Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lackington, James
LACKINGTON, JAMES (1746–1815), bookseller, born 31 Aug. 1746 at Wellington, Somerset, was the eldest son of George Lackington, a journeyman shoemaker. His grandfather was a gentleman farmer at Langford, near Wellington. Young Lackington's father was a drunkard, but his mother was a woman of remarkable energy. The son showed his business capacity when ten years old as an itinerant meat pieman (Memoirs, 1792, pp. 57–65). In 1760 he was bound apprentice to George Bowden, a shoemaker at Taunton, and two years later became a professed methodist. He worked as a journeyman at Bristol and other places. While living at Bristol he bought books and read much. Although he could not write he composed ballads, which were sung about the streets. In 1770 he married his first wife, Nancy Smith. He went to London in August 1773, with the traditional half-crown, but without his wife. The following year he opened a bookstall and shoemaker's shop in Featherstone Street, St. Luke's, commencing with a sackful of old theological books, which he bought for a guinea, and a few scraps of leather. He was able to borrow five pounds from a fund started by ‘Mr. Wesley's people’ to assist deserving members of their body. The exercise of great industry and frugality, in which virtue his wife excelled, enabled him in six months to increase his stock in value from five to twenty-five pounds. He gave up his shoemaking and removed to 46 Chiswell Street, where his wife died a few months after. On 30 Jan. 1776 he married Dorcas Turton, who was a lover of books, and who became very helpful in the business. The reading of Amory's ‘John Buncle’ upset Lackington's methodism, and gave him a sceptical turn. The business prospered, and John Denis, an oilman and collector of books on alchemy and mystical divinity, brought in some capital. In 1779 the firm of Lackington & Co. produced their first catalogue of twelve thousand volumes, all described by Lackington. The partnership with Denis only lasted two years, but Lackington was afterwards joined by Allen, who had worked his way upwards from boyhood in the business, and the firm became famous as Lackington, Allen, & Co.
In 1780 Lackington determined to sell for cash only at the lowest possible price, and four years later published catalogues of twelve and thirty thousand volumes respectively. He broke through the trade custom of destroying all but a few copies of remainders, and sold the whole stock at little profit. From buying books in small quantities he rose to purchasing entire libraries, and was able to set up a carriage and a country house at Merton. His shop occupied a large block at one of the corners of Finsbury Square, with a frontage of 140 feet. It was known as ‘The Temple of the Muses,’ and was one of the sights of London. Charles Knight remembered a visit there in 1801. A dome, in which stood a flag, was a conspicuous object at the top of the building. In the middle of the shop was an immense circular counter. A broad staircase led to the ‘lounging rooms,’ and the first of a series of circular galleries around which books were displayed, growing cheaper and shabbier in condition as one ascended (Shadows of the Old Booksellers, 1865, pp. 282–3). Some years later the shop was destroyed by a fire. There is an engraving of 1789 (F. Crace, Catalogue, 1878, p. 492), and many later prints.
In 1787, and again in 1790, Lackington travelled through England to Edinburgh. In 1791, when he calculated he was selling about one hundred thousand volumes each year at a profit of 4,000l. (Memoirs, p. 399), he published the first edition of his well-known ‘Memoirs,’ which give an interesting picture of bookselling life. The ‘original humourous stories and droll anecdotes’ with which the book is disfigured are said to have been furnished by the pen of a friend (P. Pindar, Ode to the Hero of Finsbury Square, p. 30). In 1794 appeared ‘The second volume of Lackington's Catalogue, from September 1793 to March 1794, consisting of above one hundred thousand volumes.’ His second wife, Dorcas, died 27 Feb. 1795, aged 45 (Gent. Mag. 1795, pt. i. p. 173), and on 11 June, with his usual promptness, he married a relative of hers (ib. p. 526). He is said to have advertised for a wife with 20,000l. (P. Pindar, Ode, p. 30). Lackington made over the whole of his part in the business to his cousin, George Lackington [q. v.], in 1798, retaining ‘no share or interest in it’ (Confessions, Pref. p. vii). He thereupon took up his residence at Thornbury in Gloucestershire. In 1804 were published his ‘Confessions’ to make amends for having ‘publicly ridiculed a very large and respectable body of Christians.’ The book is much less interesting than his previous volume; some prurient and entirely irrelevant remarks about girls' boarding-schools are appended. He subsequently purchased two small estates in Alveston, and in 1805 erected a small chapel for the Wesleyan methodists. He became a local preacher. In the following year he removed to Taunton, and built and endowed another chapel. A dispute arose between him and the conference in 1810. Two years afterwards he went to Budleigh Salterton in Devonshire, where he also erected and endowed a chapel. He died at Budleigh on 22 Nov. 1815, in his seventieth year (Memoirs, 1827, pp. 345–7; Gent. Mag. 1815, pt. ii. p. 640).
Lackington was a vain but warm-hearted, shrewd man of business, whose first object in life was to make money. As soon as he had acquired a fortune he seems to have lost any love of books which he may have had. A portrait by Scott, after Keenan, is prefixed to the ‘Memoirs’ (1792). There is a different portrait by Goldar and memoir in the ‘New Wonderful Magazine’ (iii. 119–32). In Peter Pindar's ‘Ode’ (1795) a caricature represents the bookseller stepping into his carriage, which bears the motto, ‘Small profits do great things.’
His works are: 1. ‘Memoirs of the first Forty-five Years of the Life of James Lackington, the present Bookseller in Chiswell Street, Moorfields, London, written by himself in a Series of Letters to a Friend,’ London , 8vo. ‘A new edition, corrected and much enlarged,’ London, 1792, 8vo, portrait; further enlarged, eight editions to 1794. ‘Thirteenth edition, with index,’ London [1810?], sm. 8vo. A German version, ‘Anekdoten,’ from the fifth edition, was printed at Hamburg in 1795, sm. 8vo. 2. ‘The Confessions of J. Lackington, late Bookseller at the Temple of the Muses, to which are added two Letters on the bad Consequences of having Daughters educated at Boarding Schools,’ London, 1804, sm. 8vo; Nos. 1 and 2 (the last in abstract) form vol. xviii. of the ‘Autobiography’ series, 1827, sm. 8vo. ‘Lackington's Confessions rendered into Narrative by Allan Macleod [pseudonym],’ London, 1804, sm. 8vo, is an attack upon Lackington in the form of a running commentary on his ‘Confessions.’
[J. Lackington's Memoirs, 1792, and Confessions, 1804; C. Knight's Shadows of the Old Booksellers, 1865; two articles by A. L. Humphreys in Bookworm, May and June 1888; Humphreys's History of Wellington, 1889, 8vo; C. H. Timperley's Encyclopædia, 1842, p. 862; New Wonderful Mag. iii. 119–32; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iii. 646, Illustrations, viii. 516; Gent. Mag. 1815 pt. ii. p. 640, 1812 pt. i. p. 673; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 50; Biog. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, p. 193.]