Georgian Booksellers in Norwich

Maps.K.Top.27.21.b, plate 17

Those of you who have read my “Ashmole Foxe” series of historical mysteries will know that Mr Foxe is a bookseller in the city of Norwich during the 1760s. Nothing about him is inauthentic to the period, so far as I am able to ascertain, save for his tendency to spend a good deal of his time in solving murder mysteries. To prove the point — and, I hope, interest the rest of you — this post is all about actual booksellers in the city between 1701 and around 1790, with special emphasis on the Chase family, whose activities informed my imagination in creating Mr Ashmole Foxe.

By the start of the 18th century, the ‘middling sort’ — tenant farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers and the new professionals — were becoming a sizeable group within the society of the time. All had increasing leisure and disposable wealth, which they looked to use in emulation of the gentry. Before this time, there had been few booksellers outside London and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, but by 1701, several booksellers had set up in Norwich, generally combining their trade with that of printing. It was one of these bookseller/printers, a man called Goddard, who, in that same year, started the first newspaper outside London. He was soon followed by two others, so that, by 1707, there were three newspapers in the city, none of which was particularly successful.

Maybe it was an attempt to cut his costs which persuaded Mr Goddard, in 1710, to put his struggling newspaper in the hands of one of his apprentices, William Chase, a lad of barely 16 with only one year’s experience behind him. It should have been a disaster, but it was not. Indeed, another of the newspapers, the Norwich Post, was also being run by a teenage apprentice, Edward Cave, at around the same time.

William Chase set up on his own account as a bookseller in 1714, becoming a Freeman in 1716. At first he sold Goddard’s newspaper, then began his own, changing the name several times, until it settled down as the Norwich Mercury in 1720. Not only that, he branched out from bookselling into other kinds of publishing and printing, holding book auctions (alone and in conjunction with Goddard) and expanding his second-hand books business to the extent of buying and selling complete libraries. He was obviously both a clever businessman and a natural entrepreneur, soon becoming a wealthy and influential man as a result. When he died, in 1744, his wife, Margaret, continued to operate his businesses until his eldest son, another William, was able to take over.

William Chase II

As the son of a Freeman bookseller, William was able to become a freeman himself in 1749, at which time he assumed full responsibility for the family business. Indeed, he developed the business into one of the largest in the city and certainly the largest bookseller.

While bookselling, printing and publishing remained at the core of Chase’s business, he later branched out into other areas. He sold paper and stationery, patent medicines and even tea, coffee and chocolate. Since this was Norwich (famous for canaries), his advertisements also mentioned: “Canary seed for birds, as good and as cheap as any.” He continued to buy and sell second-hand books, as his father had done, and let his bookshop act as a kind of library, allowing customers to borrow books at a set charge per week. He never set up a formal circulating library, as Ashmole Foxe’s partner, Mrs Crombie, does in my books, but all the rest was there.

In time, Chase dropped the sales of groceries and the like, but added music, popular prints and caricatures, and lottery tickets to the range of goods on offer. As well as casual printing, he printed books, maps and other ephemera, plus the first Norwich Directory. He expanded the book auction business, holding auctions in other Norfolk towns and began to deal in property and auctions for other goods, including china and even livestock. None of these extra services were unique to the Chase family. What was unusual was the sheer range and scale of what William Chase II was able to offer.

By the time he died in 1781, William was a rich man with a wide range of interests in the city, serving on the Common Council for many years and as Guardian of the Poor several times. His interest in these roles seems not to have been especially political; it was probably due to the business benefits that could accrue from being involved with the City Corporation and the contracts it awarded. He made sure to secure work from the Diocese of Norwich and the established church generally. Such ‘highbrow’ official printing, was balanced by the publication of details of forthcoming trials, followed by accounts of the verdicts and subsequent executions at the gaol, including supposed ‘dying speeches’ and confessions on the scaffold.

After his death, the business continued under his heir, yet another William, but never attain to the same heights, though various descendants of the original two Williams continued to play significant roles in bookselling and printing well into the 19th century.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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5 Responses to Georgian Booksellers in Norwich

  1. Lucy says:

    I’m commenting a little late, but will you please explain the term “freeman bookseller”? I’ve never encountered it before, and somehow I can’t match it up with the ranks of various apprenticeships. Thanks very much, and thanks for an interesting post!


  2. noelleg44 says:

    Sounds like Mr. Chase was the quintessential entrepreneur – and must have had an enjoyable life. His offering of some food etc in his bookstore sounds a lot like Barnes and Noble. Got a review of your book on my blog this week!

    Liked by 1 person

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