Will the Real Mr. Barrett Please Stand Up
London in the eighties and the gay nineties that was the place to be! The palatial hotels, the theaters, riding in Hyde Park, the glossy toppers of “swells” and the rich finery of the ladies, it was all of a piece. And then the shops, the finest in all the world without a doubt – the furriers, the milliners, jewelers, and fashionable portrait ateliers for the ladies, and shirt makes, hatters, gunsmiths and tobacconists for the gentlemen.
For both sexes there were the superb bookshops, Sotherans, Hatchards and at the top of the three in service and elegance, Bumpus, the bookshop favored by the Royal Family, though the Prince of Wales, ‘Tumtum’ to his sporting and gambling friends, scarcely opened a book not concerned with pornography or race horses.
The educated people of the time however, had no alternative to books; television, radio, etc., were in the future; there was the live theatre, the opera, ballet and for a raucous night out, the rowdy music halls or, if you cared to risk it, the luxurious brothels. At home there was the piano over which so many young ladies struggled, or a new expensive toy, the music box. Reading was far and away the mort popular pastime even though the Prince and many swells and their ladies preferred cards, dice and fornication.
Without radio, people had to rely on the ‘latest editions’ of the papers for new and there were seven evening newspapers in London. So reading took up much of their abundant time in those lamp-lit or gas-lit rooms with their heavy upholstered furniture and prim antimacassars. What was there to read? Well, lots of fashion, sporting humorous, and art magazines and obviously the whole wonderful range of English Literature, though, as now, many people preferred the latest fashionable novels – the long forgotten works of Hall Caine, and the most popular author of the 80’s Mrs. Humphrey Ward, also the newly popular and (then) very modern Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
People of wealth and taste used custom-made clothes, hats, guns, silverware, carriages and so on, so of course they wanted custom-bound books, then as now a treat luxury. The book bindings were produced in small binderies in London’s unfashionable East End, swarming with grubby kids, whose cockney language was almost unintelligible to the educated classes of the West End.
It was an area of danger too (1888 was the year of the horrific murders of Jack the Ripper.) But from those small unpretentious East End binderies came miracles of honest craftsmanship though designed and supervised by experts at the famous West End booksellers. It is a trade now almost priced out of existence, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century there were many clients who could afford to have their books bound to their own taste in choice but luxurious prayer books, game books, guest books, memorial books, gift books, wedding books and so on.
Some books were stamped with the coats of arms and coronets of the aristocrats but them ore powerful aristocracy of money was already pushing its way up abetted by HRH the Prince of Wales, who kept a stud of race horses, an even more expensive ‘loose box’ of women and who had a suit or uniform for every imaginable occasion. He led the way in introducing lowborn plutocrats into Society; Sir Thomas Lipton the tea baron, the Beerage including Sir Edward Guinnes and Lord Burton the wealthy brewers, the Press Barons such as the Rothschilds – formerly excluded by snobbery from Society but welcomed by the Prince in solving the many financial problems his extravagant lifestyle brought about, and giving him hot tips on the Stock Exchange.