My source for much of this section on Collins is the excellent, eminently readable study of David Keir, The House of Collins: The Story of a Scottish Family of Publishers from 1789 to the Present Day (London: Collins, 1952). On William Collins’ very early years, see especially pp. 15-16, 20-24. In-text citations that contain only page numbers refer to Keir. 

William Collins, the founder of the firm

Even more passionately committed to religion and morality, if that is possible, than the founder of the Nelson company in Edinburgh, William Collins, founder of the huge Glasgow firm of publishers bearing his name, was born in 1789 in Pollokshaws, now a district in Glasgow’s South Side, but still at that time a village, with a cluster of cloth mills and dye works, in the agricultural Renfrewshire parish of Eastwood. His parents could apparently afford to send him for a few years to the local parish school, where he became the star pupil, noted for his “diligence and ability,” of the schoolmaster, whom he in turn loved and revered. The parish minister, a frequent visitor to the school, also won the pupil’s affection and trust, encouraged him in boyhood and adolescence, and gave him assistance and advice in the critical years of his young manhood. Shortly after reaching the age of eleven or twelve, Collins went to work at the loom in Pollokshaws – at the time there were fourteen thousand looms within thirty miles of Glasgow Cross – and was soon offering his workmates religious instruction on Sundays and lessons in English, writing, and arithmetic on week-nights after the mills had closed. This activity drew the attention of his former parish minister, now minister of St. George’s Tron Church, situated in the heart of Glasgow and frequented by the wealthy local merchants, with the result that in 1813, Collins was in a position to give up work in the mill, to concentrate on a career in education, and to open a private school, with a nucleus of twenty boarders, in the city centre. English, writing, and arithmetic were taught at the school’s three divisions: a day school and two evening schools. Collins so impressed the local Tron church leadership that at the unusually young age of twenty-five he was made an elder of the church. By this time, he had also acquired a wife, the daughter of a well-to-do engineer in nearby Paisley. His commitment to his Christian faith never wavered and led him to embrace and ardently promote, among other things, the temperance movement in Britain.

The turning-point in Collins’ career resulted from a visit in the first year of his eldership to the Fife village of Kilmany, where Thomas Chalmers, the passionate and gifted evangelist, Collins’ senior by ten years but then still at the start of his amazing life’s trajectory, was the local minister. An article by Chalmers on the evidences of Christianity in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia had made such a deep impression on Collins that he undertook the long journey by coach in order to hear Chalmers preach. He was so moved by what he heard that he could not rest until he had prevailed on his fellow-elders -- overcoming the resistance of the Lord Provost and others by organizing a petition signed by two hundred leading members of the congregation -- to have Chalmers translated to the Tron Church, the minister of which had just been appointed to a chair at Glasgow University. Chalmers arrived in Glasgow in 1815 and his preaching drew crowds to the Tron church; it was not unusual for a throng of two thousand to press into a building designed to accommodate fourteen hundred. Meanwhile, on his side, Collins – whose revenue from his schools had reached a considerable sum – had opened, in his own house, the first of a chain of Sunday schools that secured the attendance of twelve hundred children within a couple of years. The publishing house of Collins arose from the close personal friendship that developed between teacher and preacher, Collins and Chalmers, and from their shared faith and values.

Chalmers’ success as an evangelical theologian and preacher at the Tron church soon led to his weekday sermons’ being collected into a single volume entitled Astronomical Discourses and published in 1817 by the long established Glasgow bookseller John Smith. (Founded in 1751, the Smith bookstore in handsome premises in centrally located St. Vincent Street was the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the English-speaking world at the time of its closing down in the year 2000.) Despite its relatively high price of twelve shillings, six thousand copies of the book were sold within ten weeks and twenty thousand within a year. Chalmers’ fame spread rapidly; he was soon preaching in London, where “the cream of London society – in hundreds of carriages – flocked to hear him,” while arrangements were set on foot for a 500-page volume of his Tron Church Sermons to be put out by the prominent London publishing firm of Longmans (pp. 32-33). He was also already being published in Holland in Dutch translation and was soon to be published in France and Germany in French and German translations.

William Collins and Thomas Chalmers

In 1819 the by then celebrated Chalmers suggested to his friend and admirer William Collins that he undertake to be the primary publisher of his work, starting with a volume inspired by Chalmers’ experience as minister of a parish church in one of Glasgow’s poorest districts, to which, with the strong encouragement of Collins, he had voluntarily translated from the up-market Tron Church. As what amounted to a condition of this arrangement, Collins was to take on Charles Chalmers, Chalmers’ younger brother, who had great difficulty settling down, as a partner. The house of Collins thus started life as Chalmers and Collins, with William Collins in charge of the publishing side of the business and Charles Chalmers in charge of the printing and bookselling side. (The well-stocked bookshop was located in Wilson Street in the old merchant city section, while a small printing works had been set up, with financial assistance from Thomas Chalmers and the family of Collins’ wife Jane Barclay, in nearby Candleriggs.)

In September 1819, the first part of Chalmers’ The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns was published by “Chalmers and Collins, Booksellers and Stationers,” at a cost of one shilling. Two further parts followed in the second decade of the century. Additional works by Chalmers came out in rapid succession: Application of Christianity to the Commercial and Ordinary Affairs of Life (1820), The Importance of Civil Government to Society and the Duty of Christians in regard to it (1820), Scripture References, designed for the use of Parents, Teachers and private Christians (1821; originally published by John Smith in 1817), A Series of Discourses on the Christian Revelation (1822, also originally published by Smith and others in 1817). [Chalmers’ publications with Chalmers and Collins] Other works published at this time also reflect the religious orientation and commitment of the publishers. These included The Christian Philosopher (1823) by the Dundee-born science teacher Thomas Dick and A Practical Review of the Prevailing System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (often referred to as Practical Christianity) by William Wilberforce, the enormously popular evangelical Christian M.P. responsible for the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which put an end to the British slave trade) and the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 (which ended slavery itself throughout the British Empire). 1822 saw the inauguration of the moderately priced Select Library of Christian Authors, which by 1829 consisted of about fifty consistently popular works of divinity, with prefaces by modern writers, such as Chalmers himself, who provided the preface for Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and Wilberforce, who provided that for former Princeton President John Witherspoon’s Treatises on Justification and Regeneration, with an Introductory Essay by William Wilberforce (1824).

From the outset, Collins was also deeply engaged in publishing in the field of education, both moral and practical. A first schoolbook, A System of Commercial Arithmetic for Use in Schools and Private Families, appeared in 1821. By 1825 the series “Select Christian Biography, Intended for Youth” included over fifty titles, among them works by or adapted from Chalmers, as well as now forgotten moral tales, such as Pious Grandson, The History of James Anderson or The Widow of Rosenheath, a Lesson of Piety. Dictionaries were also featured, beginning with a Greek-English dictionary, in collaboration with Smith and Elder, in 1826.

In 1826 the firm of Chalmers and Collins began to encounter financial difficulties and it did not escape the crisis that affected others in the bookselling and publishing trades around this time, most notably Constable, though it is possible that, as Collins alleged, the difficulties sprang from Charles Chalmers’ poor management of the bookselling side or, as Charles Chalmers alleged, from Collins’ “venturesomeness” on the publishing side. Whatever the cause, Charles was so alarmed at the prospect of the Chalmers’ investments in the firm being swept away in a grand insolvency that, without consulting his brother, by then a professor at the University of St. Andrews, he proposed an immediate dissolution of the partnership. Collins accepted the proposal and with the help of loans and promises from his brothers-in-law succeeded in weathering the storm. The Chalmers-Collins partnership of six and a half years thus came to an end, and Collins became master of his own publishing firm (pp. 73-80).

Nevertheless, despite ups and downs, the close friendship of Thomas Chalmers and William Collins endured and Collins continued to publish the writings of his now internationally celebrated friend after the break-up of the partnership with Charles and until Chalmers definitively defected to the Edinburgh publisher Oliver and Boyd in 1846, a year before his death. The Supreme Importance of a Right Moral to a Right Economic State of the Community appeared in 1831, Political Economy in Connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society in 1832, Tracts of Pauperism the following year, the massive 368-page On the Sufficiency of the Parochial System, without a Poor Rate, for the Right Management of the Poor in 1841, and The Collected Works of Thomas Chalmers in 25 volumes over five years from 1836 to 1841. And Collins continued to focus, in general, on religion and education.

In 1828 he published The Christian Poet, an anthology edited by the Scottish hymnodist and poet James Montgomery, which sold 2,000 copies within a couple of months and then went into several editions, in different formats, at prices ranging from 4s to 10s/6d. Though many of the poems anthologized and arranged in chronological order in this volume are by authors long forgotten, a fair number are by authors who are part of the English literary canon: Chaucer and John Gower for the fourteenth century; John Skelton and Sir Thomas More for the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries; Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser for the sixteenth century; John Donne, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and William Drummond for the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries; George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Milton, Bunyan, and Dryden for the seventeenth century; Pope and Thomas Chatterton for the eighteenth; and Byron for the nineteenth. In 1841 a license to print the New Testament was obtained, and by 1842 Collins was printing complete Bibles. Forty thousand subscribers signed up for an edition of the Select Practical Writings of John Knox (the leader of the Reformation in Scotland) that appeared in 1845.

William Collins II

On the death of William Collins Senior in 1853, his son, also William Collins, a partner in the firm since 1843, formally took over the running of it. Like his father, William Collins II was a businessman, a devout Christian with a deep Christian concern for the material, and, above all, moral and spiritual condition of the dangerously neglected poor and working class, and a committed member of the Temperance movement. (William Collins Senior had been a founder of Britain’s first Temperance Society and had given speeches on the topic all over Scotland and, as the movement spread, England too [pp. 94-98].) William Collins II was elected Lord Provost (i.e. Lord Mayor) of Glasgow in 1877 and knighted in 1881. Under his management, Collins moved into the area of scientific encyclopaedias and atlases and, in general, concentrated more and more on educational publications. The firm became publisher to the Scottish School Book Association and the Irish National Schools, with more than two million schoolbooks shipped to Ireland between 1853 and 1863. A.M. Trotter’s A Manual of English Grammar (1873) sold more than half a million copies. By 1862 the company was also selling some three hundred thousand Bibles annually. In 1871, Collins took over the Popular Poets series from the failing London company of Edward Moxon, a friend of Charles Lamb and publisher of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson. Nineteen volumes appeared under the series tile The Grosvenor Poets at the fairly modest price of 3s 6d for cloth-bound and 7s 6d for leather bound copies. Among the poets in the series were Burns, Byron, Coleridge, Cowper, Goldsmith, Longfellow, Milton, Moore, Pope, Swift, Shakespeare, Thomson, Wordsworth – and the lone female poet, Felicia Hemans (1793-1835).

Under William Collins II, the firm expanded its outreach, opening markets in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Africa. By the mid-1870s, over 900 titles were being published annually and by 1879, the annual output of books came to about two million.

William Collins III and the Collins Illustrated Pocket Classics

William Collins III, who succeeded his father as head of the firm after the latter’s death in 1895, overhauled and modernized the printing facilities in Glasgow, began to exploit the South American market, set up a new warehouse in Sydney and a William Collins Company office in New York (pp. 217, 251), and — not the least of his achievements — initiated in 1903, three years before his death, the extraordinarily successful Collins Handy Illustrated Pocket Novels series, the only such series at the time to be fully illustrated. Shortly thereafter the series’ rather unwieldy title was altered to Collins Illustrated Pocket Classics, which better reflected the categories of works to be represented: not only “Fiction,” but “Poetry and Belles-Lettres,” “History, Travel, Biography,” and “Young People.” “The size is small, 6¼ ins. by 4 ins.,” as the advance notices put it, “the type is bold and well-leaded; the half-tone illustrations are from original drawings and many in number; the price” – at one shilling initially – “is low.” The first ten volumes included works by Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, and Charlotte Bronte, and over 80,000 copies were sold in the first six months. By 1908 there were 100 titles, almost all of works still regarded as classics of English literature, and most of them dating from the nineteenth century. Among the authors, Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, George Borrow, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, John Bunyan, Robert Burns, Thomas Carlyle, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, Fennimore Cooper, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Goldsmith, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, John Keats, Charles Kingsley, Charles Lamb, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, Edgar Allan Poe, John Ruskin, Sir Walter Scott, Willliam Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Southey, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, and William Wordsworth. Many of these authors were represented by multiple volumes. The series also included translations of a few foreign writers, such as Honoré de Balzac, Alphonse Daudet, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Jules Verne, with Dumas and Hugo likewise represented by multiple volumes.

By the 1920s the number of titles in the series had reached more than 300 with the addition of works by canonical writers, such as Pepys and Defoe, American writers, such as Herman Melville and Mark Twain, more recent British writers, such as Walter de la Mare, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Oscar Wilde, and a few foreign authors, such as Gustave Flaubert, Anatole France, and Lev Tolstoy. New series were also introduced: the Sevenpenny series of previously published works by living writers in 1907, with the first volume appearing three days after the first volume of the similarly titled series put out by Nelson; the Penny Library series for schools, which included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Kingsley’s The Water Babies; and the Novel Library, the books in which ranged from thrillers to Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels and various works by Somerset Maugham (both by arrangement with the original publisher, Heinemann). And beyond the series for which Collins was best known a few new writers were recruited: Victoria Sackville-West, John Middleton Murray, Rosamond Lehmann, John Masefield and, for the detective novels that brought in substantial profits, Agatha Christie.

In sum, the contribution of Collins, like that of Nelson and Blackie, lay chiefly in the popularizing of established literary classics. The firm was less prominent as a discoverer and promoter of original new writers.

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


Brown, Stephen W, and Warren McDougall. “Introduction,” Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland. Vol. II. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Last modified 14 November 2018