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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter III. Partnership with Brother - Marriage

ALTHOUGH the day of his formal apprenticeship had not yet expired, George Miller now found himself at the early age of eighteen fully embarked on the business of life. The brothers began with much enterprise. In addition to stocking the shop with stationery and a certain number of books, they determined to start a circulating library, an institution hitherto unknown in the district, and in fact somewhat novel to the whole country. Allan Ramsay had founded his library in Edinburgh half a century before, but circulating libraries were still confined to the large centres of population. On November 20, 1789, the Millers opened their new department with a printed catalogue containing the names of 507 volumes, a number which was increased to 1,019 before a year had passed, as is shown by a second catalogue issued on October 12, 1790. The business so increased on the bookbinding side that in a short time George found it necessary to indenture two apprentices.

In later days George looked back with a certain pride to this notable departure in Dunbar shopkeeping. It was he, he said, “that first established that great and wonderfully illuminating process, the Book Trade, in Dunbar upon anything like a permanent foundation, and that at a time when such a thing was so much wanted in this quarter of the county, laying in his native town at that early period the foundation of that useful reservoir for accumulating, and copious source for diffusing, the means of knowledge and useful information, throughout the adjoining parishes.”

There was, indeed, a certain boldness in beginning a bookseller’s business in Dunbar at the time. The Millers had the failure of their predecessor before them as a warning. Even although the town was on the highway between Edinburgh and England, it could not be expected to provide an extensive custom. The condition of Scottish bookselling at the time, due to a lack of initiative and enterprise among those who carried it on, might also have deterred them. John Gibson Lockhart draws a dreary picture of the sordid contentment in which the booksellers of the capital lived at the close of the eighteenth century. He describes them as “petty retailers inhabiting snug shops and making a little money in the most tedious and uniform way imaginable.” They took no risks, and certainly none in publishing books unless it was an odd volume of sermons that never achieved a reasonable circulation. They were contented to be “a very humble appendage of understrappers to the trade of the Row ” in London.

The Millers must have been well aware of this lethargy in high places, and it consequently required no little courage on their part to undertake the sale of books even on the small scale possible for country merchants. Only one thing mitigated the apparent rashness of their enterprise; they determined not to trust to books alone for their success, but took hostages of fortune by making sure that they had the more stable business of ordinary grocers to fall back upon in case of failure.

The stock with which the Millers started could not have been either extensive or varied ; they had to cater for a public whose appetite had almost to be created. James Lackington, the well-known bookseller of Moorfields, paid a visit to Scotland in the autumn of 1787, and his judgment on the bookshops he saw is worth quoting in full. “I set out for Edinburgh,” he says, “and in all the principal towns through which I passed, was led from a motive of curiosity, as well as with a view towards some valuable purchases, to examine the booksellers’ shops for scarce and curious books ; but although I went by way of York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, etc., and returned through Glasgow, Carlisle, Leeds, Lancaster, Preston, Manchester, and other considerable places, I was much surprised, as well as disappointed, at meeting with very few of the works of the most esteemed authors; and those few consisted in general of ordinary editions, besides an assemblage of common, trifling books bound in sheep, and that, too, in a very bad manner. It is true, at York and Leeds there were a few (and but very few) good books; but in all the other towns between London and Edinburgh nothing but trash was to be found : in the latter city, indeed, a few capital articles are kept, but in no other part of Scotland.”

Three years later Lackington went over the same ground, but he found no reason to alter his judgment. “I was much mortified,” he writes, “to be under the necessity of confirming my former observations.” The route of the English bookseller towards Edinburgh lay through Dunbar, and the coach on which he journeyed would stop to change horses near the Millers’ shop, if not actually before it. Lackington would accordingly have an opportunity of investigating his fellow-salesmen’s establishment. There is no evidence that he found anything to cause him to modify the general condemnation he passed on provincial booksellers.

Miller gives one example of a sale, however, that proved the firm’s enterprise and showed the reading possibilities of the district. Early in 1780 they received from Hugh Ingles, a printer whose place of business was in the West Port of Edinburgh, subscription papers for a new edition of Knox’s “History of the Reformation.” In scarcely more than a month the Millers had obtained orders for sixty copies, and on the 28th of October the number had reached eighty. The original printed list of subscribers is still extant, and shows that with the exception of thirteen copies, which were given to a local carrier for distribution, and the destinations of which are not therefore known, the remainder were disposed of to readers within the near neighbourhood of the town.

In the course of the summer of 1791, while still in company with his brother, Miller passed through the first of two romantic episodes that befell him. When his stepmother died in 1780 his father had obtained from the neighbourhood of North Berwick a near relation of his own, Janet Jamieson by name, to act as his housekeeper. During the closing years of his life she had approved herself and had been specially helpful and attentive to him on his death-bed. After his decease she had remained in charge of the household. Although unable to point to any definite words on the subject, Miller affirms that his father, before his death, had indicated that a marriage between him and Janet would meet with his approval. If his father had any wish in the matter, what he desired came to pass. The young people were thrown much together and a marriage was arranged between them. Apparently without any necessity for such a course the pair made a runaway match of it. Unknown to everybody but the mother of the bride, who, strange to say, sanctioned the proceedings, they went to Edinburgh, and there on the 3rd of June were married without proclamation of banns, by one of the city ministers.

The marriage thus romantically and irregularly celebrated had several important consequences for the happy pair. They had offended against the established civil and religious law and order. Miller was accordingly summoned before the parish session clerk and mulcted in 3s. 6d. for having dared to omit due proclamation of his intention. As his family belonged to a religious denomination that specially frowned upon such ways of entering the matrimonial state, the bridegroom had also to appear at the bar of his own kirk-session and be rebuked for his conduct. He evidently endeavoured to make a spirited defence, for one of the elders had to remark, “What! have you come here to bamboozle us a’”: according to their discipline no defence was possible. Miller’s wife was in the same position as himself, but he chivalrously demanded that no censure should be passed on her. The fault, if there was a fault, he declared, was his alone. The session apparently took the same view for his wife’s name is not mentioned in their records.

Whether his treatment on this occasion had anything to do with his leaving the Secession Church it is impossible to say, but in January 1795 he addressed a letter to his minister saying that, as he could no longer be bound by the statements of any creed, he desired to sever his connection with the congregation. It was a particular grievance with him that he received no answer to this communication, and it is certainly strange that the records of the congregation bear no evidence that it was ever dealt with. For a time he worshipped with a small body of Wesleyan Methodists, who had a chapel in the town, but on the settlement of the Rev. Dr. Patrick Carfrae in the parish church in the autumn of the same year he joined the Church of Scotland, where he evidently obtained the freedom he wanted. He died in its membership.

These ecclesiastical censures, however, were not the only effects of George’s marriage. James conceived himself injured by his brother’s action. He complained that he had not been told of the projected alliance, and indicated that the bond of co-partnery did not contemplate the possibility of an early marriage on his brother’s part. George had no difficulty in answering the complaint. The original agreement, he said, had been for one year only, and double that time had passed. There was still ample opportunity, he suggested, for James to make preparations for his own future. Notice was accordingly given that he desired freedom from his contract with him as soon as possible.

Some delay took place before an arrangement was come to, but it was ultimately agreed that the business should be divided between the brothers, James taking the grocery, and George the book department. The value of the latter was nearly double that of the former, and when this was pointed out George suggested that he should sell off the excess stock on his side and make equal division of the proceeds. To facilitate the realization, George with his wife and a clerk carried on book sales in the neighbouring villages, thus making a start with that country auctioneering which he maintained almost up to the end of his life. The results were not very encouraging. “It was a week of much toil and labour,” he writes, “and notwithstanding the kindness of friends, I may add, expense to little purpose, as our whole drawings did not much exceed £13. The little that was done . . . must have served two good purposes at the time, as putting me in possession of a little ready cash, which I no doubt stood in need of for various purposes, and confirming me in the determination more than ever not to trust entirely to the book line in making provision for my family.”

Before the 20th of October, 1791, the final adjustments were made and George was ready to start business on his own account. James continued in the special line of shopkeeping he had chosen. He does not appear to have gone deeply into bookselling, although he conducted a juvenile circulating library for a time. Separated in business, the brothers became separated also in fortune. James made a fair competency before he died : George ended his days in comparative poverty. “He has been crowned with civic and ecclesiastical honours,” says the latter, “while I have been suffered to dwell in obscurity. His steps have been followed by wealth and abundance, while I have never been able to rise above the chilling damps of poverty. He is now in possession of houses and lands of his own and what may be called a comfortable independence, while I have not the smallest tenement I can call my own—not an inch of garden ground to recreate myself in. ...” But though this was so, George had the grace to add: “Still I do not envy my brother’s good fortune. I too have had, and still have, my joys which nothing earthly can deprive me of.” It is satisfactory to know that the brothers did not part in anger, and that although they were rivals in business in the same small town, cordial relations existed between them to the end. Only once had George to complain. On the ground that he had vowed never to stand surety for any man, James refused to lend his name to the bank on his brother’s behalf when the latter’s affairs became involved in 1816. George felt the refusal keenly, but, to the credit of both, it created no breach between them.

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