Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 31 - Our Modern Mercury

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IT is often the case that the history of a single firm, is the history of a great social revolution in a country of rapid development, such as Great Britain. What ages seem to separate us from the time, little more than a quarter of a century ago, when it took two days to convey any important item of intelligence between London and Liverpool. Then the Times in the north was fresh two days after date! In those days, say thirty-five years ago, all newspapers sent into the country passed through the Post-office. The clerks at country post-offices received subscriptions for them, and transmitted their orders to the heads of the divisions at St. Martin-le-Grand, with whom they corresponded; these again employed a Mr. Newcombe to procure the papers for them. This process interposed an unnatural delay, inasmuch as the papers never left but by the night mail, and matters of the utmost importance to the mercantile community often were delayed a full day later than were passengers themselves. Just before the establishment of railways, it will be remembered, the speed of coaches was greatly augmented. The journey to Birmingham of 110 miles was regularly accomplished in ten hours, and the coach that left the Saracen's Head at eight a.m., stood before the doors of the Hen and Chickens, in [-305-] the great toy-shop, with reeking horses, at six in the after-noon. It struck Mr. Smith, the father of the present head of the extensive firm near St. Clement's Danes Church, that instead of waiting for the night mail, the morning papers might be despatched by the quick morning coaches, thus enabling the community at Birmingham to read the London morning news, and the great cities of Liverpool, Manchester, and other neighbouring towns, to get the papers on the first instead of the second morning after publication. This was a simple idea, and destined to be of immense importance to the community, and one would have thought that its advantages would speedily have been taken advantage of. The experiment, however, was only another example of the length of time it takes to make the public leave their old ruts, but of the ultimate triumph of all good ideas if sufficiently persevered in. Mr Smith laboured long and earnestly in this new direction before it began to tell. As the morning papers in those days made no editions expressly for early trains, it often happened that the coaches started before they were out — this was Mr. Smith's first difficulty, which he overcame by establishing express carts to overtake them. On great occasions, these express carts went the whole journey at a very heavy expense; but the prize was commensurate  — the conveyance of important news before any other medium of communication. Thus Smith's express carried the news to Dublin of the death of George IV., before the government messenger arrived. Again, during the excitement of the Reform Bill, the craving for early intelligence made Smith's expresses famous throughout the north. Even at the latest period of the coaching time, however [-306-] one man, who is still in the establishment, was able to carry all the papers to the coaches under his arm, and now six tons of the Times newspaper alone, are despatched every day by the early trains; and the preparation of packing and folding, carried on in the great room in the Strand, is one of the most remarkable sights in London. The best day to witness this operation is on Saturday morning, between 4 and 6 A.M. The packing-room of the establishment is a large square hall open to the roof, and surrounded by two galleries, rising one above the other. A single cluster of gas-lights in the centre of the domed skylight is sufficient to make this immense apartment during the dark evenings of winter as light as day.
    As soon as the steam-presses of the morning papers have thrown off the first copies, the red express carts of the establishment are at their doors ready to convey them to the office, and the clock has scarcely struck half-past four before the porters are seen staggering under huge piles of quires of broadsheets still wet from the press. These early copies do not go to the Post Office at all, but are sent direct to agents in the great provincial cities. It is a race with time to get them off — a race, however, which is always won. One of the farthest stations from Messrs. Smiths' office is the Great Western, which cannot be less than three and a quarter miles away. Nevertheless, the light express carts tear along the vacant streets at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, and rarely take more than fifteen minutes in performing the journey. The early copies despatched, the process of folding and directing the single copies to be transmitted through the post commences. The galleries, and the tables in the centre of the hall, are alive [-307-] with young lads folding and putting on the address covers for their very lives. The urgency is too great to permit of running up and down stairs, and therefore the strong arm comes into play. "Look alive there, and get these Times done," and a quire of papers pitches just like a shell in the midst of a group of boys. In a minute they are folded, wrapped, pasted, and have descended through a trap  into a sack ready for transference to the cart. The superintendent, like nature, hates a vacuum, and no sooner is another group of lads idle, than a fresh shower of Telegraphs fly at their heads with injunctions to get them off in three minutes. Sometimes there is a regular bombardment of the galleries with solid quires, which is returned by a descending musketry of folded papers.
    The human hand folds well enough for ordinary papers where extreme nicety is not required; but the Illustrated News, which must be folded with the regularity of bookwork, and with the speed of lightning, has a special machine constructed to accomplish this purpose. Those who remember De La Rue's envelope-folding apparatus in the Great Exhibition will have a tolerably good idea. of the neatness, speed, and exactness with which iron fingers fold this favourite paper for the British breakfast-table. The penny morning papers are beginning to monopolize the public market; and the thousands which daily leave Messrs. Smiths' for the country is a proof that hundreds of thousands in the provinces now see a daily paper who never enjoyed that luxury before. As the Telegraph, Star, and Standard, have thus spread themselves over the country, all the high-priced daily papers, with the exception of the Times only, have lost a considerable part of [-308-] their circulation, and must eventually come down to the standard penny, if they would avoid destruction. Whilst we note this revolution among the daily papers, it is equally clear that the old slovenly scissors and paste weekly journal is going to the wall. People, as soon as they grow accustomed to see a cheap morning paper, will not tolerate a mere stale jumble of the week's news patched together without method or originality. Hence many of the old sixpenny weeklies are rapidly passing into a moribund condition, and a higher class of journals, such as the Saturday Review, and the London Review, which aim at giving a selection of original essays, and at passing in review the events of the week, rather than of giving old news, is coming into favour. The old high-priced provincial papers are also rapidly becoming extinct, and in the great cities of the north are being displaced by penny morning papers, written with a vigour certainly not inferior to that which distinguishes the metropolitan cheap press. And we cannot but pause here to pay our tribute of admiration to the spirit and ability with which the cheap press throughout the country is conducted. The sneer heretofore urged against the "cheap and nasty press" now falls harmless, and there can be no reasonable doubt that they will assume and exercise a very considerable influence, as an educational power, among the middle and lower orders of the population.
    It is impossible to calculate the fruits which spring indirectly from any new discovery. Who would have imagined that the introduction of railways would be a powerful and direct means of increasing a thousand-fold the influence of the Belles Lettres, and of scattering [-309-] throughout the country the literary treasures that find their birth as a natural consequence in great capitals? The institution. of railway libraries by Messrs. Smith is, we think, one of the most remarkable features of the present day. On the first establishment of railways, the porters were allowed to keep· book-stalls for their own emolument. Low-class intellects, of course, could only appreciate low-class literature, consequently these stalls at last became mere disseminators of literary trash and rubbish, and were quite a nuisance. It was evident that the note of public taste had been struck a whole octave too low. At this juncture, the stalls of nearly all the railway stations fell into the hands of Mr. W. H. Smith; and a book for the journey speedily became as great a necessity as a railway rug or cap. Our readers must have observed that a certain class of literature was called into existence to fill that new want. The shilling series of Routledge were the true offspring of the railway libraries. Even their highly-embellished covers were of the rapid school of design, calculated to ensnare the eye of the passing traveller. It cannot be denied that this new style of literature had its evil as well as its good side, and had a tendency to deteriorate our current literature with a certain slang and fast element which boded anything but good for the future. It was speedily discovered that higher priced books, such as are published by Messrs. Murray and Longman, seldom found a sale at these stalls, and the circulating population would feed on no literary food but that which was of an exciting, stimulating character. In this country, however, things have a tendency to work straight, and it occurred to Mr. W. H. Smith that [-310-] every book-stall could be turned into a circulating library, fed by the central depot in London. Listen to this, young ladies in remote villages, eaten out by ennui, and pining to read the last new novel! Imagine one of the largest booksellers in the metropolis proposing to pour without stint all the resources of his establishment into your remote Stoke Pogis, and you will find this unheard-of proposition is now an actual and accomplished fact. At the present moment almost every railway in Great Britain and Ireland, with the exception of the Great Western, is in literary possession of Mr. W. H. Smith. At two hundred stations, metropolitan, suburban, and provincial, a great circulating library is opened, which can command the whole resources of an unlimited supply of the first-class books: and to appreciate this fact we must remember the state of things it displaces. In the country village the circulating library is generally an appendage to the general shop. A couple of hundred thumbed volumes, mostly of the Edgeworth, Hannah More, or Sir Charles Grandison class, form the chief stock-in-trade. If by any chance a new novel loses its way down into one of these villages, in a couple of months' time a resident may have a chance of reading it. But all this is now changed. In Mr. W. H. Smith's circulating library the reader may have any book he may choose to order down by the next morning train; regardless of its value. Imagine Southey living in this age, and whilst he enjoyed his lovely Cumberland Lake, having a stream of new books down from London fresh and fresh, at an annual cost a little more than one volume would have cost him in his day ! The subscriber to the railway library has simply to present his ticket to the book-stall [-311-] keeper, wherever he may be, to get the book he wants, if it be in stock; if not, a requisition is forwarded to the house in the Strand, and he gets it by the next day. He can get the book he wants with a great deal more certainty, and almost as quickly even in the North of England, than he could by sending to the next country town. If he is travelling, he may exchange his books at any station where he may happen to be.
    The works purchased at the bookstall itself is not a bad barometer of the popular taste, as regards the sale of current books of the day. As we have said, there is but little demand for the more expensive works of the leading publishers, Messrs. Murray, Longman, &c., but a very large call for Parlour and Railway Libraries, shilling novels, and works under half a guinea. The demand for mere book-makers' productions has, however, quite passed away. Cheap editions of standard authors are in constant requisition. Dickens, Thackeray, Kingsley, and Tennyson, are very popular, and Anthony Trollope is coming up fast behind them. The publications of Charlotte Bronte and the authoress of "Adam Bede" have had an enormous run upon the railway. One of the most popular cheap books of the day —  but only of the day —  has been the "Detective Police Officer," reprinted from "Chambers's Journal." Of this work, at least 10,000 copies have been sold in a few months at the railway-bookstalls alone.
    Perhaps the most cheering features in the demand for cheap editions of books, is the call for works of the character of "Self-Help" and "Stephenson's Life." The success of these works has called forth a host of imitations, called "Men who have Risen," "Men in Earnest," " Men [-312-] who have made themselves," "Farmer's Boys," and others, all testifying to the love of energetic action among the population so different to that which obtains in centralized continental countries. For second-class poetry there is no demand whatever. Byron and Cowper remain popular, but Tennyson, Longfellow, and Hood, have the run. Cheap hand-books on farming and the farm-yard are bought large1y. "Our Farm of Four Acres," for instance, was a grand success. We have tried to ascertain if any particular class of works is in demand in particular localities, but the only instance of this nature has reference to the county of Leicester, and other sporting counties, in which books about the horse, and about hunting and fishing, are constantly inquired after; and, I singularly enough, the general demand increases on the publication of any particular book of merit upon these subjects. The didactic class of books stands no chance, and works of a theological character are seldom sold on the railway bookstalls; but of late, a very large demand has sprung up for a cheap Bible. The Bible Society some time since determined to offer for sale, at a loss, at their stalls, a well got-up neatly-bound Bible for one shilling. The success of this step was immediate. The sale has been going on at the rate of 2,000 copies a year, and is still increasing. It is no uncommon thing, we are informed, for employers of labour to take a large pocketful down into the country for the purpose of giving away to their work-people.
    As we have shown, the railway-bookstalls find but few purchasers for first-class, high-priced books; but, singularly enough, it is now found that there is an almost [-313-] exclusive demand for them in the circulating library department of these stalls; the public are anxious enough to read them, but it cannot afford to pay such high prices for them; but those who may be anxious to buy at a reduced price have the opportunity of doing so after the books have been "well read," standing on the stalls as "second-hand" library books. Thus the institution of the circulating library has tapped —  if we may make use of the expression —  a class in the community which before made but little sign.
    Amid the hum of the mighty Babylon, we easily overlook the noiseless and unostentatious growth of such an establishment as that of Messrs. W. H. Smith & Co. Within thirty-five years, by the exercise of intelligence, perseverance, and industry, this house has grown from a mere stationer's shop and newspaper agency, employing half-a-dozen persons, to a mighty establishment, employing two hundred clerks and five hundred men and boys; and whilst Mr. Smith has thus toiled to place himself in the position of a greater employer of labour, his efforts tend most powerfully to civilize and elevate the intelligence of the nation.
    Along every line of rail which traverses the country in every direction, these libraries are posted, and become wells of English undefiled. They have established a propaganda of culture in the remotest as well as in the most cultivated spots on the island; and their proprietor, in building up his own fortune, is doing no small service towards the educational movement in this country.