I am a bookseller. I’ve spent my working life surrounded by the sharp smell of newly printed books and the musty smell of old ones. I am sure there is something poignant to say about old books smelling like grannies and our descriptions of grannies’ paper-thin skin, but my computer crashed last Friday, so I’ll be poignant next week. Bookselling is the only job I’ve ever done and I love my eccentric book trade family. They are always interesting, often strange and for the most part, as Joanna Trollope once described them, both kind and generous. With the advent of the e-book, the book trade has changed dramatically and my place in it is becoming ever more precarious.
My current situation has made me think of William Henry Johnson (1803-1874), my great great great great grandfather. He was my richest ancestor by a mile. He left an estate of just under £35 000 in 1874. That’s about £1 500 000 in today’s money. There is even an oil portrait of him in a Guild Hall in London. He got rich by following in the family business. The Johnsons made thread from precious metals that was used in embroidery. He was a gold and silver wyre drawer and that is not something you hear people say around dinner tables today in answer to the question “what do you do?”.
I wonder if bookseller will sound as quaint as wire drawer in 150 years? Will we greet each other in black and white tiled rooms with secret handshakes? Will we be hauled out for special occasions as today’s milliners are? Bespoke books for wedding gifts and Christenings anyone? Perhaps we’ll join the ranks of other archaic workers: chimney sweeps, cat’s meat men (the poor ate cat’s meat), lucifers (match sellers), stenographic card sellers (cards which taught you shorthand) and telegraphists.
Now, Henry was, in fact, the gold and silver wyre drawer in 1821 when he became Master of the Guild of Gold and Silver Wire Drawers. The Guild met, when duty called, at their clerk’s office and dined after at The Albion Tavern. The British East India Company hosted farewell dinners for the Governor of India at this tavern, reportedly in use since about 1790. According to Handbook of London Past and Present (1850) by Peter Cunningham, it was known for its good dinners and wines. The Shady Old Lady website lists the following menu from a dinner in 1884:
Thick Spring Soup
Dorees a l’Italienne
Escallopes de Ris de Veau aux Petit Pois
Poulet a l’Eclarte
Chines of Mutton (why the French fails here, is beyond me)
Ham and Salad
Duckling, Goslings and Asparagus
Fruit jellies, Pastry
Ratafia Creams, Compotes of Oranges
The gold and silver wire trade was well-established in England by the 1500s, although both the Egyptians and the Anglo Saxons had used metal thread in embroidery before then. In the Reformation period, using gold and silver thread in clothes and soft furnishings was terribly de rigueur. King Charles II was indeed the King of Bling. But the trade declined and today it is almost unheard of. There is not a pence left of Henry’s legacy.
Metal thread was still used on the school badge of my father’s colours blazer in the early 1960s but sadly today, even though a school blazer costs as much as if it were spun of gold, cotton thread is used in its place. I’m sure some garments worn in high ceremonies still use the thread and there is still a Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers in London. I imagine our Mayor of Johannesburg wearing his mayoral cap with silver-embroidered coat of arms, but alas for us common folk, it is ‘made in China’ and not a whiff of the metallic on our fingers.
Henry Williams’s father, Joseph Johnson b. 1795 is the earliest gold and silver wire drawer I can trace. I assume, however, that the family had been in the business for some time. Joseph was also a Guild Master and in total there are 6 Masters in the family.
Now, if you are up for some frivolity, please watch the very silly song – it really is very silly – about King Charles II who was at least partly responsible for inspiring an industry in which my family made and lost its fortunes. And as for the book trade, as opposed to a King of Bling, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that a Paper Prophet is charging in to save the day.