a course of severe self-discipline before he finally acquiesced in his father’s proposal.

It would have been almost unnatural if young Miller had not thought of the sea, living as he did so near it. “I had not only been drawn to the sea,” he says, “by reading the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and associating so much with sailor boys in a seaport town in my early years, but from perusing as I grew up the ‘Voyages’ of the illustrious navigator, Captain Cook.” Even after he had settled down to the more humdrum occupation of a country bookseller, he was occasionally visited by longings after his “prevailing hobby.” In the end, however, a narrow escape he had from drowning and the numerous shipwrecks that happened along the neighbouring coasts robbed the sea of much of its charm for him. Besides he speedily found that his “taste for voyages, travels and discoveries might be gratified and indulged at the fireside.” But although Miller thus gave up all thoughts of the sea as a profession, he never altogether lost his interest in what belonged to it. He made various attempts to improve the methods of saving the crews of shipwrecked vessels, even anticipating the rocket apparatus, and one of the earliest books that issued from his press was an edition of “Robinson Crusoe.”

The only bookseller at the time in Dunbar was one Alexander Smart. He had come from Edinburgh, and had settled down to the business of bookselling and bookbinding about the year 1780. He was probably the first merchant in Dunbar who had attempted to make a living by books alone. Before his arrival the intellectual necessities of the town had been provided for by the ordinary shopkeepers, or as Miller puts it, “the wants of the lieges had been supplied in the same manner as some of our neighbouring villages are at present [1833], by the merchants or dealers in other articles.” George was accordingly bound apprentice to Smart, his indenture being dated September 20, 1785. The period of service was for four years.

It was not an ideal arrangement. Smart was a man neither of capacity nor of capital. His business was of little or no importance, and he made no real effort to improve it. The description his apprentice gives of his premises shows how small a chance the lad had of learning his profession. They seem to have consisted of one small apartment. “In the back part,” he says, “stood a small glass case with its assortment of Bibles and stationery articles, to which adjoined a few shelves with their scattered contents, scarcely sufficient to fill a bookstall of decent dimensions—a poor stock indeed for even a country bookseller.” One side was taken up “with a few shelves containing implements for bookbinding,” while the space between the door and the window “consisted of a piece of deal wall, covered over, to conceal its blemishes and fill up the vacancy, with a large two-sheet print of some of Cassar’s battles, or other operations, in which the hero of the piece was represented by a pretty large figure and in a very conspicuous attitude.” No wonder that Miller described the place as “grotesque looking.”

“Behold me now transformed,” he says, “from the hopeful schoolboy into the little apprentice, sitting behind my board in my master’s shop, with my folder in my hand performing its evolutions, while the sheets rise in contracted forms and in tumbling piles before me.” It may seem strange that James Miller should have been contented with such an arrangement for his son, but the father’s views were long views. He foresaw that Smart was not likely to hold out long, and when he broke down a suitable opening would then be provided for the lad to set up in Dunbar for himself—a forecast which proved to be correct in every particular.

The insight young Miller received into the mysteries of bookcraft was accordingly of the most meagre description. With the exception of a little bookbinding, he seldom came into contact with books. During the first year of his apprenticeship master and man had the arrangement of the Earl of Haddington’s library at Tyninghame, a bit of work which took three weeks, and for which Smart received the sum of £5, with board for both. Some bookbinding had to be done, and the engagement brought £25 altogether, which Miller describes as a large sum to his “poverty-struck” master. A few months later they twice overhauled the books of Lord Westhall, a recently deceased senator of the College of Justice. But with these exceptions, added to auction sales carried out irregularly at various centres and spasmodic attendances at neighbouring country fairs, where a bookstall was set up, Miller had few chances of being made an expert in his profession.

There could of necessity be only one end to such a condition of things, and towards the close of 1787 Smart intimated that he intended giving up the struggle and returning to Edinburgh to attempt business there. In the following January he left for the city. The terms of his indenture did not provide for Miller’s apprenticeship being carried on elsewhere than in Dunbar, but his father considered that George might possibly benefit by residence in the capital, and consented to his following his master—which he did at the end of the same month.

His experiences in Edinburgh were no better. First in dismal premises in a court off the Lawnmarket and afterwards in Frederick Street, which at that time was the western boundary of the New Town of Edinburgh, Smart was supposed to be attending to the training of his apprentice, but so little business was being done that the latter was free to take prolonged excursions into the country and otherwise amuse himself as best he could. In August he was loaned to a Dalkeith bookbinder for some weeks. At length Smart recognized the impossibility of carrying on business further or of fulfilling his engagement to Miller, and in September 1788 the indenture was broken by mutual consent. With as many tools and appropriate materials for bookbinding as he could gather together, including those that had belonged to Smart, Miller returned to Dunbar.

In arranging for his son’s return home, the father’s intention was that George and his brother James, three years his senior, should take over the Dunbar business and work it in partnership, now that he himself was approaching the age when he must retire. The brothers fell in with the plan, and hung out their sign with the name of the firm, “J. & G. Miller,” upon it. The arrangement was destined, however, to last for a few weeks only. James took umbrage at some delay George had made in a journey, and words ensued between the brothers. George in anger pulled down the sign, and made up his mind to carry out his long-cherished desire and go to sea. It required some time for his father to make him abandon his purpose, but he finally agreed to proceed to London by way of Newcastle, so that he might perfect himself in his profession by seeing some of the English workshops.

He set out on his journey on April 6, 1789, and at once proceeded to South Shields, where Smart, his old master, had settled down as a journeyman printer in the establishment of a local bookseller. During the few days he remained there he had his first, and apparently his only, lesson in the setting of type. “I was not long,” he says, “in picking up as much at the printing business, at case and press, as enabled me to throw off 500 shop bills on, I think, pot folio, which appears to have given great satisfaction to my father.” Miller lays much stress on this short experience of the printing-press, for he looked upon it as the foundation of the business he afterwards built up at Dunbar and Haddington. Some agreement was also made that he should work with a Newcastle bookseller named Miller.

He seems to have had a very poor opinion both of the character and of the business of this new master, although he acknowledges that he obtained from him some insight into several branches of bookbinding that were unknown to him, “such as the walnut-tree marbling of books, a thing since so common but then very imperfectly understood in Scotland, and even in Newcastle charged for something additional to the usual charges for binding. With him also I learned the art of binding with Russia bands, a thing not yet very generally understood, and which I have had occasion to practise more than once in course of my profession.” His sojourn in England, however, was abruptly brought to a conclusion by a summons home to attend the death-bed of his father, and he left Newcastle on the 14th of May, after about six weeks’ residence in the south.

His father lingered on till June 27, 1789, when he died in the sixty-fourth year of his age. Before the end he had effected a reconciliation between the brothers, and had obtained their consent to another plan of co-partnery for carrying on the business. The agreement was dated May 26th, and the engagement was to last for a year at least. James was to have particular charge of the “grocery” side of the establishment, and George was to set up and work the bookselling department, with all its usual auxiliaries. The name of the firm was again to be “J. & G. Miller,” and as it turned out continued so for nearly two and a half years.

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