Untold lives blog

10 August 2012

A bookbinder’s revenge

“Bookbinders were not considered as important people – hardly worthy of notice”. In such circumstances, it was inadvisable for a craftsman to cross swords with an exacting employer. Thomas Elliott was one of several binders who worked on the large and splendid Harleian Library (founded by Robert Harley in 1704), supervised by its rigorous librarian, Humfrey Wanley.  Elliott’s bills, on deposit at the British Library, reveal that from 1720-29, his work for the library earned him £609 16s 5d.  But this was not easy money. Wanley’s diary entries reveal a battle of wills between librarian and binder with Wanley accusing Elliott of negligence, questioning his costs (“I found him exceedingly dear in all the Work of Marocco-Turkey- & Russia-Leather; besides that of Velvet”) and criticising the “vicious lettering,” a task which Elliott had apparently palmed off onto his employees.  Elliott stood up for himself (Wanley tells us he argued that “no man can do so well as himself”) but it was clear that the librarian had the upper hand. 


Spine of book showing initials E L L

E L L - British Library Harleian Ms.3976 

In 1966, an interesting discovery was made in an edition of Wanley’s diary edited by C.E. and Ruth C.Wright. The spines of two books had not been decorated in the prescribed way.  In the middle of each of the spine panels was a small circle enclosing a letter which, put together, formed Elliott’s name!  So maybe Elliott had the last laugh after all.

Philippa Marks
Curator, Bookbindings; Printed Historical Sources

Further reading:

Ellic Howe, A list of London bookbinders 1648 -1815 (London, 1950).
H. M. Nixon, ‘Harleian Bindings’ in Studies in the book trade in honour of Graham Pollard (Oxford, 1975), 153-94.
Lansdowne MSS:771-2: The diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715-1726, 2 vols, (London, 1966).
British Library Harleian Mss. 2768 and 3976.



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