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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter XI. Closing Years

MEANTIME the state of the country had not improved. Economic and political discontent had so spread that Lord Cockburn could write in 1822, “I rather think that we are tending to a revolution, steadily though slowly.” In the same year the general condition of the people of East Lothian was made even worse by the failure of the East Lothian Bank, whose head office was in Dunbar, and whose affairs, as Sir Walter Scott (“Malachi Malagrowther”) said, "had been very ill-conducted by a villainous manager.” In April 1822 he absconded with a large sum of money and securities of great value, leaving the bank with £63,000 to meet liabilities of £120,000. The loss fell altogether on the shareholders, almost all of whom belonged to the neighbourhood of Dunbar, for “their correspondents in Edinburgh at once guaranteed the payment of their notes, and saved the public even from momentary agitation and individually from the possibility of distress.” The immediate result, however, was a stringency in money. In the neighbourhood of Dunbar the population suffered diminution by several hundreds owing to the closing of a cotton factory at Belhaven. All these changes affected Miller in both sides of his business as a general merchant and as a bookseller.

The year 1826 proved to be a time of peculiar hardship and misfortune to all engaged in the book trade. During its course came the historic insolvency of the great publishing houses of Ballantyne and Constable. If these firms could not stand the strain, it was little wonder that Miller began again to feel the pressure of adversity.

Miller was a heavy depositor with the bank at the time of the cashier’s disappearance, but he does not appear to have suffered even temporary embarrassment from his flight. For the period from June 21, 1821, to April I, 1822, that is, for eleven months before the catastrophe, Miller made no fewer than seventy deposits of money with the bank, the sum amounting to the large total of £3,652, which gives an indication of the extent of his business at the time. Nowhere in his autobiography does he hint that he lost anything by the failure.

In the following year Miller’s difficulties were further increased by a step taken by his son William. William had been apprenticed to his father, and had spent all his life in his service. For a time he had been employed either at Dunbar or at Haddington as circumstances demanded. Of late years he had acted as an auctioneer, and had made extensive journeys, chiefly in the north of Scotland, on his father’s behalf. Of all his sons, William seems to have been the only one who gave Miller the most unqualified satisfaction.

To lose his services, therefore, must have been a severe blow to the father, but he could no longer expect that any one would ally himself permanently to his fortunes. Many years before, John Walter of the Times had bewailed the injurious effect of his bankruptcy on the prospects of his family. “Judge,” he said, “what must be my sensations: twenty-six years in the prime of life passed away; all the fortune I had acquired by a studious attention to business sunk by hasty strides, and the world to begin afresh, with the daily introduction to my view of a wife and six children unprovided for and dependent upon me for support. Feeling hearts may sympathize at the relation, none but parents can conceive the anxiety of my mind in such a state of uncertainty and suspense.” The language has a strange resemblance to that used by Miller on more than one occasion. His compositions with his creditors had frequently been further embittered by the fact that he himself was past the period of his youth, and that his children had not been provided for. Time, however, had now somewhat mitigated circumstances. James was acting for himself; John had succeeded to the business carried on by his former master; Robert, his delicate son, was employed in Edinburgh, where his only daughter Elizabeth was also in some “situation.” William alone of the family, therefore, with the exception of the prodigal, had neither house nor home of his own.

Shortly after midsummer 1827 William set up in business for himself, and in August married Catherine Aitken of Falkirk. He took the premises on the other side of the street in which his father had begun more than thirty years before. Although engaged in the same branch of trade, there does not appear to have been the shadow of rivalry between the two. Indeed, several years after the separation, the father could write: “I need scarcely add that he had, and must ever have, my best wishes that everything that is good may attend him, for the filial part he played on so many important and trying occasions while in my service, for which I trust he will suffer nothing in the estimation of his best friends and customers; while the testimony of an approving conscience will be his everlasting and never-failing reward.”

Whether the loss of William’s service adversely affected his father’s business or whether it merely hastened an inevitable catastrophe cannot be determined, but four months after his son’s marriage Miller had to lay a statement of his affairs before his creditors. The meeting took place in Haddington on December 15, 1827. The interval of eight years had considerably reduced Miller’s business. He gave in his debts as amounting to £3,067, and his assets to £1,270, and accounts for his failure by the depreciation of his stock, the trade depression of the times preventing subscribers completing their purchases, bad debts, and the heavy expense of carrying his goods to a suitable market. The situation, he says, would have been worse had it not been for the exertions of his wife behind the counter, and the profits he had received from the sale of his “Popular Philosophy.” The composition was a small one, but the creditors were sympathetic to the bankrupt in his misfortunes. “It was certainly a lamentable consideration,” he wrote, “at our time of life to see again the fruits of other eight years and eight months’ hard-earned earnings all swept away in the general wreck.”

It is quite apparent that this last misfortune left Miller with a business very considerably diminished, and he made haste still further to reduce it. He began sales by which he sought to get rid of his heavy stock, even although he had thereby to sacrifice possible future profits. He was indeed a pathetic figure at the time. He had set himself from the beginning to develop a trade in books because he considered it most fitted to benefit the community in which he lived, and to use his grocery business merely as an aid to attain that end. Now he had to rely on the subordinate trade and allow the principal to slip from his grasp. To a man with his literary ambitions the trial must have been a severe one. To add to his misfortunes he had also to encounter family bereavement. After a long and lingering illness his son Robert died on August 12, 1828.

The only relief to the gloom was the celebration of his silver wedding, which took place on July 11th of the same year, and the encouragement of friends who aided him by increasing his retail trade.

For two years after his stoppage prospects brightened somewhat, and it looked as if his local trade were to provide Miller with a stable and respectable means of livelihood. His son William came to his help and a certain income was derived from an agency for two stage-coaches which started from his door. Success on a modest scale seemed to be reached, but again, and for the last time, financial disaster descended upon him almost without warning. His creditors met on January 5, 1832, when he surrendered even his household furniture to them. Again he met with cordial sympathy, but the blow was the hardest he had yet to bear. He made various attempts to recover his position, and was at last compelled to part with his private collection of books. “I next resolved to try to dispose of the greater part of the books of my private library. Old friends and well-cultivated acquaintances were some of them, but this was one of those imperious occasions when the oldest friends must part.” Many men have had to surrender on account of poverty collections which they have gathered together through laborious years. Miller’s sacrifice may not have been so great, but he must nevertheless have felt his loss severely. He was full of conceits in the descriptions he gave of his life history. This time he described as the “winter of life,” and the words were exceedingly appropriate.

All along Miller had been most methodical in keeping notes of events personal to himself. He retained to the last the juvenile essays he prepared when still a lad. At the beginning of each year he had been accustomed to write a retrospect of the preceding twelve months, and to moralize on its events. These he now sought to turn to account by writing what may be called his autobiography. He issued prospectuses for the work, and succeeded in gathering a sufficient number of subscribers to warrant him in publishing it. The book was intended to describe “ a life passed in comparative obscurity, but replete with much striking vicissitude, and not without some occasional attempts to be useful. It will be delineated in such a way as cannot fail to interest the careful observer of the providential development of human events, to excite the sympathy of those who admire the patient and persevering efforts of suffering humanity in the midst of misfortunes of an appalling nature, and surrounded by difficulties of no ordinary description, and to impress on all the instability and uncertainty of earthly comforts and human acquirements.”

Miller was over sixty years of age when his “Latter Struggles” was published. It has been rightly described as a “singular piece of autobiography.” It shows the lineaments of a man ambitious, resourceful, and upright, but for many years dogged by persistent misfortune. Among books the volume has certain peculiarities. Its title-page, which is matched only by its dedication, is abnormally long, putting to shame even some of the long-winded catalogue-titles of a couple of centuries earlier. Its printing is disfigured by an excessive use of the comma, which makes the reading of it somewhat of a trial to the patience. Its style is diffuse, and digressions that appear to have no valid defence are frequent. Names of persons and places are wrapped in an unnecessary mystery so that for those who are without a key the worth of the volume as a business record of a provincial bookseller is seriously diminished. It has its value as a chronicle of the beginnings of the printing and bookselling industry in East Lothian as well as a description of the methods used in pushing the trade, but on the whole it is difficult to understand how the book ever succeeded in being printed without severe editing. In sending it out into the world, the author was no doubt influenced by the example of men in the same profession as himself. He does not mention Dunton, but he had read Lackington, and is careful to point out that his career closely resembled in many particulars that of William Hutton, the Birmingham bookseller, who had also published an autobiography.

Miller did not long survive the publication of his book. There is no evidence in it that he retired from business before the end. That he abandoned printing seems obvious. When his son James published his “History of Dunbar” in 1830 it was issued in Dunbar, not by his father, but by his brother William. Had Miller been still in the old way of business that was a book in whose imprint he would have been only too pleased to have had his name. During 1831, William was printing for the town council, and it is unlikely that he would have set up an opposition press if his father was still able to execute such orders. That Miller had also abandoned bookselling seems certain from the fact that he himself prints a letter in 1833 in which he is described as “late bookseller in Dunbar.” It is probable, therefore, that he had given up the struggle in which he had been so badly mauled and was now dependent entirely on the grocery side of his business.

Miller died on July 26, 1835, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. The wife of his son William had died four days before, and the entries of their burial stand together in the local register. It is noteworthy that the keeper of the record made a significant exception in the case of the deceased bookseller. Obeying the universal conviction that death makes all equal, the parish clerk has entered the names of the dead without adornment of any kind. Only occasionally has he added a note of special identification. Miller’s name, however, has “Mr.” prefixed to it, and there is added the description, “Author of several books." Perhaps no more eloquent and unconscious testimony could be given to the esteem in which he was held by his fellow-townsmen. No notice seems to have been taken of his death by the public prints. Ten days after his decease an ordinary obituary advertisement appeared in the Edinburgh Scotsman. It designated him “late bookseller and printer,” and added: “This simple notice is intended to give intimation to his extensive circle of friends and correspondents.”

Miller played no part in public affairs. He was nine years in business before he took the trouble to qualify as a burgess of his native town, the ceremony taking place on October 2, 1800. In 1818 he was proposed as a member of the town council but was unsuccessful in obtaining a seat, his brother James being preferred before him. Another attempt to enter was made in 1821, but he failed a second time, and he never again tried to influence the corporate life of the community through its council. And yet he was a public character as no other man in the town was. If his fellow-townsmen had no use for his municipal services, he nevertheless carried the name of their burgh over broad Scotland.

There has not been a surplus of literary booksellers, and Miller takes an honourable place among the few. For a man who had for many years a business so widely spread and of so many departments, the extent of his personal acquirements is surprising. His reading was wide. A certain leisure for the cultivation of his gifts was in part due to an injury in early life which prevented him serving behind the counter, and in part to the excellent qualifications of his wife who relieved him of the necessity. He speaks plainly about his own versatility, and evidently has no mean conception of his abilities. Deceived by the excessive praise of a few he came to consider himself as a popular author of considerable gifts and a man to whose writings the public owed not a little. But this was merely the harmless result of his own great exertions on their behalf. His style may be prolix and involved, but he made no pretence to mere literary excellence. He was essentially didactic in all his writings, and it would be affectation to suppose that they worked no good to the morals of the countryside. That he should have wielded an influence at all would have been reward enough in his eyes.

No one who reads the record of Miller’s life can fail to be struck with its perseverance and industry, as well as by its misfortunes. He is, perhaps, sometimes disposed to pity himself, but few readers will be inclined to deny that his ingenuity and initiative deserved a better fate than that he should be left practically a bankrupt in his old age. He laid much stress on the fact that the good and the benevolent were frequently great sufferers; and with a certain complacency ranked himself with them. Passages of the tenor of the following are not uncommon in his private writings: “It is no wonder that the good old patriarch Jacob expressed himself in the mournful and pathetic words, ‘few and evil have the days of the years of my life been’; that Socrates, the most patient, as well as the most learned among ancient sages, had his Xantippe; that the virtuous Seneca was doomed to live and bleed to death in the time of Nero; and that the good John Howard, that prince of philanthropists, had a source of so much anxiety, vexation, and uneasiness within his own domestic circle. Indeed, nothing is more evident than that the pious and the good of all nations and ages have had their full share of the troubles and afflictions of this mortal state.” There was more than a touch of superstition in his nature, and Miller occasionally made life somewhat difficult for himself by brooding on his dreams and other omens. He had, however, many real sorrows besides those of business cares, but through them all he kept a firm face towards adversity and took its strokes with becoming grace. Of his personal integrity and uprightness, as well as of his deeply religious nature, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt.

The name of Miller continued to be represented in the book trade of Dunbar for some time longer. William Miller had a printing-press, but he never seems to have used it for anything beyond the ordinary jobbing of a provincial town. He was a man of some character although he had none of his father’s push and initiative. That he attained to a position of some influence is shown by the fact that when a seat fell vacant in the town council, he was, on July 1, 1834, co-opted by the members as one of their number. At the next election in November 1835 he presented himself as a candidate to the electorate and was duly returned after a vote. Whatever career of usefulness might have been before him, however, was cut short by his death in July 1838. His business was then taken over by James Downie, whose descendants still carry it on in the same shop. Nothing seems to be known of the children he left behind him.

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