James Lackington Revolutionized the Book Trade

James Lackington revolutionized the book trade because of his innovative book-selling practices. He was born in on 31 August 1746 in Wellington, Somerset to a shoemaker and was one of eleven children. His father had some money and young Lackington was lucky enough to attend a “Dame School,” but it lasted only a short time because he was removed to help with his young siblings. In addition, his father’s drinking resulted in the family suffering financial difficulties.

James Lackington. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lackington had initiative and was soon selling pies and cakes on the streets. He then went through various jobs and by the age of fifteen was apprenticed as a cobbler. It was then that he claimed he discovered something terrible:

“To my great mortification, I could not read. I knew most of the letters, and a few easy words, and I set about learning with all my might. My mistress would sometimes instruct me; and having three halfpence per week allowed me by my mother, this money I gave to John (my master’s youngest son) and for every three-halfpence he taught me to spell one hour; this was done in the dark, as we were not allowed a candle after we were sent upstairs to bed.”[1]

In 1767, he left his master, became his own boss working as a journeyman cobbler, which is when he met a young man named John Jones whom he befriended. Lackington reported that at age 22 he still couldn’t write but that he and Jones began to peruse bookstalls and that he used every spare cent to build what he called a “very good library.” However, many of his books were related to divinity and religious topics as he had embraced religion.

In 1770, he married Nancy Smith and continued to improve his reading. At some point he and Nancy moved to Chiswell, and it was while living there that an irresistible opportunity presented itself in London in June of 1774. This opportunity would change his life and of it he wrote:

“[I was] informed … that a little shop and parlour were to be let in Featherstone-street; adding, that if I was to take it, I might there get some work as a master. I without hesitation … liked the idea, and hinted that I would sell books also.”[2]

Lackington could hardly contain his excitement about his new shop. He opened it with books from his own private library and noted:

“With this stock [divinity books], and some odd scraps of leather, which together with all my books were worth about five pounds, I opened shop on Midsummer-day, 1774, in Featherstone-street, in the parish of St. Luke; and I was as well pleased in surveying my little shop with my name over it, … and my good wife often perceiving the pleasure that I took in my shop, piously cautioned me against setting my mind on the riches of this world.”[3]

While Lackington and Nancy were living near Chiswell, they both caught the fever and were nursed by their landlady a Miss Dorcas Turton, who also became ill. Unfortunately, Nancy died on 9 November. Lackington and Turton recovered, fell in love, and married on 30 January 1776.

It was also fortunate that his new wife loved books because she became involved with his business, which continued to improve and advance. As it did, Lackington’s stock of books began to change considerably: He switched from selling divinity books to a broader selection that included classics, novels, and scientific books. Then in 1778 he became partners with an oilman in Cannon Street named John Denis, who agreed to advance Lackington money. The influx of cash helped improve Lackington’s business and his book stock doubled.

Lackington also decided to print a catalog listing his books for sale and although Denis initially objected, he finally conceded a catalog was a good idea. The catalog Lackington produced contained twelve thousand volumes and when printed, it did not include Denis’ name but rather simply stated, “J. Lackington and Co. No. 46, Chiswell-street.”[4] Unfortunately, the catalog contained numerous mistakes and greatly overstated the condition of the books. These errors caused Lackington to be skewered by other booksellers and he and his catalog were intensely ridiculed. It was not the reaction Lackington expected and he wrote:

“This our first publication produced very opposite effects on those who perused it; in some it excited much mirth, in others an equal proportion of anger. … we however took twenty pounds the first week the books were on sale, which we thought a large sum. The increase of our stock augmented our customers in proportion; so that Mr. Denis finding that his money turned to a better account in bookselling than in the funds, very soon lent the stock near two hundred pounds, which I still turned to a good account.”[5]  

Besides the catalog, Lackington also introduced other revolutionary book-selling practices. For example, he purchased large quantities of remainder books, whole libraries, and writer manuscripts and was known to spend thousands of pounds at a single auction. He then resold these items at a good profit. In addition, he realized that he could sell even more books if he did not allow his customers to make purchases on credit because that affected his ability to buy books. Of his practice to refuse credit and accept cash only he wrote:

“It was some time in the year seventeen hundred and eighty, when I resolved from that period to give no person whatever any credit. I was induced to make this resolution from various motives; I have observed, that where credit was given, most bills were not paid within six months, many not within a twelvemonth, and some not within two years. Indeed, many tradesmen have accounts of seven years standing; and some bills are never paid. The losses sustained by the interest of money in long credits, and by those bills that were not paid at all, the inconveniences attending not having the ready-money to lay out in trade … together with the great loss of time in keeping accounts, and collecting debts, convinced me, that I could establish a ready-money business, without any exceptions, I should be enabled to sell every article very cheap.”[6]

Of course, some people were offended that Lackington refused them credit but most realized that his scheme of accepting nothing but cash meant they could purchase books at a cheaper price and “readily acceded” to it. Lackington also claimed that after his no-credit scheme went into effect, he found his stock enlarged and after the third year his stock increased from 12,000 to 30,000 volumes and that his volumes were better quality.

As Lackington achieved success, he realized he needed a larger location and his main bookshop moved to Finsbury Square in 1794 and was called The Temple of the Muses. It was not your ordinary bookstore as described:

“The premises were constructed in a very peculiar manner, having in the centre of the interior an opening upwards, surmounted by a dome, which from the basement to the roof displayed a number of galleries; the premises formerly belonged to Mr. Lackington, the celebrated bookseller, and during his occupancy, one of the royal mail-coaches was driven (four-in-hand) round the circular counter which occupied the space beneath the dome; this feat was repeated a few years, by Alexander, of Chiswell-street, for a wager of 200l.”[7]

Exterior to The Temple of the Muses. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One visitor who was ten years old when he visited The Temple of the Muses, later wrote about his experience stating:

“In the centre is an enormous circular counter, within which stands the dispensers of knowledge, ready to wait upon the country clergyman, in his wig and shovel-hat, upon the fine ladies, in feathers and trains; or upon the bookseller’s collector, with his dirty bag. … ‘The lowest price is marked on every Book, and no abatement made of any article.’ We ascend a broad staircase, which leads to ‘The Lounging Rooms,’ and to the first of a series of circular galleries, lighted from the lantern of the dome, which also lights the ground floor. Hundreds, even thousands, of volumes are displayed on the shelves running round the walls. As we mount higher and higher, we find commoner books, in shabbier bindings, but there is still the same order preserved, each book being numbered, according to a printed catalogue.”[8]

Tempe of the Muses. Public domain.

Just like his bookstores was unusual, Lackington himself was reported to be unusual. He was described as an eccentric. One example of his eccentricity was when he devised a plan to issue half-pence trade tokens with his image on them. They were to be used at his business, and although he may have thought it a great idea, it was not successful. Another time he heard about an idea to place a statue in Finsbury Square and decided he should be the model for it. The Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser reported:

“Lackington offered his own figure, and promised that if his fellow-citizens would erect a statue to him, the whole expense should be borne by him. This noble offer was curtly refused.”[9]  

Lackington also owned a famous “chariot,” and there is a story related to it when he traveled to Cambridge in it. Apparently the ostler who was taking care of it decided to charge sixpence to the curious townspeople who wanted to see it. When Lackington heard, he ordered the carriage to be placed in a spot where everyone could see it for free and then left it there for several hours.

Despite Lackington’s apparent good heart controversy surrounded him and caricaturists attacked him. One example of a clever cartoon shows Lackington carrying his Memoirs as he steps onto a pile of books to enter his chariot that is emblazoned with the motto “Small profits do great things.” Surrounding him is a crowd in awe of him while in the background the Temple of the Muses has a banner that announces it has the cheapest books in the world.

Cartoon related to Lackington with the motto “Small profits do great things.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1791, Lackington’s annual profits were £4000. He was rich and he was good at spending money. He was also living in an expensive country house in Merton known as Spring House but instead of purchasing it, he leased it, something extremely unusual at the time. Moreover, when he left his London house for Merton, a flag that was hoisted on his roof was lowered when he departed.

Around this same time Lackington wrote and published Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington. Of them, many people maintained they were highly embellished or outright inaccurate. Nonetheless, one interesting comment that appears at the end of the book is about a portrait that he included of himself at the front of the book. Of it he notes:

“Before the portrait was finished, Mrs. Lackington, accompanied by another lady, called on the painter to view it. Being introduced into a room filled with portraits, her little dog (the faithful Argus) being with her, immediately ran to that particular portrait, paying it the same attention as he is always accustomed to do to the original; which made it necessary to remove him from it, lest he should damage it, though this was not accomplished without expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of poor Argus.”[10]

Portrait mentioned by Lackington in his Memoirs. Public domain.

A few years later after his memoirs were published, Lackington sold a portion of his book business to Robert Allen, and then despite his phenomenal success and having proven himself to be a shrewd, industrious, and innovative business man, Lackington decided to retire from the book business. He left at the helm his third cousin, George Lackington, who had been involved with Lackington’s business since he was a boy.

After his retirement, Lackington returned to his religious roots and began to serve as a part-time Methodist preacher. However, it was not his religious leanings that resulted in his name appearing in the paper in 1794. Rather he experienced a scary incident in May that was reported by the Hereford Journal:

“On Sunday evening last, as Mr. Lackington, was reading to a Lady in an unfrequented lane, near Merton, they were suddenly addressed from behind a hedge, desiring them not to be frightened, but if they did not lay down their money and watches, he would immediately blow out their brains; at the same time pointing a gun through the hedge, and saying he had another young fellow with him. On this Mr. L. threw down half-a-guinea, some silver, and an antique brass coin. The fellow was seen lurking about the fields the same afternoon. He was immediately pursued, but effected his escape.”[11]

In 1804, Lackington published another book about his life. This one was titled The Confessions of James Lackington. He was also still interested in religion and purchased two small estates in Alveston, where he erected in 1805 a small chapel for the Wesleyan Methodists. The following year he moved to Taunton and built and endowed another chapel there. However, after a dispute arose between him and the conference in 1810, he relocated to Budleigh Salterton, where his health declined.

Lackington died at the age of seventy in 1815 in Budleigh Salterton. He was buried at East Budleigh and several newspapers noted his passing with a brief line or two. As to Lackington’s second wife, she remarried four more times. The first time on 6 March 1817 to a man named Mr. Symes; on 29 October 1822 to a Mr. Gellard; on 5 December 1834 to John Snow Manley; and then sometime later to a Cornish man named Huddy.

Although it may seem that Lackington’s wife moved on and forgot him, the citizens of Budleigh Salterton did not. They remembered that he built the first Temple Methodist Church there in 1812, and, so, in 2017, a blue plaque honoring the bookseller was unveiled at the Temple Methodist Church, in Fore Street.

Blue Plaque for James Lackington. Courtesy of Temple Methodist Church Budleigh Salteron.

Since Lackington’s book selling days much has changed. However, Lackington’s ideas of cash only, selling books cheaply, refusing to adhere to restrictive practices, and encouraging cheap reprints means he would have met today’s challenges in innovative ways because he was shrewd businessman who sought independence and pulled himself out of poverty all because he developed a love for books. He once wrote a long verse that serves as his epitaph, and a portion of it shows the importance he placed on books:

  • “In poverty, he found content,
  • Riches ne’er made him insolent.
  • When poor, he’d rather read than eat;
  • When rich, books form’d his highest treat.
  • But fame herself prov’d greatest gain,
  • For riches follow’d in her train.
  • Much had he read, and much had thought,
  • And yet, you see, he’s come to naught;
  • Or out of print, as he would say,
  • To be revis’d some future day;
  • Free from errata, with addition,
  • A new, and a complete edition.”[12]


  • [1] James Lackington, Memoirs of the First Forty-five Years of James Lackington: The Present Bookseller in Chiswell Moorfields, London (London: James Lackington, 1792), p. 98.
  • [2] J. Lackington, p. 217–18.
  • [3] J. Lackington, p. 219–20.
  • [4] J. Lackington, p. 329.
  • [5] J. Lackington, p. 329–30.
  • [6] J. Lackington, p. 335–36.
  • [7] J. I. Knight and H. Lacey, Mechanics Magazine v. 36 (London: Knight; Lacey, 1842), p. 163.
  • [8] C. Knight, Shadows of the Old Booksellers (London: Bell and Daldy, 1865), p. 283.
  • [9] Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “James Lackington of Wellington,” March 12, 1949, p. 2.
  • [10] J. Lackington, p. 485
  • [11] Hereford Journal, “–,” May 7, 1794, p. 4.
  • [12] Professor A. Brown, “James Lackington, Bookseller (1746-1815),” The New Rambler: Journal of the Johnson Society of London B, XVII (1965): p. 41.

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  1. Jane Davis on January 7, 2023 at 2:44 am

    Hi Geri, I am wondering where you got the information about Lackington’s second wife. Dorcas is buried in St Mary’s Merton. Her gravestone reads


    Bookseller, Finsbury Square

    Died January 27th 1795, aged 46 years.

    I wonder if he married a third time?

    • Geri Walton on February 1, 2023 at 9:40 am

      This is a quote from Lackington’s book that was published in 1792. Page 485. He talks about her. As far as I know he didn’t remarry after Dorcas.

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