I would like to determine exactly when the books with floral covers were produced by the Edinburgh publishers Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier between about 1880 and 1900.

I’m finding that there are very few dates on title pages or the reverse of the title and no printer’s codes at the back. Many of these books were already old at the time of their first printing with floral covers and had many editions in later years, so I need to find another way of dating them.

Luckily, there are many other clues in the books themselves. For a start, the name of the publisher changed over time. Every single one of these books has the name “Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier” on the title page, and we know that the firm adopted that name after September 1880, when the Elgin bookseller John Scott Ferrier joined the firm. Until the end of that year, title pages appended “late W. Oliphant & Co.” to mark the connection with the previous identity.

In front of me I have this book:

Old and New Home cover Old and New Home title

Here we can see another hint: the address of the publisher is given as Edinburgh and 24 Old Bailey, London. As noted above, the book itself is no help; it had been first published in Toronto, Canada in 1870 by James Campbell and Son, and the exact same book plates were used by William Oliphant for the first British edition in 1871.

So I had a dig through the British Newspaper Archive to find out when OA&F had a presence in London. Searching by addresses often works surprisingly well on the BNA, and I soon had a wealth of business names to work with. I could also correlate these with OA&F adverts appearing in the papers, so I could see over what period they were using that address.

At first, I couldn’t tell how big the building at 24 Old Bailey might be, and I assumed that there could be a shop-front as well as offices above. I thought it was unlikely that a bookshop itself would be run by OA&F, but perhaps they had gone into partnership with a company who worked in the offices above.

The earliest OA&F advert that I could find with the Old Bailey address was from February 1889. Looking at other occurrences of that address around this time, the name Alfred Boot & Son kept coming up, and they were a firm of printers.

Drilling backwards, Alfred Boot had certainly been there from the 1870s, until he was adjudged bankrupt in 1880. Boot himself died in 1884 and the shop had passed to a furniture business called Hankins & Co., but it is possible that Boot’s family had retained an interest in the building, because in 1887 we find Alfred Boot & Sons on the premises, and then scattered mentions of the same business (with another partner called Carpenter, at times) until 1901, when the leasehold went elsewhere.

This looks promising. If Boot’s was a printer and distributor, they’d be ideal partners for the Edinburgh firm. I was looking for confirmation in any publishing news when I came across two bits of counter evidence for the partnership. One, that OA&F adverts started showing a new address in the City of 21 Paternoster Square, from May 1896, and two, that 24 Old Bailey had been completely gutted by fire in 1893.

At 10pm on Wednesday 15 November 1893, a fire had broken out and run rampant through the Old Bailey, Farringdon Street and Fleet Lane. The Morning Post’s report on 17 November names Alfred Boot and Sons among the occupants of the six storey building at 24 Old Bailey and reported that they had been nearly burnt out. This report also named many other printers and publishers in that area, including Marlborough and Co., Blackie and Sons and the giant Cassell. Boot and Sons made plans to move out to Paternoster Row.

So, we have Boot and Son moving out to Paternoster Row, but OA&F didn’t shift their address to Paternoster Square until 1896. So their partner in that building wasn’t Boot and Son.

The mystery was solved by a small announcement in the Morning Post again, on 6 April 1896:

Mr J. F. Spriggs, of 23, Old Bailey, has removed his publishing and advertising agency to larger premises at 21, Paternoster-square.

Having got to the name “Spriggs,” the rest of the confirmation came quickly enough.

James Fletcher Spriggs was born in America in 1844 but became a naturalised British subject. He had been employed by the publishers Hodder and Stoughton in the 1870s before striking out on his own. The Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser on 22 December 1888 announces the commencement of his partnership with OA&F:

Messrs. Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, of Edinburgh, whose business has developed a good deal of late years, intend to open a London branch at the Old Bailey. Mr. J. F. Spriggs will be their London representative.

This ties in beautifully with OA&F’s first advert mentioning the Old Bailey, in February 1889.

This business relationship was cemented with a personal one in April 1891 when Spriggs married Mary Tait Anderson, the daughter of Robert Anderson, the Anderson of Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier.

Spriggs died in 1906, with The Scotsman having, in their Wills section, this:

Mr James Fletcher Spriggs, of Paternoster Square, London, representative in London of Messrs. Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, of Edinburgh, publishers, and of the Fleming H. Revell Company of New York and Chicago … … £5734.

So, a very productive evening’s work not only leads to the conclusion that books with the Old Bailey address would have been produced between the start of 1889 and mid 1896, but exactly why the address was in use.


I had to stop myself going off in a completely different direction when I encountered the notice of a post-fire auction of printer’s equipment. I do want to know more about the technology used for these covers but we’ve already established that Alfred Boot was not the printers in use by OA&F. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist this, from the London Evening Standard of 27 December 1893 (I have squished the Over-Capitalisation and EMPHASIS in the original):

Sale By Auction No. 24, Old Bailey.—Salvage from the recent fire, slightly damaged by water. Messrs. James Lewis and Co. will sell by auction, on the premises of Messrs. Boot and Son, and Carpenter, as above, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 1894, at twelve, the printers’ plant and machinery, including double demy litho machine by Newsome†, Wood, and Co., quad crown perfecting machine by Hopkinson and Cope, four Wharfdale machines, two croppers, hydraulic press, cutting machine, 20 tons of type, wood letter, furniture, &c., fixtures, fittings, &c., seven tons litho stones, and a quantity of effects appertaining to the trade.

Twenty tons of type!

† Newsome is a typo. for George Newsum (1838‒1930), a printing-machine maker from Leeds.