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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter VI. His Family - Removes Press to Haddington

MILLER’S wife died on June 25, 1802, leaving her husband with five sons and a daughter.1 As subsequent events showed, he was not happy in his family. James, who was his father’s chief hope, fell into evil ways even before the old man died. After serving an apprenticeship to a trade, and starting business on his own account, John went to America and practically disappeared from knowledge, his father hearing of him only in a roundabout fashion. Robert, who made excellent promise, died on August 12, 1828, while still a young man. Elizabeth, who remained at home for the most part and sometimes assisted in the shop, died unmarried in August 1837, a year after her father.

Miller’s second son, George, proved the black sheep of the family even while his father lived, and for years was a source of distress to him. In spite of his “talents and superior abilities” Miller declares he became “a lasting torment and burden to me and a useless drone in society to himself.” So extraordinary was his behaviour that doubts were expressed as to his sanity even while he was yet a youth—doubts which the course of time amply justified. Repeated attempts were made to fix him to a special occupation, but every effort failed. His restlessness began as soon as his apprenticeship to a local draper ended. He appeared unable to remain long in any business. His father was anxious that he should become a surgeon, and he was apprenticed to a firm in Dunfermline, where he might be under the supervision of his uncle. That arrangement lasted for a few weeks only. Again he was bound to an Edinburgh engraver. For this profession he showed some aptitude and produced very creditable work in a very few weeks. But so erratic and restless was his nature that he would be bound by no engagement and deserted this employment also on the shortest notice. The strange thing was that he knew perfectly well how reprehensible his conduct was, and could write about it in terms of the severest condemnation. An article from his pen appeared in the Cheap Magazine, when he was in the midst of his fluctuating resolves, and it began by saying that he knew “ from sad experience the many flighty sallies or notions which seize the juvenile mind, and the power that these fanciful ideas have over the actions of youth by either actuating them to do that which is wrong or prompting them to spend in idleness (the bane of happiness) that portion of life when the foundation of the future man should be laid.”

He made several journeys by sea, and on the whole showed a preference for a life afloat. No one on board the vessels in which he sailed, however, could long endure his eccentricities. While on a voyage to India his ongoings became so intolerable that the captain set him ashore at St. Helena, where by a week or two he missed seeing Napoleon landed a prisoner.

Although his father never actually assigned the book to him, there is no reason to doubt that George was the author of a queer volume which Miller published in 1815. Its short title is “The Traveller’s Guide to Madeira and the West Indies,” and it gives an account of a voyage to these places—a voyage which George actually took in the preceding year. Its sub-title is a “Hieroglyphic Representation of Appearances and Incidents.” The book is chiefly made up of a series of minute engravings in which the events of each day are set forth pictorially. In all there are no fewer than 125 pictures, the whole being accompanied by a running commentary. Neither the pictures nor the letterpress is of any value whatever. What little interest the volume possesses centres in the unusual method pursued in its production.

George’s after-history does not make pleasant reading. His vagrant disposition continued for many years, but he ultimately settled down in Dunbar, where he fell under the influence of the drink habit. For a time he kept house alone, making his living as best he could. His mind at length gave way and he had to be confined. He died in the local asylum on the 19th of December, 1869, after having been an inmate of it for more than twenty years.

Just before his wife died Miller found his prospects so bright that he seriously considered whether he should not remove to a place more suitable for his growing business than Dunbar, “communication with which and the country around is so circumscribed except in an indirect or roundabout way.” His situation handicapped his wholesale trade especially, but he hesitated to leave a town where he had “already succeeded in establishing a snug retail business and where his job printing was certainly succeeding to his utmost expectation considering the disadvantages arising out of the localities of the place.” He was on the point of selecting a town—probably Leith—“where there are so many opportunities of conveyance to all parts of the kingdom by sea and land,” but the death of his wife put an end to his search. With a young family dependent on him, he found it would be inadvisable to remove from his old home, sacred as it now was by “so many endearing ties.”

His business continued to extend so rapidly that at the end of 1803 he was able to report that his job printing had “increased beyond all former precedent.” Its growth had caused him to look out for larger printing premises, and by the end of the year he had entered into possession. But even this was not enough to meet the demands of his trade, and he was forced to consider the possibility of occupying another post where he could better command the custom of the county. Haddington was naturally marked out as the most suitable spot. It occupied a “ centrical position,” and being the county town was the place where the main business of the district was transacted. His second marriage opened up the way for him to take possession of it.

His second wife was Helen Grieve, a native of Stenton, a village distant about five miles from Dunbar. Like his first marriage, his second had a spice of romance about it. For a time the lady was indifferent to his overtures, but she finally yielded. The manner of her surrender is best told in the husband’s own words. “I happened to be in London on business,” he says, “and how was I surprised one day to meet her in the street. ‘Well met!’ said I, ‘the people will be saying we are away to be married. Suppose we go and get the business settled, and give them room to talk when we go home.’ ‘I’ll go anywhere with you,’ said she.”

And so the matter was arranged, the wedding taking place on July 11, 1805. The union proved a remarkably happy one. As the rejoicing bridegroom afterwards said, he had “drawn once more an invaluable treasure in the lottery of matrimony.” Mrs. Miller took a mother’s care of his children, threw herself into his business with great energy, and did much to make the disappointments which ultimately overtook him less calamitous. He described her as the “tried associate in so many trials, the approved and proved solace in so long a train of protracted griefs.” When the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding came round, Miller celebrated the happy occasion in an appropriate ode, which he prints in full in his autobiography. Mrs. Miller survived her husband.

Miller’s determination to remove the printing part of his establishment to Haddington was come to suddenly, and he is not clear as to the reason for his precipitate action. “Circumstances had occurred,” he says, “to make it imperiously necessary, if I wished to preserve to some of my own family the printing business which I had been at so much labour and pains to establish in the county, that I should remove that part of my establishment to the county town without delay." The circumstances referred to seem to have been that the excellent prospects Haddington held out for a printing-press had attracted the attention of a possible rival, and it was necessary to forestall him. The transference was made at the end of May 1804.

The removal was rendered all the easier from the fact that Miller’s brother John was now quite able to take over the supervision of the new business, and so relieve him of constant attendance upon it. The only real difficulty in working the two places was the want of adequate communication between the towns, but that obstacle was removed in the following October. A new coach then began running between Dunbar and Edinburgh, by way of Haddington, “a most fortunate occurrence for me,” says Miller, “as it made the journey in future assume almost the appearance of stepping from one shop-door to the other, besides the great advantage it gave me in having my Haddington parcels carried free ”— the latter privilege coming to him as agent for the coach owner.

A century ago Haddington was a somewhat different place from the sleepy hollow it has since become. Then it was on the highway between Edinburgh and London, and the day was brightened by the thundering passage of the stagecoach on its way to either metropolis ; now it is the terminus of a branch railway-line, and the main stream of traffic passes by on the other side of the hills out of its sight and hearing. As the centre of a wide and fertile district, its grain market was then probably the most important in the whole country. Its wide street afforded ample accommodation for the fairs in which the Scottish peasantry delighted, and the county courts held within it gave the town precedence over its neighbours. It could not boast of any literary life, but it had certain possibilities within it. For two years after midsummer 1810, Edward Irving taught school in the burgh and acted as tutor to that fiery genius, Jane Welsh Carlyle, whose father was a physician in the town. In 1812 Samuel Smiles, destined to become well known as the author of “Self-Help” and similar books, was born one of a large family in a house in the main street where the tiny recess under the stair in which he slept is still shown. He has left a vivid picture of his early days in his autobiography. These things, however, were still in the future when Miller settled down in the town and by his press gave facilities to any literary life the old-fashioned place might contain. In ancient times the burgh from its situation had possessed some political and international importance. It must be confessed that in 1804 there was not much that indicated the possibility of revived interest in it through its literary performance.

The printing establishment thus set up included, besides John Miller, a pressman, a bookbinder, and two apprentices. The first six months’ returns showed how amply Miller was justified in making the transference. “In a space not much exceeding six months,” he says, “viz. from 4th June to 31st December, 1804, the amount of our job printing had exceeded the amount at Dunbar for the whole prosperous year preceding the 31st December, 1803.” Almost as soon as the press was set up it obtained orders from the Town Council. These consisted chiefly of notices, or “ advertisements,” as they were called, to be posted about the town. The following bill was among the earliest presented to the Council, and may not be uninteresting as showing the kind of work the press did as well as the prices charged :—

It will be observed that the account indicates what was done in the burgh when news reached it of the victory at Trafalgar Bay and the death of Nelson. Miller also became the town’s agent in procuring books for the municipal library. In the first year the citizens’ indebtedness to him amounted to £21 17s., and this sum was the total after the bill had been discounted by 10 per cent.

One severe disappointment Miller met with at the beginning of his career in the county town. About the time he began his extended business, the King’s Printers made a determined effort to secure adequate recognition of their privilege. It had been the custom for all work required in connection with the lieutenancy of counties to be done by local printers. This the King’s Printers now claimed as their own, and the authorities had reluctantly to recognize that what they demanded lay within their prerogative. The decision was particularly hard on Miller, who had removed to Haddington so that, among other things, he might the more effectually hold the very work of which he was now to be deprived. “It was certainly a most disastrous and dispiriting piece of intelligence,” he said, “however softened down by the kind offices and friendly bearing of my Haddington friends. To those who in their several settled situations were obliged to submit to it merely that an already huge and overgrown monopolist might have his income increased, it was sufficiently vexatious; but to me who had just taken such a decisive step and put myself to so much expense in order to secure it more firmly, it really bore much the appearance of what, alas! I have so often experienced, the dashing the cup from my lips after it had almost reached them.” It does not appear where Miller secured premises for his printing establishment, but towards the end of 1804 he made an offer to the magistrates of Haddington to take two shops from them on a lease of seven years. These stood one on each side of the main entrance to the Flesh Market, a building which had just been erected for the convenience of the town. One shop he appropriated to each of the departments, for he had determined again to associate the trade of a general merchant with that of a bookseller. With as much formality as possible he opened business in them on May 25, 1805. It is apparent that Miller came to rue the bargain he had made with the town authorities, for his son James has this curious note in his “History.” Speaking of the market he says, “The two shops in the front which are now let for £6 each were at first let conjointly on a lease of seven years at £30 sterling per annum.” The whole building was removed some years ago to make room for an approach to a new bridge over the Tyne.

In accordance with an agreement into which the brothers had entered, John continued in charge of the Haddington branch for a year, leaving at Whit-Sunday 1805 to make preparations for starting business on his own account elsewhere. His removal left Miller in a strait. He had not yet a son sufficiently advanced to undertake the supervision of the extension, for James was only in his fourteenth year. The merchandise business, however, was so promising that he determined to take up his residence in Haddington with his family and place the Dunbar shop in the charge of his mother-in-law. He accordingly rented a house in the county town, and transferred his home to it in July 1805.

The change did not work out well. The house he had taken proved unsuitable, and its inland situation affected the general health of his family. His frequent absences from home made him largely dependent upon hired servants, and they were a constant source of anxiety to him. They were either deficient as workmen or remained with him too short a time. A pressman who had left his employment threatened to set up in opposition to him, and to add to his troubles his mother-in-law fell into bad health : she died in December 1806. Rumours were also being circulated to his disadvantage at Dunbar, for it was alleged that he intended abandoning the town altogether, and a rival was already seeking to secure what he might leave. All those things made him resolve to return to his native town, which he did after one year’s exile from it. He did not, however, give up all residence in Haddington. He transformed the back premises of one of the shops into a residence, and kept up “the appearance of a dwelling-house” there for some time longer.


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