25 NOVEMBER 2020
Richard Gilpin has written a detailed piece on the Stationers’ Company and its Almanacks which was abridged for Stationers' News but the whole article including images is reproduced here.
The Library and Archive
As many members will be aware, the Stationers’ Company has a Library and an Archive – and a Committee to look after both of them. Although the two are similar in that they contain records and documents, there are however significant differences.
The Archive includes the Company’s Registers and Entry Books of Copies from 1554 to 1842; Membership records from 1555; Court Books from 1602; English Stock records from 1603 to 1961; legal and financial records; and miscellaneous ephemera such as invitation cards and menus.
In contrast, the shelves of the Library contain a range of generally more recent books about the Company, the book trade, City livery companies and the printing and allied trades.
In addition, since 1992, the Library has enjoyed the use of “splendid Victorian mahogany bookshelves” presented by Past Master Charles Rivington, and these have been home to nearly two hundred volumes of collected almanacks published in pocketbook format, dating from 1620 to 1929. It is because of the almanacks’ links to English Stock that they are an important part of the Company’s heritage, and they have now been moved from the Library to the more secure environment offered by the Tokefield Centre.
The earliest almanacks were simple guides to planetary movements and astronomical events for the coming year; by tracing heavenly motions, almanacks enabled astrological interpretations. They were accompanied by anatomical information, with woodcuts of drawings of the body demonstrating how the functions of particular parts of the body were thought to be governed by signs of the Zodiac (18th century example on below). Who knew that the health of their knees was governed by Capricorn?
After this there were forecasts and prognostications relating to the weather, disease, wars, famines and plagues. Useful information on a range of more general subjects was also provided, including notes of fairs, market days, holy days, days when eclipses would occur, and phases of the moon.
The invention of printing and moveable type led to almanacks being published widely across Europe.
Although they tended to appear under one individual’s name this does not necessarily mean that almanacks were the product of a sole author: they are best seen as having been compiled rather than straightforwardly authored. On some occasions, the name under which an almanack appeared deliberately misrepresented its actual source. An example of this is Vox Stellarum: A Loyal Almanack (purportedly authored by Francis Moore – for nearly three hundred years!).
For many people the information provided in almanacks was knowledge that they believed could give them an advantage over others. Then, as today, information was power which individuals could hope to exploit for financial advantage.
Members of the Stationers’ Company became aware of the opportunities and benefits that almanack publishing could bring, and when James I made his Royal Grant of 1603 to the Company conferring privileges ‘for the benefit of the poore of the same [company]’, it included not only the sole right to enjoy profits from the sale of psalters and psalms, but also an identical right to enjoy profits from the sale of almanacks and prognostications.
The English Stock
The 1603 Grant became the legal basis for what soon came to be known as the English Stock, a book-producing and book-wholesaling organisation run from Stationers’ Hall by a paid Treasurer under the general control of the Court but under the immediate supervision of six Stock-keepers elected annually.
They represented the shareholders, who were drawn from Assistants, Liverymen and the Yeomanry, while the Court managed the allocation of shares. As these fell vacant (often as the result of the death of the shareholder), there were always plenty of applicants, and the quarterly (later annual) dividend was of immense importance. The business of the English Stock was so significant that the Court decided early in 1607 to meet once a fortnight instead of once a month.
The 1603 Grant effectively gave the English Stock a monopoly (in today’s words, a licence to print money) which swiftly became a major influence on the workings and governance of the Company.
In 1662, Parliament passed an Act that further protected the English Stock’s monopoly, yet in 1669 John Hayes – a printer put out of business by the Great Fire – was able to reach agreement with the English Stock to print almanacks and school books at Cambridge University’s printing house. This deal lasted for thirty-six years up to Hayes’s death in 1705.
Through the years a number of other challenges to the Company’s monopoly were made, and the greatest threat came in November 1773, when Thomas Carnan published Reuben Burrows’s A Diary for the Year of Our Lord 1774. The Stationers’ Company took out an injunction to prevent its publication, but in May 1775 the Court of Common Pleas (influenced by a 1774 verdict by the House of Lords in a different case ) ruled that the Crown had not been entitled to grant the Company its perpetual monopoly in almanacks. This decision must have hit Stationers’ Hall like a hurricane, since it meant that Carnan was at last able to compete against the Stationers’ Company with impunity. By 1777 he was publishing twelve different almanacks, and London booksellers – encouraged by him – published over a dozen others. For the next ten years his impact on the English Stock’s almanack sales was considerable, leading to the Company’s almanack turnover falling by a third.
Something had to be done. In April 1781, following pressure from the Company, changes were agreed by the House of Commons that effectively put everyone out of business, except for Carnan and the Stationers. Finally, three weeks after Carnan died in 1788, the Company bought all of his almanack interests for £1,500, and a damaging threat was over.
All then was well for nearly fifty years, when another problem arose. This stemmed from the 1742 requirement for almanacks to carry a stamp purchased by the printer who, unless he had access to capital, could not be a dangerous competitor to the Company. In 1834 however, Stamp Duties were abolished, allowing a new wave of competition to threaten the profits of the English Stock.
Such competition meant that, in order to offer value for money, the Stationers had to reduce the cover prices of almanacks while at the same time increasing the number of pages and adding more almanacks to its list. This tactic seemed to be working well, but after ten years the almanack profits started to drop, the dividend was reduced, and even the dinner for almanack customers had to be discontinued. Once again, previously easy earnings were becoming elusive.
Almanack publishing continued however, but in 1870 the Education Act undermined the influence of the almanacks, and in the following year the Stationers came under a very different – and potentially more existential – attack. An anonymous writer accused the Company of “making vast profits from the publication of worthless almanacks” and took aim at Francis Moore’s Vox Stellarum. This had first been published in 1700 and is often referred to as Old Moore’s Almanack. The criticism was that “Moore, having reached the mellow age of three hundred years, cannot read the stars as clearly as in his younger days”, and the Company was forced to react. The Court issued an immediate instruction to the editor, a Mr Woolhouse, to replace four pages of astrological predictions with four pages of popular scientific information.
By 1895 only six almanacks were being published from Stationers’ Hall, sales were plummeting, and the next year the Company agreed to pay royalties to John Letts to take over the production and publication of what were now the five remaining almanacks. Unfortunately, this arrangement turned out to be only marginally profitable for the Stationers and disastrous for Letts.
By 1907 Letts had had enough and Cassell took over until 1929 when, in a surprising display of optimism, Letts took the almanacks back again. The downward trend could not be reversed though, and, after two years of war, almanack publishing was finally discontinued in 1941.
The English Stock continued as an entity, but its influence and relevance were steadily in decline, and in 1961 it was wound up.
It had however left the Company with a unique physical legacy.
Considerable evidence of the English Stock’s history in almanack publishing can be seen in the Company’s collection of 196 bound volumes of almanacks plus twenty-one unbound copies of Vox Stellarum (‘Old Moore’s’) and eighteen unbound copies of White’s Cœlestial Atlas, all of them in pocketbook format. The bound volumes are stored in chronological order and, particularly in the seventeenth century, there are several years for which the Company has nothing at all. Each volume contains a collection of almanacks but does not include all the almanacks that would have been published in that year. The evidence we have cannot therefore be seen as a comprehensive record, but what it does do is offer a useful insight into what was, for three hundred years, a significant part of the English Stock’s income – and profits.
Pocketbook almanacks from the seventeenth century
The 96 oldest almanacks in the collection are in ten bound volumes dating to the seventeenth century.
The earliest volume, Almanack 1620, contains rare copies of fourteen almanacks published at the end of 1619. Nearly all of them have titles like A New Almanacke and Prognostication. Drekin (presumably a nom de plume) offers A New Almanacke, Prognostication, and An amnestication; the meaning of amnestication is obscure.
The title of the next volume, Almanack 1647-8 is a bit misleading in that it actually contains almanacks from the period between 1647 and 1680. The significance of this collection is that the authors include the astrologers William Lilly and George Wharton, who took opposing sides in the so-called ‘War of the Almanacks’ during the 1642-1651 Civil War.
Lilly favoured the Parliamentarians and, when making his prognostications in Merlini Anglici Ephemeris (of which Almanack 1647-8 includes copies for the years 1647, 1650 and 1651) he gave great prominence to future victories over the Royalists; this naturally gave him considerable influence in the ranks of the Roundhead armies.
His main opponent was Wharton whose support for the Cavaliers was equally committed and was characterised by attacks on Lilly that were highly personal (once describing him as “like a pig, over-roasted”) and little short of venomous.
Between them, their prophesies would have sent soldiers of both sides into battle clutching their almanacks and fully confident that they had the stars on their side.
Wharton’s opposition to Parliament and all that it stood for led to him being imprisoned at the end of the war, and he was only freed after the somewhat surprising intervention of his rival, William Lilly. Wharton’s release was achieved on condition that he would ‘write nothing thenceforth against the parliament or state’. Almanack 1647-8 includes Wharton’s Gesta Britannorum.
By contrast, Lilly was able to continue his work through Cromwell’s Protectorate from 1652 to 1658. This happy state of affairs came to an end with the Restoration of Charles II, following which he was arrested in a roundup of ‘supposed fanatics’. He survived by pledging his allegiance to the King.
Other bound volumes contain almanacks dating to the later years of the seventeenth century, and it is the 1672 volume that includes the Company’s earliest copy of Poor Robin’s almanack (first published in 1663).
Poor Robin, the original author of which is believed to have been William Winstanley, merits a special mention. Nearly all almanacks were written by astrologers who were serious in the way in which they created their publications.
In complete contrast, Poor Robin took a satirical/comical approach, juxtaposing made-up and inconsequential matters with things that were genuine, and offering deadpan prognostications of the blindingly obvious. In many ways it was the Private Eye of its time.
Another of the many astrologers who were active in the seventeenth century was Henry Coley, who learned his trade under William Lilly. The earliest of his almanacks in the collection is dated 1690 and was entitled Nuncius Sydereus or The Starry Messenger, a slight plagiarism by Coley of Galileo Galilei’s influential Sidereus Nuncius or the Starry Messenger of 1610.
Perhaps someone criticised this rather blatant ploy and by 1695 the title had been changed to Merlinus Anglicus Junior: or, The Starry Messenger.
This is how it was published until his death in 1704 when, even though Coley could not continue in person, his name as compiler/author was still on the title page of the Starry Messenger (below) through most of the eighteenth century.
The last of the ‘Henry Coley’ almanacks can be found in the 1763 bound volume.
Pocketbook almanacks from the eighteenth century
The 73 bound volumes dating to the eighteenth century – containing a total of over a thousand almanacks – lie at the heart of the Company’s collection, and they provide evidence of the explosion of almanack publishing in this period. The volume for 1704 alone includes no fewer than 27 titles from different author/compilers, 26 of whom intended their publications to be taken seriously with many of them aimed them at a Protestant readership. Francis Moore’s Vox Stellarum was particularly notable for the vituperatively anti-Catholic message on its title page.
Poor Robin of course had to come up with a parody of the wording usually published on the title page of Vox Stellarum. His alternative version can be seen at the beginning of his 1704 almanack, which features two separate calendars.
Showing a remarkably imaginative inventive use of the English language, Poor Robin advised his readers that his almanack contained firstly “a Two-Fold Calendar. Viz. The Old, Honest, Julian, or English Account” together with one for “the Round-heads, Whimzey-heads, Maggot-heads, Paper-scull’d, Slender-witted, Muggletonian or Fanatick Account, with their several Saints Days, and Observations upon every Month”.
In his 1733 almanack Poor Robin was responsible for the first documented reference to what became an Easter staple: “Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs with one or two a penny hot cross buns”.
Among the many paintings that grace the walls of Stationers’ Hall is a portrait of Tycho Wing (below), who was a successful compiler/author during this period.
It was in 1736 that Tycho took over Almanack and Prognostication from his father John Wing who, in the latter part of the seventeenth century had inherited it from his uncle Vincent Wing, a noted astrologer-mathematician. After Tycho’s death in 1750 the almanack was compiled by other relations who (unimaginatively, and confusingly for historians) were also, named Tycho Wing. Almanack and Prognostication would appear to have become something of a family franchise.
Pocketbook almanacks from the nineteenth century
The Company’s collection includes over five hundred almanacks in 95 bound volumes dating to the nineteenth century.
While Vox Stellarum by ‘Francis Moore’ continued relentlessly through the 1800s, change was on its way. If the bound volumes are a reliable guide, many of the astrological almanacks had started to disappear in the eighteenth century, and this trend gathered pace in the nineteenth.
Astrological prognostications were replaced by useful and factual information in publications that were targeted at well-defined readerships.
Indeed, the title of The British Almanac of The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge perhaps has a whiff of Victorian paternalistic high-mindedness. Other useful titles such as The Tradesman’s and Mechanic’s Almanack, The Medical Almanack (below) and The Gardener’s Almanack appeared.
Readers could choose between science and the stars.
By the nineteenth century, technological improvements in printing and papermaking led to a noticeable change in the quality of the almanacks when compared to publications from earlier periods, and this enabled the compilers to include much more precise illustrations.
Towards the end of the century mass production also allowed the Company to increase the number of pages in its surviving almanacks. Where the publications of the seventeenth century were somewhat ephemeral leaflets, in 1899 The British Almanac And Family Cyclopaedia ran to a substantial 448 pages while Vox Stellarum expanded to 128 pages.
Pocketbook almanacks from the twentieth century
In contrast to the substantial numbers of almanacks from earlier centuries, the Company’s collection dating to the twentieth century includes only 14 bound volumes containing a total of 25 almanacks, which is an indication of the dramatic reduction in demand for these publications. The only remaining titles from this period of which the Company has copies are The British Almanac And Family Cyclopaedia and Vox Stellarum, which ‘Francis Moore’ continued to publish despite the continuing decline of the astrological almanack.
In 1907, ‘Francis Moore’ attempted to explain away any shortcomings and inaccuracies in his forecasting with the words “The publishers go to press so early in the year now in order to supply the public with an almanac for the ensuing year well in advance and to anticipate the large trade demands, so that it is impossible to make a fair review of the predictions, for the fulfilment of which the Editor of this Almanac takes credit”. In 1909, in another sign of changing times, the Editor dropped the Latin title in favour of the more inclusive Moore’s Almanac.
Almanacks in other formats
The Tokefield Centre is also home to four large and weighty volumes of almanacks in broadsheet format published between 1835 and 1895, many of which include fine engravings of subjects such as St Paul’s Cathedral and City of London School (1884, John Saddler, below).
There are several unbound pocketbook almanacks and a number of smaller vest pocket sized almanacks of various dates.
The Company’s almanack collection
The Company’s collection of the English Stock’s almanacks, which starts before the Civil War stops at the beginning of the First World War, thus bringing to an end nearly three hundred years of a very specialised form of publishing. The almanacks reflect the times in which they were written and published, and give important insights into changes in culture and society during this period.
The almanacks can be seen as the first form of English mass media, and the public demand for them is demonstrated by the huge numbers that were handled by the Company: by the start of the eighteenth century 350,000 to 400,000 were published each year. In order to produce almanacks in such numbers, the task of printing them sometimes had to be given to more than one printer. Details of the printers, who were often members of the Company, can be found in most of the almanacks through the centuries.
In an early example of planned obsolescence, the almanacks came out as new books from the end of November to the end of December, despite the fact that much of the material was being repeated from the previous year. In a similar instance of publishing innovation, this time in terms of market segmentation, almanacks were published in increasing numbers, each aimed by its author/compiler at a clearly defined and different readership.
There are of course many famous astrologers, such as John Partridge, George Parker, John Gadbury, Salem Pearce and Henry Season whose names have not been mentioned, and there are many almanack titles, such as The Ladies’ Diary: or Woman’s Almanack and The Gentleman’s Diary, or The Mathematical Repository; An Almanack that have not been referred to, and this is an indication of the richness of this unique Stationers’ Company resource.
As would be expected, the condition of the Company’s almanacks is variable and, while the most recent are generally in a good state, many of the earlier ones are quite fragile. Some appear to be pristine, while others show signs of having been referred to quite regularly by the user throughout the year. Understandably, the quality of the bindings is also inconsistent. Some volumes are loose, some are tight, some are holding their contents well, others are cracking open.
Although the controlled environment of the Tokefield Centre will ensure that the almanacks will not deteriorate further, their conservation and preservation for the future is perhaps an issue for the present.
Richard Gilpin, July 2020
The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959. Cyprian Blagden, 1960. George Allen & Unwin, London.
The Stationers’ Company Archive: An Account of the Records 1554-1984. Robin Myers, 1990. St Paul’s Bibliographies, Winchester.
The Library and Archive of the Stationers’ Company.