“Natural History” – final research

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My mystery book

Recently, the interest for one of my old books was rekindled when I found some new information about it on the internet. Since the prefatory pages of the book are missing the author and date of publication are unknown. I had only the title, Natural History, and the publisher:  William Milner of Halifax. Further investigation on WorldCat revealed more details allowing me to identify two possible authors for the book. Finally, I was able to compare my book with a microfiche copy at the University of Montreal, definitively identifying it as Richard COPE’s Natural History, which lead me to order a monograph about the work of William Milner in order to (hopefully) learn even more on this particular edition.

IMG_4437A little less than three weeks after filing the Inter-Library Loan (PEB) request, the Bernard BARR’s document about William Milner arrived at the National Library (BAnQ). Unfortunately, the whole process was utterly disappointing. The NYPL refused to lend its copy, so the book came from the University of St-Andrews’ library in Fife, Scotland, therefore the loan incurred a fee of $C 42.00 ! Not only the book was just a self-published monograph of sixty single-side pages with a simple plastic spiral binding, but the lending library requested that it had to be consulted on site, at the BAnQ. The book was on hold at the National Collection, a secure place where you have to check your coat and bag in a locker room before entering and you have to put all the material you need (notebook, pen, laptop, wallet, etc) in a basket that you carry with you. It was the first time I was visiting that place and it was all quite unexpected. Luckily, the staff was very nice and helpful. Instead of spending hours reading the book, I was allowed to digitize a copy on the photocopier (its control menu was not user-friendly at all and source of many frustrations). 

IMG_4441The book title is: “William Milner of Halifax: printer and publisher. Checklist of a collection of books printed by William Milner and his successors and imitators.” The only publishing information is “York: Ken Spelman”. No author is listed on the cover, but the notice from the University of St-Andrews’ library is helpful on that subject: the author is NOT Bernard BARR (who simply wrote the foreword) nor Ken Spelman (the “publisher”, but who was given as author by Amazon) but Peter MILLER and T. FOTHERGILL (who compiled the information).

Disappointingly, the book is of little use to me. It is far from exhaustive; its main source of information seems to be the Spelman’s bookshop collection as well as a few articles in Yorkshire’s newspapers and historical magazines (the bibliography also list a few references that briefly mention Milner, like Victor E. NEUBURG, The Popular Press Companion to Popular Literature, pp. 132-33 or Leslie SHEPARD, The History of Street literature, pp. 104-106). I was expecting a complete list of all titles published by Milner but it seems that such reference doesn’t exist. A search on Google doesn’t yield much either. In fact, the most useful tool in this research was probably WorldCat

IMG_4440William Milner of Halifax: printer and publisher mentions Richard COPE’s Natural History only ONCE (“Cope (Richard) Natural History … New Edition, Improved and Enlarged. Roy 8vo. 730 pp. 425 ills. Maroon cloth”) in what the book calls the “Imprint 7”—which falls into the third incarnation of the publishing company, Milner & Co, located in London between 1883 and maybe 1900. “Maroon cloth” seems to describe well the cheap cover of my edition (and “Roy 8vo” means that it is a Royal octavo format, i.e. 10″ by 6¼” or 253 mm x 158 mm, therefore about the same size than my copy) but my book was clearly printed during the “Imprint 1” period (Halifax: William Milner, 1834-1851). Also the copy that I have seen at the University of Montreal unmistakably falls into the same imprint and is dated from 1846 (while mine unfortunately has no printing date left). This fact confirms that the Miller/Fothergill monograph is obviously incomplete.

I was not able to acquire more precise information on my book. However, it was not a complete waste of time since it has allowed me to learn more about the printing industry in nineteen century England. It seems that William Milner was a pioneer of cheap literature and remains an unsung hero of the poor Englishmen as he provided them with affordable literary classics (selling for as little as a shilling or even a sixpence) that would have without any doubts further their education and culture. Several other publishers, like William Nicholson, followed his example. 

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The Spelman’s collection ?

They printed books not only in great quantity (printing titles by the ten of thousands with total circulation often amounting over a hundred thousand!) but also in variety as they covered a large array of subject matter (from BurnsPoems, to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Arabian Nights, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Richard Johnson’s The Seven Champion of Christendom, etc.) and offered a “range of plain and variously ornamented styles to suit differing tastes and pockets” [cf. Bernard Barr’s introduction to William Milner of Halifax and Shepard’s History of Street Literature]. The life of those publishers (and particularly of William Milner) and their cultural missionary work would certainly make quite an interesting subject for a historical TV series. 

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