Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SOME weeks back, I was getting excited about the pre-publication subscriber list to William Wilson’s Post Chaise Companion. His traveller’s directory published in 1786 was calculated to take advantage of the gentry’s growing appetite for travel in Ireland, and the subscriber list ran to over 600 names, most of which I have yet to sift through.
Imagine, so, how I felt when I happened on the subscriber list for Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary. Published in 1837, Lewis’s dictionary boasts historical and statistical descriptions of several counties, cities, boroughs, market towns, parishes and villages. The subscriber list to this tome runs to almost 10,000 and leaves poor old William Wilson in the ha’penny place. It promises to keep me occupied for some time.
With that many pre-publication subscribers, I was struck by the parallel to the modern-day phenomenon of crowdfunding. If you were contemplating publishing a book today, and you had advance bookings of 10,000, you would have to be very pleased with yourself.

Of course, it helps if your work is endorsed by a royal personage, and the first page of Samuel Lewis’s subscriber list reads like a who’s-who of royalty of the day. The principal three royal subscribers to the 1837 tome are Queen Victoria, King William IV – who appears as “His Late Most Gracious Majesty William the Fourth” – and the Dowager Queen Adelaide, William’s widow (Adelaide was the first dowager queen of England in over 100 years and she would survive her husband, William IV, by 12 years. The city of Adelaide in Australia is named in her honour).

Queen Victoria would prove to be the longest-serving female monarch in history, reigning for better than 63 years. She was the last of the Hanoverian monarchs, presiding over an era of great expansion for the British empire. During this period, the appetite for travel would reach unprecedented levels and the modes of that travel would be transformed utterly.

Once you leave the royal subscribers behind, the list carries on in alphabetical order. There’s a somewhat unglamorous start to the list in the person of Abbott J, governor of the lunatic asylum in Maryboro.

The list continues for almost 70 pages and the last two subscribers, who hail from Co Meath, and are probably related, are Michael Yourell of Newelswood, Clonee and Patrick Yourell of Quarryland, Clonee

You may be getting a little anxious by now, thinking that I am going to work my way through the entire list. But, rest assured, I’m not ready for that just yet. I will content myself for the moment to cherry-picking just a few more names and see where that brings us.

What intrigues me about such a long list of people is that it acts as a snapshot in time. This is a list of people as they were in 1837. The list fixes them, sometimes by address, sometimes by rank and social status and sometimes by occupation, just as they were at the moment they decided to subscribe to Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary.

Some of them would soon be dead, as was the case of William IV, who clearly had subscribed, but died just before publication. Others would have changes of fortune or circumstance, which we may or may not be able to piece together.

I noted, for example, that John Thomas Bland of Blandsfort, Abbeyleix was a subscriber. Beside him on the list was his younger brother, Loftus Henry Bland of Upper Pembroke Street in Dublin. At that time, Loftus Henry Bland was just eight years into his career as a barrister, having been called to the Irish bar in 1829 at the age of 24. His elder brother, meanwhile, had succeeded to the family estates at Blandsfort.

Who knows what was on Loftus Henry Bland’s mind at that time, or what plans he envisaged for his career into the future. Was he a man about town? That’s certainly a possibility. Upper Pembroke Street was a good address and the legal profession was not to be sneezed at in terms of prospects. So he was probably a very eligible bachelor.

Well, things did change for Loftus Henry Bland. Whether he knew it or not, also on the list of subscribers to Lewis’s directory was lieutenant-general the hon Arthur Grove Annesley JP of Annesgrove, Co Cork. Three years hence, Loftus Henry Bland would marry Charlotte Elizabeth, the second daughter of the general, and they would have one son, John Loftus Bland.

Through a twist of fate, Loftus Henry Bland’s elder brother and co-subscriber to Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of 1837 died childless in 1849. Loftus Henry thus succeeded to the estates at Blandsfort. Ever since, Blandsfort has passed from father to son down this line.

All of that came from a first scan of a list of 10,000 names, each with its own story. Who knows what other stories lie dormant within this list?

I feel sure that we will be returning to Samuel Lewis at a future date but, for the moment, we will have to leave dictionary corner for a spell.

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By Tom Cox
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