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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter V. The East Lothian Press - Cheap Tracts

IN 1795 Miller took a great step forward in business. In 1790, while still in partnership with his brother, he had been offered the plant of John Taylor, the Berwick-upon-Tweed printer. The price was to be between £200 and £300, but the resources of the firm would not allow of the purchase. Correspondence with Taylor was renewed in the year named, with the result that Miller then acquired from him “a printing-press and sundries” for £23. With the help of an apprentice, who went to Berwick to be shown how to take down and put up the press, and assisted by John his brother, now a lad of fourteen, Miller brought his purchase safe to Dunbar. Soon after the press was set up the establishment became known as the “ East Lothian Press,” a name which continued when it was extended to Haddington, and even after the Millers had ceased connection with it.

George Miller rightly takes great credit to himself for the fact that his was the first press to be erected in East Lothian. The claim, however, is not beyond all challenge. It is said that the name of a printer, resident in Haddington earlier in the century, occurs in a legal document. But this printer is an exceedingly nebulous personage, and certainly nothing he may ever have printed is known. If he existed at all, he probably was a man who, being a printer elsewhere, had some local connection. Miller may therefore, without much possibility of the distinction being taken from him, be counted the first printer who worked a press in Haddingtonshire.

At the time he took this step printing establishments were not numerous in the provincial towns of Scotland. As compared with some other countries Scotland had been somewhat late in adopting the press at the very beginning, and her chief towns exhibited a like dilatoriness even after Edinburgh had shown the way. The severe printing restrictions then in force might in part explain why Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Leith alone had presses at work during the seventeenth century, and why some of them existed for a short time only. The fear of incurring penalties for unlicensed printing had disappeared during the eighteenth century, and it might have been supposed that the larger provincial towns would have taken advantage of the opportunity thus opened up. So far as can be ascertained, however, presses were at work in 1795 in the following places only : Dumfries, Dundee, Perth, Inverness, Kilmarnock, Hawick, Kelso, Duns, and Montrose, with the possible addition of Dunfermline. After enjoying the services of a printer for a year in the sixteenth century, Stirling had just again begun operations. As a centre for a press it could not be said that Dunbar was as favourably situated as the places named. They were sufficiently remote from the chief printing towns and from one another to justify expectation of success, while Dunbar was so near Edinburgh, the principal printing centre of the country, that it might have been considered hazardous to attempt even a modified rivalry. Miller, however, saw an opening possible and with considerable courage he went in and occupied it. His enterprise was justified, and it was only after his press had been nine years in operation that he was compelled by circumstances to transfer it to Haddington as a more suitable centre.

There can be no doubt that Miller had a wide purpose in thus adding a printing-press to his other forms of activity. He thought he saw in the scattered community around him a field of enterprise which would augment his own profits, but he reckoned that while doing so he would be able to confer great benefits upon its members.

East Lothian was at the time, and still remains, an agricultural county. Fisheries were indeed carried on along the coasts, but they were neither large nor of great profit. In its western districts coal-mining employed a large number of men, but the industry had not as yet reached the development it afterwards attained. Miller had accordingly to look to the agricultural labourers as his main constituency, but for various causes they did not afford a very promising field for a merchant in books.

For one thing money was scarce. The wage of a skilled tradesman within the county averaged only from 10s. to 12s. a week. The ordinary farm labourer was paid mostly in kind, and it was reckoned that his total income from all sources never exceeded £13 a year, a miserable pittance from which he had to feed and clothe wife and children. No doubt there were compensations. The price of food was much smaller than it is to-day. Should his wife be strong and healthy, she might earn enough during harvest to pay the rent of the wretched cottage they inhabited—a building usually only of one compartment. But even with such possibilities of augmenting his income, a living was not always sure. Already tendencies had set in that made for a decrease of employment. Farms were becoming larger and more land was being laid down in grass. The use of two-horse ploughs, as well as the introduction of various improvements, was reducing the number of hands required, and the labour market was becoming congested. As a consequence almost every parish within the county was returning a diminishing number of inhabitants. Altogether the conditions of life were such that the ordinary labourer had little to spend on luxuries like books.

Nor had he been trained to be a reader, and even if he had he had little means of access to books. The county possessed one or two libraries, but for one reason or another they were beyond the reach of the people. The Presbyteries of Dunbar and Haddington had each a collection of books, which were then little used, and have since been entirely neglected. Nearly a century before a native of Haddington had bequeathed a library of notable volumes to his birthplace. To-day they are of no mean value to the bibliographer, but a century ago they were as likely, from their nature, to attract readers among the common people as they are to-day. The famous Bishop Burnet had given a library to his old parish of Salton, but had reserved it “for the minister’s house and use.” As far back as 1683 there was a collection of sixty books attached to the parochial school of Ormiston, but the benefit they were likely to bestow on the general community may be judged from the fact that they were “in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as in English.” Nor had the usual parochial school done much to foster in the people a taste for literature. About the time Miller set up in business the minister of Pencaitland said of his parishioners: “All of them can at least read the Bible, and the greatest part of the young men, whose parents could afford but little for their education, attend the schoolmaster in the winter evenings, who for a small consideration teaches them writing and the commoner rules of arithmetic.” But such a training could not make them lovers of books. Greater facilities came to be put within the reach of farm-servants, but half a century later the minister of Haddington, the centre of the county’s culture, could still write : “ Though in general acquainted with the elementary branches of education—as reading, writing, and arithmetic—and amply provided with the means of information in most departments of knowledge, by having access to libraries, parochial and itinerating, they are not much given to reading, nor remarkable for their attainments in general information.” It is surely testimony to Miller’s insight that he was able to see possibilities of literary attainment in such apparently adverse material, and to his industry that he succeeded in building up a promising business among them.

At first Miller had to be his own compositor and pressman, for although he had bound his brother John as an apprentice to himself in October of the preceding year, the lad could not as yet be of much assistance. The plant permitted of work of the jobbing kind only, but Miller had soon an increasing custom in that direction. When he had longer manuscripts to set up he had still to give them out, and his pamphlet on war was in this way printed in Edinburgh even after he had acquired a press of his own. By the spring of 1801, however, he had adequate assistance, and in that year purchased a second press. With it he was able to produce larger works, and before the year closed had printed and published “ Robinson Crusoe,” a duodecimo of 238 pages.

For some time after obtaining his first press Miller merely executed what work was sent in to him. In 1798 he struck out a bolder line by printing for sale by himself Shorter Catechisms, some children’s books, and what he calls “pamphlets,” of which he produced “an assortment of twenty kinds.” These were what are now known as chapbooks, though Miller carefully avoids the name for a reason that will appear later. They included such prints as Montgomerie’s “Cherry and the Slae,” and “ The Laird of Cool’s Ghost,” which latter was afterwards somewhat severely denounced by him. In 1800 he added ballads. The extent of his production in this particular branch may be gauged from a note he has under date 1801. He speaks of “My halfpenny books, 25 reams, or 48,000, of which I appear to have printed from the 8th of February to the 18th of March this year, which were succeeded by 12,000 penny ones. And on the 1st of May I have it recorded that I finished my 240 reams of ballads, which were characterized by their purity from anything offensive to propriety and delicacy, and some of them, I believe, for their moral tendency, a thing not very common among their predecessors, and which I mention the more as being perhaps the first attempt of the kind to reform, if not to remodel, what has been supposed to have so much influence on the lower orders—the national ballads.” Most of these prints have now perished, but some specimens have survived to show their style: on the whole they were crudely printed on inferior paper. They were, however, the means of introducing Miller to wholesale trading. He exchanged them for similar productions of other presses, and so increased his stock. In this way, for example, he obtained from a Falkirk printer the ten volumes of an edition of Erskine’s works for sixteen reams of his booklets. Quantities of them were also disposed of to booksellers, who sold them to the hawkers, and these in turn scattered them over the countryside.

Twice in these early years of his press Miller came into conflict with the law. For some time he had been printing Shorter Catechisms and the Proverbs of Solomon for use in schools. These books the King’s Printers alone had the right to print, and in the summer of 1800 Miller was somewhat rudely awakened to a sense of his transgression by being interdicted from further production. This was all the harder on him because he had just procured a new fount of type in order to print them in better style.

The other was more serious. One day in July 1799 a Government official appeared in his office and seized certain bundles of paper on the ground that it had been wrongly “classed”—that is, that the tax paid on the paper had been lower than its quality demanded, and that a fraud had therefore been committed on the revenue. Miller was so astonished at the action of the officer that he resisted the seizure, and the man had at length to send for a file of soldiers to aid him in effecting his purpose.

The double offence of fraud and deforcement was a serious one, and might have ended most disastrously for Miller had he not taken steps to put himself right with the authorities. Next morning he generously made all haste on a borrowed horse to the mill at Chirnside, from which he had obtained the paper, and so prevented the manufacturer from issuing more of it. That action, however, did not save himself, and in a short time he received a summons to appear before the Court of Exchequer to answer the charges made against him. As it turned out, the trial did not take place. The manufacturer was able to convince the authorities that while the paper was in course of manufacture the very officer who had made the seizure had advised him “to make the paper a small shade darker so that it might be put into the second class and so be charged a smaller duty than the first.” The defence was irresistible, and the charges were withdrawn.

The trade which Miller had now built up in cheap popular literature soon led him to take the whole matter of their contents into his serious consideration. As has already been indicated, he was uneasy about the evil effects these cheap prints had upon public morality, and in 1802 he proceeded to put into execution a plan which he deemed would preserve all the good such popular literature was fitted to do, and at the same time destroy the tendencies for evil that lurked in its wide distribution. Miller was fairly well equipped for the development he had in view. He was now able to produce work of which no printer need be ashamed. In 1803, for example, he sent out a single sheet giving the signals to be displayed in the event of the French attempting a landing on the coast, that, could hardly be excelled in beauty of type and grace of setting.

For many generations chapbooks had been the prevailing literature of the common people in Scotland as they had been elsewhere. There may have been a sufficiency of books and magazines for the better classes over the country and for the indwellers in the cities, but the peasantry were largely, if not wholly, dependent on what the itinerant hawker, who periodically visited their neighbourhood with all manner of articles to sell, might bring in his basket. Any literature the chapmen carried in this way had to be cheap, for money did not circulate extensively among their possible clients ; it had to be simple because their customers had neither the training to understand severe treatises nor the desire to read them; and it had to have qualities which would make each publication attractive in itself and the forerunner of further purchases from the same basket. It is to be feared that the chapbooks thus provided were often characterized by coarseness and sometimes even by obscenity.

Perhaps Dr. William Chambers provides a sufficiently succinct description of this class of literature. “The old Chap Books,” he says, “consisting of coarsely printed sheets, duodecimo, embellished with coarse frontispieces, aimed at no sort of instruction such as we now understand by the term ; yet they furnished amusement to the humble fireside. They appealed to the popular love of the heroic, the marvellous, the pathetic and the humorous. Many of them were nothing more than an embodiment of the legends, superstitions, ballads, and songs which had been kept alive by oral tradition before the invention of printing. Superstitions, as may be supposed, formed the staple material. So numerous were the books for telling fortunes, discovering and averting witchcraft, narrating the appearance of ghosts, prognosticating the weather, interpreting dreams, and explaining lucky and unlucky days that the extent and depth of public credulity must have been immense.” To all which must be added that a large proportion of chapbooks were religious and dealt with Bible narratives or episodes in Church history. So extensive was the circulation of all kinds that it has been estimated that the annual sale in Scotland must have greatly exceeded 200,000. The leading Scottish presses for their production were those of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Stirling, and Paisley.

Much of this ephemeral literature had, even at its best, so little educational or moral value that it is surprising no earlier effort was made to replace it. Such a hold, however, had it upon the affections of the people that it required no ordinary courage to attempt its displacement: it was to this task that Miller boldly applied himself.

His plan was to substitute for it publications which, while avowedly religious and moral, were nevertheless near enough to it in appearance and style not to suggest a violent rupture between the old and the new. It does not appear that Miller stepped in as a reformer from the outside. He gives no indication that he had any personal acquaintance with the evils wrought by the chap-book, but there is every probability that he had practical experience of them. No one would think of condemning a reformer and consider him unworthy of a hearing simply because once upon a time he had practised what he afterwards preached against. And Miller probably had some first-hand knowledge of the evils of the literature he set himself to correct. He had printed and published at least two chapbooks which could not be distinguished in tone and matter from the most objectionable that were in circulation.

In pursuance of his plan Miller published during 1802-4 a series of small booklets to which he gave the name of “Cheap Tracts.” They numbered twenty in all, and dealt with various informative topics. According to his usual economical method he published them afterwards in volume form, and even reproduced some of them in his Cheap Magazine, so extending their usefulness. In tract form the issue amounted to 60,000, or on the average 3,000 to each.

Miller seems to have varied in his opinion as to the good done by these publications. In a circular he issued in 1812, he says that “having been mostly disposed of to wholesale booksellers, and resold by them to shopkeepers and hawkers, they must have long ere now obtained a wide circulation, and he trusts have done some good. But as the sameness of an article is not well calculated for the wholesale market alone, as the home consumption for these was but trifling, and as the exchange business affords but a slow return to lighten the burden of a heavy outlay, the publisher had little encouragement to proceed. More recently some clergymen in Dumfriesshire formed themselves into a society for the avowed purpose of publishing and disseminating tracts of a similar tendency, but having sent two volumes into the world, it would appear from report that they also have met with no inducement to continue their undertaking; perhaps in the former instance too little regard was paid to a home or local circulation, in the latter too much.” Writing twenty years later, however, he is more convinced that his labours had been instrumental in doing much to destroy love for the deleterious chapbook. “I need scarcely remind my more aged contemporaries,” he wrote in 1833, “that my avowed motive at the time for bringing out that multitudinous host of tracts in so cheap and humble a form was in order to counteract the dangerous tendency of that noxious description which were then so abundantly scattered about the country through the medium of what has been so emphatically styled ‘ that copious source of mischief, the hawker’s basket’; and those who will take the trouble of recollecting the Lothian Toms, the John Cheaps, the Wise Willies, and other pernicious trash, which I shall not pollute my pages by naming, and compare them with the substitutes I had been at so much pains to put in their place, I trust will do me the justice to say that my motives were good. . . . Even that comparatively harmless production, ‘The Laird of Coul’s Ghost,’ at one time a great favourite in this neighbourhood in consequence of its being represented in the tract as the theatre of the repeated appearance of the unearthly visitor, seems to have entirely vanished at the crow of the cock in No. 19 ; and the ‘Witty Sayings of George Buchanan ’ have sunk in the estimation of the more intelligent young men of latter times before the far more rational entertainment to be derived from that most excellent series of ‘Councils to Young Men ’ in No. 5.” Again he says that “since the publication of my Cheap Tracts in 1802-3 complexion of the contents of the hawker’s basket has undergone a very sensible alteration or material change to the better”; and his son James roundly affirms that they “ superseded the common trash of the hawker’s basket.”

It is an exaggeration, pardonable perhaps, but still an exaggeration, for the processes of education were already tending to make such publications impossible, and various economic movements were helping to the same end. There seems to be no reason, however, to doubt that Miller’s efforts had their effect on the general result, and he at least deserves credit for having perceived the evil that lay in the circulation of the ordinary chap-book, and for taking all methods open to him for counteracting it.

Meantime Miller was being forced into another development of his business. His shelves were becoming crowded and it was necessary that he should relieve the pressure. “What with manufacturing, exchanging and purchasing at sales, etc., my book stock had accumulated to such an extent that the off-going or outlet by auctions, wholesale journeys, etc., bore no proportion to the same.” He determined on a bold move— to sell wholesale to the wholesale booksellers themselves. He is astonished at his own audacity, for he knew that “ few country booksellers of my standing and time of life would have attempted” such a course. “ Was it not sufficient,” he asks himself, “that I should have been deluging all the neighbouring villages and hamlets by my auctions? Was it not more than sufficient that I should have been carrying on my operations in the usual wholesale form across the country from Berwick-upon-Tweed to the good town of Ayr, and from the banks of the Forth to the wilds of Galloway, but I must now commence the serious operation of carrying my attack into the great literary citadel of the country and there attempting to sell wholesale to the wholesale booksellers themselves!”

It certainly required considerable courage in a country bookseller to say to his brethren of the capital that he had anything worth their notice, but his confidence in attacking Edinburgh was justified. The sale was held in Metcalf’s Tavern in the Lawnmarket on February 9, 1802, and continued for two days. To ensure an attendance he issued a printed catalogue of the books to be sold, undertook to give credit on a graduated scale to all purchasers, and provided a free dinner-table before business began to all who cared to sit down. The result was satisfactory, although the auctioneer had to contend with the presence of the city magistrates in another room. They were busy eating the “deid-chack,” as the ghastly meal after an execution was called. Miller returned home with cash or bills for £300 in his pocket, and with the determination to continue this method of disposing of his stock.

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