Professor Lockwood’s interest and curiosity in the subterranean infrastructure of cheap periodical press and the work of its pirate publishers was cultivated during the time spent with the periodicals and journals of the time to research his book Lowlife: Representations of Social Inferiority in Britain, 1660 – 1830. Although there are not many items produced by these pirate printers still extant today, Lockwood believes that a better understanding of their social and cultural influences could shed light onto their contribution to the spread of literature among the lower classes and, additionally, could elucidate references and allusions in contemporary plays and literary works.
To begin the seminar, Lockwood explains that the class of the working poor existed long before the conscious distinction between economic social classes proper to the nineteenth century, even if it had not yet been labelled as such, and that this lower class did indeed read. The circulation of cheap and pirated prints during the eighteenth century is scarcely evidenced, many of the names of the publishers were lost to history and the books and journals were read until they fell apart. Paradoxically, some of these pirate publishers’ names and infamy have been immortalised by the words of the same authors they plagiarised. Famous is the instance in which an infuriated Henry Fielding accuses William Rayner in the Daily Post of being a “notorious Paper Pyrate.” Rayner, in fact, was guilty of publishing a cheap version of Fielding’s The Welsh Opera with the inclusion of the text of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, something that Fielding never intended to be published. Incidentally, Rayner’s badly pirated copy of the Opera is the only one existing today with that addition, something that Professor Lockwood calls “a unique contribution to literary history by a crook.”
However, the seminar soon moves the spotlight onto another pirate printer, one that is an ideal subject for Lockwood’s study of the history of press freedom: Robert Walker. First appearing on the scene of cheap printing in the 1720s, his history survives thanks to the numerous troubles he had with the judicial system. He was a very prolific publisher, with around 200 cheap imprints and pirated books alike, who kept on printing even at his own financial and legal loss. The longevity and tenaciousness of Walker’s business poses an important question, one that the Professor himself asked his audience: were these printers simply in it for the money, or did they have a political mission to spread knowledge to low-status readers? Lockwood, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, is very keen not to romanticise this business, nor to attribute to Walker the title of a literary ‘Robin Hood’, who steals from the official publishing establishment to disseminate to the poor. It is evident to Lockwood that Walker very much regarded his own interest.
Professor Lockwood then proceeded by presenting the timeline of Walker’s major works and public antagonisms, worthy of our gossip columns. After the first years of business, during which Walker produced the first ever affordable collection of Shakespeare’s work (further proof of the important role these cheap prints played in literary dissemination), he started to print his own cheap newspapers as well, serving as wrappers for his books. Walker’s formula for assuring himself an income was simple: beat the competitors by keeping the costs low, no matter the expense. Of course, for these reasons he had many detractors among the established publishers, as the controversy regarding Shakespeare’s copyright privileges with Jacob Tonson proved. Yet, even the animated antagonism between the two was not discussed inside a courtroom, but on the hot pages of fresh news press. It was only a matter of time before the judicial system started to take an interest in Walker’s (wrong)doings. In 1735 an official investigation began to determine the legitimacy of Walker’s published work, especially in regards to plagiarised journals, and he was inevitably found guilty. This wasn’t a deterrent for Walker, who moved his entrepreneurial talents first to Birmingham, then to Oxford and Cambridge. His imprints then disappeared a few years prior his death in 1761.
A multitude of questions are raised by Lockwood’s study: who were Walker’s readers? Why is he still virtually invisible to the eye of traditional publishing history despite his evident historical relevance? And why, after three or four seemingly undisturbed years of pirate printing was the government suddenly so eager to prosecute Robert Walker? The answers reside in material proofs that are scarce and still uncovered. Walker’s targeted audience did not possess sumptuous libraries to preserve his works and, as Lockwood highlights, useful information about Walker can only be distilled from the extant copies of his journals and fiction, his recorded encounters with the justice system and, quite aptly for his character, from his advertisements.
Despite the difficulty of locating historical sources, Lockwood has uncovered an important figure in the history of literary progress before his inheritance could have potentially disappeared forever. Although still in the early stages of his study, something is clear to Lockwood: it was the so called ‘big publishing’ that brought Walker to the justice system’s attention. Nevertheless, Walker’s achievements endured the test of time and, in a rare but sweet turn of events, the small fish ultimately beat the shark.
Report by Sara Traverso, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.