Decorated initial B

orn in 1780 near Bannockburn -- the Stirlingshire site of a celebrated victory of the Scots under Robert the Bruce over Edward II of England in 1314 -- Thomas Neilson left his family’s farm in 1796 and, after several forays into different forms of employment, undertook an apprenticeship at a bookseller’s in London. Two years later, on returning to Scotland, he founded the company that bears his name (slightly modified in 1818 in response to a potential misspelling on cheques) as a modest second-hand bookshop at 2 West Bow, just off the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. In view of the demand for used books that his bookselling business allowed him to observe, Nelson calculated that there was a market for cheap editions of standard works and, as he was of strict Covenanter stock, he began publishing religious texts in monthly “parts” – so-called “number-publications” -- such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in 1801, and John Howie’s Biographia Scoticana or Scots Worthies (1775) in 1812 (Dempster).

From the outset, the emphasis was on price, the goal to put significant – and edifying -- writings within reach of a broader than usual public, one that included an expanding skilled working class and, increasingly, the young. Robertson’s History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI was published in 1820; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; with a Life of the Author; also, a View of the Doctrine of Smith, compared with that of the French economists; from the French of M. Garnier) in 1827 with many subsequent reprintings between that date and mid-century; The Works of Robert Burns in 1831; Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth, and Animated Nature in 1831 and The Vicar of Wakefield in 1839. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe appeared in 1835 or 1836 in an illustrated adaptation specially designed – already – for juvenile readers.

To achieve his goal, Nelson employed new techniques of production and distribution. The company was one of the first to use stereotyping for large print runs at the press that it set up at Hope Park in Edinburgh in 1845, and in 1850 one of Thomas Nelson’s sons, also named Thomas, came up with an important new invention, the rotary press, which, like the stereotype, reduced the cost of large print runs. In response to the hostility of booksellers dismayed by the low prices of his books and thus of the profit to be made from selling them, Thomas Nelson Sr. resorted to direct sales at fairs and markets and to auctions in vacant stores rented for the purpose (McCleery and Dempster). On the basis of his own experience as “a bagman with religious proclivities” during his London bookseller’s apprenticeship, and of his considerable success at that time in obtaining subscriptions for works such as the Stratford edition of Henry’s Bible, which was sold in shilling parts, he in turn employed a “bagman” or traveling salesman to hawk his products around Scotland and the North of England and to find outlets in small towns.

He also soon expanded the range of his publications to include more classics, such as Thomson’s Seasons (1840) or William Cowper’s Poems (1842). “He was a pioneer in the production of literature for the million,” according to the biographer, writing in 1889, of another son of Thomas Nelson Senior, William Nelson, “but he catered for the taste of an age very different from our own, in his effort to put standard works, already stamped with the approval of the wise and good, within reach of the peasant and the artisan” (Wilson pp. 20-21). In other words, Thomas Nelson was not actively promoting new literature; his business was with established, above all morally sound, and “improving” texts, or with new works that would contribute to the morals and the education of the young or uneducated. As the author of the article on him in the Dictionary of Literary Biography put it, he was moved by an “urge to spread learning and knowledge through good cheap books across a wider section of the population than had previously enjoyed it. This is the evangelism of the educator, of the democrat who wishes to see all people participating in the community of the learned.” It did not hurt that, smartly pursued, it was also a highly profitable activity, or that it might help to quiet restlessness in the new working class, to promote a sense of a common culture, a national literature, across class and income boundaries, and to protect literature itself from the threat posed by cheap, mass-produced popular fiction (See McCleery, 219). John Kijinsky argues that the great cultural project of the Victorian age, "its greatest task -- and achievement, lay in taming and ‘civilizing' the dangerous engines of progress [in this case, mass literacy and mass distribution of printed material] it had un-wittingly unleashed.” Promoting the idea of an English national literature and culture, was thus, it is suggested, a way of moderating class conflict by emphasizing the people and the nation (pp. 206-07).

After his sons William and Thomas Jr. became -- in 1835 and 1839 respectively -- partners in the firm (renamed Thomas Nelson and Sons in 1858) and effectively took over the running of it, their father having become a virtual invalid in the twenty years before his death in 1861, the business continued along the lines set out at the start, but also expanded into new territories. In 1844 a London branch of the firm was opened by Thomas Nelson Jr. in the very street, Paternoster Row, where his father had served his apprenticeship. A decade later an American branch was established in New York – the first branch of a British publishing house to be set up in the United States. As trade with the Empire, especially in the area of educational publications, became a more and more significant part of the firm’s activities, offices were opened in Toronto, Cape Town, and Melbourne.

The production side of the business also expanded. From 1839, when Thomas Nelson, Jr. joined the firm, most, if not all, of Nelson’s printing was done in-house, at a facility in Castlehill; subsequently, as of 1845, as the company began to publish more and more original works, rather than reprints, at a larger, ever-expanding factory at Hope Park; and finally after a major fire in 1878 destroyed those premises, causing over £100,000 worth of damage, at a vast and imposing newly built factory at Parkside just below the notable Edinburgh landmark of Arthur’s Seat. (The Parkside works survived until 1968 when they were razed to make room for the new premises of a large insurance company.)

With the opening of the Hope Park works, Nelson extended the range of the firm’s publications to include contemporary fiction, history, and, above all, books designed specifically for young audiences and for schools. Among fictional texts for adults, translations of foreign works, such as Dumas’s The Black Tulip and The Queen’s Necklace (both 1850), Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) and Les Misérables (1870s), figured prominently alongside reprints of George Eliot and Dickens and the earliest publication in Britain of work by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. That there was keen attention to commercial considerations is indicated by an unusual number of translations of the best-selling historical novels and semi-fictional biographies of the prolific (now virtually forgotten) mid-nineteeenth-century German writer Luise Mühlbach: The Merchant of Berlin. An Historical Romance (1866), Berlin and Sans Souci, or Frederick the Great and his Friends (1867), Louisa of Prussia and her Times. A Historical Novel (1867), Henry VIII and his Court, or Catherine Parr. A Historical Novel (1867), The Empress Josephine (1867), Queen Hortense (1870). Many of the Mühlbach titles, along with Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), may well have been acquired by Nelson’s New York branch, since all those works appear to have been published first or at least simultaneously in the U.S.A.

Increasingly, however, the focus was on books for the young and on cheap but well produced editions of the English-language classics for the ever expanding upper working and lower middle classes. Along with its Glasgow counterparts Collins and Blackie, the Nelson firm was thus set to become one of the pioneer developers of a vast new market for works of literature. First, books for the young. According to a historian of Victorian children’s literature, the publishing of religiously inspired fiction for the young was “the foundation of [Nelson’s] commercial success” (Bratton, p. 59, and Dempster, 14.5). School societies and, later, School Boards listed Nelson titles among those suggested as suitable prize or reward books.

R. M. Ballantyne’s Snowflakes and Sunbeams, or, The Young Fur Traders (1856) was among the earliest books specially written for young people and published by Nelson. William Nelson himself suggested to the author -- a nephew, as it happens, of the James Ballantyne who had been Sir Walter Scott’s printer – that he draw on his experiences while serving, from age 16 to age 21 (1841-1847), as a clerk of the Hudson’s Bay company on remote Canadian trading stations to write a story suitable for young readers. Ballantyne had literary ambitions -- he had already published Hudson’s Bay, or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America privately at first, in 1848, for friends, family, and subscribers, then, in the same year, with Blackwood, who had been one of the subscribers to the privately produced book, and in 1853 he had brought out The Northern Coasts of America and the Hudson’s Bay Territories: A Narrative of Discovery and Adventure (a revised and expanded version of a work by an earlier author, first published in 1832) with Nelson – and he accepted with alacrity. There was never any doubt that whatever he came up with would meet the evangelically inclined Nelsons’ strict requirement of high moral standards, for Ballantyne was himself a deeply religious man who believed he had a mission to employ his ability to write for young people under “guidance from God.” Over a dozen best-selling books for young people followed the 1853 volume, among them Ungava: A Tale of Esquimaux Land (1858) and The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (also 1858) – a work that influenced Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing of Treasure Island (1883) and that was still being read by young people in the twentieth century (the present writer included). The titles of those works indicate their emphasis on action and adventure: e.g. Martin Rattler, or A Boy’s Adventures in the Forests of Brazil, (1858), The World of Ice: Adventures in the Polar Regions, (1860), The Gorilla Hunters: A tale of the Wilds of Africa, (1861).

Ballantyne’s contribution to Nelson’s list of books for boys was supplemented a couple of decades later by another dozen or so tales of adventure by the no less prolific and popular W.H.G. Kingston, with titles such as Twice Lost: A Story of Shipwreck and of Adventure in the Wilds of Australia (1876), The Wanderers, or Adventures in the Wilds of Trinidad and up the Orinoco (1897), and On the Banks of the Amazon, or A Boy’s Journal of his Adventures in the Tropical Wilds of South America (1901). All these works went through several editions. As the editor of a more recent edition of The Coral Island points out, “the romantic adventure-story in which the hero roams the world, making discoveries, doing good, but never overtly seeking wealth had become one of the main genres of popular fiction; and it had become enmeshed with imperial ideology, contributing to the national perception of the might and the right of the British Empire and suppressing awareness of its rapacious mercenary base” (p. xvi.)

Nelson also engaged in publishing fiction for girls, the corresponding goal of which was not only to develop their reading skills but to teach them to be modest, Christian, charitable, and dedicated to their families. One of the chief suppliers of fiction for girls was the extraordinarily productive Charlotte Maria Tucker (who signed herself ALOE – A Lady Of England). Nelson published over thirty novels or collections of tales by her with titles such as Stories Illustrating the Proverbs (1858), The Young Pilgrims: A Tale Illustrative of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ (1859), The Thorn in the Conscience and Other Stories (1875), The Silver Casket, or The World and its Wiles (1877), Stories from Jewish History (1880). Catherine D. Bell was another Nelson author of juvenile books. Again the titles make clear their edifying and moralizing character: Kind Words to Domestic Servants (1857), The Children’s Mirror, or What is my Likeness? (1859), Mind Your Own Business (1861), Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself, or The Story of Mike, the Irish Boy (1861), The Way to be Happy, or The Story of Willie, the Gardiner Boy (1872).

In addition, for the very young, Nelson published simple texts such as Short Stories in Words of One or Two Syllables (1869) as well as a periodical for juveniles: The Children’s Paper. (Launched in 1855, it had a monthly circulation in 1880 of 30,000 and lasted until 1925.) The aim and impact of Victorian books for the young, including the many put out by Nelson, has been summarized by a modern critic:

By the fourth decade of the century the stories began to carry a social as well as a religious message. Not only were the young to be convinced of innate sinfulness, they were also to be socialized into prescribed roles, partly to maintain the status quo in a society which was undergoing, most uneasily, a radical transformation. [In the literature for boys], evangelicism gave way to imperialism, as the exigencies of spiritual bliss or woe became gradually more extraneous to the task of maintaining the Empire. [. . .] Books for girls, on the other hand, were generally content with reinforcing simple old-fahioned moral and social codes, and with justifying and inculcating unpalatable social roles. [Thomson, 134]

Truly talented new authors seem not to have been attracted by or to Nelson as a publisher. In a note to a partner of the firm toward the end of the century, one individual, under consideration as a possible editor of a projected boys’ magazine, observed that the Nelson list included few or no “first class” contemporary novelists and that there was “an undoubted prejudice on the part of writers in the first rank towards your House. Right or wrong, just or unjust, it exists to a larger extent than I supposed” (Quoted Dempster 14.20). The reasons for it may well have been partly a reputation for parsimony in its dealings with authors (such as led to Ballantyne’s finally moving to Routledge), and partly the very image of the imprint. The one modern writer who enjoyed something of a reputation, even if he is hardly now considered to be “in the first rank” – namely John Buchan – had in fact joined the firm in late 1906 as literary adviser and head of its London office, thanks to a close personal friendship that he and Thomas Arthur Nelson had formed as students at Oxford. Though Buchan did succeed in including some original and creative modern writers in the firm’s lists (William James, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells), Nelson’s contribution to English literature must be seen chiefly in the form of the firm’s spectacular success at making established classics available to readers of limited means in decently produced volumes at modest prices.

The first of the many series put out by Nelson in response to the Education Acts of 1870 (England) and 1872 (Scotland) was the Royal Readers. Though they made use of a broad range of short stories and poems, these were not, however, literary texts but school “readers” intended to promote comprehension, proper diction, and literacy in general. They were used throughout the English-speaking world and were enormously successful -- and profitable, contributing substantially to the financial health of the company. Between 1878 and 1881 educational titles represented 25 per cent of the total output of Nelsons, but yielded 88 per cent of the company’s total profit. Of that profit the Royal Readers alone represented some 45 per cent (McCleery, Thomas Nelson and Sons, p. xviii.) (There were even, especially at a later stage, in the mid-twentieth century, but as early as 1887, versions in some of the languages of Africa — McCleery, 223). Almost inevitably, the Royal Readers also functioned as instruments of imperial ideology (see Joseph).

Of greater significance from the point of view of literary history were the many series of inexpensive but quite handsomely produced literary texts that the company put out in vast numbers. Among them, the New Century Library was started in 1899, and by 1904 offered, 25 classic titles by Sir Walter Scott, 13 by Dickens, 14 volumes of the complete works of Thackeray, a two-volume set of Jane Austen, along with works by Charlotte Brontë, Bunyan, Burns, Thomas Carlyle, Cervantes, Washington Irving, Charles Kingsley, Bulwer Lytton, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, all clearly printed on good quality paper and bound in cloth or leather, at two shillings and sixpence, or, in the U.S., through the American branch of the company in New York, at $1.00, $1:50, or $2:00, “according to style of binding” but in all cases “superbly bound in cloth and various artistic leathers, limp, and board,” in the words of a company advertisement in The School Journal for June 24, 1905. The Sixpenny Classics series, launched in 1903 (renamed simply Nelson Classics soon after) and claiming to offer “the best and cheapest books in the world,” consisted by 1914 of 123 titles by 54 well established classic authors, with 21 more titles announced for 1914 by Balzac, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, W. M. Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy, and Anthony Trollope. Eventually this series was made up of 400 works, mostly classics of English literature, but with a not insignificant number of foreign works among them, notably by Dumas and Hugo. The Nelson Library of works selling for sevenpence dates from 1907 and again included major classics and some foreign-language classics.

In 1910, Nelson and Sons branched out to Paris and began publishing cheap editions of French classics in French for the French market. Printed and bound in Edinburgh to the same high material standards as the firm’s series of English classics, these sold in large quantities in France. They included, along with a set of the Complete Works of Victor Hugo, the classical authors of the French Seventeenth Century -- Corneille, Molière, Racine, Mme de Sévigné, and La Bruyère – together with great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors, such as Rousseau, Mme de Staël, Chateaubriand, Vigny, George Sand, Balzac, and Flaubert, and a number of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers – Maurice Barrès, René Bazin, Pierre Loti, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Some of the great Russian novelists were also featured in French translation. The present writer’s copy of Emile Zola’s Une Page d’amour, published in the Collection Nelson in 1931, lists 160 works in the Collection – some by quite modern, or even contemporary writers, such as Henry Bordeaux and Georges Duhamel. (on the remarkable success of Nelson as a French publisher, see the fascinating essay by Peter France and Siân Reynolds). The French branch of the company, it could even be said, was more open to contemporary writers, albeit not the most challenging, than the British branch.

The contribution of Thomas Nelson and Sons, in sum, was not, like that of Murray or Strahan or Smith and Elder or Blackwood, to have promoted contemporary literary creation, unless quite indirectly through the company’s educational program. It was to have made the great, already well established classics of English literature, including those of the nineteenth century, accessible and familiar to a vast popular readership – an undertaking that had been greatly facilitated by the 1842 Copyright Act, which repealed former Copyright Acts, set clear limits to a book’s copyright (either the life of the author and seven years after his death, or forty-two years from the date of publication, whichever was the longer), and protected the British and colonial markets from the import of books first published in Britain but reprinted outside the British dominions (chiefly in the United States). In 1911 this Act was in turn repealed by Parliament, which extended the period of copyright validity to the life of the author plus fifty years. (On the complex history of copyright in the Victorian era, see Nowell-Smith, International Copyright Law).

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


Ballantyne, R. M. . The Coral Island. Ed. J. S. Bratton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Bratton, J. S. The Impact of Victorian Children’ Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1981.

Dempster, John H. “Thomas Nelson and Sons in the late Nineteenth Century: A Study in Motivation.” Publishing History 13 (1983): 41-87, and 14 (1983), 5-63.

France, Peter. and Siân Reynolds, “Nelson’s Victory: A Scottish Invasion of French Publishing, 1910-1914.” Book History 3 (2000): 166-203.

Joseph, Valerie. “How Thomas Nelson and Sons’ Royal Readers textbooks helped instill the standards of whiteness into colonized black Caribbean subjects and their descendants.” Transforming Anthropology 20 (2012): 146-58.

Kijinsky, John L. “John Morley’s ‘English Men of Letters Series and the Politics of Reading.” Victorian Studies, 34 (1991): 205-25.

Macleod, R.D. The Scottish Publishing Houses . Glasgow: W. & R. Holmes, 1953.

McCleery, Alistair. “Introduction.” Thomas Nelson and Sons: Memories of an Edinburgh Publishing House. Ed. Heather Holmes and David Finkelstein. East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001.

McCleery, Alistair. “Thomas Nelson and Sons” in Dictionary of Literary Biography . Ed. Patricia D. Anderson and Thomas Rose. British Literary Publishing Houses 1820-1880 (Detroit and London: Gale Research, 1991), vol 106, 218-24.

Thompson, Ruth Anne. “[Review of] J.S. Bratton, The Impact of Victorian Children’ Fiction.” Children’s Literature Asssociation Quarterly 9 (1984): 134.

Wilson, Sir Daniel. William Nelson. A Memoir . Printed for private circulation by T. Nelson and Sons, Edinburgh, 1889).

Last modified 25 September 2018