Reprint Classics

The Victorian passion for self-education literature had a significant forerunner in the figure of George Miller (1771—1835), son of a Dunbar merchant (Figure 11.1). His passion for books, and ‘plebeian instruction’,65 drew him into a life as a printer and seller of the cheapest reading materials. Born into a family ‘ofthe yeoman class’, which had ‘for generations ... been engaged on the land’,66 Miller was a philanthropist bent on social reform via mass self-education.67 He was involved in the foundation of the Dunbar Mechanics Institute.68 In his autobiographical writing, Miller recalls that he received a broad primary education, extending beyond the three R’s and reciting the Catechism to English versions of Aesop’s Fables.69 He learned Latin in a local grammar school before becoming apprenticed to Alexander Smart, a Dunbar bookseller.70

In 1795, Miller invested in East Lothian’s first printing press at Haddington, a town with a reputation for an educationally advanced population.71 The region boasted a couple of libraries but, according to Miller, they were of no use to the public because the books were written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.72 The only way labourers, low-paid tradesmen and farm workers in the area could acquire affordable reading material was from bookstalls at the market and

George Miller (1771—1835) by Mungo Burton, reproduced by courtesy of John Muir House, East Lothian Council

FIGURE 11.1 George Miller (1771—1835) by Mungo Burton, reproduced by courtesy of John Muir House, East Lothian Council.

hawkers’ baskets. The popular literature sold was considered by the pious and philanthropically minded middle classes to be sensational and poorly printed rubbish, including ‘Lothian Toms, the John Cheaps, the Wise Willies, and other pernicious trash’.73 But Miller felt that ‘since the publication of my Cheap Tracts in 1802-1803 the complexion of the hawker’s basket has undergone a very sensible alteration or material change to the better’.74 His son James agreed: they had ‘superseded the common trash of the hawker’s basket’.75

Anne MacVicar Grant (1755—1838), author of Popular Models, and Impressive Warnings for the Sons and Daughters of Industry (1815), praised Miller’s Cheap Magazine and its successor The Monthly Monitor: or Philanthropic Museum, writing that she would be ‘deficient in zeal for the cause of plebeian instruction, were she to omit recommending’ these magazines, ‘works highly approved by the most competent judges, and so low priced, as to be within the reach of the lowest class’.7*’ Alexander Somerville, author of The Autobiography of a Working Man: By One Who Has Whistled at the Plough (1848), described Miller as ‘the father of cheap literature’. He was correct in his assertion that Miller ‘lived before the age was ripe for him, and died, I fear, before he was fully appreciated’.77 His relatively humble class background and (again relative) provinciality, when compared to the wealthy and Edinburgh-based Chambers brothers, played against him.

Miller’s Cheap Tracts, which abound in classical references, were inexpensively printed pamphlets containing literature chosen for its instructional as well as its literary quality. In practice, this meant that they were short, sometimes abridged, versions or translations of well-regarded earlier prose writers. Many were later incorporated into Miller’s fourpenny Cheap Magazine; or, The Poor Man’s Fireside Companion (Figure 11.2), which circulated in Haddington for two years, 1813-1815.78 It was an ‘early example of a genre in which Scots led the way, the improving magazine aimed at artisans and tradesmen’.79 Serialised articles






As having for its object the

$rebention of Crimes.

And lining ca’cu’ated to ensure the


Dy alluring the Iming and Thoughtless

TO A TASTE FOR READING SUBJECTS OF REAL UTILITY, Having a tendency to counteract the


Promote the interests of Religion, Virtue, and Human ity ;



Dispel the shades of Ignorance, Prejudice, and Error, particularly from among the lower orders


ORIGINAL COMMUNICATIONS AND SELECT EXTRACTS, Invariably -adapted to answer some of the above important purposes, and brought forward in such à pleasing manner, as likely to excite and arrest the attention of the juvenile mind.

T'ant up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it.

A man who gives his children a habit of industry and frugality, pro-videsfor them better than by giving them a stock of money.

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure ;

Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile, Ane short and simple annals of the poor. *





FIGURE 11.2 Cheap Magazine; or,The Poor Man’s Fireside Companion (1813), reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.

under the headings ‘Advice to Servants’, ‘Advice to a Young Tradesman’ and ‘A cottager’s advice to his daughter’ clarify the readership which Miller assumed. Classical literature and ancient history featured prominently, and the readership included a North Tyneside resident calling himself‘a friend to youth’8" and a little girl of 11 named Jane Welsh, who grew up to marry Thomas Carlyle, but was then ‘learning Latin like a boy’.81

‘The Origins of Cock-fighting’ discusses the practice in ancient Greece and Rome.82 Achilles and Alexander the Great are cited as examples in ‘An amiable portrait: John Howard’; Aesop and Terence receive short articles as having been born slaves (there are several articles advocating Abolition), as does Demosthenes for having persevered as an orator despite natural disadvantages; Vespasian is praised for rising to high estate on merit alone.83 ‘On the duties of schoolboys’ opens with an exhortation from Quintilian.84 ‘Passion’ discusses anger in relation to anecdotes about Alexander and Cleitus, Caesar and Pompey, Antigonus, Socrates and Alcibiades.85 ‘A Wise Saying’ of the Spartan king Agesilaus encapsulates an improving moral,86 and a long poem ‘The Book of Nature; or, The Shepherd and the Philosopher’ discusses Plato and Socrates.87

Miller did not only print and trade in new publications. He bought and sold diverse new and used texts in local auctions, often under the banner of BARGAIN or POPULAR BOOKS. His publicity material shows an awareness of the logistical issues facing the poor book buyer. These extended beyond their lack of money. He set up stalls in rural locations when the moon was full to assist the traveller arriving by foot from a distance.88 The lists of his ‘popular books’ in the archives in the John Gray Centre in Haddington include, impressively, John Parkhurst’s A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament (1813), James Moor’s Elements of the Greek Language (probably the 1807 English-language edition), Rollin’s Ancient History, Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by George Sandys (first published in full in 1626), Gibbon’s History of Rome and James Banister’s translations of Pindar’s Odes (1791). Although there were 23 boys officially studying Latin in Haddington and Dunbar in 1842,89 Miller’s target market was the rural working-class self-educator.

In February 1832, the trailblazing publisher of popular periodicals, William Chambers, who had been raised in Peebles in the borders, wrote the inaugural editorial for his soon-to-be-famous weekly Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, often just called Chambers’s Magazine'’" When his younger brother Robert, a contributor, agreed to become joint editor, the magazine became a national institution. William defined his ‘grand leading principle’ as taking ‘advantage of the universal appetite for instruction which at present exists’. His imagined reader is ‘the poorest labourer in the country’ or the schoolboy ‘able to purchase with his pocket-money, something permanently useful—something calculated to influence his fate through life’.91

The Chambers brothers were far from working-class. Their father was a cloth manufacturer and merchant; their mother was born into the landed gentry.92 Influenced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK see pp. 122-3), William planned to improve the educational quality of reading material that the humbler orders could afford and enjoy:

I intend to do a great deal for boys .... I was many years the worst scholar in the whole school ... often did I think that mankind had entered into a conspiracy to torment boys with Latin. My distaste of this language drove me from the perusal of every kind of books, and I was near turning out an ignorant blockhead.93

Chambers’ aversion to Latin, however, by no means extended to classical civilisation. In just the first few months, published topics included ‘Ancient Pottery’; ‘Grecian Monuments’; ‘Grecian Philosophers and Christianity compared’; Romans; Pompeii and Herculaneum; Athens and Sparta; and ‘A Roman City— Pompeii’ (adapted from an SDUK publication in the series Library of Entertaining Knowledge94). Chiming with contemporary taste for antiquarianism and the Pompeii-mania, following the open-air excavations begun at Herculaneum in 1828, material culture and archaeology predominate, while Greek philosophy takes part in an instructive discussion on Christianity.95

As was common practice in periodicals of the time, the article on ‘Ancient Pottery’ is lifted verbatim from a previously printed source, the Cabinet Cyclopaedia masterminded by Dionysius Lardner, the Irish Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London. This ‘cyclopaedia’ was widely published from 1824 and, like Chambers’ magazine, was associated with the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the self-improvement movement. Lardner s cyclopaedia contained a volume entitled ‘History, Arts, Manufactures, Manners and Institutions of Greeks and Romans’, which was written by the antiquary and clergyman, Thomas Dudley Fosbroke.96 His Encyclopedia of Antiquities and Elements of Archaeology, Classical and Medieval (1825) is a monumental labour of love and eccentricity, ranging delightfully from ancient British road systems to courtship practices in the Classical Age.97 The encyclopaedia writing of Fosbroke may strike us now as bizarre as it is learned, but it was certainly providing accessible and interesting information from the classical world and its cultural remains to readers of English. The classical knowledge is stripped of its potentially distancing scholarly trappings, i.e. of unknown languages, dense allusion, difficult terms and references to literature. As Alistair McCleery points out, the contents of the Chambers’ journal represented ‘a deliberate effort to raise the standards of reading beyond those of the other low-priced papers then available’.98 The Chambers’s selection of Fosbroke’s work, however, shows that entertainment was perhaps as important a factor in a piece’s selection as was its self-improvement value.

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