By Ian Haywood
At the end of February 2023 my colleague Mary Shannon and I made a trip to The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, London. There were several overlapping reasons for the visit. Firstly, we were scheduled for a PhD supervision with Mollie Clarke, an employee of the TNA, who is in the final stages of her thesis on Victorian cross-dressing, and who has contributed a chapter on ‘Reynoldsian Women’ to the new collection, G. W. M. Reynolds Reimagined: Studies in Authorship, Radicalism, and Genre 1830-1870 (2023), edited by Mary Shannon and Jennifer Conary. Secondly, a recent catalogue search had revealed several items neither Mary nor I had seen before, including a possible new photograph of Reynolds. Thirdly, I wanted to see a confiscated poster of a London ‘monster’ meeting at which Reynolds spoke in March 1848, shortly after his meteoric ascendancy to the leadership of Chartism. When I first discovered this poster many years ago in a Metropolitan police file, it was in such a fragile state that I persuaded the TNA to restore it. I was given a photocopy of the poster but had not returned to see the original, so for me the trip was both nostalgic and forward-looking: could we make a similar discovery?
We decided to look at the poster first, and we were not disappointed. Its aura blazed from its shiny protective coating (Figure 1). It was hard not to be reverential at the sight of this remarkable relic of Britain’s first mass political movement. The ironic fact that the poster has only survived because it was confiscated by the authorities only adds to its power and charm. Its prohibited status is also a tribute to Reynolds’s radical reputation, as we know that he was being spied upon for his ‘sympathy with the French’, a reference to the French revolution of February 1848 which sparked a wave of nationalist uprisings across Europe, and revitalized Chartism at home. Yet the poster does its utmost to counter any suggestion of unruliness and to distance itself from so-called ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, making full use of exclamation marks to insist on ‘Peace!’ ‘Order!’ and ‘Moral Agitation!’ In fact Chartism is notable by its absence, perhaps an intentional strategy by the meeting’s organisers to appeal to a socially diverse constituency who supported the various causes of ‘universal suffrage’, the ‘rights of labour’ and the ‘total abolition of the income tax’. Given he was already a best-selling author, as evidenced by the list of publications beneath his name, it is also possible that Reynolds was trying to mobilize and politicize his massed ranks of readers. For Reynolds aficionados, this segment of the poster is a true delight as it confirms his uniquely dual role as a popular writer and radical activist. No equivalent figure exists in Victorian literary history – indeed, possibly in the whole of British literary history.
There is more work to be done on this poster. For example, as Mary spotted (Figure 2), there is an intriguing mention at the very bottom of the poster to ‘the committee’ based at Reynolds’s office on Wellington Street. Can we find out more about this committee which seems to have been directing the launch of Reynolds’s political career? Reynolds was formally elected as a Chartist delegate for Derby in early April 1848, so perhaps this was a temporary measure, but more information is needed. It is worth adding here that there is another confiscated poster which I found in the TNA announcing a Chartist meeting in Derby at which Reynolds spoke, and which is reproduced on page 175 of my book The Revolution in Popular Literature (2004). Unlike the earlier poster, however, Reynolds is not presented as an author, but simply as ‘G. W. M. Reynolds Esq.’, and for this reason the Derby poster lacks some of the charge and charm of the ‘Grand Meeting’ in London.
After this auspicious beginning, we then moved into unknown territory. The catalogue search had turned up three items related to Reynolds’s later career: the first two were legal documents involving Reynolds and his business partner John Dicks; the third was a photographer’s copyright record of a full-length portrait of Reynolds, with (we hoped) a copy of the photograph attached. We decided to leave this appetising morsel to the end and tackle the weightier legal paperwork.
There were two cases to consider, one brought by Reynolds and Dicks and the other against them. The first case occurred in 1866 when Reynolds and Dicks accused a rival magazine of plagiarism: specifically, they alleged that a story called ‘The Fallen Star’ by James Malcolm Rymer, first published in Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1859, had recently reappeared under a different title in the London Miscellany. Reynolds and Dicks were suing for damages, and though the documents do not reveal the outcome of the case, they do provide an insight into the tenuous relationship between authors and publishers in popular literary culture at this time. In this teeming world where republication, reformatting and rebranding of texts was commonplace, and where popular authors tended to work for whoever would pay them, it is perhaps remarkable that Reynolds and Dicks ever brought the case. Furthermore, one can imagine the judge raising an eyebrow at Reynolds’s vigilance and commercial high-mindedness, as it was well known that Reynolds’s own career had begun with so-called plagiarisms of Dickens. In fact the ironies multiply when we realise that the London Miscellany was owned by none other than Edward Lloyd, another phenomenal Dickens imitator (Figure 3). As explained in Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain (2019), edited by Sarah Louise Lill and Rohan McWilliam, it was for Lloyd’s notorious ‘penny bloods’ series of cheap shockers that Rymer wrote his most famous story about Sweeney Todd the demon barber, String of Pearls, so Rymer’s attachment to his former boss is understandable, though he was also a regular writer for Reynolds and a frequent guest at the annual dinners of Reynolds’s News. There is therefore a tone of almost comic self-importance in this legal spat over a minor copyright breach between these two giants of popular publishing who had risen from disreputable origins to command the heights of ‘cheap’ press empires.
Intriguingly, the second legal case also involved a conflict with a successful popular publisher who had a direct link to Reynolds’s past. The paperwork reveals that in late 1872 Reynolds and Dicks expanded their premises at 313 Strand by building a raised extension at the rear. Clearly, this reflected a thriving business, but the building work antagonised their neighbour Henry Joseph Vickers, who ran ‘a very extensive business as a publisher and bookseller’ at number 317, and who claimed that the extension prevented daylight entering his printing workshops. Vickers asked for the work to be stopped, and when this was refused, he went to court in July 1873. Like the previous case, we do not know the outcome, but given that Dicks operated from this address until 1901, it seems likely he and Reynolds prevailed. What is not made clear in the documentation is that Henry Joseph Vickers was the son of Reynolds’s former publisher George Vickers, another denizen of the seething Victorian literary underworld centred on Holywell Street and its surrounding byways. George Vickers published The Mysteries of London (1844-48), Reynolds’s magnus opus, after which the two men fell out, and Reynolds did most of his business with his printer John Dicks. In 1863 Reynolds and Dicks formally partnered and moved their office from Wellington Street to the Strand. One wonders how they must have felt when, shortly after, George Vickers’ son Henry set up business just three doors away. According to Robert Kirkpatrick in his book Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street (2016), Henry employed at least 8 men and family members, so his claim to be running a ‘very extensive business as a publisher and bookseller’ seems justified, though not of course on the scale of Reynolds’s News.
While there is no evidence that the proximity of the two popular publishers replicated the Wellington Street rivalry between Reynolds and Dickens, a topic that Mary Shannon explores thoroughly in her book Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew in Wellington Street: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street (2015), the legal case does highlight another urban pocket of intense cultural productiveness in which we can postulate that the dynamic, miscellaneous richness of cheap periodical literature was (as Shannon argues) both fuelled and shadowed by the energetic network of business and social interactions which took place on a daily basis. Indeed, a colour-coded diagram of the disputed extension (Figure 4) shows that the two businesses were separated by a public house, the ideal venue for convivial conversation. So we should by no means conclude that Reynolds and Vickers Jnr were arch-enemies, despite this quarrel over (sic) illumination. We can equally imagine them discussing business matters over a pint, and reflecting on the remarkable success of the popular literature which they produced and disseminated.
Finally, we come to the new photograph. The National Archives holds the copyright registration documents which Victorian photographers originally submitted to Stationers’ Hall. On 31 March 1863, John Hubbard of Oxford Street registered a photograph of Reynolds ‘standing nearly full face’ (Figure 5). Reynolds may have chosen Hubbard’s studio as it was very close to St Andrew’s Church on Wells Street, a place which Reynolds and his family had already begun to frequent and which, despite its association with social and moral conservatism, would loom larger in Reynolds’s life after he retired. But if Mary and I were hoping to glimpse this more mellow Reynolds ‘nearly full face’ we were sadly disappointed, as the required copy of the photo was missing, and subsequent enquiries to both Stationers’ Hall and the TNA have proved fruitless. What happened to this photograph? Has it been lost forever, or does it languish in a secreted chest along with a trove of Reynolds’s other papers? As we celebrate a new book on Reynolds, the existence of a Reynolds archive remains the greatest ‘mystery’ of all.