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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter IV. Starts Business on his own Account - Authorship

IN 1792 the town of Dunbar consisted mainly of a single street with the narrow closes that ran down from it to the harbour. It was a respectable thoroughfare and could be compared favourably with the chief streets of the ordinary Lothian and Fifeshire coast towns of the day. Half-way along it stood the quaint town-hall, and practically the whole business of the burgh was done in the shops that lay under the shadow of its old-world steeple. The merchants who owned them were not for the most part oppressed by their labours, and there was little probability that they would be called on to exert themselves more strenuously in the near future. Once upon a time the harbour had been noted for the deep-sea fishing carried on from it, but now it counted on its list only twelve boats, which gave fitful employment to a handful of forty men. Two whalers made Dunbar their home port, and the East Lothian and Merse Fishing Company had their headquarters within it, but their fleet had been reduced from five vessels to two. Eighteen ships engaged in a coasting and a foreign trade, but they could boast of only i,5°° tons’ burden among them. The merchants, therefore, could depend only to a limited extent on the sea-borne traffic of the port for their business.

Situated in a rich agricultural region and easy of access from the wealthier parts of the county, Dunbar looked most to its corn markets for its livelihood. Once every week the farmers gathered into the town to dispose of their produce, and then the street hummed with the business of buying and selling. Grain that changed hands had thereafter to be shipped or sent by road to the large towns, and most of the burgh’s prosperity depended on the efficiency with which this was done. Real increase in the trade of the district was confidently expected from certain cotton, flax, and flour mills which some enterprising manufacturers had recently erected at West Barns, a village distant about two miles. Already these works had attracted “a number of hands, and especially young people,” but any hopes thus raised were in the long run doomed to disappointment, for the mills were forced to close down. The village, however, was so near Dunbar that its traders were certain to reap some advantage from the temporary increase of population there.

In adding his name to the list of Dunbar merchants, Miller had a double problem to solve, he had to provide both a home and a shop. After his marriage he and his wife had continued to live en famille with his brother in the old house, but it was impossible that that arrangement could last indefinitely. Within a week or two of his marriage he had entered into negotiations with a local proprietor for business premises, and was successful in obtaining what he wanted. The place chosen had recently passed from the tenancy of a tailor, who through carelessness and inattention to business had been compelled to retire. It was well fitted up, for the tailor had been possessed of considerable means. The shop lies on the west side of the High Street, was afterwards occupied by Miller’s son William, and is still used as a stationer’s. “The shop had then,” he says, “a humble appearance with its narrow door and one small window,” as compared with what it has “now with its modern front, a double glazed door, and two large windows.” The back premises provided what accommodation his family required, his household including his half-brother John, who had been specially committed to his charge by his father.

The shop was opened for business on the 20th of October after a struggle to secure the necessary stock and equipment. The capital at the young merchant’s disposal was small indeed, and he gives pathetic details of the way he laid out what he possessed on furnishings. He had determined to trade both in groceries and in books, for, as he explained, in a small town like Dunbar two trades were absolutely necessary when each had only a small stock. He had probably his own shop in view when he wrote: “It was not uncommon for country shopkeepers to deal in such a number of different articles and of such incongruous qualities and uses, that the apartments where their sales were made and their multifarious assortments of goods exhibited, had more the appearance of what might have been supposed that of an American store of the olden time than a shop of modern date.” He seldom refers to the grocery side of his trade, but he records how once it nearly involved him in a serious conflict. “It was customary in those days,” he says, “for the shopkeepers in the town (at least the grocery part of them) to have monthly meetings for the purpose of regulating their sales for the ensuing month by the state of the markets, etc.” After one of these meetings it was suspected that some of the merchants had not been faithful to the agreements made. Miller took a foremost part in bringing the delinquents to book, and what he said gave grievous offence to an innocent member of the combination. A challenge was gravely issued and a meeting was duly arranged. The difference, however, was made up on the very field of proposed battle, and with no little satisfaction to himself Miller emerged safe from the controversy.

In the book department Miller determined to continue the circulating library, not for its own sake, for he found it an “unprofitable and troublesome business,” but because it was “of essential use in bringing customers to the shop and enabling me to seek out and establish a business for myself —a disadvantage which my brother, who had fallen so smoothly into the old-established business of my father, never knew what it was to labour under.” To make his intentions in the book department known he distributed the following small handbill, the first print of many he was to issue :—


Desirous to inform the inhabitants of this place and its invirons, that he has removed from his former shop, to that lately occupied by Mr. James Hunter, opposite Mr. Lorimer’s; where he continues to carry on the above businesses, etc., as formerly: and as he is resolved to deal both in the Wholesale and Retail way, upon the very lowest terms, he hopes for a continuation of their much esteemed favours.

The announcement was a somewhat audacious one, for he had not the necessary stock to carry on a wholesale trade. But the phrase covered an intention that was distinctly original. He knew that the surrounding schools required books, and he proposed to enter into an understanding with the schoolmasters to supply what was needed through them. In this he appears to have been successful, for to the last he speaks of the country teachers as being most helpful to him in his business and as continuing his best friends to the end.

At first Miller’s progress was necessarily slow, and the amount of his drawings was frequently most disappointing. It is evident from his autobiography that his heart was set almost exclusively on the book department, and that he regarded the grocery business as merely the auxiliary that made his chief work possible. His ambition from the beginning was to establish a good retail trade, and he bent his energies to achieve that end. At the outset his stock would necessarily include much that, from a literary point of view, was of slight importance. One of the earliest descriptions he gives of the contents of the shop is that “ small histories, sermons, catechisms, ballads, children’s books and pictures ” could be obtained from it. The Bible was largely used as a text-book in the schools, and for years he disposed of many copies to the children through the schoolmasters. It was also a long-established custom for young couples setting up housekeeping to make a large family Bible part of their necessary furnishings. Almost the earliest orders Miller received were for several of these books, payment being either on delivery or by instalments. In 1790 John Taylor, a Berwick-upon-Tweed printer, published a quarto edition of Osterwald’s Bible in parts and with plates. In two years Miller sold no fewer than 250 copies. In noting these sales Miller has the candour to add: “I do not mention these numbers as any way surprising in these days when the number trade is so extensively cultivated, and the canvassing business so much followed after; but let any one look back to my situation and the times I then lived in, and then form his ideas of the importance of the transactions here recorded.”

The lustre of these achievements, however, was somewhat dimmed by the great success which he afterwards had with Forsyth’s “Beauties of Scotland.” Of this large work he sold no fewer than forty-two large paper copies and seventy-six small, “not a bad number for a country sale,” he comments, “when it is remembered that the large paper copy retailed at five guineas and the small at three pounds fifteen shillings.” Miller says that even the publisher of the book, the well-known Constable of Edinburgh, expressed astonishment at such a result.

Though he did not consider his circulating library a very profitable part of his business, Miller nevertheless continued to develop it. In October 1792 he published his first catalogue, with a suitable “Word to the Public” as an introduction. It contained the titles of 1,001 volumes, a large number when it is remembered that many of the former books had been sold when the brothers split partnership. It was characteristic of the lender to make sure that the public should not be injured in any way by what he provided for them, and there consequently stands the intimation that “everything of an indelicate or immoral tendency” was excluded from his shelves.

At first the library was known as “G. Miller’s Circulating Library, Dunbar,” but as the years passed it changed its name with its growth. In 1809 Miller published a catalogue running to 160 pages, and containing the names of upwards of 3,500 books. The library was then known as the “Dunbar and Country Circulating Library,” and was indeed a creditable collection for a small country town. By 1811 he had added what he comprehensively describes as an “Agricultural, Commercial, Military Intelligence, News and Reading Room,” situated above his shop, which he had now dignified with the title of “The India Tea Warehouse.” Miller says of this latest development that it was “perhaps one of the most complete establishments to be met with in any town of equal size in this part of the United Kingdom.”

This state of things represented the library at its best, and its success was partly due to the patronage of the soldiers encamped in the neighbourhood. When the Napoleonic scare passed away, and the military were withdrawn, the situation became “too local and circumscribed” for the library to flourish. It was accordingly broken up and the books taken to Haddington. After the removal some of the townsfolk attempted to maintain a subscription library, but it also soon succumbed to an adverse fate.

Both as an apprentice, and while in partnership with his brother, Miller had had experience of selling books by auction in the country around Dunbar. As soon as he was fairly established in business for himself, he developed this method of disposing of his stock. His first sale took place in 1791, and he kept to the plan down almost to the close of his career. At first he conducted operations under a licence taken out in his own name, but he afterwards employed regular auctioneers, of whom his son William was one of the chief. The sales always took place under cover and in the evening, the village school being usually hired for the purpose.

This particular method of selling books did not always commend itself to the trade in general. It is recorded that when William Nelson, the well-known Edinburgh publisher, sought to extend his business by sending out a traveller to canvass the booksellers, he met with considerable coldness from them because of “his mode of doing business through auction sales” of the very kind carried on by Miller. No objection ever seems to have come from printers and publishers themselves, for Miller remained on cordial relations with these till the last. That he persevered in the method proved that it was not only profitable to himself but was also desirable for the sake of the people themselves. “So long as I continued in the book trade,” he wrote, “the inhabitants of our neighbourhood, and more remote villages scattered over the country, must have all been supplied with a plentiful treat of mental food, and that of the most useful and wholesome as well as variegated description to suit all tastes and fancies at a cheap and easy rate.” He certainly spared no effort in the attempt to reach all classes. His “literary perambulations,” as he called them, in connection with his auction sales and his autumn canvass for orders, took him all over Scotland, “from Tweedside to the Banks of Ayr, and from Kirkmaiden and the shores of the Fleet to the country in the neighbourhood of John o’ Groats in Caithness.”

During these opening years of his business life in Dunbar, Miller was steadily pursuing a course of self-culture. He early developed an interest in natural science and in philosophical speculation. He made experiments in electricity and acquired more than a superficial knowledge of astronomy. His philosophy ran along the line of a believing theology, and he wrote elaborate dissertations on speculative matters, which he docketed and piled up in his desk. He found ample material for these essays in the various discussions to which the French Revolution had given rise, and especially in the social and religious questions that were agitating the public mind. Tom Paine had but recently published his “ Age of Reason,” which along with his other writings Miller sold in his shop until interdict put a stop to their issue. He had given his attention to the arguments used in these and other publications, and soon made up his mind concerning their validity.

From early life Miller had cultivated this itch for writing, and even as a boy kept diaries and noted down passing events. Apparently at his suggestion, a literary society named the “Parthenon” was started in the town, and Miller read several papers before it on subjects dear to the heart of such juvenile clubs. In 1791 he had even appeared in print with an article contributed to Dr. Anderson’s Edinburgh Bee on the payment of small debts—a subject that was attracting some attention on the ground that even indebtedness for a trifling sum might tesult in a long period of imprisonment.

He was, therefore, now prepared for higher work, and he entered on the absorbing debate of the time with joy. At the end of 1794 he published a pamphlet with a title that, like all his other titles, was distinguished for its length. It runs : “An Antidote to Deism, selected from the works of a Friend to Religious Liberty, and recommended as a Supplement to Paine’s ‘Age of Reason.’ To which is prefixed An Address to the Rational Part of Mankind : and to which are added Four Queries addressed to confirmed Deists. By a Lover of Truth.” The argument of the pamphlet is perhaps sufficiently indicated by its author’s summary of it : “Divine revelation is acknowledged to be necessary on account of the dimness of corrupt nature and reason, the present state and imperfection of man and the benevolent attributes of the Deity.” Five hundred copies were printed, and seem to have sold well at the price of threepence each.

Eighteen months later he made another venture into public controversy. However anxious he had been as a lad to wear a red coat, he abandoned the idea when he came to years of discretion. Europe was like a cockpit, and men could hardly help being impressed by the horrors of war, however much they might approve of the conflict then being waged by their country. Natives of Dunbar especially were being constantly reminded of the possibilities of invasion, and military movements were taking place in their neighbourhood with more or less frequency. Miller expressed his mind on the whole subject in a pamphlet of sixty-four octavo pages, entitled: “War a System of Madness and Irreligion  to which is subjoined by way of conclusion, The Dawn of Universal Peace. Wrote on the late Fast Day, March 10, 1796. By Humanitas,”—the Fast Day being the day of humiliation ordered by the Government to be observed over the country. The remedy Miller had to propose was arbitration. Although unable to point to any effect his tract may have had, he says, “That it was approved of by some, and had its due effects on others I have reason to be sure; but that the still small voice of an obscure individual like me should be much attended to even through that powerful organ the press, in an age and at a time when every consideration with the generality of my countrymen was absorbed in the almost universal military mania, was more than I had any reason to expect.” For a time the number of his customers was not so large as to interfere with these literary exercises, and he continued to ride his scribbling hobby to the utmost. Like many another amateur author he placed no mean value upon what he wrote, and his manuscripts once prepared were never destroyed. When occasion demanded, he did not hesitate to use them more than once, and some of his articles appeared in type in two or three forms. Several papers which were afterwards printed in his two magazines were composed at this time. Continual practice in writing, however, did him good, and he acquired a certain facility in composition, although what he wrote was for the most part marred by diffuseness and irrelevancy.

Miller also set himself to build up a private library. A list of the books he possessed in 1794 is extant. They are of all sizes, from the stately folio downwards, and show that he had a distinct preference for theological treatises. Throughout the greater part of his chequered career he retained these volumes, and one of the most painful experiences in a life that had a full share of ills was their compulsory dispersal near the close.

In addition to his literary pursuits Miller showed active interest in several social problems. Wilberforce was at the time pressing for negro emancipation, and the agitation was being carried on all over the country. A local “Society for Abolishing the Slave Trade” had been formed in Dunbar, and in the spring of 1792 Miller was engaged in gathering subscriptions for it. The scheme in which he took most interest, however, was that for providing some means for saving life at sea. A wreck near the town had convinced him that much could be done to prevent the loss of any crew that was cast ashore. He succeeded in arousing the sympathy of a few persons like-minded with himself. They met in January 1793 and drew up an elaborate constitution for a “Humane Society.” The project involved securing a mortar for throwing a rope over a vessel that had drifted ashore, a lifeboat provided with a carriage to take it to different parts of the coast, and various other apparatus. But the benevolent plan fell through. A mortar could not be procured, and sufficient subscriptions were not forthcoming for the rest of the scheme. Twenty years afterwards Miller pointed out that part of the difficulty he had met with was to convince the public that the most useful way a rope could be attached to a wreck was by throwing it from the shore to the vessel, and not from the vessel to the shore, an opinion contrary to that generally held. In the long run he was justified by seeing perfected Captain Manby’s rocket apparatus, which employed the method he advocated. Although his scheme was not carried out at the time Miller deserves all the credit due to a pioneer.

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