Nostalgia: Rest and recreational reading

The Library, one of 21 etchings from James Green's Poetical Sketches. Its subject most probably belonged to Mr Ainsworth, known to have had the largest stock of books at that time in Scarborough.
The Library, one of 21 etchings from James Green's Poetical Sketches. Its subject most probably belonged to Mr Ainsworth, known to have had the largest stock of books at that time in Scarborough.
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Having tired themselves out on one of Hinderwell’s recommended excursions into Scarborough’s rural hinterland, “the company” might now rest with a few days of recreational reading.

In Scarborough there had never been a lack of libraries for those rich enough to borrow or buy books. As early as 1733, for a seasonal subscription of five shillings, Scarborough’s visitors were able to borrow up to six books at a time from a shop in Long Room Street. By 1787, James Schofield, who had written the first Historical and Descriptive Guide to Scarbrough (sic) and its Environs, published at York in that year, had 4,000 volumes for hire from his bookseller’s store in Newborough Street. For five shillings for the season, a subscriber could take two books at a time; for seven shillings and sixpence, four; and for half a guinea, six. Books could be exchanged every day except Sunday. Short-term loans were also available. In 1803, William Hutton paid a shilling for a two-hour loan of Hinderwell’s History of 1798 before deciding to buy it outright.

Clearly, two centuries ago, the printed word, even that of a newspaper, was far beyond the means of a population that was at least half literate. Not until elementary schooling became compulsory and virtually free 70 years later were books, magazines and newspapers made cheaply accessible to a readership of millions.

Nevertheless, reading did not always have to be a solitary occupation: as part of an ongoing tradition of shared entertainment, books, news-sheets and newspapers were often read aloud. Candles were not cheap, but only one was required for a public reading. By our impatient standards, our ancestors were astonishingly attentive, deferential and long-suffering. Jane Austen herself read books aloud to others and listened to others reading to her. Also, almost every town and village across the country had a reading room, a book club or society of sorts where books might be exchanged rather than bought or hired.

During Jane Austen’s lifetime there was something like a boom in book publishing, not only of novels like hers, but also of a wide range of volumes on travel, topography, agriculture, history and biography. In larger towns and cities there was a multitude of pocket-sized (duodecimal) publications on every kind of topic on sale for as little as sixpence.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a unique phenomenon at this time: his romantic, historical novels achieved for him a vast, unprecedented readership in Britain. Whereas the average run of a serious book was about 700 copies, for a single edition of one of his novels 6,000 copies were printed initially. A series of 32 novels and tales, known as the Waverley Novels, after the title of the first one published in 1814, was originally published anonymously. Not until 1825 was the identity of their author disclosed. By then he had made so much money that he was able to build himself a baronial mansion called Abbotsford on the banks of the Tweed. After his publishing firm went bankrupt in 1826, he had to spend the rest of his life scribbling madly to clear his debts.

Most of the books, guides and pamphlets for sale, hire, exchange or circulation in Scarborough would have been written, printed and published by local men for the visitor trade. Indeed, the earliest newspapers printed in Scarborough were intended mainly to inform readers who the seasonal visitors were. By the 1820s Scarborough had several bookshops and libraries concentrated in the vicinity of upper Newborough Street, Long Room Street and King Street.

Of the 21 etchings published in 1813 in James Green’s Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, one is described simply as The Library, as if there was only one at that time in the town. The Library is not identified in the text of the book, though it has been attributed, wrongly, to John Cole, who first set up his home, shop and business at 74 Newborough Street in 1821, and also, wrongly, to Solomon William Theakston, who did not arrive in Scarborough until as late as 1828.

Most probably, The Library in question belonged to Mr Ainsworth, who is known to have had the largest stock of books at that time in Scarborough. For a weekly subscription of five shillings, the average wage then of a skilled craftsman, subscribers to Mr Ainsworth’s shop had access to several hundred volumes. Green’s sketch shows a handsome, double-fronted, bay-windowed room, containing book-lined shelves rising from floor to high ceiling. At either side of the library there are counters where books and papers are being examined by customers. Significantly, there are four female and four males present in the shop and a black boy carrying books for his mistress. From subscription lists of these years we know that there were almost as many female as male borrowers and buyers.

Apart from fashionable Gothic novels of haunted castles, dungeons, medieval ruins, ghosts, wicked men and other supernatural horrors, Ainsworth would have stocked local literary produce, such as the two editions of Schofield’s Guide, of 1787 and 1796, the two editions of Hinderwell’s History, of 1798 and 1811, and the many published guides for spawers such as Hatfield’s (1797) and Broadrick’s (1806).

Though the market for these publications was seasonal, to cover the high costs of paper, printing and labour, it was then the custom for authors and publishers to first attract a sufficient number of subscribers in advance who were promised that their names would be acknowledged in the work. Hinderwell’s first edition of 1798, for which 500 copies were printed in York to be sold at half a guinea each, initially engaged 257 subscribers.

In addition to Ainsworth’s, an Agricultural and General Library had been opened in 1801 on King’s Street Cliff in the same building as the public newsroom. At first, it was intended to serve the needs of improving farmers and landlords, but later it extended its collection and attracted general readers. By 1832, it had 2,500 volumes and about 80 members.

Finally, handsome books were a fashionable possession of the rich. Every owner of a country mansion, whether he read them or just used them as display furniture, aspired to have a private library of expensive books. When Sir Christopher Sykes re-built the family home at Sledmere in the 1790s, he reserved the whole of the spacious ground floor with its “highly finished ceiling” to serve as a library for his growing collection. In 1826 the Gentleman’s Magazine deplored its auction by his successor.