A Circulating Library on The Shore

The WS Society is hosting a variety of events this year to celebrate the 200th birthday of its magnificent building in Parliament Square, the Signet Library. The most recent of these was a public lecture by Robert Pirrie WS on ‘Identity, Imagination and George IV in Edinburgh, 1822’ in which he explained how he is reassessing the significance and meaning of the often maligned visit based on new evidence from the Georgian Papers Programme (ably introduced by its Academic Director Arthur Burns) and an examination of previously ignored accounts. This exciting and important research will come together in the PhD Pirrie is currently writing.

A display of relevant materials accompanied the lecture. One in particular caught my attention: an engraved fold-out illustration from ‘A Historical Account of His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland’ published in Edinburgh by Oliver & Boyd in 1822.

Title page of 'A Historical Account of His Majesty's Visit to Scotland'
Robert Mudie, A Historical Account of His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1822). All images courtesy of the WS Society.

The image shows George IV’s arrival at Leith. The Shore is packed with people on the street and waving flags and handkerchiefs from every window. The rooftops are full of people keen to get a glimpse of the action. Men wave their hats, women cheer beneath their bonnets or feathers, soldiers and sailors stand to attention, and an open carriage with plumed horses waits to transport the king to Edinburgh. George himself has disembarked and is striding up the gangplank to greet his loyal subjects. It is a lively and engaging scene.

I know the modern-day Shore quite well so I was enjoying spotting familiar names: The Ship Tavern and Hotel, the Clock Tavern – both of which have modern descendants – when my eye caught on something.

William Home Lizars, ‘The landing of King George IV at Leith 15th August 1822 (1822)’. A version washed with watercolour is available at Capital Collections: https://www.capitalcollections.org.uk/view-item?i=41691&WINID=1662130578017

‘Circulating Lib’, the rest of the word is obscured by the flutter of a flag, but it’s quite clear that among the taverns, shops, and furnished lodgings to let, there was a circulating library on the Shore. Closer inspection gives the name Reid on a lintel. Reid appears again on the building, this time blocked by the pole from which the flag hangs. ‘REID. SELLER d NER’.

Detail showing Reid's Circulating Library on The Shore.
Detail showing Reid’s Circulating Library on The Shore.

How accurate was this illustration?  Was there a circulating library run by someone called Reid at The Shore in 1822? My Books and Borrowing hat was by now truly on.

The Edinburgh Post Office Directories would have the answer.

William Reid was a printer and bookseller at 40 The Shore. The Post Office Directory does not mention that he had a circulating library, but booksellers at the time often did. Exploring further confirms the accuracy of the image. ‘Menzies’ next door to Reid’s is John Menzies’ tea and wine shop at No. 42. ‘Wallace’ at No. 39 is Andrew Wallace, grocer. The ‘Bookseller & Stationer, Burnet’ is James Burnet at No. 37. ‘DICKMAN Watch Maker’ is James Dickman at No. 36. The Clock Tavern at No. 46 was run by Mrs Smart while the Ship Tavern and Hotel at No. 20 was run by Alexander M’Dougall. The Crown and Thistle Tavern – ‘Young’s Crown Tavern’ in the image – at No. 31 was run by Daniel Cameron.

It’s an appealing thought that some of these people must be depicted in the crowd. waving and cheering. Were they hoping for extra custom? Happy to rent out rooms with views? Just enjoying the spectacle?

Leith in 1822 was well served for those in need of reading material. There was a subscription library at 46 Charlotte Street. James Watt was another bookseller at 82 The Shore. There were two reading rooms, the Leith Reading Rooms at 124 Constitution Street and the Seaman’s Reading Rooms at 5 Dock Street.

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