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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter XII. Birth and Apprenticeship

JAMES MILLER, the eldest son of George Miller, was born at Dunbar on December 21, 1791, and on Christmas Day thereafter was duly baptized. Like his father, he was educated at the local schools. While still a lad he showed signs of a literary bent, an inclination which was fostered no doubt by the aspirations of his father as well as by the bookish character of the business in which he was engaged. It is said that he “composed a tragedy while yet at school, and had it staged with the help of some of his companions, utilizing an empty garrett for the purpose.” The suggestion for such a work would doubtless come from what was happening in the town, for small and provincial as Dunbar was, it could at the time boast the possession of a theatre.

It is also asserted that when his schooldays were done, James was entered as an apprentice in the office of a local lawyer, who is usually identified with the town clerk of the day. It is said that his inclination was to continue in this profession, but at his father’s wish he abandoned it to learn the business in which his life was spent. There does not seem to be any truth in the assertion. Before he was fourteen years of age, James was busy in his father’s workshop. In December 1805 the latter notes the receipt of a letter from an old friend acknowledging the gift of a book bound by James and congratulating him “in bringing forward a son for his help.” If in later years James indicated that he had been forced against his will into a business which he disliked, the statement may have been made by way of excuse for the irregular mode of his life at the time. In any case he was formally bound apprentice to his father as a printer, the period of his training to end on April 14, 1811.

The printing-press being at Haddington, James passed the greater part of his apprenticeship in that town. The conditions under which the business was conducted must have made his course very uncertain for several years. His father resided chiefly in Dunbar, and could not in consequence give adequate personal supervision to what was being carried on in his name or even properly control the training of his son in morals and the mysteries of his craft. For a time, indeed, he was wholly dependent on him, a lad just entering his 'teens, for the guidance of the entire business. The father was not unaware of the responsibility he was thus throwing on the boy, but he seems to have had considerable confidence in his son’s powers. A letter which he addressed to him early in 1805 is worth quoting in part. After telling him that he intended placing the charge of the grocery department upon another, and giving him practical control of the press, he says: “Much must depend now upon your conduct. You have entered into a confidential situation, and have at once to fulfil the duties of an apprentice and a servant, of an overseer and a son, and while you have reason to be daily learning, you have also reason to be exemplary to, as well as to look after, those that are taught. ... In many things it may be necessary for me to tell you your duty as well as to instruct you wherein you are deficient. I must, therefore, earnestly request that in all things you will be pliable and obedient, cheerful as well as active in performing your duty; and particularly that you attend to all my written orders and instructions. When I convey to you from time to time my sentiments in the form of a letter, I would advise you to preserve them all carefully, and copy them into a book at your leisure. They may convey some useful hints which may be of service to you in the world.”

Under such circumstances it is not astonishing that during his apprenticeship James was a frequent cause of anxiety to his father. Once he ran off and was absent for some months during the winter of 1807. He went to Edinburgh, and his father made the best of a bad business by procuring him work in the office of Oliver & Boyd, with whose principals he was well acquainted. In his letter to Boyd offering James’s services for a year, Miller said: “He is now pretty proficient in most of the laborious parts of the business and wishes to have some experience in the correcting department, the wareroom, and the counting-house.” A bargain was struck, and James worked in the office of the firm for some months. His father was necessarily grieved at his conduct, both on the lad’s account and because it left the Haddington branch at a very critical period of its history for long intervals without the supervision of an interested person. Miller, however, was inclined to apologize for his son’s actions. He felt they “proceeded more from the impulse of the moment, and that thoughtless love of change so incident to many a good man at his time of life, than from any other cause.” The real reason for his behaviour, however, was to be found in the lad’s situation at Haddington. He was left too much to himself. In the printing-house he had to deal almost single-handed with unruly apprentices and with workmen who were his trade superiors, and had besides to reside in a house where his father only occasionally bore him company.

James came back to Haddington at the beginning of June 1808 and resumed his work. “He certainly had good reason to congratulate himself,” said his father, “upon his return to such a promising situation, for our weekly statements had for some time been very encouraging.” His sojourn in the capital seems to have sobered him effectively, for thereafter his father had no cause to complain of his conduct. He willingly fell in with a suggestion that he should learn bookbinding in view of his ultimately settling in business for himself in Haddington. “The binding business,” he wrote to his father, “must certainly be a desirable attainment for any printer to have some knowledge of; but more particularly to those who are destined for a country situation, as in such a place the one business is imperfect without its sister.” Part of his time accordingly was thereafter spent in Dunbar.

According to his bond James’s apprenticeship ended in April 1811, and when that date arrived his father at once proposed to set him free to determine his future for himself. His son’s response to the suggestion must have been extremely gratifying to him. “Although I have now passed through the time necessary for the ordinary purposes of my profession,” he wrote, in a letter dated April 20, 1811, “I could not harbour the idea of leaving you so soon to prosecute my own ends, just after obtaining a little knowledge of your business. This would be in the highest degree culpable and inexcusable. No ! for although in the middle stage of my apprenticeship, circumstances and dissatisfaction conspiring, might make me draw back a little, this was more the result of youthful pride and folly than any unwillingness to serve you. . . . And though your good sense may have now overlooked this misconduct, I would fain make retribution for this glaring error in my youthful life while it is yet in my power. As an apprentice I am bound at least to serve out the time absent from my calling; as a son to add a twelvemonth more to my apprenticeship. I therefore hope you will be pleased to let me continue in your employ as such till May 24, 1812.” At the same time he expressed a desire to spend some months in travelling after this period of extra service was over. The letter closed with words which must have been a solace to a man, one of whose family was even then not doing well: “Should either I or any of the junior part of your family turn out useless members of society, we cannot plead bad example our excuse. Trained up to early habits of industry and piety, we have my mother and you for our pattern. Indefatigable and persevering in your respective spheres, we see you with admiration.” Read in the light of subsequent events, this last sentence could not have been unwelcome to the father when he transcribed the words in 1833.

The father agreed only in part to his son’s proposals. He had no desire to tie him down to any engagement, and readily consented to his seeing something of the world. In accordance therefore with their understanding, James prepared to leave Haddington. Early in January he made application to the famous printing firm of Ballantyne to be allowed to visit their works. Permission was obtained and a few weeks were spent at their presses. James’s object, however, was, as stated in the letter already quoted, “to get into some of the first printing-houses in London, particularly those in which fine work, magazines, and newspapers are conducted”—an indication that even then the projects of the Cheap Magazine was forming in the minds of father and son. Armed with letters of introduction to several well-known firms, James set out for London about the middle of February.

The traveller was away for three months, and during that time he visited, among other places, Newcastle, York, Cambridge, Oxford, and London. No details are available about the printing-offices he inspected, but there is every reason to believe that he made diligent use of his opportunities. His father records that the journey was accomplished “much to my satisfaction and in a manner that did so much credit to himself both in his operations and in his descriptions.” This short wandering brought James’s period of tutelage and probation to a close. By the end of May he was settled in Haddington in full charge of the East Lothian Press.

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