Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Songs of a Certain Description”

[1] “Everyday Scenes, in the Flash Circles,” illustration prefacing Duncombe’s Edition; Modern Flash Dictionary, written “by George Kent, Historian to the Prize Ring”, from an old catalog (N.D.)

The Duncombes of Holborn 
by Robert J. Kirkpatrick

IN the first half of the 19th century the name of John Duncombe was associated with the publication of dramas and one-act plays (with over 600 titles recorded as being issued between around 1821-52), music and songs. The imprint of John Duncombe (or J. Duncombe) and Edward Duncombe also appeared on a number of periodicals, penny-part serials, books and pamphlets, and the name of Duncombe was also linked with several cases of libel and obscenity. Yet, despite the extent of the Duncombe family’s publishing activities, and the notoriety associated with the name, very little has been written about them before. Teasing out the family history is complicated by the fact that, like several other publishers from that era, the name of John Duncombe covered both father and son.

John Duncombe senior was born around 1764. Nothing seems to be known about his background and early life, or about his wife, Sarah (born around 1767).  They had six children: John (b.1792), Elizabeth (b.1795), Sarah (b.1799), Edward (b.1802), Erasmus (b.1804, d.1805), and Emily (b.1807, d.1808). Between around 1799 and 1805 the family lived at 32 Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, London, before moving to 9 and 10 Middle Row, Holborn.

In 1811, John Duncombe is listed in Holden’s Annual Directory as a cabinet maker at 9 Middle Row. In 1819, a John Duncombe is listed as a bookseller and stationer at 19 Little Queen Street; in 1822 as a bookseller at 10 Little Queen Street, and in 1823 a bookseller at 19 Little Queen Street. Three years prior to this, in August 1820, John Duncombe senior fell through a trapdoor in a linen draper’s shop and suffered a compound fracture of his leg, subsequently spending six months in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Two years later, he was still walking with crutches, and was unable to work, with his business, that of a newsvendor and bookseller, being carried on by his wife and an assistant. This was all revealed in the Times on 15 November 1822, when it reported the court hearing at which Duncombe sued for damages, being awarded £50 plus costs. His son was a witness, but gave no indication as to his profession at that time.

Whether or not John Duncombe the elder was ever a publisher, and if he was, what he published is not clear. His will, drawn up on 24 February 1831, stated that he was a “bookseller and newsagent” at Middle Row, Holborn. It is, therefore, quite likely that most, if not all, of the publications carrying the J. Duncombe imprint were issued by his son.

[2] Title page of Duncombe’s Edition; Modern Flash Dictionary.
John Duncombe the younger was born on 13 September 1791 in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and baptised at St. Clement Dane’s, Westminster, on 5 November 1792. Nothing is known about his early life, other than that he married Deborah Haines at the parish church of St. George, Bloomsbury, on 8 August 1814. He set up in business in his late teens — one of his first publications was The Minstrel, or Songster’s Miscellany, published from Middle Row in 1811-12. Numerous other song collections, individual songs, dramas and the occasional pamphlet followed. But in August 1824, then operating out of 19 Little Queen Street, Holborn, he was declared bankrupt, the petitioning creditor being none other than his father (Law Advertiser, August 1824). This may have led to his father offering a helping hand and taking him under his wing, a possibility borne out by John Duncombe the younger’s second bankruptcy, in May 1827, with the London Gazette (8 May 1827) describing him as “formerly of Little Queen Street, Holborn, and late of 12 Bateman’s Buildings, Soho Square, foreman to John Duncombe the elder, of Little Queen Street, aforesaid, bookseller and printer.”

Despite this second bankruptcy, John Duncombe the younger was soon back in business, this time apparently estranged from his father. In 1826, he had launched the weekly periodical Portfolio of Amusement and Instruction. In the issue dated 27 December 1828, the last page carried an advertisement for several J. Duncombe publications (including The Adelphi Songster, The Man of Pleasure’s Song Book, Secret Amours of the French Chief, The New London Rambler's Magazine, and The Private Life and Amours of Lord Byron), with a notice at the end to the effect that “J. Duncombe, at 19 Little Queen Street, Holborn, has no connection in trade with any other Publisher of the same name.”

The Post Office Directory for 1827 lists the two John Duncombe’s as a Book and Music Seller at 19 Little Queen Street, and as a Bookseller, Publisher and Newsvendor at 9 Middle Row. This appears to be the first appearance of a John Duncombe as a bookseller at this address. A year later, they are listed as a Bookseller and Publisher at 19 Little Queen Street and a Bookseller and Newsman at 9 Middle Row. In 1829 they are both listed simply as Booksellers at both addresses.

[3] Memoirs of the Life, Public and Private Adventures, of Madame Vestris, 1826.
John Duncombe the younger also used the name of M. Metford at his Little Queen Street and Middle Row addresses, and J. Turner at 50 Holywell Street. (See Henry Spencer Ashbee, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1877.) Amongst the publications carrying the Metford imprint were a number of song books and pornographic titles such as The Mysteries of Venus, or Lessons of Love; and The English Rogue, or the Life, Adventures and Intrigues of Meritou Lairoon, a fashionable extravagant Libertine.

John Duncombe the elder died in April 1831, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, on 18 April 1831. In his will he left everything to his wife Sarah (who was also an executor), with the proviso that she should not dispose of any part of her inheritance without the approval of his other executor, his son-in-law Charles Dear. He left nothing to his son John, nor to his other children (National Archives, ref. PROB 11/1792/367).

[Charles Dear had married Sarah (born on 23 July 179 at Cursitor Street), on 24 November 1818 at St. Pancras Parish Chapel, with her father and son (then shown as living in Little Queen Street) providing a £200 marriage bond, as Sarah was only 19 years old at the time. Charles later became a picture dealer.]

If John Duncombe the younger had become estranged from his father, then any family rift had been healed by that time of his mother’s death. Sarah Duncombe drew up her will on 22 August 1833 and left her estate to be divided equally between her four children – John, Edward, Sarah and Elizabeth. She died a day or so later, and was buried in St. Andrew’s, Holborn, on 29 August 1833, with probate subsequently granted to John and her son-in-law Charles Dear.

In 1833, the Post Office Directory shows John Duncombe still operating out of 19 Little Queen Street, with S. Duncombe (i.e. Sarah) operating as a bookseller out of 9 Middle Row, having taken over her late husband’s business. Rather confusingly, though, in 1835, 1836 and 1837, this business was recorded at 10 Middle Row, with the occupier named as John Duncombe. John Duncombe the younger was listed at 19 Little Queen Street in 1835 and 1836, but not in 1837 – indeed, the name of John Duncombe then disappears from the Post Office Directory until 1843, when John Duncombe & Co. is listed as Bookseller etc. at 10 Middle Row. He is still there in 1847, but by 1851 his name has disappeared.

[4] Madame Vestris, 1826.
John Duncombe the younger established a thriving business as a publisher of songs, dramas etc., as well as dabbling in what turned out to be dangerous waters. In September 1819 he was the subject of a writ issued on behalf of the Prince Regent, which described Duncombe as a “malicious, seditious and ill-disposed person” and accused him of “unlawfully devising and intending to raise and excite discontent and disaffection in the minds of the liege subjects of our Lord the King…” This related to an issue (no. 5) of The Republican, a periodical printed by R. Carlile of 55 Fleet Street which contained A Letter to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent. (Carlile was also the subject of legal action, Duncombe being prosecuted for selling the periodical, and later issues of The Republican were referred to the Attorney and Solicitor General with a view to prosecution for blasphemy. National Archives, ref. TS 11/43.)

In November 1826 Duncombe was taken to court by the actress Lucia Elizabeth Vestris for libeling her in his penny-part serial The Adventures and Amours of Madame Vestris. He had ignored a warning issued by her solicitors after the appearance of the first two numbers, so legal action was taken to suppress further publication (Morning Post, 27 November 1826).

A month later, Duncombe was back in court accused of pirating a song the copyright of which was owned by J. Willis, a music seller in St. James’s Street, who was awarded £200 damages (Times, 8 December 1826).

In November 1829 John Duncombe appeared in court again, alongside his brother Edward, charged with selling and publishing indecent publications (described in the Morning Chronicle as being “publications of a grossly indecent description and immoral tendency”). The titles of these were not read out in court or reported, but both Edward and John contended that they were simply reprints of works which had been published and sold in Britain for many years, and they were unaware that by selling them they were committing an offence. It was alleged that John Duncombe had been put on notice by the Society for Suppression of Vice in 1826, but he denied all knowledge of this. He also told the court that he had a wife and family (in fact, as far as is known he only had one child, Sarah Anne, born in 1822), and medical evidence was submitted that he was in poor health. He also supplied several affidavits attesting to his morality, integrity and honesty. Despite all of this, he was sentenced to six months in prison (at Coldbath Fields, Clerkenwell), fined £50, and bound over with sureties totalling £400 (Times, 20 November 1829).

[5] Madame Vestris, 1826.
In February 1837 John Duncombe found himself in court again, although this time as a victim. Henry Skinner, a former employee who had been sacked for “bad conduct,” was charged with stealing a ream of paper, 500 copies of The Comic Magazine, and five sheets of stereotyped plates from Duncombe’s British Theatre series – he was sentenced to seven years transportation. Also in the dock were James Newton and Thomas Grove, two of Duncombe’s employees, charged with theft. A large quantity of books had disappeared from his Middle Row premises, and had been traced to the Drury Lane premises of a pork butcher, who had clearly been buying stolen books for some time. Newton was also charged with selling books as waste paper to a Hatton Garden trader. He was sentenced to transportation, with Grove sentenced to a term in prison (Times, 12 February 1837).

At the time of the 1841 census, John Duncombe the younger was living at 11 Middle Row, described as a bookseller, with his wife Deborah, his daughter Sarah, then aged 22 and working as his assistant, and his niece Caroline Bartlett. Deborah died six years later and was buried, on 14 February 1847, in St. Andrew’s, Holborn.

A year after this, Duncombe married Ann Allen at Tottenham Parish Church. She was a widow, born Ann Drakeford in St. Pancras in 1800, and had married George Allen in 1822 – his date of death is not known. In 1851, Duncombe was living at 17 Holborn, this time describing himself as a music seller, living with Ann, his niece Sophia Drakeford, and a 20 year-old female servant.

He retired in 1852, his business being bought by Thomas Lacy, a former actor, playwright and theatrical manager who had turned to bookselling in the mid-1840s, operating out of Wellington Street, Covent Garden, and who became particularly well-known for his series of Lacy’s Acting Editions of Plays (1848-73), which comprised 1,485 individual titles.

John Duncombe the younger died in October 1853 and was buried in St. Andrew’s, Holborn on 30 October of that year.

In his will, drawn up in April 1848 (National Archives, PROB 11/2180/373), he left his entire personal estate to his daughter, Sarah, who, in 1842, had married Frederick Moon. Moon, born in 1821 in Holborn, was a business partner of John Duncombe, with several publications – largely dramas, music and songs – appearing under the imprint of Duncombe & Moon.  Moon subsequently died in 1849. It is not clear what happened to Duncombe’s wife Ann – in the 1861 census, an Ann Duncombe, a widow, is living at an address in Bloomsbury and shown as a “Proprietor of houses.” It is not known when and where she died.

[6] Madame Vestris, 1826.
Despite his brushes with the law, John Duncombe maintained a position as a major publisher of plays, melodramas, songs and music, an activity that spanned his entire publishing career from around 1811 to 1852. Amongst his drama productions were Duncombe’s New Acting Drama (1821-25), Duncombe’s British Theatre (1825-52), and Duncombe’s Minor Theatre (1834). Duncombe was especially notable for publishing scripts that had not been published elsewhere, buying up copyrights specifically for his collections. This proved to be an invaluable leg-up for new writers – the first play by Douglas Jerrold, for example (More Frightened than Hurt) was the first in Duncombe’s New Acting Drama series.

His songs and music publications included Duncombe’s Music; Duncombe’s Piano Forte Music; The Musical Casket, or Melodies for the Million; The Adelphi Songster; The Choice Songster; The Vocal Magazine; British Melodies, or Lyric Repository; The London Singers Magazine; and The London Vocalist.  These were supplemented by somewhat racier material such as Duncombe’s Drolleries; A Bawdy Song Book, and The Man of Pleasures Song Book.

He also issued a handful of penny-part serials and penny bloods, including Lives and Adventures of the Most Remarkable Highwaymen, Footpads, Notorious Robbers, and Other Daring Adventurers (1832); Lives and Adventures of Notorious Pirates and their crews, gallant Sea Fights, battles etc. (1833); and Perils of the Ocean, an interesting collection of Terrific Shipwrecks, and other disasters at Sea (1833).

Amongst his more controversial works were Details of a Demirep, or Life and Adventures of the celebrated Lady Barrymore; The Great Illegitimate!! Public and Private Life of that celebrated actress Miss Bland; The Secret Memoirs of Harriet Pumpkin (a salacious account of the life of Harriet Mellon, subsequently Mrs Coutts and the Duchess of St. Albans – of which most of the copies were bought up and destroyed); The Bower of Bliss, or The Loves of Alonzo and Angioline; The Private Life and Amours of Lord Byron; The Mysteries of Venus, or Lessons of Love; and Amatory Poems and Songs of the Earl of Rochester.

In some cases it is not clear which of his publications were the subject of prosecution, although some sources say that amongst these was Fanny Hill.

He also published a handful of short-lived periodicals, including Punch in London (1832) and Peeping Tom, or Notes of London Life (1841).

John Duncombe was, for a brief period, associated with his brother Edward, whose experiences as a publisher were equally as controversial.

Edward Duncombe was born on 30 January 1802 and baptized at St. Clement Dane’s, Westminster, on 7 March 1802. He married Ann Harry (born in Devonport, Devon, in 1802) at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, on 22 August 1826, with whom he had three children: Edward (b.1827, d.1828), Charlotte (b.1828, d.1829), and Edward Harry (b.1831).

[7] Madame Vestris, 1826.
He appears to have set up in business as a publisher on his own around 1822, with the periodical The Mirror of the Stage, or New Dramatic Censor (1822-24), followed by The New Theatrical Inquisitor (1824). He also issued a few dramas, the earliest being King Richard III: Travestie, a Burlesque, Operatic, Mock Terrific Tragedy in Two Acts (1823), and the occasional song book, such as Duncombe’s New Comic Songster.

More notoriously, he published several pamphlets, such as The Life, Amours and Intrigues of Miss Paton, commonly called Lady Lennox, now Mrs Wood; The Life and Exploits of Ikey Solomons, swindler, forger, fencer, and Brothel-keeper; and The Trial at Full Length of Edw. Gibbon Wakefield, William Wakefield and Mrs Frances Wakefield, for a conspiracy, and the abduction of Miss Turner, etc.; and the occasional periodical such as The Ramblers Magazine, or annals of gallantry, amatory tales and adventures, memoirs of the most celebrated women of pleasure, etc. (1827), and Horn Tales, or the Art of Cuckoldom made easy.

His early business addresses included 165 Fleet Street (1826), 26 Fleet Market (1827-28), 188 Fleet Street (1828), 1 Vinegar yard, Brydges Street, Covent Garden (1828), and 18 Middle Row, Holborn (1829). Like his brother John he also used another name, that of John Wilson, at 78 Long Acre (see Ashbee). In November 1829 he was sentenced, along with his brother, to six months in prison for selling obscene literature (Times, 20 November 1829).  The prosecution said that Duncombe had published a catalogue containing “49 different books, with amatory titles. Some of these were sold by the defendant himself [at his shop in Middle Row] and others by a woman in the shop, around the window of which great crowds of people were frequently collected.” In his defence, Duncombe claimed, like his brother, that all the publications complained of contained material that had already been published. He added that his wife was about to give birth and was dangerously ill, he had an “aged and infirm father and mother depending on him for support,” and a doctor provided an affidavit to the effect that Duncombe was “of a delicate constitution.”

In December 1835 he was again found guilty of selling several obscene books and prints, although before he was brought to the court for sentencing he found himself in a debtors’ prison. The London Gazette (1 March 1836) revealed that he had, for a time, been in partnership with his father:
Edward Duncombe, formerly of No. 165, Fleet Street, Bookseller, Music-Seller and Newspaper Agent, then of No. 9 Middle Row, Holborn, in Copartnership with John Duncombe the elder, as Printers, Publishers, Music Sellers and Newspaper Agents, trading as Duncombe and Co., then of 18 Middle Row aforesaid, both in Middlesex, Printer, Publisher , Bookseller, Music-Seller, and Newspaper Agent, my wife lodging at No. 4 Waterloo Terrace, Waterloo Road, Surrey, and late of No. 55 Fleet Street, London, trading under the firm of Thomas Mecklam, & Co. as Booksellers, Publishers, and Music-Sellers, and of No. 18 Middle Row, Holborn, aforesaid, Bookseller, Publisher, Music-Seller, and Newspaper Agent, having a private residence at No. 23 Cross Street, Hatton Garden, Holborn, Middlesex.
On 8 May 1836 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment (in Newgate) for the offence for which he had been found guilty the previous December. He was back in court again, charged with the same offence, in January 1843, again in a prosecution initiated by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. By this time he had moved to 78 Long Acre, having taken a weekly tenancy of a shop and living accommodation in around 1839. In 1841 he placed the name “John Wilson & Co.” over the door, although both his landlord and a neighbour testified that they knew no such person. Duncombe was fortunate to escape a guilty verdict as he had only been released from a debtors’ prison two hours before the sale of the offending article, and the magistrate accepted that there was no proof that Duncombe had gone direct from the prison to his shop, and no proof that he had personally sold the article or authorized its sale (Times, 18 January 1843).

In September 1843 he declared himself bankrupt, giving his address (then and for the previous five years) as 78 Long Acre. He was absent from the 1851 census, possibly in prison yet again. His wife was living at 119 Fetter Lane, the head of the household being her widowed mother, Ann Goldwise, a newsvendor; also present was Edward Harry Duncombe, then aged 19 and described as a Newsman.

In December 1853 Duncombe was once again trapped by the Society for the Suppression of Vice into selling one of its representatives an obscene book from his premises at 7 West Street, St. Martin’s Lane — he was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison (Times, 8 December 1853).

No sooner had he been released than he was back in court charged with selling an indecent and obscene book (Times, 17 April 1856). Again it was an agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice who bought the offending article –
He went to the defendant’s shop in Little St. Andrew’s Street, Seven Dials, and asked for a book of songs of a certain description, which the defendant sold him, and then asked if he wanted any works of an amorous character, as he had some on hand. He at once said he would purchase some books if they suited him; the defendant then produced some books, one of which he handed to the witness and asked two guineas for it. After a little parleying he agreed to take 30 shillings for it, and gave him a catalogue of works of the same nature. It was for selling that book that the defendant was indicted.
His defence counsel told the court that “when this offence was committed the defendant was in a state of the most deplorable and object poverty, or he would not have sold the book.” Despite this, he was later sentenced to six months hard labour (Times, 1 May 1856).

Duncombe was possibly back in prison in 1861, as he was again absent from the census record. His wife Ann was living at 110 Fetter Lane, working as a newsagent, and their son Edward Harry was described as a Music-Seller. But other than Ann appearing as a lodger, out of work, at an address in Westminster in the 1871 census, that appears to be the last we know of Edward Duncombe and his family. His date and place of death, and that of his son, is apparently unrecorded.

John Duncombe the younger left behind him a reputation as a prolific publisher of drama and music, although he was also famous for his frequent brushes with the law and his occasional forays into the dangerous waters of radical politics, scandal and pornography. John’s brother Edward was also notorious for his under-the-counter activities and the selling of pornographic books and prints. The full story of what were almost certainly colourful lives has yet to be told – the foregoing summary is just a starting point.

[8] Memoirs of the Life, Public and Private Adventures, of Madame Vestris, 1826.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all the research required spotlighting the Duncombe family and this fascinating period of British publishing.