The Diceys: cheap print in the era of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution.


In 1764 appeared A catalogue of maps, prints, copy-books, drawing-books, histories, old ballads, patters, collections, etc. Printed and sold by Cluer Dicey, and Richard Marshall, at the Printing-Office, in Aldermary Church-Yard, London. Printed in the year, M,DCC,LXIV (1) Only one copy now survives. This catalogue replaced one issued earlier by William Dicey and his son and partner, Cluer Dicey, which bore the date of 1754 on its title page and of which also, only one, incomplete, copy is extant. (2) There is some mystery about this earlier catalogue since internal evidence suggests that it was in fact issued in about 1760, more than three years after the death of William Dicey and seven years after William and Cluer Dicey had entered into a partnership with Richard Marshall. This gave him a quarter interest in the Dicey printing business and lasted, if the evidence of various London trades directories is accurate, until about 1778. (3) The 1764 catalogue, which included two pages of wholesale prices, was probably larger than any catalogue categorising and listing cheap maps, images and texts that had up to then appeared in the British Isles or probably in any European country.


The Diceys are well known to print and book historians. No other producers of cheap print operated on the scale suggested by the Catalogue and the family has generally been regarded as its most important printers and sellers in the eighteenth century to about the 1790s. (4) Yet their name has not found its way into the growing number of works on the eighteenth-century "consumer revolution" of which it may be argued they were promoters and beneficiaries or into recent discussions of eighteenth-century British culture.(5) They used various sales techniques and extensive advertising, had large-scale distribution and probably credit networks, emphasised novelty and modernity, and recognised the importance of children and juvenile consumers. While they supplied the market for traditional chapbooks and ballads, they also updated texts, added new ones and became important printers of "slips" or contemporary popular songs.


This editorial-cum-marketing strategy may lead one to question or at least to qualify views of popular culture which stress the monotonous repetitiveness of titles in "popular print" and the idea that it was produced only for and read only by a humble audience. Indeed close examination of the Dicey Catalogue and the Dicey output may lead us to agree with Roger Chartier who, writing of French chapbooks, suggests that these "did not have a specific public but constituted a reading material for different social groups, each approaching it from ways ranging from a basic deciphering of signs to fluent reading." Chartier later argued that "widely distributed texts and books crossed social boundaries and drew readers from very different social and economic levels. Hence the need for the precaution of not predetermining their sociological level by dubbing them ‘popular’ from the outset". (6) Sheila O’Connell in a recent study of British eighteenth-century prints also warns that "The Romantic use of the term ‘popular’ is misleading in suggesting an aspect of culture exclusive to the uneducated sections of the population. The audience for popular prints was an inclusive one." (7) This view finds extra support when we take into account the Dicey’s production of maps and of slip songs.


The Diceys were active men of business who were creating and satisfying a developing national market (including Ireland). Like other manufacturers, they also attempted to enter the American market. Yet most previous writing on the Diceys has emphasised less their business history than the nature of their products, especially their traditional ballads, those ballads’ relationship to English "folksong" and their chapbooks. Nor have the interconnections between their enterprises, as map and print and book printers and sellers, as proprietors of a successful provincial newspaper, the Northampton Mercury, and as distributors of a variety of patent medicines, been fully explored. The same is true of the Diceys’ family history, a rising social trajectory that led from trade to the purchase of a gentleman’s country mansion, to the entry of family members into Trinity College, Cambridge and into the Victorian upper-middle class intelligentsia, a process which ironically led to the closing of the Dicey businesses in the nineteenth century.


William Dicey (d. 1756), the founder, was probably in the printing trade in London in the early eighteenth century. His sister married John Cluer, an active London printer at the Maidenhead in Bow Churchyard in London. Aldermary and Bow Church-yards and the surrounding London streets had long been centres of the chapbook and ballad trades and continued to be important centres of cheap printing into the nineteenth century and this was to be an important family connection. Dicey moved first to St. Ives and then to Northampton, where in 1720 he established a printing business with Robert Raikes. They began to publish the Northampton Mercury, which first appeared on 2 May 1720. (8) Both men were undoubtedly ambitious and possibly not over scrupulous. Their activities brought a complaint from John Baskett in November 1721 that they were contravening his patent for printing parliamentary material by including the King’s speech in the Mercury. (9) They also printed a few items of cheap literature and a number of sermons and issued a short-lived monthly magazine, The Northampton miscellany or Monthly amusements, &c. Calculated for the diversion of the country and the profit of the printer. Dicey’s formal association with Raikes in Northampton ended when the latter moved to Gloucester. Dicey became sole owner of the Northampton business. William Dicey, with John Cluer and Robert Raikes, also became a supporter of Benjamin Okell, the inventor of Dr Bateman’s pectoral drops. The three were named in an abstract of the patent and in a treatise on the drops published in 1726 as "the persons concerned with the said inventor." (10)


In 1736 William Dicey and his son Cluer (born c.1715) took over John Cluer’s London business, from his widow and her second husband, Thomas Cobb. This included John Cluer's share in Dr Bateman’s pectoral drops. (11) Two years later they were the subject of a complaint by the Stationers Company for breaching its patent for the printing of ABCs and catechisms and "unjustly getting great sums of money thereby." (12) If this was the case these works must have been produced without any imprint to link them to the Diceys, or none survive. Gilles Duval believes that most of the chapbooks that bore only the simple imprint "Printed and Sold in London" were issued by Diceys. (13) However no London almanacs seem to have had this imprint.


What is not clear is that printing was necessarily their most profitable enterprise. Besides their interest in Bateman’s drops, a medicine that was promoted by frequent references to the fact that it had received "His majesty’s patent" and by other advertising, the Diceys were considerable distributors of "Daffy's original and famous elixir salutis" a patent medicine that seems first to have been sold in the 1670s by Thomas Dicey, father of William Dicey, and was advertised at about that time as


the choice drink of health, or, health-bringing drink. Being a famous cordial drink, found out by the providence of the Almighty, and (for above wenty [sic] years,) experienced by my self and divers persons (whose names are at most of their desires here inserted) a most excellent preservative of man-kind. A secret far beyond any medicament yet known, and is found so agreeable to nature, that it effects all its operations, as nature would have it ... (14)


In addition the family later sold medicines produced as a "result of many years study of that great botanist Sir John Hill, D.M. ... whose knowledge of British plants could only be equalled by his assiduity in selecting from them such as appear best calculated for the cure of those diseases to which the British constitutions are most subject." (15) Other medicines associated with the Diceys were "Bretton's true and genuine British oil" and Lockyer’s drops. The Diceys sold Bateman’s drops and these other patent medicines on a very large scale, with a distribution network reaching into most parts of the British Isles and into North America. Various London directories and other evidence shows that they operated as medicine distributors from Bow churchyard and Northampton, where the "Men carry that carry the News" carried bottles of Bateman’s drops, retailing at one shilling each. (16)


The Dicey’s primary business records and their correspondence have disappeared, including very regrettably it seems the records of the Northampton Mercury. A revealing document about the Dicey’s trade practices , hitherto unused, is a Chancery exhibit of 1764 arising from a family dispute over the terms of William Dicey’s will. (17) In this Cluer Dicey stated that all the "Drops, Pills, Waters, Medicines or Medicinal Compositions" that were "deposited into the hands of shopkeepers in order to be vended" were paid for by the latter only when they were sold.


The said Partners have always thought it advisable to press the Continuance of them in the Shopkeepers hands in expectation that a further triall might be more successfull and sometimes the said Medicines have continued unsold for four or five years or more and have been afterwards returned and the Shopkeepers account cleared on the receipt of them.


A company "rider" generally once a year visited country shopkeepers "to tell over the Stock of the said Country Shopkeepers hands and to receive the Money for such part thereof as are nearly sold and the remainder to continue in Order to be sold and paid for on Sale or Returned so that such debt is thereby cleared and made even."


Cluer Dicey noted that there were "several Books of Account relating to the said Partnership’s Printing trade" and also stated that


a great number of the debts which were due and owing to the said printing Trade at the time of the death of the said William Dicey are desperate or bad Debts through the Insolvency Poverty or Inabillity of diverse of the Persons from whom such Debts were due and Owing and that he this Defendant or his said Partner Richard Marshall as this Defendant doth [...] believe have not been able to receive or recover several of such Printing Debts.


These claims of uncollected or uncollectible debts demonstrate the widespread use of credit in their trade - or at least that part which involved sedentary shopkeepers - but they may have been self-serving, since Cluer Dicey was defending his failure to pay money to his sister.


 The same Chancery exhibit shows the extent of their distribution networks and other contacts. The Northampton business entries reveal extensive East and West Midlands and London outlets. The debtors included Aris of Birmingham, a debt of £19.12s.61/2d. owing from James Stoughton, newsman of Northampton, and a private debt owing to William Dicey of £317 from a London merchant, Captain Alexander Wilson. Elsewhere the network included Cork, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as, in England and Wales, Bridgnorth, Brighton, Chard, Chester, Doncaster, Exeter, Hull, Lancaster, Leominster, Liverpool, Louth, Manchester, Newcastle, Newport (Isle of Wight), Penzance, Truro and other parts of Cornwall, Plymouth, Sherborne, Swansea, Taunton, Worcester, Yarmouth, and York. In addition the Diceys used correspondents in Amsterdam for dealings with Silvanus Gardner of Boston, New England, sent goods regularly to Philadelphia, which included almanacs for Christopher Marshall - although the Diceys did not print these - and also had dealings in Newport, Rhode Island and with Thomas Redhead of Antigua. The same document also gives the date of 12 November 1753 as that of their partnership agreement with Richard Marshall. He held a 25% share. William and Cluer each held equal shares of three-eighths. Marshall at that time at least apparently had no part in the medical side of the business since shares in it were divided into thirds (William and Cluer Dicey and Elizabeth Okell).


The Diceys undoubtedly thrived. William Dicey’s will describes him as "citizen and leather seller" - the trade to which he had first been apprenticed - of London, "now residing in the town of Northampton" and refers to "my wholesale warehouse in Bow-church yard" and to his printing presses and equipment in London and elsewhere. (18) He left £500 for the purchase of an annuity for his son, Robert (1721-1757) but stated that if he agreed to carry on the printing business in Northampton he should inherit all of his father’s business there and "all my wooden cuts for printing." Robert’s name appears on a few Northampton imprints and he seems to have managed the Dicey’s business there. There is no record any agreement and Robert anyway died a few months after his father. His will, proved on 9 April 1757, records a number of bequests to relatives with the remainder, including property in Lancaster, going to his wife Grace. (19) In the will Robert is styled as a gentleman. Another of Cluer Dicey’s brother’s, the Rev. Edward Dicey (d. 1790), had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and held a living in Buckinghamshire. Another Dicey, Thomas Dicey, a member of the Customs Service, was the author of An historical account of Guernsey (London, 1751) which attracted a subscription list headed by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland. It is not clear how he was related to William or Cluer but the subscription list included both men and Edward, Robert and William Dicey, Jr. and Mrs Mary Dicey and Mrs Margaret Dicey.


In 1765, Cluer Dicey purchased a gentleman’s house, Claybrooke Hall in Claybrooke Parva, Leicestershire, from Thomas Byrd, a local landowner. (20) When he died in 1775 his will described him as of "Little Claybrooke in the county of Leicester, Esq." .(21) He also had two farms in Little Claybrooke and property in Stoke Newington, London. In addition to his son and heir, Thomas (1742-1807) and other members of his family, he made bequests to Richard Marshall then described as "of the parish of St. Mary Aldermary in the City of London printer" and to Marshall’s wife and mother-in-law. He also settled the large amount of £5000 on his daughter Sarah Anne, born in 1746, who had married a London merchant, George Rigby. Since Cluer Dicey does not mention his own Aldermary business in this will, made in 1772, it is possible that he had sold his shares to Marshall by this date. Although given the rank of esquire (his father was not), he had been described in 1761 by the Rev. Thomas Percy, the preeminent eighteenth-century ballad antiquarian and collector, as "an acquaintance ... of a much lower stamp" but Percy was sensitive about his own modest origins.(22) There is also evidence that at about this time the Diceys acquired a coat of arms, described as "Arms, Azur, a lion rampant and a chief Or; Dicey; impaling, Argent, a squirrel sejant, cracking nuts proper." (23)


In 1779 there was an acrimonious legal dispute between Rigby, acting on behalf of his and his deceased wife’s daughter, also Sarah Anne, and Thomas Dicey, who had taken over the Northampton and London businesses. Dicey was then described as "of Stocks Hall near Jarington, Bucks, Esquire" as well as the owner of Claybrooke Hall. (24) The Diceys’ social ambitions and rising status may help explain why he increasingly seems to have to have turned away from the production of cheap print and sale of medicines. Most of Thomas Diceys’ extant and identifiable publications by the last two decades of the century, certainly at Northampton, where he traded as T. Dicey and Co. and as Dicey & Sutton were not chapbooks or ballads or other forms of cheap print. It is unclear what close personal connection he retained with the businesses at Aldermary and Bow after about 1790. Some advertisements also suggest the Diceys’ removal of their name from wholesaling. One advertisement offers medicines at "Dr. Bateman's true and original warehouse in Bow Church-yard, kept by Cluer Dicey, and Company, and at his warehouse in Northampton", a later one only at the "original warehouse for Dicey & Co.'s medicines, No. 10, Bow Church-Yard, Cheapside" while a third drops the Dicey name and refers only to the "wholesale warehouse in London. ...". (25) However, there is evidence that the Diceys continued to use the Bow premises and the Northampton Mercury, of which the family maintained control until 1885, continued to use the Dicey name in advertisements for patent medicines at least until the 1840s


The Diceys were acquainted with Hannah More, who wrote an epitaph on Cluer Dicey, which was inscribed on his memorial tablet in St. Peter’s Church, opposite Claybrooke Hall, and later epitaphs for members of the family. In 1780 she wrote that she had "been spending a week with my good friends the Diceys" and commented on the attractiveness of their house and gardens and the fact that "Mr. Dicey lives like a prince." (26) It seems that this was a house owned by Thomas Dicey at Hampton, Middlesex. More’s cheap religious tracts and small stories and songs were a direct reworking of the kinds of material produced by the Diceys. The family too may have put her in contact with John Marshall, Richard Marshall’s successor, who used the address of No 4 Aldermary from the 1780s onwards and continued to produce cheap print. For a time he was the printer and publisher of More’s repository tracts. (27)


More, who in 1781 had described the American government as a "Mobocracy", was by 1790s like many evangelicals carrying on an offensive against Paineite and radical ideas among the lower orders and the influence of specious ideas of "liberty and equality." While accepting that "vulgar and indecent penny books were always common" her objections to "speculative infidelity, brought down to the pockets and capacities of the poor" and her wish to evangelize poor families led her to adopt the proven marketing techniques of the day to distribute her own material, including the extensive use of pedlars and hawkers. One of her allies in these endeavours was the Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus, who criticised a


central set of booksellers that are to the full as mischievous as your hawkers, pedlars, and match-women, in vending the vilest penny pamphlets to the poor people, and I am told it is incredible what fortunes they raise by this sort of traffic and what multitudes of the lowest rabble flock to their shops to purchase their execrable tracts.


Porteus advocated setting up a kind up rival virtuous cheap print empire whose works would be circulated by respectable pedlars and hawkers. (28) This was to some extent achieved in the United States where some of the cheap repository tracts were quickly reprinted and, from about 1800, produced in large numbers. (29)


Despite the undoubted past reliance of the Diceys on such individuals to sell at least some of their products, the family had by this time established a considerable social distance between themselves and hawkers, pedlars and match-women. More’s sympathy with the Diceys seems to have been based in part on shared evangelical sensibilities, evidence for which is found in 1805 in the Rev.Aulay Macaulay’s funeral sermon on the death of Emma Dicey, for whom More also composed an epitaph, which refers to her being "trained up from infancy under the wing of maternal piety," to her "active benevolence", her Sunday school teaching, her care for the poor, and her other good works in the bosom of a Christian family. (30) This family evangelicalism must have been reinforced by the marriage of Emma’s brother, Thomas Edward Dicey (1798-1858), a graduate of Trinity, Cambridge, to Anne Marie Stephen, which brought him into the circle of the Rev. John Venn, the evangelical rector of Clapham, a name passed on to his son Albert Venn Dicey.


Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922) was educated at Balliol College, Oxford and married into a prominent Kentish family, the Bonham Carters. He became a well-known legal and political writer and Vinerian Professor of English Law and a fellow of All Souls at Oxford. His brother Edward James Stephen Dicey (1832-1911), attended Trinity, Cambridge, and later became an influential liberal journalist. Another brother, Henry, became a lawyer. In 1847 the Diceys left the Midlands and moved to Kensington. (31) The descendants of William Dicey, leather-seller and warehouseman of London, had left trade behind and were becoming pillars of the English liberal upper-middle class English intelligentsia.

RCS   Continued...