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Lackington, Jameslocked

  • Brenda J. Scragg

James Lackington (1746–1815)

by Edmund Scott, pubd 1792 (after John Keenan)

Lackington, James (1746–1815), bookseller and publisher, was born in Wellington, Somerset, on 31 August 1746, the eldest of the eleven children of George Lackington, a journeyman shoemaker, and his wife, Joan Trott, the daughter of a poor weaver in Wellington. James's early life owed little to his father, who was a drunkard, and he claimed to be indebted to his mother for everything. He received only a few years' schooling because the family was unable to afford it, and James was required to help with the care of his brothers and sisters. At the age of ten he left home to live with a pie merchant, and entered into the business of selling pies with considerable success.

When Lackington was fourteen he went with his father to Taunton and was apprenticed for seven years to George and Mary Bowden, shoemakers; here he learned to read and first attended a Methodist meeting. With only a few months of his apprenticeship left to run his freedom was purchased by friends of the two candidates then contesting the election of 1768 in Taunton. He moved to Bristol, where he lodged with John Jones, a shoemaker, and together they plied their trade. Though he was still unable to write, Lackington composed several songs and ballads, one of which he sold for a guinea, and a number of which were printed. No evidence of these has been traced. In Bristol, Lackington first heard John Wesley preach in Broadmead, and this reawakened his enthusiasm for Methodism. He moved to lodgings in St Philip's Plain where his room overlooked the churchyard, and converted Jones and his friends to Methodism. At this time the idea of selling books first attracted Lackington and Jones, and all the spare money they accumulated was spent in purchasing books (although it was some years before Lackington became a bookseller). In 1770 he married Nancy Smith, whom he had first met in Taunton seven years before, at St Peter's Church, Bristol.

In August 1773 Lackington moved to the City of London, lodging first in Whitecross Street. He was soon joined by his wife, who died that November. In the same month his grandfather George Lackington, a gentleman farmer at Langford, near Wellington, died leaving James a legacy of £10. In June 1774 Lackington opened his first bookshop in Featherstone Street, with stock consisting of a few books and some scraps of leather together worth about £5. He acquired an interest-free loan of £5 from the Methodists to enable him to purchase more stock. Six months later his business had prospered sufficiently for him to move to 46 Chiswell Street, where he remained for fourteen years. Here Lackington would occasionally hold literary suppers attended by, among others, Henry Lemoine, the bookseller, who after Lackington had published his memoirs in 1791 wrote what he described as 'The real life of Lackington'. Another member of the circle was Thomas Hood, father of the poet. On 30 January 1776 Lackington married Dorcas Turton, a schoolmistress who had attended Nancy during her final illness. She was a great reader of novels and lover of books, and helped her husband in the shop while he was away buying stock. Lackington, who was at this time reading Thomas Amory's Life of John Buncle, experienced a change in attitude towards Methodism, and spoke publicly in criticism of it.

In 1778 Lackington took into business John Denis, son of an oilman in Cannon Street, who provided the capital to allow the stock of books to be doubled. In 1779 the firm of Lackington & Co. published its first catalogue, which contained 12,000 items. The partnership with Denis was dissolved in 1780 because of a dispute over who should buy the stock. The original agreement was that Lackington bought the stock and Denis provided the finance, but Denis questioned Lackington's purchases. Catalogues were issued annually, increasing in size (that for 1784 contained 30,000 books). All books were for sale at the lowest possible price for cash only, with no credit given. Lackington purchased large quantities of books as remainders and sold them very cheaply, causing acrimony among the trade (other booksellers bought remainders in order to destroy them and increase the price of those left). He emblazoned his carriage with the motto 'Small profits do great things', and claimed he had 'Been highly instrumental in diffusing the general desire for reading, now so prevalent among the inferior orders of society' (Memoirs, letter 25). Lackington was meticulous in keeping his accounts, and profits were calculated each week. His account books were kept publicly in his shop as he never saw any reason for concealing them. He sold more than 100,000 volumes annually. In 1787 he visited Edinburgh by way of York and Newcastle, returning through Glasgow, Carlisle, Leeds, Lancaster, Preston, and Manchester. He was not impressed with the bookshops he visited, saying that nothing but trash was to be found. He visited Edinburgh again in 1790 and his opinion was unchanged.

Lackington published the first edition of his Memoirs, which ran into many subsequent editions, in 1791. It is the principal source of information about him; in addition to the particulars of his life, the work is full of curious anecdotes and many quotations from a wide range of authors. At the time of publication his profits were £4000; in 1792 they had increased to £5000. Lackington had also extended his business into publishing a number of works, many of them theological, as is shown by a sales list of about 1791. In 1794 Lackington first issued tokens, in the form of metal coins, worth a halfpenny and a penny; the halfpenny had on the obverse a full-face portrait of Lackington, while the reverse pictured an angel blowing a trumpet and the inscription 'halfpenny of J. Lackington and Co.' It is believed that more than 700,000 Lackington tokens were issued (only valid in Lackington's business). They were all struck by Lutwyche of Birmingham.

In 1794 Lackington also moved to larger premises in Finsbury Square and called his new shop the Temple of the Muses. Built in 1789, it was one of the wonders of London (it burned down in 1841). It was of a considerable size and surmounted by an immense dome; its large circular counter was in such a spacious room that a coach and four horses drove round it after the opening day. Over the entrance was inscribed 'Cheapest Bookseller in the World' (tokens issued from these premises reproduced this as a legend). It was said that a million books were on display (Repository of Arts, 1, 1809). Between the First and Second world wars a street near Finsbury Square was renamed Lackington Street.

With this greater prosperity Lackington purchased a house at Merton in Surrey. It was here on 27 February 1795 that his wife died; her husband wrote the lengthy epitaph on her headstone in Merton churchyard. Later that year on 11 June Lackington married Mary Turton, the younger daughter of William Turton, an attorney of Alveston, Gloucestershire, and a relative of his second wife. He retired in 1798 and made over his business to his third cousin George Lackington (1777–1844), who had been brought up in the business since the age of thirteen. Thereafter the business was known as Lackington, Allen & Co. Robin Allen had also worked for James Lackington from a young age. The other partners, Patrick Kirkman, Richard Hughes (a lessee of Sadler's Wells), and Thomas Hasker, had been made partners in 1794. James Lackington retired to Thornbury near Alveston, where he erected a small chapel and purchased two small estates. He engaged in a number of charitable ventures and also made a contribution to the newly erected Arminian Methodist chapel at Weymouth.

By 1804 Lackington regretted his early criticism of Methodism and published The Confessions of J. Lackington. These were thirty 'Letters to a Friend' expressing his opinions and attitudes to Methodists and their beliefs, to make amends for having 'publicly ridiculed a very large and respectable body of Christians' (DNB). Like his Memoirs they show considerable evidence of his wide reading of classical and religious works, and of contemporary writers, especially poets. In 1806 he moved back to Taunton and erected the Temple Methodist Church at a cost of £3000. There is no record of its use until about five years later when it was acquired by the Wesleyan Methodists of Taunton. He moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1807 and built his house, Ash Villa, which later became the Methodist manse. In the same year he also spent £2000 to build the first Temple Church there. He endowed it with £150 a year for the minister's stipend. The present church, built in 1904, now stands on the same ground. James Lackington died on 22 November 1815 and was buried in the East Budleigh churchyard. His third wife survived him.

All subsequent biographical notices of Lackington draw on his Memoirs. Lackington was not always consistent in his information, and he was a self-opinionated and vain man who claimed in the preface 'that my performance possessed so much intrinsic merit, as would occasion it to be universally admired by all good judges, as a prodigious effort of human genius'.


  • Memoirs of the forty-five first years of the life of James Lackington (1794)
  • ‘Remarkable memoirs of the life of the celebrated James Lackington, Esq. … together with observations on his confessions lately published’, Granger's Original Wonderful Museum, 4 (1806), 47–8
  • The confessions of J. Lackington (1804)
  • D. Bank and others, eds., British biographical archive (1984–98) [microfiche; with index, 2nd edn, 1998]
  • GM, 1st ser., 61 (1791)
  • GM, 1st ser., 65 (1795)
  • GM, 1st ser., 71 (1801)
  • GM, 1st ser., 82/1 (1812), 673
  • R. G. Doty, ‘English merchant tokens’, Perspectives in numismatics, ed. S. B. Needleman (Chicago, 1986) [available online,]
  • Repository of Arts, 1 (1809)
  • P. Pindar, Ode works, 3 (1809), 274
  • H. Morris, Trade tokens of British and American booksellers and bookmakers (Newtown, Pa., 1989)
  • Wesley Historical Society Proceedings, 1 (1898)
  • N&Q, 10th ser., 4 (1905), 54, 177–8
  • N&Q, 11th ser., 5 (1912), 16–17
  • A. N. Walton, ‘James Lackington and Methodism in Budleigh Salterton’, Wesley Historical Society Proceedings, 18 (1931–2), 85–92
  • C. Knight, Shadows of the old booksellers (1865)
  • A. H. W. Houchin, 150th anniversary, 1812–1962: Temple Methodist Church, Budleigh Salterton (1962)
  • F. Munby, Romance of bookselling (1810)
  • E. Marston, Sketches of booksellers of other days (1901)
  • A. L. Humphreys, ‘Lackington and his memoirs’, Bookworm, 1 (1888), 197–200, 242–5
  • I. Maxted, The London book trades, 1775–1800: a preliminary checklist of members (1977)


  • caricature, etching, pubd 1795, NPG
  • J. Goldar, print (after E. Maybry), BM, NPG; repro. in Granger's Original Wonderful Museum
  • Jackson, engraving (after Fuseli), repro. in C. Knight, London, 5
  • E. Scott, stipple (after J. Keenan), NPG; repro. in Memoirs (1792) [see illus.]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Notes and Queries
Gentleman's Magazine