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The Collation

John Bell, bibliographic nightmare

Some books are more challenging than others; some bibliographic questions are more complicated than others. This is the first of two posts that looks at a particularly challenging cataloging question. Today’s post will set up the challenge; the next one will take you into the nitty gritty of the “bibliographic nightmare” that is John Bell. 1

John Bell (1745-1831) was a bookseller and a printer who was a major player in the London book trade and who has been alternately referred to as enterprising, pugnacious, and “that mischievous spirit, the very Puck of booksellers.” 2 One of his claims to fame is being the printer with the curious distinction of having discontinued the use of the long ‘s’.

advertisement highlighting Bell’s use of the rounded-s

  1. The quote is from Deborah J. Leslie, who not only put her finger on the experience of dealing with Bell’s editions, but whose help in sorting through the nightmare was invaluable.
  2. Charles Knight, Shadows of the Old Booksellers (London, 1865), as quoted in Kalman A. Burnim and Philip H. Highfill, John Bell, Patron of British Theatrical Portraiture: A Catalog of the Theatrical Portraits in His Editions of Bell’s Shakespeare and Bell’s British Theatre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1998), p3.
  3. See Carrie’s earlier post on Tonson and Walker battling over 18th-century rights to Shakespeare for more on how new regulations about copyright upended the Shakespeare publishing field.
  4. Burnham and Highfill, p.10


Further to this, Bonnell’s ‘Disreputable trade’ is an excellent study of Bell’s entrepreneurial innovations and while concentrating on his poetry series has much that is useful in untangling the bibliographical challenges of his play series.
Very much looking forward to part two. Would be interested to know if the Folger has any of the carrying cases that Bell sold to contain his series.

Valerie Fairbrass — June 5, 2012

Thank you for pointing out that resource, Valerie. I have not come across one of the carrying cases mentioned by Bonnell, but maybe those were specifically for Bell’s poetry editions, which I am not cataloging (or, worse, have yet to come across)!

Carrie Smith — June 13, 2012

I’m amused that the advert praising the rounded-s names the “more open” appearance of the lines as a virtue, but still fills the space between the lines with a “ct” ligature. (For what it’s worth, I’m easily amused).

Erin Blake — June 7, 2012

Blog on Bell’s Shakespeare and reference to article by Globe Theatre staff on bibliographic nightmare:

Valerie Fairbrass — January 22, 2013

Just found your reference to John Cawthorn. According to Ian Maxted it was Barker the bookseller from the Strand, who bought Bell’s books in a bankruptcy sale (in 1793?) George Cawthorn went into partnership with Bell in 1794 and then subsequently locked Bell out of the British Library address several years later probably because of mounting debts. In arbitration over the lock out, George Cawthorn was given the right to publish the future Bell Shakespeare (after 1796?) and the right to use the name of the British Library. It became a very public fight with Bell using newspaper advertising to castigate Cawthorn. George Cawthorn then went bankrupt himself in 1802, but passed on future editions to of the Bell Shakespeare to John Cawthorn (a cousin, we believe) who then commenced business at 5 Catherine Street, Strand in 1802 and worked there until his death in 1816. George died in 1804. Just to confuse things, James Cawthorn (George’s young son,) took over the British Library at 132 Strand and then moved to Cockspur Street. He later became partners with Hutt and published as Cawthorn and Hutt. Hope that this helps.

Ian Maxted is a lovely person who would be the one to contact regarding any questions that you may have in your research as he was very helpful when I contacted him. His blog is the Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade

jill davis — January 23, 2013