The mysterious Mr Alexander H. Shaw
Bookseller, and dealer in articles of Natural History in Aberdeen and London
3 July 2015
While Central London enjoyed the spoils of the rise of the printing industry in the late eighteenth century, the Strand became a hub for the book trade and fashionable buyers, and a quiet man was seemingly swallowed up. How can it be that so very little is known about Mr Alexander Shaw, of No. 379, Strand—the man for whom the now celebrated book of tapa cloth samples collected by Captain James Cook, was ‘arrainged and printed’?
Our four copies are fairly unprepossessing on first glance but they really are astonishing books. That they should have ever been created is one thing, much less that the colours of the samples should still be so vibrant today. Essentially, the work comprises an eight-page letterpress pamphlet: A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook, to the Southern Hemisphere; with a Particular Account of the Manner of Manufacturing the Same in the Various Islands of the South Seas, bound with actual samples of tapa cloth of varying size. Digitisation piqued my curiosity and led me down the path of trying to find out more about the man who brought the cloth to our attention, and then ducked behind the covers.
Much has been written about the book and the samples contained therein and a recent census has helped to identified at least 65 copies in private and institutional collections worldwide. They are highly prized volumes and in his Hawaiian national bibliography, David W. Forbes describes the book as very rare and ‘One of the great curiosities resulting from Cook’s Third Voyage’.
Shaw has been described as a London merchant, retired Army officer, entrepreneur and collector. Indeed, it is widely held that he served in the British military in Canada, the United States and Jamaica, finally returning to England sometime after 1783.
The Memorials of the Clan Shaw by William George Shaw, printed in 1871 for private circulation and now beamed freely across the Internet for anyone to read, quickly establish for us that there has been many an Alexander Shaw in Scotland’s history, and a good number of military men amongst them. Including no less, Lieutenant Alexander Shaw (1737–1811) of the 60th Regiment (Royal Americans), later Lieutenant-Governor and deputy to the Governor of the Isle of Man (1790–1804)—15th Chief of Clan Shaw and 10th Chief of Clan Shaw of Tordarroch. Mr. Alexander Shaw, late a Captain in the 60th regiment was certainly advertising his services as a military agent in the London papers from May–July 1783, conducting his business from 28 Northumberland Street, Strand and the British Coffee-house, Cockspur Street. But I'm not convinced that this Alexander Shaw referenced by Forbes is our man.
With so many 18th and 19th century resources now digitised, we can more easily delve into past lives. To me, the reports in the Aberdeen and Edinburgh press of the death of one ‘Mr Alexander Shaw, bookseller, and dealer in articles of Natural History, late of the Strand, London’ at Justice Mills, near Aberdeen (now central Aberdeen) on 22 July 1807 were more compelling.
'The Kirk of St Nicholas - The Mither Kirk and its Kirkyard', a booklet produced in the 1990s by the Aberdeen City Council about selected burials in the Kirkyard at St Nicholas' notes that:
Alexander Shaw lived in London for some years where he had a business as a bookseller but, on his return to Aberdeen, he took up residence at Justice Mills. Born in 1749, Shaw died in 1807...
With death surely and painfully approaching, my Alexander Shaw prepared a will at his home, 'Well Spring House' on the south side of the Howburn, on 5 July 1807. He suffered from an asthmatic complaint and hoped that upon his death, his lungs would be examined, ‘for the good of others’. His burial on 26 July 1807 was presumably conducted with Church of Scotland rites and he left clear instructions about his grave marker and ephitah—‘Alexr. Shaw late of London dealer in natural history and founder of the asylum for deserted and forsaken orphans with the year of my death’. Sadly, the ravages of time have erased the inscription in the Kirkyard of St Nicholas' in Aberdeen but he has been noted by the Mither Kirk Project.
Optimistic to the end, Shaw preferred that blue coats and bonnets be worn by his pall barers, and declared that ‘none of the dismal colours of black be worn or appear at my funeral nor that box upon which is painted round with bones and skulls’. He even honoured the workmen and gravedigger with three pounds for their toil! I like that he also left something for a lady confectioner, ‘as a token that I took her behaviour to be kind and obliging upon every occasion’.
Probate was granted on 25 February 1808 and Alexander provided for his brother, Hary (properly named Henry Shaw) and godson, Alexander Shaw Duged. It seems feasible that Hary Shaw, who died on 17 May 1824 and was buried in the Snow Kirkyard, Aberdeen (Parish of Old Machar) was Alexander's brother.
It is perplexing though, that Alexander Shaw—‘sometime dealer in natural history in London’—is reported in The Scots Magazine (Edinburgh) of 1 June 1793 as having left about £3000 for a foundling hospital in Aberdeen, at Yarmouth (Isle of Wight or Norfolk?). Another man perhaps or a case of premature testamentary or misreported news?
Business in Aberdeen and London
By the 1780s the London book trade was of course booming and Christie’s London auction house, in their September 2010 sale catalogue offering a copy of the book of tapa cloth samples, had Shaw flourishing in 1783. What happened between 1778 and 1783? Where exactly was this man Shaw flourishing? How did he get into the book business and whose books was he selling?
A letter dated 10 August 1807 within Shaw's Hospital Sederunt Book in the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives (ACC1549) reveals that Alexander and his only brother Hary began their bookselling business in 1776. Alexander took his brother ‘out of the Star & Gartern Tavern Edinburgh’ where he was a servant, and gathered book stock in that city before establishing themselves in Aberdeen. Presumably the said Star and Garter that Hary worked at was the same in Writers' Court, adjacent to the Royal Exchange, kept by John Clirehugh, said to have been a haunt of the Scottish judge, Lord Francis Garden (aka Lord Gardenstone, whose copy of the book of tapa samples is now in the British Museum's collection), and mentioned in Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering. That tavern was well situated in the legal and printing world of Edinbugh in the 1770s which could have led to good business contacts. Curious that another known copy of Shaw's book of tapa cloths should have made its way into the hands of one of Sir Walter Scott's friends, the antiquary Sir Alexander Keith, Esq. (1780–1833).
With Hary ensconsed in a shop at the Broadgate in Aberdeen, Alexander is said to have sold off their mother's furniture, removed to London in 1779, and cultivated some excellent connections for good business outcomes. In August that year, Alexander advertised in the Aberdeen Journal as a ‘sometime bookseller in Aberdeen, now in Little Turn Stile, High Holborn, London, where he deals in old books and ale kind of curiosities natural and artificial’ (his will indicates that he also had an interest in prints and numismatics). Who was the retired gentleman auctioneer who favoured Shaw with his friendship in London?
Hary joined his brother in London and claims to have conducted the bulk of the business: ‘I went to London to him in the year 1784; he took a shop for me 379 Strand. Half a year after he seeing I was doing well in it, came and took the house. Ever since he taking violent fits of ill health - seldom in any tolerable state of health - I neglected my own business and attended his ...’. In the end, it seems Hary felt slighted by his brother's will and that there must have been a falling out—‘he always told me there was nobody but myself to get what he left, nobody to come between him and me’. I'm intrigued to know the fate of their business and personal correspondence that he mentions.
Wherever they were based in mid-1786, we know that a Mr Shaw attended the epic sale conducted by Mr. Skinner and Co. of the Portland Museum collection—the Duchess of Portland having been Captain James Cook’s patron. The Library’s Nan Kivell copy of the sale catalogue (NK4358) is meticulously marked up with the prices realised over the course of the 38 day auction, a grand total of £11,523.11.0d. Interesting to note that in the midst of the sale, Captain Arthur Phillip set out from Portsmouth with the First Fleet and his convict cargo.
Whilst the former owner of Sir Rex Nan Kivell's copy of the Portland sale catalogue had a particular interest in the insects, birds, snuff boxes and jewels and has carefully noted the names of the winning bidders, he remained silent on lots 1376–1378 (the samples of South Seas cloth). However, another marked up copy of the catalogue, has ‘Shaw’ noted against two South Pacific lots—1370 (a basket from Otaheite) and 1375 (including instruments used for the manufacture of cloth)—and we learn that lots 1376–1378 were sold on the 13th day of the sale for relatively modest ‘cash’ prices. To Shaw, ‘as above’ perhaps? Donald Kerr’s census has evidence of at least two copies of Alexander Shaw’s book of tapas containing Jamaican samples from Duchess of Portland sale.
‘Shaw’ persisted at the sale and appears to have secured at least 22 lots, maybe as many as 30, on the 8th, 9th, 13th and 17th of May 1876: spars, minerals and petrifications, shells, a sponge and other plant specimens, including pods and seeds from curious plants and samples of wood from all over the world. At best, his bids for the 30 lots totalled £14.00.0d. Of course I'd like to think this was all the brothers from Aberdeen, but you do have to wonder if British naturalist George Shaw (1751–1813) might have been out shopping for murex, spondylus and trocus as well.
By 1787 Messers Shaw traded as booksellers from 379, Strand with the pamphlet and tapa cloth samples apparently running out the door. Their printer remains a mystery, although perhaps there was an arrangement with [John] Anderson in Parliament Square, Edinburgh? Hary certainly used J. Chalmers & Co. of Aberdeen as a printer in 1807.
The business continued on the Strand, trading variously as Alexander Shaw, Alexander H. Shaw, A.H. Shaw and ‘Shave and Shell’. The premises, in a ‘capital situation’ near Southampton-street, were advertised in the 23 June 1796 issue of London's Daily Advertiser for long lease and immediate occupancy. Alexander Shaw then re-appears at 47, St Martins Lane—a five minute stroll away today—and Hary was at 10, Great Turnstile, Holborn from 1799–1802.
Alexander and his brother were certainly in London for the December 1784 and December 1788 Westminster Elections, both supporting Whig candidates.
Bookselling in London at the time would surely have been a risky business and it came as some relief to learn that whilst they operated out of the Strand and St Martins Lane, the Shaw booksellers were insured by the Sun Fire Office, at least for the period 1 July 1789–22 August 1796: initially for £200, but later £300.
My Alexander Shaw certainly had an interest in the Loys Masson and Company, textile manufacturing company in Aberdeen at the time of his death.
A circle of friends
I haven't yet found compelling evidence that my Alexander Shaw attended university but there does seems to be a strong link with Marischal College (University of Aberdeen) and he was clearly educated and curious. He mentions in his will, physicians and surgeons as being among his ‘chief customers and best friends, both’ in London and Edinburgh, and favoured the law and divinity as fields of higher education for the boys attending his asylum.
It seems unlikely that the Shaws were in the social orbit of Cook or his voyagers, Sir Joseph Banks, James King, David Samwell or William Bayly—all of whom had collections of items gathered from the South Sea voyages. However, they may have been customers, if not personally, per the retired gentleman auctioneer friend in London. The known copies of the book of tapa samples include one with provenance linked back to Cook's wife; one passed from Banks to the American physician and botanist David Hosack (1769–1835); and another held by Corbet d’Avenant, Baronet of Stoke and Adderley (1752–1823) who is thought to have been a private sponsor of Cook's voyage. Fellow Scot, Robert Anderson (born 1741/2) who was quartermaster on the Endeavour, and gunner on the Resolution during Cook’s second and third voyages had a copy, as did John James (born 1752?), a marine on Cook's third voyage on the Resolution.
We know from the William L. Clements Library's copy of the book that Welsh naturalist, traveller, writer and antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) hustled down the Strand to call on Shaw and secured every tapa sample he could. Surely they met, perhaps through Pennant's friendships with Joseph Banks and the Duchess of Portland's librarian, John Lightfoot? We librarians are good people to know ...
Other contemporaries who we now know held copies of Shaw's edition include Sir Ashton Lever (1729–1788), whose celebrated Leverian Museum collection included many items from Cook's voyages; the Lyon-Bowes family with ties to the earldom of Strathmore and Kinghorne; Major-General Sir Thomas Munro (1761–1827); and antiquary Francis Douce (1757–1834). There was a good deal of Scottish blood on the eighteenth-century London bookselling and publishing scene, and if you tickle the surface, the Scotts provenance and associations across the census of known copies of Shaw's book of tapa samples is quite striking.
Personally, Alexander's will mentions Robert Walker and his wife Isabel Reid, who appear to have married at Saint Nicholas, Aberdeen in May 1756 and lived in the well-to-do parish of Old Machar. He also had friends in the Aberdeen merchants, John Ewen and William Davidson (died 5 March 1809). It'd be nice to think Alexander's gold pocketwatch is still somewhere within the Davidson family.
As far as I have been able to establish, Alexander Shaw didn't marry and raise a family of his own. That said, it would seem that a fair number of children benefited from his benevolence, including his godson and name sake, Alexander Shaw Duguid.
‘Deliberately and seriously intending to dedicate the means’ he had ‘acquired through life to the purpose of bringing up and educating a few forsaken and destitute children’, Alexander left the bulk of his fortune–£1,644, over £1.3 million in today's money–for the establishment of what was then described as an asylum. Reports of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Endowed Schools and Hospitals (Scotland) includes evidence provided by Charles Warrack on 16 November 1872 and offers useful background to the foundation of Alexander Shaw’s Hospital in Aberdeen.
For the maintenance, aliment, entertainment, and education of five boys and five girls, who are fatherless, or deserted and forsaken by then-parents, or are otherwise destitute and neglected, and have no sufficient means of subsistence or education.
In the original deed, our bookseller directed that the institution should take the name of Shaw or Davidson (in honour of his friend, William Davidson) and although constituted by a deed of settlement dated 21 July 1807 with £1,644 (the proceeds of his heritable and moveable property), the hospital was not realised by the City of Aberdeen until 1839. Starting out at Gallowgate, Aberdeen admitted the children from the age of two and four, keeping the boys to the age of 12 and girls to 13.
The children all attended the Church of Scotland (South Parish) and were educated at Dr John Brown’s School. Alexander had hoped that they all be taught to ‘read and spell the English language and to speak it properly! And also if possible to answer some questions in the French language, chiefly such as relating to buying and selling’. Arithmetic was also on the agenda, with needlework for the girls. The boys were to be each allowed a £6 apprentice fee and £10 when they had completed their apprenticeship. The girls were inevitably intended for service and those who stayed on at the Hospital to the age of 13 were to receive £10, so long as they remained five years with the families with whom they were placed—with thought on Shaw's part for all parties concerned. Boys of ‘superior genius’ were permitted to stay on to the age of 21, to study French and cultivate a profession. I wonder how many did?
The residents moved in 1863 to Broadford Cottage and from 1882–1888, lived at 'Rosebank House', 8 Rosemount Place in North-West Aberdeen. In November 1888, there was an Educational Trust merger of institutions, including Shaw’s Hospital and the institution was ultimately sold to the Aberdeen School's Board in 1890 for £450.
And the godson? ‘Dugod’ is an old Aberdeenish name with many variations in records thanks to translations between Gaelic and English over time. I suspect him to be the son of Robert or William Duguid, merchants of Aberdeen but with the family motto of Patientia et spe ('With patience and hope') we can but wait for him to present himself to us.
There is still much to be learned about our hitherto little-known Mr Alexander Shaw, Whig-leaning, textile fancier, sweet tooth, sometime bookseller and dealer in natural history of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and London.
For now, it is satisfying to shine a small light on him.
Thy will be done.
With special thanks to colleagues at the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives, Mither Kirk Project at Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen and the Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen for their assistance.