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  • Procuring Books and Consuming Texts: The Reading Experience of a Sheffield Apprentice, 1798
  • Stephen M. Colclough (bio)

This essay examines the evidence of reading recorded in the diary of a single young Englishman, the fifteen-year-old Sheffield apprentice, Joseph Hunter (1783–1861). The investigation of personal records, such as diaries, has become increasingly attractive to historians of reading because the presence of the reader is often absent from what John Brewer has described as the “inert sources for readership.” 1 These sources, which include will inventories, subscription lists, booksellers’ files, library catalogues, and borrowing records, often leave many questions unanswered: Did the owner of a book read it? What did the member of a library do with a text once they returned with it to their home? If a reading took place, what mode was employed, silent or aloud? This essay addresses the specific questions of how a member of the English middle class acquired and used texts. It does not attempt to establish Hunter as a typical reader—his youth, gender, class, and geographical location are warnings against such an assumption—but aims to add to our knowledge of the individual reader and institutions of reading at the close of the eighteenth century. Research on the Hunter diaries is part of a much larger project that aims to recover the reader from the archives in order to introduce some empirical depth to the theoretical speculation that currently dominates the history of reading. The evidence gathered during this project is being recorded in the Reading Experience Database (RED). 2

Who was Joseph Hunter? Born in February 1783 in Sheffield, England, he was the son of Michael Hunter, a local cutlery manufacturer. His mother died when he was an infant and he spent most of his youth at the home of [End Page 21] his guardian, the Presbyterian minister Joseph Evans, who preached at the town’s Upper Chapel. Hunter was apprenticed to his father’s trade at fourteen, and between August 1797 and March 1799 worked in the shop and warehouse of the merchant and manufacturer Robert Hadfield. In 1805 the plans for his future career changed and he was sent to York to train as a dissenting minister. He qualified in 1809 and took charge of a congregation in Bath. While resident in the city, he published a number of sermons and antiquarian works that brought him to the attention of the commissioners of public records and, in 1833, he moved to London to take up the position of subcommissioner. He became Assistant Keeper of the Public Record in 1838 and continued to combine his work with publications on a wide variety of subjects until shortly before his death in 1861. 3

Hunter’s diary consists of three volumes, now held by the British Library, which include entries made in 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1806, and 1807. I shall concentrate on the entries for 1798 because they provide the only complete sequence from the original diaries. The entries for the other years are either fragments from larger documents now lost or partial records that were abandoned by the diarist. 4 Hunter suspended the diary in August 1797 because he believed that his new position as an apprentice would not allow him time for either reading or writing, but he began to make entries again on 14 May 1798. The twenty-seven pages of the 1798 sequence provide a daily record of his reading during the six months until 18 November 1798, when he halted the diary again because there was too little light to write by in the winter evenings. Each sequence of the diary provides a snapshot that is indicative of Hunter’s reading experience at that moment. The close analysis of each year will provide a record of changing practises as Hunter moved from schoolboy, to apprentice, to trainee minister, but such a survey is beyond the scope of this paper.

What kind of a document is the diary? Hunter recorded his reasons for keeping the diary when he began a new volume on 27 March 1797: “I intend to set down all & everything which occurs to me during this year & likewise an account of the...