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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter VIII. The “Cheap Magazine" - Circulating Library

EVER on the outlook for new and progressive ways of extending his business and increasing his usefulness, Miller in 1813 ventured on the difficult path of journalism. He could not have been ignorant of the many failures that marked that route in the past, but he believed that he was able to use a new method which promised success. He had done much business in occasional literature of an “improving” type, and had satisfied himself that there was an appetite for it in the country. His sales had been continuous and extended, and the only difference between the literature he proposed to issue, and what he had already succeeded in selling, was to be in regularity of issue and uniformity of price. As a matter of fact he republished several of his tracts in the pages of his new venture.

Miller laid elaborate plans for making his intentions known. As early as June of the preceding year he scattered prospectuses of the proposed journal broadcast over the land. He addressed circulars to ministers and presbyteries, and enlisted the help of parish schoolmasters everywhere in obtaining subscribers. Confined mainly to Scotland, his efforts extended also to several of the centres of population in England. Everything possible was done to ensure success.

The first number of the Cheap Magazine was issued on January 14, 1813, the editor’s birthday. It was a monthly duodecimo of forty-eight pages and carried the sub-title, “Poor Man’s Fireside Companion,” a name that was dropped at the beginning of the second volume. As was then customary, thirteen numbers were issued for the year, the last being named a “Supplement.” The contents of the journal were of a miscellaneous character, and as the prospectus said, “the whole was adapted to the lowest capacity, calculated to promote the interests of religion, virtue, and humanity, and to dispel the shades of ignorance, prejudice, and error among the lower classes of mankind.” Miller is frank enough to say that publication was undertaken “in the way of duty as well as in the way of business,” and there seems no reason to doubt that his chief object was to raise moral issues and to do what he could to promote right living among those who were showing signs of breaking beyond control. In the preceding year “shocking scenes that disgraced the streets of Edinburgh," as well as the execution of three miserable lads, had taken place in the capital, and these things had moved him to begin the periodical in the hope that its pages would aid in making such events impossible. On the title-page of his magazine he accordingly wrote that its purpose was the “prevention of crimes” and to “insure the peace, comfort, and security of society,” as well as to give young and thoughtful minds “a taste for reading subjects of real utility.”

From the first the Cheap Magazine was a great success. Miller, who described himself comprehensively as “not only the original and sole projector and editor, but the author of several of its leading papers and smaller pieces, as well as the printer and publisher, the seller and distributor,” declares that of the first number “there were printed at different periods, but mostly if not all within the year, upwards of Twenty-one Thousand Copies!”—a circulation which was then phenomenal. Concerning the magazine as a whole, his son wrote that it “was circulated in every parish in Scotland at a vast expense from the high price of carriage and postage,” and that “15,000 to 20,000 copies were printed.” He adds that “Haddington beheld the novel scene of three presses in motion which turned off twenty reams of paper in a week,” not a large output in view of present-day printing developments, but noteworthy a century ago.

It is perhaps unnecessary to occupy space in describing the kind of matter that found its way into the pages of the magazine. Mental and moral improvement being the aim of everything that secured a place within it, the articles included stories of the primitive passions, the lessons of which were made painfully evident in almost every paragraph; poems that resembled Dr. Watts’s well-known didactic verses; papers on the industrial arts and the commoner sciences; hints on etiquette and domestic conduct in every conceivable situation, as well as miscellaneous scraps of information. Social and family duties were constantly inculcated and warnings against infringements were made as solemn as possible.

Nothing was left to the imagination, everything was set down in such plain language that no mistake could be made. Many of the papers were on topics dealt with by the famous essayists of a former generation, but they had none of the fine English, the wide culture or the classical allusions of their predecessors. A few titles taken from one number will sufficiently indicate the nature of the contents :—“Summer Furnishes us with Images of Death”; “The Industrious Children”; “Dreadful Consequences of Gaming”; “Fatal Effects of Anger”; “Piety the Foundation of Good Morals”; “The Progress of Genius from Obscure and Low Situations to Eminence and Celebrity,” an anticipation of Samuel Smiles’s “Self-Help.” With evident relish the editor inserted a poetical contribution, entitled “The Labourer’s Repast or the Cheap Magazine.” The lines halt and the rhymes are imperfect, but the verses show how the editor met the needs of the class to whom he appealed. Two stanzas will suffice.

Ye careless and indolent ! open vour eyes,
Ah! halt not, I pray you, between:
And you that are young, here’s matter to prize,
Contained in the Cheap Magazine.

Consider, ye Parents! on you it depends
To bend the young Sprig while it’s green;
I’m apt to believe, you’ll accomplish your ends,
By a purchase of this Magazine.

Miller himself was responsible for a large proportion of the letterpress that appeared in the journal, and he afterwards compiled two volumes from his articles. Besides being aided by papers sent in voluntarily he had the help of several writers whose names have now lost all significance. Dr. Mavor, an English writer on moral subjects and somewhat celebrated in his day, provided the preface. Chief, however, among Miller’s contributors was Mrs. Beatrice Grant, a lady whose literary attainments and services to himself Miller was never weary of extolling. Belonging to the Campbells of Duntroon, she was the sister of that Sir Neil who accompanied Napoleon to Elba, and the widow of the minister of Duthil, a parish in the eastern highlands of Inverness-shire. Two volumes long since forgotten—“Popular Models and Impressive Warnings for the Sons and Daughters of Industry,” and “Intellectual Education”—came from her pen.

It is to-day difficult to discover wherein the attraction of the Cheap Magazine lay. It was fairly well printed, but the paper on which it was produced was poor and the illustrations were wretched. Its tone was severe—and there was little or no brightness in the writing. But there is abundant evidence that it met with widespread acceptance. Church courts passed resolutions approving of it, just as at a later date they condemned Norman MacLeod’s Good Words. Well-known divines sent testimonials to the editor. Press notices were laudatory, and men of such diverse schools as William Wilber-force, Lindley Murray, and David Dale commended it. There can be no doubt that it met a distinct need, and this along with the great enterprise of the editor and printer in pushing the sales everywhere explains its success.

The Chamberses of Edinburgh have been blamed for not giving greater honour to the Cheap Magazine as a pioneer of popular periodical literature. In describing the rise of their famous Edinburgh Journal, William Chambers mentions several magazines which the brothers evidently had in mind when they made the venture—their own Kaleidoscope of 1821, the London Mirror of 1822, and the Edinburgh Cornucopia of 1831, as well as the Constable Miscellanies. But Miller’s magazine finds no place in the roll of honour, nor does any influence it may have exerted on their plans, it is complained, ever appear to have received acknowledgment at their hands. This, however, is to claim for the Cheap Magazine a place it is hardly entitled to fill.

In their “Gazetteer of Scotland,” published a year before the appearance of Miller’s “Latter Struggles,” Robert Chambers did ample justice to the public service rendered by the little magazine. Speaking of the “works of a popular nature calculated to promote the interests of religion, virtue, and humanity among the lower orders” that issued from the Dunbar Press, the writer adds, “One of them was a periodical styled the Cheap Magazine, which though conducted on an unambitious plan was certainly an undertaking in some respects in advance of the age. It appeared in the year 1814; afforded a considerable mass of paper and print once a month at 4d., and was filled with matter calculated to instruct, as well as amuse, the two great, classes who mostly require instruction, the young and the poor. Such a work, as it was rather a design of the present time than of that when it appeared, might surely be tried again with better hopes of success than at first. The work at present which approaches nearest to it is the Gaelic Messenger of Dr. MacLeod.” On the whole this fairly represents the value of the Cheap Magazine, and the part it played in educating the public for the popular periodical literature that appeared twenty years later. Miller himself uttered no complaint of being overlooked, although he wrote accounts of his magazine after Chambers's Journal had begun its issue. No one who compares the two papers will discover much that the Edinburgh firm owed to their Haddington predecessor.

The truth is that there were cheap and popular magazines in Scotland long before Miller’s publication. Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, which was begun in 1768, for example, provided thirty-two pages weekly, and according to Arnot, the historian of Edinburgh and its contemporary, “as this was afforded very cheap, the publication was very successful. Indeed, it became so in a degree unprecedented in Scotland, for in winter 1776 the number of copies sold amounted to 3,000 weekly.”

The merit of Miller’s publication was that it reached the farm labourer and the remote villager, a class for which no special provision had hitherto been made. Its forerunners had sought to capture the interest of readers variously described as “courteous,” “ingenuous,” “polite,” or as “gentlemen of taste” the Cheap Magazine catered for those whom without offence it called “the lower orders,” and satisfied their needs in a way that corresponded to their attainments.

The reference to Lord Brougham doubtless arises from the fact that in 1825 he published his “Practical Observations upon the Education of the People,” in which he recommended the establishment of Book Clubs or Reading Societies.

Its public showed their appreciation by buying the paper in thousands. Its purpose was avowedly didactic, and the marvel is that it succeeded so well at a time when no special religious fervour existed. It made its way to great centres of population as well as to country hamlets. Sir J. M. Barrie found a copy in his father’s house, and in “A Window in Thrums” refers to it affectionately as “The Cheapy,” a name which has evidently sprung from his own kindly remembrance of it. Its monthly appearance accustomed the common people to a regular supply of literature, and the many subsequent reprints of it that issued from the Haddington press helped to keep interest alive, and so prepared the way for the enthusiastic reception accorded to the cheap literature of Charles Knight and the Chamberses when it appeared twenty years later.

After the Cheap Magazine had existed for two years it was withdrawn. It seems impossible to discover the complete reason for the stoppage. Its editor indicates that it began the second year of publication with a circulation “now much reduced,” but still “very respectable.” The demand, however, although not so keen, continued to show a desire on the part of the public for its circulation. But Miller evidently thought he had better bring the venture to a close. It had been the fashion in the preceding half-century not to continue the issue of any magazine beyond the fixed limit of a few numbers, and to end publication when there was sufficient material to make two or three respectable volumes. The conductors did not wish their journals to outlive their usefulness and popularity, and were besides anxious to have them complete upon their shelves before they reached unmanageable proportions in point of bulk. Several of the more successful were resuscitated with such changes in their appearance, price, and contents as experience had shown to be warranted. Miller followed this later precedent and immediately put another in place of the one he had withdrawn.

The last issue of the Cheap Magazine took place in December 1814. 'Lae Monthly Monitor and Philanthropic Museum sent out its first number in the following January. In design it resembled its predecessor closely, although the price was somewhat higher. The editor and principal contributor was still Miller himself, and it contained continuations of several papers he had begun in the Cheap Magazine. It made greater claims to literary quality, although Miller’s son wrote that both periodicals were “rather of an instructive than literary nature.” The Monitor expired in December after twelve monthly numbers had been published. Its editor had by that time undertaken another branch of bookselling which required all the attention he could give it. His own literary resources and material were becoming exhausted, and the novelty of the scheme was also wearing off in the public mind. In chronicling the death of two other journals that had been published in Haddington in 1822 and 1828, Miller’s son says that “the country-town is situated too near the fountain-head of letters in the metropolis for such publications to succeed.” The Monitor had no doubt to suffer the competition of the capital, but the real reason for its disappearance was probably the financial difficulties which were even then beginning to be felt by its publisher. The magazine was ended with an indication that it might reappear as a quarterly, but events that speedily crowded in on Miller made that course impossible.

It was while he was engaged in these periodical ventures that Miller transferred his lending library to Haddington. As he states in a circular addressed to his Dunbar customers, he was induced to make the change “because the greater part of the books had already passed through their hands.” The books were removed in June 1814 and placed under the care of his son James. In the same month he published a catalogue giving the names of 2,500 volumes the library contained.

The library did not prove successful in the county town, and within a few years the collection was dispersed. Miller felt the failure keenly. “If the establishment was allowed to fall to pieces,” he says, “ it was none of my fault. I did what I could to make myself useful.” It is evident from the bitter way in which he speaks of the Itinerating Library scheme started by Samuel Brown of Haddington in 1817,1 that he considered himself ousted from the field by that venture. It had apparently been urged on behalf of Brown’s plan that it would ultimately benefit the bookseller by creating an appetite for reading. Miller’s experience proved the fallacy of the expectation. He discovered that those who were able to obtain their reading for nothing were unlikely ever to pay for it. He was specially offended because Brown by his new scheme practically ignored all his efforts in the past. “It is evident,” he says, “that East Lothian should have been the last place to which these gentry should have turned their attention. But it unfortunately so happens that there are many well-meaning people in the world who are very unwilling to help forward any laudable measure except they themselves take the lead, and others who are ready to object to any selection or collection of books in which they have not been consulted.” The opposition may perhaps be in part explained by Miller’s last phrase. He had already come into conflict with one of the warmest supporters of the year 1830 forty collections were itinerating among thirty-one towns and villages of East Lothian alone. The scheme spread to Ireland and the colonies and even to St. Petersburg.

Brown’s plan. This person had challenged him because he had printed the bills of certain strolling players, and some sharp letters had passed between them. It is possible that Miller had, in some of the books he had placed before the public, again offended the notions of propriety entertained by this man and his colleagues.

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