- Reassessing the Reputation of Thomas Tegg, London Publisher, 1776–1846
Most students of nineteenth-century British publishing know the name Thomas Tegg, but precious little beyond this. They may have heard that he characterized himself as “the broom that swept the booksellers’ warehouses,” 1 an allusion to his reputation as a publisher who successfully exploited the reprint and remainder trade. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that in 1838 Tegg boasted, “I have published more books, and sold them at a cheaper rate, than any bookseller in Britain.” 2 In his obituary, the Gentleman’s Magazine confirmed that “his transactions were as large, perhaps, as those of any single bookseller.” 3
Both then and later there were those who were willing to concede Tegg’s prolific output, but who regarded most of it as cheap and nasty. His image was that of a brash newcomer and opportunist, lacking the dignity and professionalism of a Longman, Murray, or Blackwood.
To put Tegg’s business into perspective, let us compare his publishing output with that generated by a major firm like George Routledge. After fifty years in business, from 1836 to 1888, Routledge estimated that he had issued some five thousand books, whereas Tegg, after forty years (1800–1840), had published four thousand titles; both averaged two volumes per week. An even more revealing comparison is the net worth of each man at the time of his death. Routledge’s estate was valued at £80,000, while Tegg’s was estimated at £90,000. 4 Both men directed similar businesses, based heavily on reprints and cheap editions, but Routledge had only been active for ten years at the time of Tegg’s death in 1846, justifying Tegg’s claim that, for his time, he was the largest publisher of cheap works.
This being the case, why is so little known about him? The unfortunate [End Page 45] answer is that most of his records, including catalogues, letter books, and correspondence, have not survived. Nevertheless, by piecing together a wide variety of fragmentary sources, perhaps he can be restored to his rightful place in the annals of publishing history.
Tegg left memoirs in manuscript form, but only a small portion of them were reprinted in 1870 by his son, William. Three years later, Henry Curwen borrowed liberally from this source, but the full text of the autobiography has never been found. 5 Limited as these pages are, they are our chief source for Tegg’s early life.
Tegg was born at Wimbledon on 4 March 1776. His father was a reasonably prosperous grocer, but he died when Thomas was only five years old, and his mother died four years later. There must have been enough money in his parents’ estate to send him to boarding school at Galashiels in Selkirkshire, Scotland, as he went there for four happy years under the tutelage of a kindly schoolmaster. However, his situation altered dramatically when he was apprenticed to a tyrannical and drunken bookseller, Alexander Meggett of Dalkeith. This experience proved so unpleasant that he ran away, and for nearly a decade lived by his wits, taking different jobs, sometimes with booksellers, throughout the British Isles, including Ireland. In 1796, just short of his twentieth birthday, he took himself to London to make his fortune in the book trade. He won and lost several jobs, but most formative was his experience with the Quaker booksellers, John and Arthur Arch of Gracechurch Street.
Around 1799–1800 Tegg received an unexpected legacy of £200, which allowed him to take a partner and start his own firm of Tegg & Dewick at 6 Westmorland Buildings, Aldersgate. As a businessman, he could now marry his fiancée, Mary, in St. Bride’s Church on 30 April 1800.
His bookselling partnership did not work out well and was soon dissolved, leaving him nearly bankrupt. He secured a license to be a country auctioneer, and roamed around greater Britain, buying odd lots of books that he would later sell at auction. Auctioneering became so important to him that as late as 1816 he was still holding nightly auctions in London, with especially...