Before the Paperback:   Charles Whittingham & The Chiswick Press

The paperback book as we know it today came into common use during the twentieth century. However, there was a forward-thinking publisher who established his own press during the Regency which produced inexpensive editions of books which were considered classics in order to make them available to a wider readership. His idea was considered such a threat that most booksellers initially refused to sell his wares. However, in time they came to see that his idea not only had merit, but that it would complement, not threaten, their book sales.

Charles Whittingham and The Chiswick Press . . .

Charles Whittingham was born in 1767, the son of a Warwickshire farmer. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a printer and bookseller in the nearby county town of Coventry. In 1789, after he completed his apprenticeship and had reached his majority, Charles Whittingham made his way to London. In the days before banks offered money to small businessmen, when he arrived in the metropolis, Whittingham approached the prominent type-founding firm created by William Caslon, requesting a loan to set up his own printing press. The loan was not a for a large amount, but it was enough to allow Whittingham to but he equipment he needed and set up a small printing press in a tiny garret just off Fleet Street. From his new press, in 1795, he began publishing the pro-Tory journal, The Tomahawk. Rather than publishing news articles or simple editorials in his new journal, Whittingham published prose and poetry which supported the government and the war against Revolutionary France. Some of the poems and prose writings published in The Tomahawk took aim at the various detractors of Britain’s war policy. It is not clear whether Whittingham did not have enough subscribers to sustain the publication of his journal or if there were other issues, but in 1796, he ceased publishing The Tomahawk.

Despite the termination of the publication of The Tomahawk, Charles Whittingham had developed his printing business to the point that he was able to move to larger premises. In 1797, he was working out of the Union Buildings in Leather Lane. Whittingham seems to have retained his interest in poetry, since he printed an edition of Thomas Gray’s poems in 1799. He did such good quality work that several of the leading publishers began to contract with him to print most of their better books. Though he was making a good income, Whittingham was aware that most of the books he printed were sold at such high prices that only the affluent could afford to purchase them. He was also aware that as the nineteenth century opened, more and more people among the middle classes were beginning to read for enjoyment. These new readers wanted more than the cheap chapbooks and religious tracts which were targeted at the lower classes. These educated middle-class readers wanted to be able to read the prose and poetry of the better authors of the day, just as did those of the upper classes. But they could not afford to purchase such works in large, fine editions. He was also aware of a growing demand for books that people could easily carry in their pockets.

Whittingham realized that there was an entire market of readers who were being undeserved by the current trends in publishing. He hit upon the idea of publishing attractive, good-quality editions of the poets and authors of the day, but making them available in price ranges which would better suit middle class readers. One of the obvious ways to cut his costs and appeal to a wide middle-class readership was to print his editions in smaller sizes. He printed primarily duodecimos, rather than the much larger octavos and quartos which were favored by more prominent publishers. He used good-quality paper, though not the most expensive, and employed well-designed fonts to produce his small, but attractive editions. Initially, the book-sellers of London let it be known they would not stock Whittingham’s small, affordable editions since they considered them a threat to their regular trade. Therefore, Whittingham took a large room at a local coffee house and sold his books personally, by auction.

It was not long before most London book-sellers, and even those in the provinces, realized that Whittingham’s small, affordable books were not a threat to the sales of their other, more expensive books. In fact, there were some cases where a few of their more affluent customers bought both a fine, large edition of a favorite book for their library, and a small Whittingham edition to carry in their pocket or in their coach or carriage to read while travelling. Whittingham’s attractive and affordable books actually sold in much higher volume than their more expensive counterparts. Book-sellers soon discovered that having these small, affordable editions on sale brought more customers into their shops, some of whom might occasionally treat themselves to some of the other books on offer.

One of the greatest costs to any printer was paper. In 1809, Whittingham built his own paper factory west of London, up the Thames River in Chiswick. Many of the finest books at this time were printed on hand-made paper, which was one of the main reasons such editions were so expensive. Though he continued to print his books using hand-presses, Whittingham employed steam engines to produce the pulp for his paper and other aspects of the paper production process at his mill. By so doing, he was able to provide himself with a steady supply of good quality paper for his affordable books at a very low cost.

Two years later, in 1811, Whittingham’s attractive, affordable books were selling very well. He decided it was once again time to move to larger premises. This time, he chose to move up the Thames River, to Chiswick. There, he could be closer to his paper mill, thus reducing his shipping costs, in addition to acquiring more workspace at a lower rent. Upon his move, he christened his business The Chiswick Press. Despite his distance from London, he could ship his books down river to the metropolis relatively cheaply by way of the river. Throughout the Regency, a wide array of small, attractive and affordable books from The Chiswick Press could be had at most book-sellers in London, and from many in the provinces as well. Their reasonable prices made them popular with readers on a budget, while their smaller size made them easy to carry, or to store, for those with limited space for bookshelves.

In addition to running The Chiswick Press, during the Regency, Charles Whittingham continued to print larger, finer editions of a wide array of books on contract for several prominent London publishers. Soon after he opened The Chiswick Press, he began to include illustrations, mostly woodcuts, in a growing number of his small, affordable editions, though still keeping his costs down. The introduction of illustrations helped to significantly increase his sales, which may be why he had nearly ceased printing books for other publishers by the time the Regency came to an end. In 1824, Charles Whittingham’s nephew, also named Charles Whittingham, went into partnership with him. Four years later, in 1828, the partnership was dissolved and the younger Charles moved to London to open his own press. But upon the death of his Uncle Charles, in 1840, the younger Charles Whittingham inherited The Chiswick Press. Under his guidance, it went on to be the publisher of fine and decorative editions of many books. It did not close its doors until 1962.

Dear Regency Authors, if one of your characters needs a small book they can slip in their pocket, or an attractive but inexpensive edition, will it be one from The Chiswick Press? Though copyright laws were not as strictly enforced as they are today, Whittingham was only able to publish books that today would be considered the classics, that is, books by authors which had been in print for some years. However, he did publish some books of poetry and at least a few of those were published in his smaller, more affordable editions. Or, perhaps you might include Charles Whittingham I as a historical character in one of your stories. Could it be that one of your characters has written a book, maybe poetry, and is hoping that it will be published by The Chiswick Press? Then again, perhaps you might pattern one of your characters on the career of Charles Whittingham and his founding of The Chiswick Press? How else might this innovative and clever printer/publisher’s career provide inspiration for one of your own characters?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Before the Paperback:   Charles Whittingham & The Chiswick Press

  1. I have a Chiswick press 1811 edition of Bellisarius, which I now know more about; thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      How cool!!! That must have been one of the first editions off that press!!!


      • This is one of the books bought secondhand by my great great grandparents, who were mostly self educated and started a 5-generation collection of books …. 6 if you count our son’s books. I have a name of the owner and the date, October 1811, in the front. I’d love to find out more, I might see what I can dig out in parish records.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          At least you are on the right side of the pond to carry out such research! I have a lovely 1810-ish edition of Virgil, with the owner’s name on the front flyleaf, but online research has yielded nothing at all about her. Maybe over time, more records will be digitized. I can but hope?


          • A lot of parish records have been digitised – after a fashion – by the latter day saints, but they charge nowadays. When I was first doing family research it was free, but I object to paying for records which have been transcribed badly by people for whom cyrillics appears to be their first alphabet [I read cyrillics which meant I could make a good guess at how a Russian or Polish speaker might mangle a name] and multiple entries of one name appear, transcribed by different people into different incarnations of the same person, as it’s pay per entry unless you take out a subscription, and I’m not sure it’s worth it. If your chummer came from Suffolk i could go to the county record office for you, and look at the microfiche but if not, it’s time and expense finding the right place to go.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I agree with you about paying for access to public records. I do realize there was a cost incurred to digitize them, but that still seems to defeat the purpose of public records. And, if they are done badly, that is just more frustration and aggravation.

              I appreciate your offer, but I have no idea where the lady who owned my copy of Virgil lived, so there would be no point in wading through the Suffolk records. Perhaps she wishes to remain a mystery, which I can respect, even while I enjoy her lovely book!



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