Untold lives blog

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19 October 2012

‘Old Nimmo’- the Del Boy of the 1780s

In many workplaces there is a fixer, someone who not only knows the ropes but the best way to tie them.  Hard-pressed bookbinders who worked in late eighteenth century London were lucky to have Watkin Nimmo on their side.  Accounts of his scams can be found in the Library’s Jaffray Collection

Watkin (also known as Watkins, Walter or familiarly, Wattie or Old Nimmo) worked as a bookbinder in Blackfriars and his son Watkin and grandson Richard followed him into the trade.  Opinions vary.  To the bindings historian, Ellic Howe, he was “a disreputable old gentleman.”  An account in the Ipswich Journal of Saturday 29 April 1797 demonstrated his fighting spirit and radical leanings, describing Nimmo’s two month imprisonment for punching fellow binder, John Dooy, in the eye for deserting the trade society. In the journal, The British Bookmaker, Nimmo appears in a more heroic, if humorous, light.

The 1780s saw considerable tension between the masters, i.e. the owners of the bookbinding businesses, and the journeymen, the qualified craftsmen who worked for them. The men requested a reduction in the work day from 14 to 13 hours.  They met together in local groups (prototype trade unions) for protection and support and, in 1786, decided upon strike action.  The masters protected their own interests by prosecuting their employees under the strict ‘anti-union’ Combination Laws. Nimmo was selected for prosecution but, despite this, he remained on good terms with the masters and acted as a spy for the trade society, passing on valuable information.

Westminster Hall Westminster Hall from Lambert, The history and survey of London (London, 1806) vol III opp. p.410 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

When the matter came to trial at Westminster Hall in February 1787, Wattie was there, and not solely to tend to his nut-selling business, “a very profitable speculation”.  He distracted a waiting group of masters by plying them with rum and then picked the pocket of John Lovejoy (to whom his son was apprenticed), stealing evidence which would have put the journeymen in a poor light!  Lovejoy, lacking the crucial evidence, retired ‘discomforted’ from the court, amidst much laughter.

It was perhaps a mixed blessing that Nimmo himself was not called to give evidence, since he had devised a routine involving the ‘accidental’ dropping of a heavy beating hammer on the toe of the judge.

Philippa Marks
Curator, Bookbindings. Printed Historical Sources

The Jaffray Collection comprises scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, trade society reports and other material compiled by the Victorian bookbinder John Jaffray.

Further reading

Charles Ramsden, London bookbinders 1780-1840 (London, 1956).
Ellic Howe, ‘London Bookbinders: Masters and Men, 1780-1840’ The Library. Fifth ser., v. 1, no. 1, June 1946.
The British Bookmaker Vols v-vii (1891-4) include articles on the actions of the trade societies.
Ellic Howe and John Childe, The Society of London Bookbinders 1780-1951, London, 1952.


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