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he great publishing house of J. Murray was founded in London in 1768 by Edinburgh-born John McMurray (1737-1793), a former Royal Marines officer. Having acquired Willliam Sandby’s London bookselling business at 32 Fleet Street in 1768, McMurray dropped the “wild highland Mac” from his name, probably because of the then prevailing prejudice against the ever more numerous and influential Scots in the book trade (Smiles, p. 13). He soon built up a list of authors, including future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s father, Isaac D'Israeli (Curiosities of Literature [1791-1823]), with whose whole family both Murray Senior’s family and that of his son and successor John Murray II maintained a long and close friendship, and from whom both Murrays repeatedly sought and received advice (Paston, pp.17-22), and the Swiss physician Johann Kaspar Lavater. The translation of the latter’s Essays in Physiognomy (1788-99), which included illustrations by Thomas Holloway and William Blake, was John Murray I's financially most successful publication, making him a profit of around £1,000.

Murray published many scientific and medical studies, as well as books in the developing fields we would now define as sociology and economics, such as Cesare Beccaria’s Discourse on Public Oeconomy and Commerce (1769) and Glasgow professor John Millar’s groundbreaking Observations on the Distinction of Ranks in Society (1771). In literature, he reprinted Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead of 1760 (1768 and 1774) and Walpole’s Castle of Otranto of 1765 (1769); and published an abridged version of Hugh Blair’s Essays on Rhetoric (1784), as well as translations of Marmontel’s Contes moraux (1769) and of various tales by Voltaire (1774, 1776). In addition, he partnered with Strahan and Millar’s successor, Thomas Cadell, in putting out editions of novels by Smollett, of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey (both 1774), and a 10-volume edition of Sterne’s Complete Works (1780). He also took shares in the sixth, corrected edition of Johnson’s Dictionary (1778), a new 9-volume edition of the Works of Henry Fielding (1784) and Johnson’s edition of The Works of the English Poets in 58 volumes (1779-81). In another field entirely, he was one of the founding sponsors of the London evening newspaper, The Star, in 1788.

John Murray II (1778-1843)

John Murray. Albumen carte-de-visite by Maull & Co. mid-1870s. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on image to enlarge it.

John Murray Senior was succeeded by his Edinburgh University educated son, John Murray II, who -- in the words of another Scot, the great nineteenth-century liberal and progressive journalist Samuel Smiles, writing in 1873 -- made the house of Murray “a business destined to carry the name of John Murray wherever the English language was spoken, and wherever English books were read, as the most venturesome and yet the most successful publisher who has ever, in London at all events, encouraged the struggles of authorship and gratified the tastes of half a world of readers” (Curwen, p. 165). After Jane Austen’s father failed to have her work accepted by Millar’s successor Thomas Cadell (in 1796 he declined Pride and Prejudice, then entitled First Impressions) and after the publisher Benjamin Crosby, having purchased the copyright of Northanger Abbey (then entitled Susan) in 1803 for £10, did nothing to publish the novel (Jane’s brother bought the copyright back for her in 1816), Jane Austen finally succeeded in having Sense and Sensibility (completed in 1798 under the title “Elinor and Marianne”) published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and Mansfield Park in 1814 by Thomas Egerton. In 1815, however, Austen moved her work to Murray, who put out Emma in 1815 and a second edition of Mansfield Park in 1816.

Murray II was a close friend of many leading writers of the day, notably Walter Scott and Byron. He helped with the sale of Constable’s editions of Scott, and Scott in turn was a regular contributor of articles and reviews to Murray’s Quarterly Review, of which the first editor was John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and biographer, and a writer himself. In the case of Byron, Murray was the chief publisher of the phenomenally successful poet. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron’s second book, which was put out by Murray on March 10, 1812, sold out in five days, while 10,000 copies of The Corsair were sold on the day of its publication in 1814 – a remarkable figure by the standards of the day, when, because of the high price of paper, the similarly high cost of printing and production, and the limitation and uncertainty of the market, “the average edition of a serious book was around 750 copies,” in the words of Richard Altick, and “only in very exceptional circumstances, such as Scott’s novels, did editions in the early nineteenth century run to 6,000 copies” (pp. 263-64). According to Philip Gaskell, “as late as 1738-85, more than 90 pr cent of the 514 books printed at Strahan’s large London printing-house were in editions of less than 2,000 copies” (p. 161). Many other works by Byron followed, including the ”Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” in 1814. A 12-volume edition of the Complete Works appeared in 1814-24, and in 1826, Murray commissioned the popular poet Thomas Moore, a friend of his and of Byron’s, to write Byron’s biography. The first volume of Letters & Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life, published on January 1, 1830, was extremely well received, as was the second, which appeared eleven months later. Murray also commissioned Moore to prepare a new edition of Byron’s Complete Works, and this was published in 1837.

It was Murray who, having sought, after the great poet’s death, to have Thorwaldsen’s handsome statue of him placed in Westminster Abbey and been turned down by the Dean, arranged for it to be moved from the warehouse where it had been stored and placed in the great library of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Thanks largely to Scott, Murray got to know, befriended, and published – anonymously or under the pseudonym “Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman” -- the American writer Washington Irving (Bracebridge Hall, 1822, and Tales of a Traveller, 1824) and the poet George Crabbe (much admired in his own day by Austen, Scott, and Byron and in ours by T.S. Eliot). In addition, he maintained his father’s close relationship with the Disraeli family and published several works by Isaac, the elder D’Israeli -- the collection of short stories entitled Vaurien, 1797, and the second edition of Romances, 1801 (both in conjunction with T. Cadell); Flim-Flams, or The Life and Errors of my Uncle and the Amours of my Aunt, 1805; Despotism, or The Fall of the Jesuits: A Political Romance, 1811 – as well as the young Benjamin’s novel Contarini Fleming. A Psychological Auto-Biography (4 vols., 1832), which “excited considerable sensation and was very popular at the time of its publication,” and the almost 300-page long pamphlet England and France, or A Cure for the Ministerial Gallomania, which the young Disraeli edited and to which he himself contributed substantially (Smiles, pp. 228-31). In 1813 Murray published a translation of Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne and in 1814 he proposed to Coleridge, who had translated Schiller’s Piccolomini, the second part of the Wallenstein trilogy in 1800, that he undertake a translation of Goethe’s Faust. Unfortunately, this proposal did not work out. Murray’s reputation as a publisher was such, however, that Coleridge (in 1814-15), Wordsworth (in 1826), and Carlyle (in 1831) all sought him out as a publisher of their works, though, for various reasons, with the exception of Coleridge’s long gothic narrative poem Christabel (1816), none of their proposals was successful (Smiles, I, 297-302, II, 245-46, 321-27, 349-55).

The Murray drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street in Mayfair was “for some time the centre of literary friendship and intercommunication at the West End.” The young George Ticknor from Boston described it in June 1815 as “a sort of literary lounge where authors resort to read newspapers and talk literary gossip.” According to John Murray III, “it was in Murray’s drawing-room that Walter Scott and Byron first met” and then “met there nearly every day.” Other habituees included Southey, Mackintosh (of The Man of Feeling), the poets Crabbe and Coleridge, Washington Irving, and Madam de Stael (during her brilliant reception in England in 1813 [Ticknor, I, 58]). In 1809, with Scott’s help, John Murray II launched the Quarterly Review as a Tory-inclined competitor to the already celebrated and highly successful Whig-inclined Edinburgh Review, which was put out by fellow-Scot Archibald Constable (for many years a close friend and collaborator of Murray) in Edinburgh, and for which Murray himself had for a time been the London agent. Like its Edinburgh rival, The Quarterly Review did much to popularize literature in nineteenth-century Britain. It ceased publication only in 1967.

Unlike the Minerva Press or Thomas Norton Longman and partners, or even T. Cadell, with whom he often collaborated, or, for that matter, Edinburgh publishers Archibald Constable or William Blackwood, Murray seems to have been disinclined to publish contemporary novels, Jane Austen and Washington Irving being exceptions to what was probably a business as well as a cultural decision, since comparatively few novels were published in Scotland. A listing of the place of publication of new novels in Peter Garside’s “The English Novel in the Romantic Era” (p. 76) shows that the Scottish publishers did however increase their role in the publication of novels in the early decades of the nineteenth century: the numbers of novels published in Scotland rose from 4, as compared with 714 in London and 9 in Ireland, in the 1800s, to 29, as compared with 611 in London and 4 in Ireland in the 1810s, and to 100, as compared with 703 in London and 14 in Ireland in the 1820s. Murray did respond positively at first, in 1808 – hence at an early point in his career — to a proposal, strongly supported by Scott, that he collaborate with Ballantyne of Edinburgh on a uniform edition of the “British Novelists,” starting with Defoe and ending with the novelists of the end of the eighteenth century. This collection would have included works by 36 British and 18 foreign authors in English translation and would have had to be published in some 200 volumes. Nevertheless, despite pressure from the Ballantynes, Murray was apparently daunted by the financial risk involved, and backed out of the project (Smiles, p. 41). A series, edited by Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart and entitled “Murray’s Family Library” was launched in 1829 but it lasted only until 1834 when, as it was running a deficit, it was sold to another publisher. Its 48 volumes included no works of fiction, only works of history and biography, such as Lockhart’s own Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Washington Irving’s Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Sir David Brewster’s Life of Sir Isaac Newton, Sir John Barrow’s Life of Peter the Great, Henry Hart Milman’s History of the Jews, as well as a few reports of travel and exploration, such as John and Richard Lander’s Adventures in the Niger, and an occasion work of natural history, such as The Natural History of Insects, edited by the Scottish physician Robert Ferguson. It was nonetheless a pioneering project; at 5/- per volume, it was less expensive than most similar publications at the time and in reaching out to a broader readership it anticipated the policies of other companies founded by Scots, such as Edinburgh-based Nelson and Glasgow-based Blackie, Collins, and Gowans and Gray.

In the mid-1820s, Murray began planning a daily newspaper, for which young Benjamin Disraeli provided the name – The Representative -- and in the promotion and financing of which Disraeli was, at Murray’s request, though still barely twenty years old, extraordinarily active. Disraeli invested his own funds in it, travelled to Scotland to persuade Walter Scott and his son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart that the latter should take on the editorship of it, and set up foreign correspondents for it all over Europe and the Middle East. The drastic failure of the paper barely six months after its launching on January 25, 1826 and Murray’s loss thereby of about £27,000, caused a serious rift, albeit subsequently mended, between the two closely related Murray and Disraeli families. Murray’s own view was that he had “loved, not wisely, but too well” the young man of whom he had only shortly before, on September 25, 1825 written to Lockhart, by way of introduction, that he had “never met a young man of greater promise.” “He is a good scholar, hard student, a deep thinker, of great energy, equal perseverance, and indefatigable application. His knowledge of human nature, and the practical tendency of all his ideas, have often surprised me in a young man who has hardly passed his twentieth year” (cited in Monypenny, I, 67; see Murray-Disraeli bibliography).

John Murray III (1808–1892)

John Murray III by Charles Wellington Furse. c. 1891. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on image to enlarge it.

John Murray III (1808–1892) continued the business and published Charles Eastlake's first English translation of Goethe's Theory of Colours (1840), David Livingstone's Missionary Travels (1857), and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). Murray III also contracted to publish Herman Melville's first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) in England. Both were presented — in line with the Murrays’ apparently considered standing back from the publication of novels — as nonfiction travel narratives. Both were included in a new series, Murray’s “Colonial and Home Library,” launched by John Murray III in 1843 in response to a new copyright law intended to protect British publishers in both the homeland and the colonies from cheap imports of pirated English-language works produced in the United States, France, and Belgium. Other books in the series, which ran until 1849 included Darwin's journals from his travels on the Beagle, George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, and Thomas Campbell’s Specimens of British Poets. The prospectus of the new series articulates aims that had already inspired the short-lived “Family Library” of 1829-34 and, as noted, were to inspire other publishing enterprises founded by Scots. It deserves to be quoted at some length:

The main object of this undertaking is to furnish the inhabitants of the Colonies of Great Britain with the highest Literature of the day, consisting partly of original Works, partly of new editions of popular Publications, at the lowest possible price. It is called for in consequence of the Acts which have recently passed the British Parliament for the protection of the rights of British authors and publishers, by the rigid and entire exclusion of foreign pirated editions. These Acts, if properly enforced, will, for the first time, direct into the right channel the demand of the Colonies for English Literature: a demand of which our authors and publishers have hitherto been deprived by the introduction of piracies from the United States, France, and Belgium. In order, therefore, that the highly intelligent and educated population of our Colonies may not suffer from the withdrawal of their accustomed supplies of books, and with a view to obviate the complaint, that a check might in consequence be raised to their intellectual advancement, Mr. Murray has determined to publish a series of attractive and useful works, by approved authors, at a rate which shall place them within reach of the means not only of the Colonists, but also of a large portion of the less wealthy classes at home, who will thus benefit by the widening of the market for our literature.

John III’s successor, John Murray IV (1851–1928), publisher to Queen Victoria, was responsible for the posthumous three-volume publication in 1907 of The Letters of Queen Victoria. He also put out Murray's Magazine from 1887 until 1891 and in 1917 he acquired the house of Smith, Elder & Co. The house of Murray continued to be active under the direction of the Murray family until it was taken over by the Headline publishing group in 2002 and two years later by the French publisher Hachette.


Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. 2nd ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

Curwen, Henry. A History of Booksellers: The Old and the New (1873). Bristol: Thoemmes Press and Tokyo: Kinokuniya Company, 1996.

The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction in the British Isles. Ed. Peter Garside. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Monypenny, William Flavelle, and George Earl Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli. London: J. Murray, 1910.

Paston, George. At John Murray’s. Records of a Literary Circle 1843-1892. London: John Murray, 1932.

Smiles, Samuel. A Publisher and His Friends: Memoir and Correspondence of John Murray. Condensed and edited by Thomas MacKay. London: J. Murray, 1911.

Smiles, Samuel. A Publisher and His Friends: Memoirs and Correspondence of the late John Murray. London: John Murray; New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1891.

Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900

Last modified 31 October 2018