Regency Bicentennial:   The Demise of Benjamin Tabart?

Two hundred years ago, the name of a noted publisher of children’s books began to slip from the realm of British book publishing. By the end of 1818, little was heard from him again, except that his name sometimes appeared as editor or publisher on reprints of books which he had published originally. One might assume that Benjamin Tabart had passed away. However, there are some scholars who believe that there never was a Benjamin Tabart and that name had been taken as a cover by another publisher, Sir Richard Phillips, whose reputation was thought to be too politically "hot" to enable him to be successful as a publisher of children’s books.

Benjamin Tabart, or is that Richard Phillips, and his alter-ego . . .

First, it is necessary to know something about Sir Richard Phillips. He was born the son of a Leicestershire farmer, in 1767. He received the benefit of a classical education provided by an uncle, a brewer, living in London. When he returned home, Phillips became a schoolteacher and also a bookseller in his native shire. In addition, it seems that he had developed a strong interest in radical politics early in life. While still in Leicestershire, Phillips published copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, in 1793, the year after it was first published, either to actively distribute or simply to make available in his book shop. Phillips’ editions of the tract were a violation of Paine’s copyright. However, even worse, the tract was considered seditious by the British government, and Phillips was incarcerated in the Leicester jail for eighteen months for re-publishing and circulating the tract. When he was released, Phillips moved back to London, probably sometime late in 1795.

Richard Phillips was an enterprising and ambitious man and he soon set himself up in premises in Paternoster Row, adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even then, that area was becoming the hub of the London publishing trade. It was here that Phillips founded The Monthly Magazine, in 1796, as a platform from which he and his radical friends could criticize the government. He had attracted the support of the Unitarian community for his new periodical, which helped him to expand its circulation and ensure a steady stream of articles for publication. A number of the initial political contributors to the magazine were like-minded radicals such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly and Thomas Holcroft, among others. Each issue of the magazine was a blend of political articles, current events and meteorological reports, alongside poetry and fictional prose. The popularity of The Monthly Magazine grew steadily so that it developed and retained a wide circulation until the magazine finally ceased publication in 1843, three years after Phillips’ death.

Despite his success with The Monthly Magazine, Phillips was eager find other means by which to improve his financial circumstances. The House of Lords had inadvertently done him a favor in 1777, when they struck down the claim of perpetual copyright on standard introductory textbooks which had been asserted by a small group of London booksellers and publishers. As a former schoolteacher himself, Phillips saw an opportunity to increase his income by publishing the standard elementary textbooks for the most commonly studied subjects, books that would be in regular demand for many years. Therefore, he could afford to publish those books in large print runs, which lowered his costs. Though he had to store the inventory, he knew that his inventory would sell steadily in the growing market for basic educational texts as more and more people became literate in Britain as the eighteenth century came to a close.

However, Phillips soon found that there were not enough textbooks on popular subjects to meet the needs of his growing market. Therefore, he initially began writing his own textbooks, but published them under the names of living or deceased authors, a number of whom were men of the cloth. There are at least eleven such individuals who became the "ghost" authors of textbooks published by Richard Phillips. It is not clear if Phillips actually employed any of the living authors to write the books or if he merely paid them a fee to use their name. It seems that his use of deceased authors was much more lucrative for him, since he paid no fee for the use of those names. Over time, Phillips began to hire hack writers to write the textbooks he wished to publish, though he seems to have published those books under the names of authors he had already created. He also sometimes employed some of these same hack writers to produce articles for The Monthly Magazine. It was said that Phillips could squeeze more work out of a hack than anyone else would have thought possible. One of Phillips’ former writers is recorded as having said, "The Scoundrel [Phillips] shall never have another line of mine . . . He would suck the knowledge out of authors skulls and fling the carcasses on the dung hill afterwards."

Soon after the nineteenth century opened, Richard Phillips found another steady source of revenue. Recognizing the popularity of pocket-sized editions, Phillips soon began publishing a variety of compendia in pocket-sized formats, most of which were written by his stable of hack writers. The majority of those informative pocket books became quite popular with his customers. In particular, as the roads of Britain improved, more and more people traveled to London to see the sights of the capital. It was not long before Phillips saw another need which he could meet, while increasing his income even further. In 1803, he published the first edition of The Picture of London, a pocket-sized guidebook of the metropolis. Those of you familiar with Cotillion, the Regency novel by Georgette Heyer, will recognize The Picture of London as the guidebook that Kitty Charing had purchased at Hatchard’s before she began dragging long-suffering Freddy Standen around the city. Phillips employed many of his hack writers to write and/or update the various sections of this London guide. The Picture of London was a popular guidebook and was printed annually throughout the Regency and well into the 1830s.

As often happens to radical young men, as he grew older and more invested in his publishing interests, Richard Phillips became much more aligned with the mainstream business community of London. In 1807, he was so well-regarded within the London business community that he was appointed to serve that year as one of the Sheriffs of London. During that year, perhaps because of his personal experience with incarceration, he tried to do what he could to improve the conditions in the city’s gaols. Phillips was knighted that same year, in a service during which he gave a speech for the City of London Corporation that was considered quite complimentary of King George III. As one might imagine, a number of his former radical and reforming political friends washed their hands of him. But by then, he seems to have been much more focused on building up his business than in trying to reform the government. It should be noted, however, that as a life-long animal lover, Richard Phillips had become a vegetarian at an early age and he continued to hold this radical position, remaining a practicing vegetarian all his life.

Around the same time that he began publishing various pocket-book compendia for adults, Phillips also realized there was a growing market for books for young children beyond educational textbooks. And such books would be much more attractive to those young children if published in the small, pocket-size format he had already adopted for many of his adult publications. But that was before his term as Sheriff of London and his knighthood. In those early years, he realized that his own name and radical political reputation might be an impediment to successfully publishing, and selling, such children’s books. Therefore, enter Benjamin Tabart? In 1801, Tabart & Company opened an elegant and fashionable shop, The Juvenile and School Library, at No. 157 New Bond Street. Despite the use of the word "library" in the shop name, this was not a borrowing library, but a book shop which primarily sold books and other educational materials for children and young people. The source is believed to be the fashionable French term, libraire, meaning bookseller.

The majority of the books sold at The Juvenile and School Library were published under the imprint of "Tabart & Company at The Juvenile and School Library." This publishing house proved to be one of the most innovative publishers of children’s literature in early nineteenth-century Britain. Initially, few were original works. Most were books of fairy tales and/or children’s stories gleaned from old chapbooks which were re-published as new editions. However, the text of these stories was edited and polished, then they were properly type-set to be printed in high quality editions, typically with the addition of new illustrations specifically intended for children. The editor for several of these books was given as Benjamin Tabart, though it is now believed that much of the editing work was actually done by Mary Jane Clairmont, the second wife of William Godwin, before the Godwins went on to establish their own children’s publishing house, in 1805, along the lines of Tabart’s Juvenile Library. The editing work on these old tales was not insignificant, since many of the stories published under the Tabart & Company imprint became the established, standard text for these traditional stories. The same ones many of us read when we were children.

Fortunately for children living in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the stories published by Tabart & Company were not generally the moralizing tales which educational reformers, like Sarah Trimmer, strongly advocated as appropriate for children. In fact, a few of the stories available at The Juvenile and School Library were considered slightly indecorous for the nursery by Mrs. Trimmer and her educator friends. Nevertheless, such criticism does not seem to have significantly dampened the sales of books at The Juvenile and School Library. Yet, probably in order to help increase business, the children’s author, Eliza Fenwick, was commissioned to write what was really a puff piece for Tabart’s Juvenile Library. This children’s story, entitled Visits to the Juvenile Library: Or, Knowledge Proved To Be the Source of Happiness, was published in 1805. It was essentially what we might today call a product-placement book, since most of Tabart’s recent children’s books were recommended by the fictional characters during the course of the tale. The plot of the story centered around the five orphaned Mortimer children, who are sent to London from their home in the British West Indies. The children’s guardian in London, Mrs. Clifford, does her best to care for them and ensure they all get a good education. Part of that education includes several visits to The Juvenile and School Library in New Bond Street over the course of the story. The visits are described in detail and are always very exciting for the children. In her story, Mrs. Fenwick wrote of the interior of The Juvenile and School Library:

. . . the neat arrangement of an immense quantity of books, handsomely bound in red or green leather, and lettered on the back with gold letters, together with globes, maps and little ornamented bookcases, of various sizes, finely painted and varnished, have a pleasing effect to the eye. Besides, the library is generally full of well-dressed ladies, accompanied with blooming boys and girls, who are eagerly hunting for books of knowledge, or looking at the pictures of entertaining stories; so that I think this bookseller’s shop may with strict propriety be called, a very pretty place.

Apparently, the Mrs. Fenwick’s book did not sell very well, as there is only one known edition. Fortunately, the New York Public Library owns a copy of this very rare children’s book and they have digitized some of the illustrations from it. These illustrations include views of both the exterior and interior of The Juvenile and School Library on New Bond Street, as it appeared in 1805.

Unfortunately, The Juvenile and School Library was no longer to be found on New Bond Street by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent. In 1811, Benjamin Tabart had been forced to declare bankruptcy and his popular and fashionable children’s bookshop was shuttered. However, the name survived in the imprint of a number of children’s books which were published through most of our favorite decade. Somehow, Benjamin Tabart was able to find the necessary funding to contine to publish children’s books, though he was no longer able to maintian his own bookshop. Instead, during the Regency, the Tabart Juvenile Library series of children’s books were available through most of the best booksellers in London, and in cities and towns across Britain. Up until 1818, Benjamin Tabart’s name usually appeared as the publisher on the children’s books which were published under the Juvenile Library imprint. However, beginning in 1818, all of those children’s books began to be published under the name of Richard Phillips. After that time, the name Benjamin Tabart very occassionally appeared as the editor of some of the anthologies of fairy tales and nursery stories published by Richard Phillips, but it is generally accepted that the real editor(s) were William and Mary Jane Godwin. After his bankruptcy, Benjamin Tabart had gone on to re-establish himself as a publisher, but in 1818, he just seemed to fade away and nothing more was heard from him.

Curiously, very little biographical information has ever been found about Benjamin Tabart. That which does survive shows that there were very close links between him and Sir Richard Phillips. The year of Tabart’s birth is given as 1767, the same year in which Sir Richard Phillips was born. From 1801, when he first appeared on the London publishing scene, through 1818, when he seemed to disappear, Benjamin Tabart routinely advertized the publications of Sir Richard Phillips, who, in turn, regularly advertized the publications of Benjamin Tabart. This was not common practic between most publishers/booksellers at that time. Between about 1803, and 1818, Tabart published re-prints of some of Phillips’ books and Phillips did the same with most of Tabart’s books. Many of Phillips’ elementary textbooks were regularly on sale at The Juvenile and School Library book shop, something which was not common at the time. Each children’s bookshop, or "juvenile library," in the first decades of the nineteenth century were set up by a single publishing house and each sold only those books which had been published by that publisher. Even more telling, most of Benjamin Tabart’s titles were actually registered at Stationers’ Hall, in London, in the name of Richard Phillips. It is also interesting to note that William Godwin had been a good friend of Richard Phillips for many years. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Godwin and his second wife, Mary Jane, are known to have been collecting and editing a number of folk and fairy tales, particularly those by Charles Perrault. Supposedly this work was done for Benjamin Tabart, a man who had only recently appeared on the London publishing scene. Benjamin Tabart declared bankruptcy in 1811, the same year in which Sir Richard Phillips also declared bankruptcy. Both recovered and were back in the publishing business within a year.

It is possible that Benjamin Tabart was an employee of Sir Richard Phillips, and that he just pretended to be the publisher of the children’s books from the Juvenile Library, so that Phillips’ name would not be associated with them. However, even during the time he flourished in London as a publisher of children’s books, Tabart does not seem to have had any family or friends, nor is there any record that he was a member of any social or professional organizations. After 1818, nothing at all was ever heard from him again, including no record of his death or burial. Therefore, it seems more likely that Benjamin Tabart was a name that Sir Richard Phillips created, or borrowed, as he did authors’ names for his textbooks, in order to ensure the success of his line of children’s books by shielding them from his early reputation as a political radical. By 1818, Sir Richard Phillips was still considered by some to be a bit of a scoundrel, and he was known to be a demanding employer by those who worked for him. However, he had long since lost his reputation as an outspoken radical. As the Regency was coming to an end, Sir Richard Phillips was a married man, with a family, and a successful businessman who was considered to be fairly respectable. Therefore, he no longer had any need for a front man for his line of children’s books and he chose to consolidate all of his publishing interests under his own name. Fortunately for Regency children, the Juvenile Library was a lucrative line of books for Sir Richard Phillips and he continued to publish them well into the 1930s.

Dear Regency Authors, might you develop a character for one of your stories like Sir Richard Phillips, one who needs a front man, or woman, in order to present their business in the best possible light? Will that front person be real or imaginary? Or, will you include the real Sir Richard Phillips and/or Benjamin Tabart in one of your romances? Mayhap one of your characters is influenced by Sir Richard Phillips’ love of animals and decides to become a vegetarian. How will the other characters in your story react to that? Perhaps one of your characters figures out that Benjamin Tabart is not a real person. How will that play out in your story? Or, will an older character object to the purchase of a book for child which was published by Sir Richard Phillips, since they remember him as a radical? Though The Juvenile and School Library had closed before the Regency began, might Eliza Fenwick’s description serve as a model for a fictional children’s bookshop in Mayfair.

Between 1801 and 1818, the Tabart Juvenile Library published well over one hundred and fifty books for children. Next week, some brief reviews of a few of the best-known of the Juvenile Library publications.

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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2 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Demise of Benjamin Tabart?

  1. Pingback: Publications of Benjamin Tabart’s Juvenile Library | The Regency Redingote

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