Paternoster Row and the Book Trade in Britain

Not long after Johannes Gutenberg introduced the movable-type printing press in Germany, the use of the device spread throughout Europe and across the English Channel. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, a strong trade in books was developing in London. It would continue to develop and increase until the British book trade was perhaps the largest in the world by the middle of the nineteenth century. During the Regency, the center of the British book trade was located in Paternoster Row, though as that decade came to a close, the book trade was already beginning to disperse further west in the metropolis.

Paternoster Row and the English book trade . . .

Paternoster Row was a narrow street which ran a distance of about two hundred yards in a slightly southwest direction, from the west end of Cheapside, and just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral church yard, within the City of London. At its west end, it terminated at the intersection Amen Corner and Ave Maria Lane. There are two different explanations given for the source of the name of this short, narrow street. For centuries, it had been the usual route of the procession of many orders of monks and other clergymen making their way to St. Paul’s, who often recited the Lord’s Prayer as they walked along. The first words of that prayer, in Latin, were Pater Noster, or "Our Father." However, that narrow street, so close to the Cathedral, from the Middle Ages, had become the premises for many of those who sold religious materials, including paternosters. Essentially, a paternoster was a ten-bead segment of a full rosary, which many lay people used to count their daily prayers. Regardless of whether it was the saying of the prayer, or the beads used to count the number of times the prayer was said, this short narrow street north of St. Paul’s got its name from the Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer.

As the Middle Ages came to an end, other trades began to move into Paternoster Row. Curiously, for a time, it became the center of spur manufacture in London, with several spurriers having premises along the row. Gradually, the spurriers were replaced by mercers, that is, textile merchants, especially those who sold high-end goods, such as silkmen and lace-makers. At that time, many members of the upper classes came to Paternoster Row to shop for fine textiles. Of that period, one historian wrote " . . . their shops were so resorted unto by the nobility and the gentry in their coaches that oftimes the streets were so stop’d up that there was no passage for foot passengers." After the Great Fire, most of those textile tradesmen relocated to the area around Covent Garden.

Due to the massive devastation wrought by the Great Fire of 1666, it took many years to clear away all of the debris which was left behind. Once that was done, the buildings along Paternoster Row were rebuilt, in the shadow of the new Cathedral. At that time, the next group of merchants to take premises along that street were stationers and book-sellers. A number of those tradesmen had previously done business in shops located on old London Bridge or in the area of the metropolis known as Little Britain. For a time, in the early decades of the eighteenth century, there were also several female vendors who regularly walked the streets in the general area of Paternoster Row, selling false hair pieces, as well as ornaments and other fashionable dressings for ladies’ hair.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the hair ornament vendors, and even most of the stationers, left Paternoster Row to the book-sellers and book publishers, most of whom simply called it "The Row." At this time, street numbers were not yet in use, so it was from offices located at the sign of The Ship and Black Swan, in April of 1719, that William Taylor published The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account of how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates, a novel more generally known as Robinson Crusoe, and arguably the first English novel. Five years later, in 1724, William Taylor sold his publishing house for £2,282, 9s 6d, to Thomas Longman. Longman consolidated the premises under the sign of The Ship and established a publishing house which still exists to this day. Therefore, it can come as no surprise that for more than two centuries, a ship was used as the trademark, or logo, of the Longman publishing house.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Paternoster Row, along with the traditional book trading area of St. Paul’s Churchyard, was considered the center of the British book trade, for both publishing and book selling. It remained so throughout the Regency period and, in fact, through the end of the nineteenth century. One scholar observed that there were at least forty printers and publishers who had premises in Paternoster Row in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. It has also been estimated that during the Regency, between 500 to 700 new book titles were published each year by the London book trade. Nearly all of those books would have passed through one of the publishing houses located along Paternoster Row or in the immediate vicinity. In addition to a majority of book publishers, a number of book sellers and several book-binders also had premises in or very near Paternoster Row.

There were at least two dozen book sellers located in Paternoster Row by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of these booksellers had agreements with certain publishers to sell their publications. These agreements often included commitments to sell magazines and journals, as well as books. These periodical sales had the effect of significantly increasing the traffic in Paternoster Row one day a month. From at least the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a substantial rush of traffic to The Row on the last day of each month, or the last Saturday, if the last day of the month fell on a Sunday. This day had come to be known in the trade as "Magazine Day." Those people who could not afford a subscription to a specific magazine, or simply wanted occasional issues, knew they could pick up a copy of the most recent issue of the majority of popular magazines in the book shops along Paternoster Row on Magazine Day.

Most magazine publishers would have large bundles of their magazines delivered to the book shops in Paternoster Row who carried their publications on the evening before, or early in the morning of, Magazine Day, to ensure those who wanted their publications could find them easily. The amounts delivered to each book shop would be determined by the number of sales of those periodicals which had been made in previous months. Despite the fact that all periodical purchases on Magazine Day had to be made in cash, there was usually quite a lot of bustle and traffic in most of the bookshops along The Row that day, as people jostled one another to pick up the latest copy of their favorite magazines. One astonished visitor likened it to a miniature Babel. Of course, all of that bustling activity by people carrying cash made Magazine Day in Paternoster Row a magnet to pick-pockets and other opportunistic thieves.

Paternoster Row was a fairly narrow roadway, paved with cobblestones. It was said that it was barely wide enough for two carts to pass one another going in either direction. The pavements, or sidewalks, were also quite narrow, with just space enough for two people to walk abreast along them. The buildings which stood along The Row had been erected in the first few decades of the eighteenth century, but few of them had received regular maintenance, so, by the Regency, most were looking rather run-down and fairly dingy. Most of the shops and businesses along this short street had very narrow frontages, with most of the rather cramped premises having ground plans which were long and narrow. With the excerption of Magazine Day, Paternoster Row was a relatively quiet street, being primarily the province of those interested in belles lettres. Typically, The Row saw the least amount of traffic during the months of June through November, when there tended to be a lull in the cycle of book publishing. Traffic would pick up in December and remain fairly steady through the spring, as this was the period when the majority of books were published and made available for sale.

Most of the book shops and publishing houses located along The Row did not open at all on Sundays during the Regency. On the other days of the week, they closed promptly at eight o’clock each evening. Of that time of day, one historian wrote:

Eight o’clock at night is an hour which is always heartily welcomed in Paternoster Row. Sweet to the ears of the inhabitants is the music of Paul’s bell when it strikes that hour. With wonderful celerity are the shutters put up, and the lights in the shops and warehouses extinguished; and no less edifying is the despatch displayed in closing the doors and turning the key. In a few minutes all is darkness, save what light is emitted by a few gas lamps placed at a respectful distance from one another. The parties employed all day are sick of literature. They are happy to escape from hard work and close confinement. You see their joy at being once more free agents, depicted in their countenances. Each one hastens to the place of his destination. In fifteen or twenty minutes, the shops are all closed : all is dark. There are no traces of business. Silence reigns undisturbed in the intellectual locality.

There were occasional exceptions to this desertion of Paternoster Row at eight o’clock most evenings. The publishing house of Longman and Rees, which was the largest in the city during the Regency, often gave receptions at their Paternoster Row offices on a Saturday evening. Most of these receptions were in honor of a forthcoming book by one of their authors. They published the "lake poets," including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. Longman and Rees was also the publisher for the poet, Thomas Moore, as well as for Sir Walter Scott.

The foot traffic along Paternoster Row during the Regency tended to be largely male, nearly all of whom were in some way involved in the book trade. Publishers, editors, authors, book sellers and their clerks, as well as few book binders, could be seen moving along the narrow pavements during the day. In addition, scholars, intellectuals and men of science might visit The Row from time to time, to buy books or seek out like-minded friends. There were a couple of coffee houses located in The Row, where the literati could congregate to discuss the publishing business or the literary and intellectual issues of the day. The most well-known being Dolly’s Chop House, which was famous for its beefsteaks. The other important establishment was the Chapter Coffee House, which was also an inn where many authors found accommodation on a visit to London to see their publisher. A not insignificant percentage of the foot traffic in The Row on Magazine Day were authors. Some had books which had just been published and were eager to read the reviews of their work in the newest periodicals. Others were authors who had written for one or more of those periodicals and wanted to hear what was being said about their work by those who had just purchased copies of them.

It must also be noted that the west end of Paternoster Row was only a few short blocks from the east end of Fleet Street, along which were located some of the first English newspaper and magazine printing offices, as well as a few of the larger publishing houses, including that owned by John Murray, who published both Lord Byron and Jane Austen. A little further west along Fleet Street could be found a significant number of book stalls, in St. Dunstan’s Churchyard. This is the same church in which the hours and quarter hours each day were tolled by the magnificent automaton, the Giants of St. Dunstan’s. A large number of printers and print-makers also had premises or rooms in this general area, further concentrating the book and publishing trade in a relatively compact section of London. During the Regency, some publishers and printers had begun to move away from Paternoster Row and its immediate environs, but the publishing trade was still primarily concentrated in that area. In addition to working in the area, many of those in the publishing trades also had rooms in that vicinity. A number of publishers lived above their offices, as did many of the book sellers and book-binders.

Dear Regency Authors, might Paternoster Row make an interesting setting for one or more scenes in an upcoming story of romance? Mayhap your heroine is a book-binder who has taken rooms in the vicinity of Paternoster Row in order to be near the publishers and book sellers whose customers were most likely to commission her work. Will she encounter the hero while delivering an order to one of the book shops in The Row? Or is your heroine a very studious and scholarly young woman, who dresses as a boy in order to visit the book shops in Paternoster Row on Magazine Day, perhaps to buy a copy of that month’s journal in which her article has been published, under a pseudonym? Perhaps the hero will save her from a particularly aggressive pick-pocket, only to discover he has saved not a boy, but a young woman? Then again, if some of your characters are of an intellectual, but social bent, will they attend one of the Saturday evening receptions held at the Longman and Rees offices in Paternoster Row? How else might Paternoster Row or the London book trade serve the plot of a forthcoming Regency romance?

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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5 Responses to Paternoster Row and the Book Trade in Britain

  1. I confess the idea of a young woman at the end of her tether acting the pickpocket on Magazine day did cross my mind, caught and offered a job by some quixotic publisher, who then discovers she has written a manuscript which could be a best seller ….

  2. Christine V says:

    Fascinating! My thanks to you for posting such interesting and helpful information.

  3. Pingback: Of Alehoof, Cat’s-Paw and Creeping Charlie | The Regency Redingote

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