‘The Peculiarities of Our Business’: Fisher, Son & Co

James M’Kenzie Hall

In 1828-1829 Fisher, Son & Co began publishing illustrated topographical works with steel engravings. Charles Henry Timperley, writing ten years later (in A Dictionary of Printers and Printing, 1839), describes Fisher's subsequent output as 'splendidly illustrated works' and listed: The English Lakes, Syria, Devonshire, Cornwall, Ireland, Lancashire etc, 'which have stamped him as the most extensive publisher of such works in the Kingdom'.

Steel Engraving: Innovation of early 19th century:

The introduction of the new process of steel-engraved plates in the course of the 1820s increased the number of impressions from a single plate: soft copper produced 200-500 impressions; steel produced 25,000 copies. The economic consequences were reduced costs and so more illustrations were produced, which led to a boom, first in Annuals and Gift Books (for example, by Rudolph Ackermann and Charles Heath) and then in illustrated travel books.

Serial publication was not a new phenomenon. Part-works or serial publication began in the eighteenth century, for example Francis Grose's The Antiquities of England and Wales serial publication in parts 1772-1776, priced two shillings per part including 4 copper-plates (4 vol. bound set, cost 8 guineas). Engravings were small: 4 x 6 inches. Their intention was to popularize. Grose produced over 1000 low-cost prints, so limited print runs of expensive illustrated publications were replaced by serial publications. These were aimed at more than just 'propertied prosperity', gentry and the clergy, the 'antiquarians'. In 1760s topographical books took off; examples include England display'd, The Antiquities of England and Wales, The Complete English Traveller, and magazines and periodicals such as Universal, European, London, Ladies and, in the 1770s, The Copper Plate Magazine.

In the year that the artist Thomas Allom was born, 1804, authors Britton and Brayley had already published the first five volumes of The Beauties of England and Wales (begun 1800, publisher Vernor and Hood). The Beauties were an attempt to popularise antiquarian interests with copper-plate illustrations, at 2s6d a part, likely to appeal to a wider audience than the usual subscribers to county histories. Yet Britton and Brayley's Beauties took 20 years to publish and ran to 25 volumes. The cost was £50,000. By 1829, Britton admitted defeat. On the wrapper of the third number of Picturesque Antiquities of English Cities dated 20 May 1829, Britton wrote:

In alluding to the present state of Topographical and Archaeological Literature I cannot be unconscious of, or indifferent to, a class of works in this department, which belongs entirely to the present age, and which may be said to announce a new era. The Beauties of England was the first work to give popular attraction to embellished topography…. At present there are seven different publications in progress, similar in their respective styles of embellishment to the Beauties. The plates, being executed in steel, will produce an immense number of impressions, and thus enable the proprietors to sell them cheap. Four neatly engraved prints, with a small portion of letter-press, are rendered for one shilling; and from sixteen to twenty thousand copies of one of these works are said to be sold. This must create a new class of readers, and will give an increased stimulus to Topographical enquiries. Finding an inadequate remuneration for labour, and for large expenditure of money in fine and expensive publications, I am induced to write for two of these cheap works… (these were: Jones's Views of the Cities of Bath and Bristol - illustrated by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and Fisher's Devonshire and Cornwall).

So now Fisher’s Devonshire and Cornwall was selling a part for one shilling and the print runs were not in hundreds but thousands.

But was Fisher's output entirely focused on London?

James Raven in The Business of Books: booksellers and the English book trade 1450-1850, mentions Paternoster Row over fifty times. Paternoster Row is located just north of St Paul's Cathedral and was at the very centre of the publishing, printing and bookselling trades. Todd's Directory lists 40 printers in Paternoster Row and Raven says that by the 1770s the Row had become the 'premier publishing district of the country and home to the majority of leading English booksellers… about sixty or so bookmen and women… established the Row as the centre of the wholesaling of books and magazines and periodical publishing'.

Timperley, writing in 1839, calculated that Paternoster Row was producing 500,000 periodical copies a month and distributing 2,000 'parcels' to a purchase price value of £25,000 per month. Timperley again:

'The monthly issue of periodical literature from London is unequalled by any similar commercial operation in Europe. Two hundred and thirty six monthly periodical works are sent out on the last day of each month to every corner of the United Kingdom from Paternoster Row'.

These figures were repeated, but without attributing them to Timperley, in an anonymous article in Chambers Edinburgh Journal in 1845. The article made something of a local hero out of Henry Fisher:

'At the end of last century a new era dawned on the career of the book-trade. A shrewd, intelligent but humble journeyman printer saw that the publishers of his day, by the price at which they kept their works, exclusively addressed a single class instead of the whole public. He could not it is true - from the expense of materials - devise any plan to reduce the cost of books; but he invented a mode of issue by which they were rendered accessible to the humbler classes. As this was the earliest attempt at popular bookselling, we shall dwell a little upon it, and upon its originator, Henry Fisher… while yet a journeyman in the employment of Mr Jonas Nuttall, the founder of the Caxton Press in Liverpool, conceived the happy notion, that if expensive works were supplied to poorer customers in cheap parts, and periodically till complete, a vast number of persons would be eager purchasers, who regarded books as an unattainable luxury'.

Whilst Chambers is incorrect to imply that Henry Fisher invented part publishing or the numbers game, the article goes on to say that what Fisher did was develop new techniques of marketing and selling these part-works, which he first applied in Liverpool and then extended nationwide to large urban centres such as Birmingham, Leeds, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast. The Chambers Edinburgh Journal continues by saying that Fisher proposed a new plan of selling by establishing depots in every principal town. Each depot had a team of hawkers who went from door to door, leaving prospectuses and offering numbers for sale. At first the majority of part-works on offer were devotional works such as illustrated family Bibles. The Bibles were issued in 40 parts/numbers, at one shilling per part/number. The hawker would offer the first part as a 'temptation' and would leave it with the household for a week before returning to hopefully close the deal. This may explain a comment by Robert Fisher to George Petrie: 'By the by I have forgotten to say the First and Second Numbers must be charged as one only, that being one of the peculiarities of our business - to give them as one'.

The Chambers Edinburgh Journal states that the Fisher method was adopted by others and that several respected publishers in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow date their origins from their founders commencing as canvassers in the employ of Nuttall and Fisher. The comments by Chambers Edinburgh Journal are echoed by Henry Curwen in A History of Booksellers (1873):

'The Numbers Publishers may be looked upon as the modern pioneers of literature; their books are circulated by a peculiar method, among a peculiar public, almost entirely through the agency of their own canvassers, without the intervention of any other bookseller, and the works thus sold are scarcely known to the ordinary members of the publishing world. As the business is conducted by house to house visitation, a substratum of the public is reached which is entirely out of the stretch of the regular bookselling arm, though, when once a taste for reading has been developed, the regular bookseller cannot fail to benefit, as he will from every onward step in education and progress. The canvassing trade is conducted by a few houses in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow'.


Timperley says the Caxton Printing office in Liverpool was the largest periodical warehouse in the United Kingdom. It was housed in a former Cotton Mill built in c.1790 on land bounded by Skelthorne Street, Copperas Hill and Bolton Street and converted to the premises of the Caxton Press in 1812. It contained: 16 Printing Presses, 10 Copper-Plate Presses, apparatus for heating the plates, 16,000 pounds weight of type, 700 reams of paper, 400 original drawings, two patent hydraulic presses, 10,000 pages of stereotype plates, three and a half million part-works in folio, quarto and octavo sizes.

In 1820 the Monthly Magazine or British Register reported on Liverpool and mentioned The Caxton Press:

In noticing the literature of this place, The Caxton printing office cannot be passed over in silence. Large quantities of cheap editions of many valuable works, principally divinity, issue from this press, which are sold in monthly numbers to the inferior classes of people. The Imperial Magazine, a monthly publication also proceeds from the same source with considerable sale.

Born in Preston, Lancashire 1781, son of Thomas Fisher, a timber merchant, descended from Fisher family of Bowness in the Lake District. At age of 13 in 1794 Henry articled to a local printer and bookbinder called Mrs Sergeant. After four years he left and finished his apprenticeship with Hemingway and Nuttall, printers in Blackburn. Subsequently Nuttall moved to Liverpool and Fisher went with him. Jonas Nuttall specialized in the 'Numbers Trade', and according to Timperley, Fisher suggested the establishment of depots in major towns 'for the more effectual extension of the sale of standard works in numbers'. He spent three years managing a depot in Bristol. Mention is made of this depot in Holden's Directory of 1811 which listed Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon's periodical publication warehouse at 24 Philadelphia Street, Bristol. The imprints c. 1810 gave the address for Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon as 19 Duke Street, Liverpool.

The Catalogue c.1816 also gave a London address: 87 Bartholomew Close, and was also sold by Sherwood, Neely & Jones of Paternoster Row, W. Baines and T. Blanshard. Blanshard is probably the Rev. T. Blanchard of 14 City Road, London. This address was the Methodist Conference Office.

Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, G. pamph. 2920. foo. 89.

Samuel Leigh's New Picture of London (1819) confirms The Catalogue's Nuttall, Fisher & Dixon London address and after listing all sorts of publishers, Leigh listed lastly the most humble: ‘Publishers of Works by Numbers’. Perhaps the order of listing indicates the low esteem publishers of numbers were held in, or, the novelty of this trade. There are only five in London and they are worth listing:

  • Hogg, Mrs, Paternoster Row
  • Kelly, Paternoster Row
  • Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon, Bartholomew close
  • Robins & Co, Ivy Lane
  • Tegg, Cheapside

By 1805, aged 24, Henry Fisher was offered a partnership and a salary of £900 a year. Timperley adds that he was made a partner 'without solicitation' and that 'independently of his share as a partner' he was allowed a salary of £900 per annum. The firm was now known as Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon and issued publications in monthly or quarterly parts including many religious works, and they seemed to be specialists in part publication of illustrated Bibles.


In 1820 there were about 20 stereotyping establishments in London. One of publishers’ greatest difficulties was calculating demand; if he got it wrong he overprinted and lost money. If a publisher was looking to sell cheap in expectation of a large sale, then by using stereotyping, he adjusted his supply exactly to demand. A publisher had to balance his supply with his market. Regarding the Penny Magazine the publisher did not know whether to print 20,000 or 100,000 of first issue. Stereotyping allowed Charles Knight to adjust supply to exact demand. 20 million Penny Magazines were issued between 1832-1833 with 200,000-300,000 copies in the warehouse at any one time. Any increase in demand could be printed from the stereotype plates at a day's notice. Thus the market could be supplied and the stock kept low. Capital was saved by stereotyping as well as saving on interest, insurance, warehouse room etc, and all the charges of having a large stock.

Rob Banham argued that stereotyping really did not benefit most printers/publishers until the 1830s when the papier maché process came in. The plaster process was time consuming and only gave one plate as the mould was destroyed in the process of casting. For very long runs the plates did not last long enough as they did not wear as well as the type (Oxford University Press stopped using it for this reason). The papier maché process allowed for endless printing as many plates could be cast from the same mould (and one could store the mould rather than the plates which was much more space efficient).

Banham suggested that if Fisher was using stereotyping extensively in Liverpool from its beginnings c.1810 to 1821, then this may indicate something about the scale and type of his printing, i.e. he did not have enormous print runs but lots of small to medium editions of the same texts. There would also have been a lot of capital tied up in stereotype plates.

The Introduction to Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon's Grand Folio Bible (Liverpool, 1813) is by Adam Clarke (1762-1832) and it stressed the advantage of numbers publication, p. iii:

Bibles published in those small parcels, generally called Numbers, answer two valuable ends.

  1. They are thus brought within reach of the poor: a man, low in life, can conveniently pay a pound, at twenty or forty different instalments, than in one sum. A Bible therefore, published in successive numbers, is peculiarly adapted to his circumstances.
  2. What is purchased in this way, is generally read: the parcel delivered at one time is but small, and is in general carefully perused before the next in order comes to hand. Thus the Bible is afforded, as it can conveniently be purchased; and purchased, as it can conveniently be read. On a careful examination of this business, formed on accurate information, it is incontestably proved, that the publishing of Bibles in this way, viz by Numbers, has, in the course of less than 20 years, been the means of distributing to the poor, and comparatively poor, of the United Kingdom, not less than 300,000 copies of the Sacred Writings, which, in all probability, would never otherwise have been bought or read.
Copyright: Author’s Collection

Other LONDON publishers who specialized in numbers:

John Cooke (c. 1730-1810); Alexander Hogg (fl. 1778-1824); and Thomas Kelly (1772-1855). Cooke and Hogg are mentioned numerous times by James Raven but Kelly is not mentioned once. Kelly worked for Hogg, bookseller at 16 Paternoster Row, as a shopman for four shillings a week. Hogg himself had been a journeyman to John Cooke.

Copyright: Author’s Collection

In 1809 Kelly set up in Paternoster Row and made money buying remaindered or out of copyright books, splitting them up into numbers and selling them in paper wrappers. He relied on canvassers. A canvasser was given a stock on credit of between £20 and £100 to sell. Curwen comments that Kelly's Family Bible (ed. J. Mallam, Rector of Hilton) went through 12 editions and produced 250,000 copies and adds that one of Kelly's agents traded £4000-£5000 of part-works per annum (source Curwen, pp. 363-369 probably from Rev. R. C. Fell's Life of Alderman Kelly, London, 1856). Kelly's Bible issued in 173 numbers. It cost £5.15s.4d. for the whole work but was sold at 8d. per copy in weekly or monthly parts. William St Clair points out that the total cost of £5.15s.4d was twice amount of what published book cost. 80,000 copies were sold and receipts amounted to £460,000. Of this amount half went to agents' allowances for canvassing and delivery and £20,000 for paper duty.

Fisher's Distribution Network:

In 1819 both the Literary Gazette (31 July 1819, no. 132, p. 496) and the Eclectic Review ( December, 1819,vol. 12, pp. 641-644) advertised Fisher's Imperial Magazine and listed where orders and advertisements could be placed. This reveals Fisher's distribution network and by using contemporary trade directories (Pigots, Holden, Underhill and Wrightson) and book trade indexes (BBTI and SBTI) it has been possible to add further information to this list (first names, trades and street numbers).

  • London: 87 Bartholomew Place
  • Liverpool: Caxton Printing Office (Pigot's 1818: 'periodical publishers, Caxton Buildings, Bolton Street, Copperas Hill')
  • Leeds: Mr Hicks, Lady Lane (by 1822: 4 Hope Street and 'agent to H. Fisher, London -BBTI)
  • Birmingham: Mr Robert Rowe, periodical bookseller St Paul's Square (Wrightson's Directory of Birmingham, 1818 and in BBTI)
  • Plymouth: Mr John Gibson, 7 Frankfort Street, bookseller, bookbinder, publisher (Exeter working papers in Book History 7, Ian Maxted and BBTI)
  • Bristol: Mr Hoppell or Hoopell, Philadelphia Street
  • Edinburgh: Mr John Jones, 14 South Richmond Street, book publisher (Pigot's 1816-19, SBTI)
  • Glasgow: Mr Peter Houston, 13 New Wynd, periodical agent ('agent to Liverpool & Co. Pigot's 1820, SBTI)
  • Dublin: Mr Wood, 41 Stafford Street
  • Belfast: Mr William Manning, 30 Chapel Lane, bookseller (Belfast and Lisburn directory, 1819)
  • Oxford: Mr Gooden, Saint Thomas's (by 1830 Pigot's directory lists a Charles Gooden at Pembroke Street as bookseller and stationer)
  • Newcastle upon Tyne: Mr Scott, King James's Street
  • Whitehaven: Mr Dunglison (BBTI lists Jane Dunglison, 122 Queen Street in 1828-29)
  • Kendal: Mr William Stephenson, periodical vender (sic), 7 Stricklandgate Place (Kendal township directory)
  • Newcastle and Potteries: Mr Davidson, Bagnall Street
  • Shrewsbury: Mr Canavan, New Street
  • Portsea: Mr Bateman, Half Way Houses
  • Norwich: Mr Butler, Bridge Street
  • Lynn: Mr Smith, Chapel Street
  • Canterbury: Mr Ireland
  • Rochester: Mr Henry Edmed (BBTI lists address as 83 Eastgate, 1819-32)
  • Ipswich: Mr Purcell
  • Rye: Mr Smitheren
  • America: Mr Hacking, 101 Cherry Street, New York (Imperial Magazine adds Philadelphia and Boston)

This list is significant for both the towns it includes and those it leaves out. Some large towns are not represented such as Coventry, Derby, Hull, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and York.

However this list of 23 agents or distribution points is extensive and shows geographical intensity of distribution as well as the role of location in the competitive strategy of Henry Fisher.

The Liverpool Warehouse fire of 1821.

Samuel Drew was a witness to the fire and in a letter dated 30 January 1821, he stated that he was woken on Tuesday morning about three o'clock and was told that the Caxton Printing Office was on fire. On looking out of his window he saw the blaze. He says some of the men rescued 150 reams of paper, nearly all the copper-plates and a small quantity of type. Drew was able to enter his office and rescue his papers. He says the building was seven stories high - this corrects Michael Suarez, writing about the engraving of the Caxton building in Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon's 1816 catalogue stating that it was 'a factory building of five storeys, each eleven substantial windows across'. Shortly afterwards the roof fell in carrying with it floor after floor.

The plant and stock was valued at £40,000 and was insured for £36,000 and 100 people lost their jobs. The work of the Caxton press was upset for a season and led to Fisher moving his business to London the following midsummer.

Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon and the Methodist Connection.

The firm had a strong Methodist connection as Thomas Coke (1747-1814) who was the founder and superintendant of the Wesleyan Methodist Overseas Missions from 1804 until his death in 1814 wrote A History of the West Indies published by Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon (1808-1811). By 1812 all Coke's work became the property of the Methodist Connexion. Earlier Coke had published much of his work in numbers such as his Cottager's Bible sold by 'agents and travellers' and published by Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon.

The first two decades of the nineteenth century were an anxious period for the Methodist movement. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars created a potential threat to the social order, security and stability of England. After the death of John Wesley in 1791, a series of schisms, particularly among several Methodist congregations in Lancashire and Cheshire, threatened to divide the movement. Wesleyan Methodism was very nervous about appearing Revolutionary and reacted unfavourably to the apparently unruly revival movement in 1807 which became Primitive Methodism. Methodist numbers increased from 107,000 in 1805 to 600,000 by 1851, with rapid growth at moments of social tension.

Liverpool was a strong centre for Methodism and Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon, as a publishing business, probably did well out of this connection. Jonas Nuttall and Henry Fisher knew Dr Clarke quite well. According to Timperley, Clarke tutored Henry's two sons, Robert and Seth Nuttall Fisher. The Gentleman's Magazine stated that friends of Dr Clarke purchased an estate for him in 1815 a few miles from Liverpool (Millbrook at Eccleston in Lancashire): Jonas Nuttall gave £1000 and Henry Fisher £300.