London’s Oldest Bookshop: Its Life and Times

It is hard to miss Hatchards, whenever you are visiting London. After all, it’s located on marble-clad, bustling Piccadilly, close to many top London attractions. Hatchards bears the title of the oldest bookshop in the capital, founded in 1797 – an era, associated for many of us with “politeness” and slow-paced life.
The shop’s interior – regal dark wood, oil paintings, thick carpets – does not contradict this image. However, the age of its foundation was much stranger, and at the same time more wondrous, than familiar image of gentility.
We tend to think of our own era as drowning in information. Georgians held the same opinion of their own. Of course, the printing press has been already invented several centuries before them. But no previous era could boast so many books and pamphlets being published virtually every day; no previous generation had so many authors, journalists and critics, to say nothing of the ardent readers, among it. Literacy skyrocketed due to the appearance of cheap, reliable “penny post” and a regular newspaper. The latter was invented by Elizabeth Mallet, a shrewd London publisher, in 1702. For some time this newspaper, Daily Courant, was the only player on the market; but the idea caught on, and soon newspapers, magazines and periodicals of every kind started to multiply. At the same time, more, than 2,000 new books, plays or pamphlets were published every year.
However, unlike in our days, a book wasn’t really a solitary enjoyment. Just like music, it was part of the shared entertainment for the whole household. The image of each family member reading his or her own book on a dark winter evening, quite usual for us, would’ve been a scene of unimaginable extravagance for the Georgians – after all, that meant, that each person would need a candle! Even relatively wealthy Jane Austen had usually read books aloud or listened to others.

Hatchards now.

Far from being a private pleasure on quiet Sundays, then, books became a part of social life. After all, you now had to be well-read – or, at least, know the latest novels – to have the aforesaid social life at all. People, who still deemed reading unnecessary, were mercilessly satirized on London stage. And bookshops were no longer just places to, well, buy books – you could go there to meet and mingle with like-minded bibliophiles.
These bookshops were usually lined on Ludgate Hill, Paternoster Row and St. Paul’s Churchyard. Booksellers and printers were traditionally one and the same, selling the books they’ve just published, and most of these shops were very small. That was, of course, insufficient to satisfy the new hunger for words. So, closer to the end of the century, bookshops of a new kind – with large premises and versatile stock – began to appear. One of them, opened in 1794 in Finsbury Square, became celebrated as the “Temple of the Muses” and one of the wonders of London. Another one was Hatchards.
And who were the authors, supplying this enormous industry and satisfying (barely) voracious appetites of the public? Some were solicitors or doctors, writing in their leisure time, their style polished by letter writing and diary keeping. Some were eager young men, dropping out of university, dreaming of literary glory. Some, like enormously popular Eliza Haywood, were shrewd women, publishing sensational novels. Some of these people were born in London, but most flocked to the capital, where 90% of the publishing industry was located, from elsewhere. Of course, they needed help at first – finding accommodation, meeting new people, making first steps – and some booksellers were ready to provide it. For example, Strahan of New Street was always ready to assist any fellow Scot, striving to make a literary career in London. Mary Wollstonecraft was greatly assisted by Johnson of St Paul’s Churchyard, who even helped her to find good lodgings. And John Hatchard himself, future founder of the regal bookshop, used to frequent literary coffee houses to meet young authors.
When prolific Bishop William Warburton was overwintering in London during the 1770s, he used to “send out for a whole basketful of books from the circulating libraries”. I am admittedly less cautious than the Georgian bishop, and usually leave Hatchards with the basketful.
Perhaps, I really should subscribe to a library.
Or not.



Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Lesley and Roy Adkins. (UK version)

Dr. Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London in the Mid 18th Century, Liza Picard. (UK version)

Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis (UK version)




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