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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter IX. Canvassing Trade - Depression - Bankruptcy

AFTER steadily plying his business for years along the routine lines indicated, Miller was induced to make a new departure. In the Monthly Monitor for July 1815 he has the following paragraph under the heading of “The Increase of Knowledge.” “We notice, as matter of record, that within these few years a considerable circulation of books and of useful knowledge has taken place in consequence of a regularly organized system of canvassing for orders from house to house. Instead of depending on the slow and uncertain effects of advertisements in the magazines and in the newspapers, certain publishers of cheap books and of works in weekly numbers, now keep entire corps of pedestrian travellers, who canvass every town, village, and farm-house, under the direction of county or district agents. The success of these publications is one effect of the increased establishments for educating the poor.” The paragraph was written after Miller had himself determined to use the new methods.

Selling books in parts was not indeed new. For many long years the method had been used by energetic booksellers. Almost half a century before the poet Crabbe had sung of the extent to which it had been carried :—

Our nicer palates lighter labours seek,
Cloyed with a folio -Number once a week ;
Bibles, with cuts and comments, thus go down :
E’en light Voltaire is Numbered through the town:
Thus physic flies abroad, and thus the law,
From men of study, and from men of straw. . . .

But the business had developed on new lines. Publishers and booksellers were no longer content to await customers behind their shop counters. They carried their bargains to the very doors of their clients, and it was by this advance that Miller desired to benefit.

With considerable dramatic impressiveness he relates how he took the first step. He was sitting idling in his shop on the afternoon of the 11th of April, 1815, when William Gracie, who was well known to him as a bookseller and printer of some reputation in Berwick-upon-Tweed but whom he had never seen before, called upon him to while away a period of waiting in the town. Miller afterwards hints that the visit was more of design than of accident, and subsequent events proved that he had to do with a man who was not only keen in business but also not over-scrupulous in the means he took to extend it. Unsuspicious of these things, however, Miller cordially welcomed his visitor, whose coming seemed most appropriate at the time. He had been considering the propriety of adopting the new system, which was “becoming the favourite hobby of our most industrious and enterprising booksellers,” and here was the man who could advise!

Gracie had been engaged in the business for some time, and his report was altogether satisfactory. He laid special inducements before Miller to follow his example. He was printing certain well-known books in parts, he said, and would supply these to him on easy terms as well as procure others for him on equally favourable conditions if he resolved to adopt the plan and would undertake not to encroach on districts where Gracie was already working. The ready money which the scheme promised, and which was an inducement to a country bookseller, finally overcame any fears Miller might have had, and before his visitor left “he had become a whole-, instead of a half-, hearted convert to the propriety of embarking in a concern that held out such bright and golden prospects.”

If Gracie’s call was a casual one, he had reason to congratulate himself on its result. Miller at once involved himself deeply in the business, for at this first interview he made purchases from Gracie to the extent of over £1,200, a sum raised to nearly £1,400 by the following July. In view of some of Gracie’s actions afterwards, this plunge by Miller into such expense was rashness itself, but at the time he had no doubt of the soundness of his course. His cash trade averaged from £140 to £150 per week, and what had he to fear, he asks. 4< I can show by my books and other documents that my weekly receipts at that flourishing period would have covered the whole in two or three months; when at any time upon an emergency I could raise as much in the same time by means of my wholesale sales to the trade ; when I had as a reserve two great friends at court, ready to assist me on any occasion that I might consider it of advantage to avail myself of their services; and when I had besides another friend at not a hundred miles’ distance who made me welcome to command his services to the extent of his purse or his means at any time; and when (let that consideration never be forgotten) the being put in possession of so many complete works and such a respectable collection to begin with in the number line, must have enabled me to open up new resources and to widen considerably those which I had previously been in the habit of availing myself of.”

Having convinced himself of the rosy tints of the future, Miller proceeded to lay his plans. He went shares with Gracie in an edition of Cruden’s “Concordance,” which Gracie was printing, and a few months later entered into a similar agreement with his monitor in regard to Brown’s “Bible Dictionary.” By the beginning of October he had his agents working from centres as far apart as Cockburnspath, Haddington, Stirling, Aberdeen, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, and Thurso.

As a business method canvassing, or the “number-trade” as it is sometimes called, has not commended itself to all. Writing in 1854, after it had had some years to approve itself, Charles Knight denounced it in unmeasured terms. “The system,” he said, “is essentially that of forcing a sale; and the necessary cost of this forcing, called ‘canvassing,’ is sought to be saved in the quantity of the article canvassed, or in the less obvious degradation of its quality. The canvasser is a universal genius, and he must be paid as men of genius ought to be paid. He has to force off the commonest of wares by the most ingenious of devices. It is not the intrinsic merit of a book that is to command a sale, but the exterior accomplishments of a salesman. . . . He knows where there is a customer in the kitchen and the customer in the parlour. . . . No refusal can prevent him in the end leaving his number for inspection. ... If an effort were honestly made to publish works really cheap, because intrinsically good, upon ‘ the canvassing system,’ that system, which has its advantages, might be redeemed from the disgrace which now too often attaches to it, in the hands of the quacks who are most flourishing in that line.” The method is certainly open to the abuses on the part of unscrupulous agents, which Knight indicates, but there is no evidence that either Miller or those employed by him used undue means to extend their trade. On the other hand, there is ample testimony to the honourable way in which this and all the other branches of Miller’s business were conducted.

In starting his new scheme Miller did not neglect the old. He continued pushing his sales to the trade. One which he held in Edinburgh lasted two days, and brought in over £800. Shortly after he had exceptional success with others in Glasgow and the West, whither he had gone with a large stock of books that included some from the shop of that doyen of Edinburgh booksellers, William Creech, lately deceased; he drew over £300.

He was particularly pleased with an event which took place on the latter journey. On the evening of September 6, 1815, he says, “My good friend, Mr. James Lumsden, proposed (which proposition was seconded and unanimously carried by all the gentlemen present) that I should have the Freedom of the Trade of the City of Glasgow conferred on me.” He prints the exact honour in small capitals, but the privilege was not so great as the type would indicate.

What happened was merely that he was admitted an honorary member of the Glasgow Stationers’ Company, a trade incorporation in the city. The minutes of that body show that the honour was formally conferred on November 7th on three Edinburgh booksellers as well as Miller, “they having paid the dues of admission to the treasurer with Clerk and Officers dues.” The chairman at this meeting was James Lumsden, a prominent Glasgow bookseller of the time, and one who had been friendly with Miller for many years.

The honour done Miller by his Glasgow brethren put, as it were, a visible crown on his prosperity, for it was in 1815 that his fortune reached its highest. Years of strenuous toil and planning now seemed about to reap their reward. He had won a certain recognition through the widespread interest his periodicals had aroused. He had just started on a new extension of his business which promised further progress, and had, in addition to his own sons, paid agents at work all over the land. Everything seemed full of promise for further success, when suddenly his. prosperity received an abrupt check.

A rapid change was passing over the trade of the country. The Battle of Waterloo had brought to a close the long nightmare under which Europe had laboured, but as often happens after a great war, trade depression had almost immediately set in. This evil consequence of the cessation of hostilities was further increased by the introduction of machinery into manufactures, with the resultant loss of employment for many. Widespread misery ensued both in England and Scotland. The Government seemed helpless to bring relief, and disorder broke out in many places. The situation was such that a bookseller was likely to be among the first to suffer.

In the closing months of 1815 Miller had warning of the coming trouble. It became more and more difficult to obtain money. Gracie applied to him for a temporary accommodation, and in view of the assistance he had formerly received from him, Miller had now to advance him several hundred pounds. About the same time the bank began to press him to pay up an account which on the security of friends he had been allowed to overdraw to a considerable extent. To meet these and other demands made upon him, Miller sent his son to gather in all small sums due to him by his customers, especially those in connection with the periodicals, the issue of which he had now definitely determined to abandon. The journey was highly disappointing. Debtors were unwilling or unable to settle their accounts: one country bookseller alone owed £38, which was never recovered. The friends on whom Miller had been accustomed to rely for aid found their own position so threatened that they could not afford to come to his assistance. To add to the seriousness of the situation several firms who were indebted to him fell bankrupt at the same time. On all hands trade was decreasing and money daily becoming scarcer.

Miller faced the coming disaster with a certain heroism. It was his custom to write a retrospect of each year as it passed. On his birthday in January 1816 he clearly foresaw what was to befall him, and he wrote: “The Almighty God, who is now the witness of my most secret thoughts, knows that it is my anxious aim, my first ambition, to do justice to the world ; that for this, as well as to provide for the wants of my dependents, 1 have toiled early and late, have traversed districts remote and contiguous, have busied my thoughts when the senses of many were locked in the slumbers of night, have been incessant in my endeavours to make my various professions and callings useful to myself and the family—in short, that I have left no stone unturned that was within my power, aided by the kind help raised up by a beneficent Providence to my aid. But all will not do. If the accumulated pressure of so many storms shall, like the destruction of the whirlwind, end in the complete overthrow of my temporal concerns, yet shall they not rob me of the conscious satisfaction of having done all for the best. And I trust that in every state I shall be able to preserve that serenity of mind that nothing earthly gives nor can destroy. No ! should failure after failure in these critical times continue to bereave me of my hard-earned substance, should events, calamitous as they were unexpected, even turn out more serious than I have yet imagined, should friends drop off as the danger becomes more apparent, and domestic broils and the unseemly behaviour of children make me drunk with the cup of adversity, so that, instead of being able to act a manly part at the helm, I can only behold the consummation of my misfortunes with a stupid gaze—in short, even although my dream should be realized and I should yet be overset in attempting to cross the stream, yet will I trust in God. Though He slay me, yet will I trust in God.”

The summer of 1816 brought a temporary respite, and for a few weeks an improvement in Miller’s affairs seemed possible. An energetic agent had gone to Inverness to open up a new district in that quarter. “The destruction of means and property,” writes Miller, “that had so long raged at noonday in the West or manufacturing districts had not, I was told, reached these regions of the north, where also the demand for books was not as yet half supplied.” A warehouse, worked by no fewer than five assistants, was set up in Inverness in Miller’s name. The immediate returns, however, could not ward off the impending disaster, and he had to call together his creditors on September 7th.

In the circular summoning the meeting Miller ascribes his embarrassments to “the long-continued pressure of a heavy book-stock rendered unsaleable for a length of time by the peculiarly distressed condition of the country,” and states his expectation to pay his debts in full if time were allowed him. His creditors were chiefly men engaged in the publishing trade—William Gracie of Berwick-upon-Tweed, William Caddel & Co.,

Oliver & Boyd, and Constable & Co. of Edinburgh—along with one or two distillers. The circular sent out to absent creditors gives an interesting inventory of his assets. It is as follows :—

Arrangement with Creditors

Set over against these assets were his liabilities, amounting to £9,520 7s. 8d.

His creditors did not take the same sanguine view of the market value of his estate as Miller. They cordially acknowledged his “industry, sobriety, and honesty,” but considered that much of the worth of his stock was taken away through the impossibility of disposing of it quickly. In the end an arrangement for a payment of 16s. in the pound by instalments spread over the next two years was come to. “The security of his son, James Miller,” was added to the undertaking, but, as events proved, the creditors never called on him to make good his father’s deficiencies.

Miller did his best to carry out the bargain thus made. He extended his country sales so that he might as quickly and as advantageously as possible get rid of his surplus stock and meet the first call of his creditors. He employed several auctioneers, who without placing his name on their advertisements were yet his agents and altogether in his pay. Among these was Peter Cairns, a well-known and even notorious Edinburgh book-salesman. He was a great admirer of Goldsmith, and had edited and published an edition of his works. At one time he had carried on a successful business, but had now fallen on evil days and was glad to be employed by Miller as an occasional auctioneer.

Cairns’s peculiar personality made some of the early sales remunerative, but the times were everywhere unpropitious, and the returns Miller continued to receive were depressing reading. A statement of the sales carried out over the southern counties by four auctioneers during the last three months of 1816 shows that thirty-eight meetings were held. The total value of the stock sold came to £1,157 7s. 4d., but for it only £584 18s. 6d. was received. Expenses amounted to £70 16s. 4d., and reduced the total income still further, so that Miller’s receipts fell short of his expectations by more than 50 per cent. He had depended much on these transactions to retrieve his position, and his disappointment was correspondingly great. “Except at Haddington and Dunbar,” he says, “where our sales were conducted with less expense, that method of disposal has been attended with expenses in proportion to the product far beyond what I could previously have had any conception of.”

Nor was his other line of country business more satisfactory. “Neither my home nor western circuits in the publication line,” he says, “had done much for me of late.” Inverness, from which he had great expectations, continued a comparatively unproductive field. Promises to the extent of £2,471 had indeed been obtained, but returns of actual cash were slow, in spite of the activities of his agents. Sales had been pushed by them into Caithness, and they had even adventurously crossed the Pentland Firth into Orkney in their search for subscribers.

Only in one direction had Miller some comfort. His friends in Dunbar and its neighbourhood rallied to his help in a quiet and unostentatious fashion. They sent more custom the way of his shop, so that he was able to say that “the retail part of my business, instead of falling off or suffering any diminution, seemed rather to have increased with my difficulties.”

Miller made only one radical change in his arrangements to meet the new situation in which he found himself. Writing in September 1816, he said that “in order to have more of James’s assistance here and our business more concentrated, I have it already in contemplation to bring down the printing establishment from Haddington which will ease us of a deal of stock sunk in that quarter.” That purpose he effected shortly afterwards by transferring the printing of all books to Dunbar, and leaving sufficient apparatus at Haddington under the charge of an efficient workman to execute what jobbing printing might still be required there. Dunbar had thus a press restored to it, and it retained it at least till the death of Miller’s son William in 1838. Thereafter it appears to have been deprived for a time of the means of printing locally, until an incomer into the town supplied the want. “In this progressive age,” wrote James Miller in 1859, “Dunbar can boast of two printing-presses. David Knox, of Duns, established one in 1849, and James Downie one in September 1855.”

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