English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

12 May 2023

The William Maskell Chapbook Collection

In 2022, the British Library received a selection of rare books and manuscripts from the Honresfield Library, originally collected by industrialist William Law (1836–1901). This collection was purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries and shared across a number of UK institutions. The Honresfield Library contains several items of significant historical and literary importance.

Title-page of The life and death of Jenny Wren, illustrated with a woodcut depicting a bird and young girl reading from a book to a woman. The image has been very crudely coloured in blue and there is a type error on the imprint.
The life and death of Jenny Wren, for the use of young ladies and gentlemen, Hon.129.(12) Many chapbooks were decorated with simple woodcuts, sometimes coloured, either by the seller or the owner.

Among the items that were allocated to the British Library are a collection of curiously small volumes in uniform brown watered silk bindings with green spine labels betraying their contents: “Chap Books”. This collection comprises of 764 individual pamphlets, bound together in seventy parts. The volumes are numbered on their spines, and suggest three distinct series: 1-48, 1-19, and four un-numbered. This division is reflected, and expounded, in the 1891 Sotheby sales catalogue listing them:

“48. Chap Books. A collection of numerous small popular work for children, with woodcuts arranged in 20 vol. uncut, v. y. – An extensive collection of chap-books, garlands, children’s books, &c. with woodcuts arranged in 49 vol. 12mo, uncut, v.y. – Manuscript catalogues of both series by W. Maskell. 70 vol.”[1]

Comparing the current British Library holdings with the 1891 catalogue entry reveals a few discrepancies. Notably, one volume is missing from each numbered series: neither no. 49 nor no. 20 feature in the present British Library holdings. Furthermore, the remaining four unnumbered volumes are not accounted for here. However, item 49 in the sales catalogue includes a further eight volumes of “Chap and Toy Books”, sold to Maggs, which may suggest the origin of these additional four volumes.

The Sotheby entry also mentions a manuscript catalogue, which is dated 1872 and survives in the present collection. It further introduces us to the original compiler of the collection, the Rev. William Maskell (1814?-1890). Maskell was a liturgical scholar and collector who was in the habit of building up collections of books and works of art and selling them to public institutions[2]. The British Museum Library acquired a large number of liturgical works from Maskell within his lifetime, with a major portion of his collection being sold to the Museum for £2,240 in 1847[3]. However, these chapbooks remained in Maskell’s private collection until his death in 1890 and were sold by Sotheby in the following year. Contemporary annotations in the sales catalogue suggest the volumes were purchased at auction by Bain (possibly the London booksellers James Bain) and were likely acquired by William Law not long after this.

A two-page spread opening of a hand-written catalogue containing entries of chapbooks, belonging to William Maskell.
Manuscript catalogue of chapbooks, children's books, garlands; &c. &c., Hon.112.(1) William Maskell kept a detailed manuscript catalogue of his chapbook collection. The catalogue is organised alphabetically, with entries relating to the numbers which can be found on the spines of the bound volumes. For each entry, Maskell provides the volume number, short title, format, place and year of publication (where available).

The sales catalogue also attests to the impressive scale of the collection: “so complete a collection of chap-books would occupy many years even if possible to procure them in the different towns of England and Scotland in which they were printed.” The collection represents examples of printing from 53 different towns and cities in England, Scotland and Ireland, spanning c.1770-1865. These imprints include the names of printers whose body of work is largely absent from research library catalogues.

Title-page of The misfortunes of a bad boy, with a decorated border, small woodcut illustration depicted the eponymous bad boy and an imprint of Alnick, W. Davison. Not dated.
The misfortunes of a bad boy, Hon.134.(5) Some chapmen, such as W. Davison of Alnwick, produced multiple series of popular tales to be collected. This printing of The misfortunes of a bad boy was no. 21 in a series of halfpenny chapbooks produced by Davison in the early 19th century.

The collection also varies enormously in the nature of its content. ‘Chapbook’ is an infamously slippery term used to describe abridgements, alphabets, ballads, cries, dreadfuls, fables, garlands, histories, rhymes, songsters and morals, among other things. Their physical appearance and cheap, sometimes crude, production are also defining marks. Chapbooks of this period were often illustrated with woodcut blocks, which were typically re-used across publications, sometimes even being shared by different printers[4]. The indeterminate status of the chapbook is well illustrated by the sheer variety of size, shape, theme, and tone of the pamphlets represented in Maskell’s collection. Most of the collection is in remarkably pristine condition, with only a small selection bearing markings of former owners[5]. Some volumes include pencil inscriptions, possibly by William Law, generally commenting on their contents. In addition, there is one chapbook titled, A pleasant and delightful dialogue between honest John and loving Kate. Part the first.” (1791) which has been loosely inserted alongside a copy of the second part of the same story[6]. This title does not appear in the 1872 manuscript catalogue.

Title-page of The wonderful advantages of drunkenness, with a small woodcut illustration and an imprint of Paisley, 1823.
The wonderful advantages of drunkenness; to which is added, Protest against whisky, Hon.163.(11) Chapbooks were produced on various subjects, from popular children’s tales, to more serious moral works. This early 19th century Scottish chapbook was a pamphlet decrying the dangers of excessive drinking.

The Maskell collection provides a useful resource for study into the production of British and Irish chapbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also an interesting example of chapbooks being collected, rather than used, and provides the opportunity for further study of Maskell and Law as collectors of cheap printed materials. This collection complements substantial holdings of chapbooks and cheap print already in the British Library collections. The Maskell collection has been fully catalogued online and can be found within shelfmark range Hon.112.(1) - Hon.183.(14).


[1] Sotheby’s, Sales Catalogue for the Late William Maskell, 26 February 1891.

[2] de Ricci, S.M.R.R., English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts 1530-1930 and Their Marks of Ownership, 1930, p.143.

[3] Harris, P. R. “The development of the collections of the Department of Printed Books, 1846-1875.” The British Library Journal 10, no. 2 (1984): 114–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42554204.

[4] Dutta, A., Bergel, G., and Zisserman, A., ‘Visual Analysis of Chapbooks Printed in Scotland’. In The 6th International Workshop on Historical Document Imaging and Processing (HIP '21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, (2021) 67–72.  https://doi.org/10.1145/3476887.3476893

[5] See Hon.119.(2), Hon.121.(8), Hon.124.(4), Hon.129.(5), Hon.129.(11), Hon.129.(12), Hon.138.(4), Hon.138.(5), Hon.140.(6) and Hon.169.(6).

[6] See Hon.156.(6).