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Saturday, 12 April 2014


There is circumstantial evidence that my 5x great grandmother Jean Mudie (c1764-1842) is descended from the Mudies of Dundee, prominent merchants and guildsmen of that city. At this distance in time I may never be able to prove or disprove it. But if it’s true, I have in Charles Edward Mudie a cousin worth honouring.

Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890)

Charles’s father was a stationer and bookseller in Dundee, a burgess of the city. But in 1810 at the age of twenty-nine he moved with his wife to London, opening new premises in Cheyne Row, just off the Chelsea Embankment. The shop prospered, selling newspapers and secondhand books, and the couple raised a family – Charles was born there in 1818 and in time entered the family business.

At the age of twenty-two Charles opened a new branch in Bloomsbury and began to publish books himself. In 1842 he started lending books to the impecunious students of the University of London nearby, charging them a guinea a year (£1.05) to borrow one book at a time. Thus Mudie’s Subscription Library was born.

Mudie’s Select Library

It was a huge success, and after ten years Mudie’s Select Library (as it was known) moved to larger premises at 509-511 New Oxford Street. Eight years later in 1860 those premises were themselves enlarged, and over time the company opened branches in the industrial centres of Northern England – in Birmingham, York and Manchester – although never as far north as his roots in Scotland.

Mudie’s buying power was immense. Emerging at the same time as WH Smith, he had a comparable influence on the publishing industry. He would not stock novels of what he considered dubious morality, which in turn influenced Victorian literary taste. On the other hand in 1859 he bought five hundred copies of Charles Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species, thereby greatly contributing to the dissemination of Darwin’s theories.

First edition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (Chapman & Hall, London, 1861) in three volumes

In 1861 he bought almost the entire first edition, and most of the second, of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The purchase illustrates another aspect of his influence on publishing practice. Novels were expensive, and generally beyond the financial reach of even the new middle classes. It was one of the reasons for the success of Mudie’s lending libraries - readers borrowed instead of buying. The publishing industry responded by issuing longer novels in parts, usually in three volumes which could be bought separately over time, as Great Expectations was. As well as increasing sales for the publisher, the three-volume novel or triple decker was also good for subscription libraries who could charge for three loans instead of one.

The triple decker disappeared almost overnight in 1894 when both WH Smiths and Mudie’s stopped stocking them. By then cheaper single volume editions of many works had begun to appear. Private subscription libraries were also under attack by then, from the rise of the public lending libraries of many town and county councils. As I wrote here recently, that’s what did for the Lewes Library Society in 1897.

Readers with armfuls of books outside Mudie’s Select Library Limited, in an illustration in London Society, 1869

Mudie’s, which had become a limited company in 1864, soldiered on until the 1930s before different reading habits, cheaper books and free public libraries finally killed off Charles Edward Mudie’s influential library model. Today, local libraries are closing at an alarming rate across Britain because of deep government cuts to council funding. Who’s to say we won’t see a return of private subscription libraries such as Mudie’s in the near future? Proud as I am of my possible cousin, I hope not.

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