The Routledge and Warne publishing families: Part 4

The start of Routledge’s Railway Library

George Routledge continued to operate as a publisher at 36 Soho Square through the mid 1840s, and published an eclectic mixture of titles, mainly reprints of English and American fiction and non-fiction. He continued to publish the very successful biblical commentaries of the American Reverend Barnes that he had started selling in the early 1840s. He introduced the world at large to the unconventional, socially-concerned fiction of Henry Cockton (1807-1853), by reprinting “The Life and Adventures of Valentine Fox, the Ventriloquist”, an expose of the parlous state of British mental asylums and lunacy laws, first published in 1840, and “The Life and Adventures of George St. Julien, the Prince of Swindlers” (1841). Both were first reprinted by Routledge in 1844. He was probably able to publish these books because of the bankruptcy of Cockton in 1842. Routledge continued to publish reprints of “Valentine Fox” for many years, and more than 400,000 copies of this now mostly forgotten title were published by the end of the 19th century.

Most of the Routledge reprints of Cockton’s books reproduced the illustrations by Thomas Onwhyn from the first editions. Onwhyn had gained notoriety following his publication of pirated versions of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby containing his own illustrations; Dickens famously complained of “the singular vileness of the illustrations.”

Routledge also published reprints of some of the novels of William Harrison Ainsworth during this period. Ainsworth, a friend and collaborator of Dickens, had come to the public’s notice with the publication by Richard Bentley of his first novel, “Rookwood”, in 1834. Just as with Cockton, Routledge republished Ainsworth’s novels with their original illustrations, many of which were by Dickens’ main illustrators, Cruikshank and “Phiz”.

George Cruikshank illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Tower of London” reprinted by Routledge

By the end of the 1840s, Routledge was trying to find a better way of publishing his reprints. He had noticed the reprinted novels published by Simms and McIntyre in Belfast in 1846 under the series title of “The Parlour Novels”, which in 1847 became “The Parlour Library”. These were low-price publications in attractive embossed cloth bindings. Routledge used to travel around the country selling his own books directly to provincial booksellers. He started doing this by stagecoach, but by the mid to late 1840s he travelled on the rapidly-developing British railway system, which had become both extensive and cheap in the period 1835-1845. During these journeys, he noticed the growing popularity of reading on trains, an activity which had become possible due to the much smoother ride that the railway offered, compared to the stagecoach.

Routledge put these two observations together and decided to produce high quality but low-cost reprints, specifically targeted at the growing population of railway travellers. This became Routledge’s Railway Library, which was launched in 1849. The books were mainly sold by the bookseller W.H. Smith, who had developed the first bookstalls in British railway stations in 1848. Routledge’s Railway Library was a huge success, and although it was soon copied by other publishers, it was the financial making of George Routledge. The series was launched with about a dozen titles available in 1849. By 1898, when the series ended, more than 1270 titles had been published in the Routledge Railway Library series.

The changing styles of the card-bound books issued as part of the Railway Library over its first fifteen years are illustrated above. The left-hand panel shows James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Pilot”, published in 1849 as the first book in the series. The British copyright for Fenimore Cooper was held by Richard Bentley at this time, but Routledge ignored this, and in fact published six Fenimore Cooper titles in his first ten Railway Library books. Later on, after the success of the Railway Library had been assured, Routledge belatedly paid Bentley his royalties for the copyright infringements, and entered into an arrangement with Bentley to reprint thirty-six of Bentley’s Standard Novels as Routledge’s Standard Novels, a series that ran from 1851 to 1860.

The middle panel shows another American book, this time by Nathaniel Hawthorne, reprinted by Routledge in the Railway Library series in 1852. You can see that by this time, the success of the Railway Library had allowed Routledge to move his publishing business to 2 Farringdon Street, a much better address than 36 Soho Square, although Soho Square remained the family home until the late 1850s. The business move to Farringdon St. happened in the second half of 1851.

In the right-hand panel, we can see that by 1863, the firm had matured into Routledge, Warne and Routledge, by the inclusion into the partnership of George Routledge’s brother in law, Frederick Warne, and Routledge’s eldest son Robert Warne Routledge. The firm was still operating at 2 Farringdon Street at this time, and the book shown is by an English author, Mrs. Catherine Gore, who was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the 19th century. Her obituary in The Times in 1861 described her as “the best novel writer of her class and the wittiest woman of her age.”

Note that the price of the Railway Library books had been kept at one shilling for all three of these books issued over a 14 year period. The basic price remained at one shilling for the card-bound books until the 1870s, although cloth-bound versions, which shamelessly copied the binding style of the Simms and McIntyre Parlour Library, were also available at 1s 6d.

The first ten books issued in the Railway Library series were:

1The PilotJames Fenimore Cooper
2Jane SinclairWilliam Carleton
3The Last of the MohicansJames Fenimore Cooper
4The PioneersJames Fenimore Cooper
5The PrairieJames Fenimore Cooper
6The Dutchman’s FiresideJames Kirke Paulding
7The SpyJames Fenimore Cooper
8Sense and SensibilityJane Austen
9The Water WitchJames Fenimore Cooper
10Pride and PrejudiceJane Austen

An almost complete list of the first 100 titles can be found here.

The success of The Railway Library series encouraged George Routledge to take a considerable financial gamble in 1853. On December 27th of that year, he signed a contract with the author Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton for the right for ten years to publish reprints of nineteen of Lytton’s novels in The Railway Library series, for what Routledge described as “the immense sum of twenty thousand pounds.” It turned out to be a successful investment, so much so that when the contract expired in 1863, Routledge agreed to pay a further ten thousand pounds to extend the publication rights for another ten years. The outcome of these arrangements is that novels by Sir Edward, later Lord Lytton, are the commonest titles from Routledge’s Railway Library to be found in the secondhand book world today.

In later years, the appearance of the Railway Library series continued to change. By the mid 1850’s the very popular “Yellowback” binding style had been adopted by Routledge for the Railway Library, which made the books look rather similar to books from several other publishers of cheap reprints at that time. Some examples of these Routledge Railway Library Yellowbacks, which were priced at 2 shillings, are shown below.

In the next installment of this series I will look at the changes that occurred in George Routledge’s family and his business in the years 1850 to 1870.