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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter XVII. John Miller - Early Years - Begins Business in Dunfermline - Author

JOHN MILLER was born at Dunbar on September 4, 1780, his mother, Mary Deans, surviving his birth by a few hours only. His father died when he was nine years of age and he was therefore brought up by his half-brothers. On the marriage of George, to whose care he had been specially committed by his father, he went to reside with him.

On October 10, 1794, when he was fourteen years of age, he was apprenticed to his guardian, the indenture to last for four years. He had shown a desire for one of the learned professions, but his brother overruled his wish on the ground that he had been delicate as a boy, and that “we were more likely to apportion his labours to his strength and capacity, besides having him more under our own eyes and charge.” Miller had some fear that in thus binding to himself one who lived under his roof he might be accused of exploiting his services for his own behoof alone. The idea never seems to have entered the younger man’s head, but to place everything above suspicion, Miller summoned John’s relations on the mother’s side and had the indenture signed on their behalf and in their presence.

During his apprenticeship John had to do entirely with the book and printing department of his brother’s business. When his time expired, he was engaged as a journeyman, and for a year or two took charge of the printing as well as acted as clerk at the various country sales conducted by his brother. He was given ample opportunity for perfecting himself in his profession. In this way he saw something of the printing offices of Edinburgh and London, and in the latter place acted as agent for George with the booksellers.

Arrived at the age of twenty-four John determined to set up in business for himself. For a year he took charge of George’s interests when the latter transferred his press to Haddington, but at Whit-Sunday, 1805, he left his brother’s service for the last time, the two parting in mutual goodwill and esteem. Several months were consumed in selecting a suitable town in which to begin operations. Selkirk and Linlithgow were in turn considered, but in the end Dunfermline was chosen as holding out the best hopes of success. It had no regular bookseller, and its only printer was one whose activities do not appear to have been extensive.

Business was begun on September 4, 1805. “The 4th of September is a remarkable era in my life,” he wrote George. “On that day I came into the world. On that day I lost my mother, and on that day I intend to open shop—another remarkable occurrence still may take place on that day.” If in this last clause he referred to his marriage, he had to anticipate the date by several months, for he was united to Helen Laing, of the parish of Salton, in Haddingtonshire, on June 16, 1806.

The capital necessary for this start seems to have been provided out of the money left him by his father. On the latter’s death in 1789, a daughter by his first marriage made immediate claim to her legal share in spite of the fact that her father had already bestowed upon her a handsome wedding portion. The brothers submitted all their claims to two mutually chosen arbiters, with whose award each expressed satisfaction. In the absence of the document itself,1 it would appear that John, being the youngest and least able to care for himself, was generously dealt with by the brothers. As long as he resided with George the money was not touched, and the whole of it was accordingly available when he came to set up in business for himself. Whenever the final arrangements for his departure were completed, George insisted that John should examine the arbiters’ award, which he had not as yet seen. After he had done so, he acknowledged that he had been most handsomely used.

Contrary to his brother’s advice, John determined to engage in the book trade alone. His first shop was at the corner of Abbey Park Place, and overlooked the ancient abbey grounds. Its situation was not of the best for a bookseller, and Miller likened himself to “a candle placed under a bushel.” As a parting gift, and as “the most valuable if not the most lasting memorial of his regard,” George had presented him with a printing-press. It was ordered in the autumn of 1805, but owing to the cantankerous conduct of the person through whom the purchase was made, the press did not reach Dunfermline till June 1808, three years late. Miller, however, was in no way concerned about its non-arrival, for at the beginning he had “no prospect of being able to use it soon.”

A local Dunfermline historian describes the machine when it did arrive as “a large Dutch printing-press for carrying on the printing business in all its branches.” By December following it was in full working order, and Miller was able to inform his brother that “the printing business is still thriving and I am about to reap some of the fruits of my labours.” He is first stated to have printed for the city fathers on February 14, 1809, when an account rendered by him “for printing Advts. and for a copy of Hutchison’s ‘Justice of Peace,’” amounting to £3 16s., was paid.

The change in Miller’s place of residence came to have considerable effect upon his religious views. While in Dunbar he had been attached first to the Seceders and then to the Established Church, but after being in Dunfermline for four years he became an ardent Baptist. Like many who have had to revise their creed he showed a violent partisanship for the new faith. Writing to his brother announcing his change of views, he said, “I do not hesitate to say that infant sprinkling is one of the grossest corruptions ever introduced into Christianity,” and at the same time tried to involve his correspondent in a controversy over the matter. To such a challenge George was peculiarly susceptible, but business cares prevented him taking it up, and the problem was left undiscussed between them. In a small town like Dunfermline this change would have its effects upon Miller’s business, but if he had any sacrifice to make he bore it willingly and won the respect of the whole community. When he died it was said of him that he had been “a consistent member of the Baptist Church, and maintained a walk becoming his profession.”

After establishing the first private circulating library in Dunfermline in his first shop Miller removed to Bridge Street, where he took possession of the tenement immediately to the west of the present Town Hall. Here the business was carried on till it ceased in 1866. The shop was on the level of the street and the dwelling-house in the story above. The printing-press was set up in the flat below the shop, entrance being found by a side stair. In an imprint of 1815 the address appears as the “Printing Office, opposite the Townhouse.”

In that same year Miller appears prominently in the poetical preface of one of his own publications, “The Proceedings of the Craw Court.” He is depicted loudly demanding a preface for the little pamphlet—which, however, the author refuses.

“A book I never saw
Without a Preface.” [I cried “ Pshaw.”] “
’Twould be like meat without a grace,
Or what is worse, a noseless face ;
Besides I want a page or so
To fill up a blank leaf, you know.
Come on—fall to’t—the boy is waiting.
A page or two will soon be made ;
Don’t eat the cow and leave the tail.”
But all he said could not avail.

The first book known to have been printed by Miller was “A Short Account of the Laws and Institutions of Moses,” by Henry Fergus, one of the ministers of Dunfermline. It appeared in 1810, and its size, extending to 134 pages, showed that his printing-office must have had considerable resources. The “Account” was not written with a view to separate publication, but was intended to be part of a larger work on the “History of the Hebrews.” That it was not produced in full was no fault of the printer, but of the author, who changed his mind. A beginning having thus been made, the Miller press was a very busy one for the next half-century. Books, pamphlets, chap-books, broadsides, and periodicals poured from it. For most of the time Miller was the principal, and sometimes the only, printer in the town.

As long as George Miller of Dunbar lived, the brothers kept on the most friendly terms. Their businesses were distinct, but they had some professional dealings. John did little or nothing to carry his trade by travellers or canvassers into the country round Dunfermline, and George was therefore free to pursue his sales there. But he did so very sparingly. There is no record that he worked Fifeshire till many years after John had settled within it. On the other hand John was always ready to forward his brother’s projects. He took charge of the county on behalf of the Cheap Magazine and succeeded in procuring no fewer than 2,400 subscribers. Many of the products of the Dunfermline press also were manifestly suggested by those of its contemporary at Dunbar. Thus there were “Cheap Tracts” published from both towns, one of those appearing in Dunfermline being an abbreviated issue of George Miller’s “Tom Bragwell.” At various times certain periodical ventures, which were issued from John’s press, took on the colour and shape of the Cheap Magazine. The name of the one brother frequently appeared on the title-pages of the other’s books as agent for their sale. This interchange extended even to the woodcut blocks, several of which were used as illustrations in books issued from both presses.

In still another way John is said to have followed his brother’s example—that of authorship. Henderson in his “Annals of Dunfermline” credits him with the composition of “an excellent little book” of 36 pages, i6mo, published in 1812—a “Religious Catechism, with Forms of Prayer. For the use of Children ”—and of the “seventy-eight very excellent hymns,” published in 1814, entitled “Sacred Poetry for Children, on the Greatness, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as manifested in the Works of Creation, Providence, and Redemption.” A later book, Stewart’s “Reminiscences of Dunfermline,” published in 1886, says that he was “author of many small volumes,” but these ascriptions of authorship require corroboration.

In 1835 Miller introduced one of his sons into the business, and thereafter the name of the firm became “John Miller & Son.” Miller himself died on Wednesday, March 24, 1852. His wife had been removed a year before and the old man never recovered from the blow. His last days were somewhat of a burden and had entirely disqualified him for transacting business. A local appreciation of his career stated that “he never took a very prominent place in public matters, but always sustained a most respectable position in society.”

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