In a previous blog (June 2013) we wrote of our affection for the Victorian encyclopedia Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates. Another well-worn favourite on the Debrett bookshelves (although it is now available online) is Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England (5th edition, 4 vols, 1842), to which family historians turn for descriptions of the parishes, towns and hamlets of the nation in the early days of Victoria’s reign: for population figures and administrative identities; and for an account of their soil, their industries, their places of worship and their schools. Lewis’s style is elegantly succinct, and while smaller parishes and villages have modest and business-like entries, there are little dashes of colour. We learn for example of the parish of Betley, Staffordshire, that:
the village is remarkably cheerful and pleasant, and contains several respectable houses.
Large towns and significant parishes are given much more space: the entry for Carlisle, for example, runs to three and a half pages.
The first edition was published in four volumes in May 1831 and included county maps, a national map, and a plan of the London area. The scale of the project was daunting: there had been no topographical work on this scale since Camden’s Vision of Britain Through Time, which was first published (in Latin) in 1586, and the availability of local histories was patchy. Lewis explains in his Preface that he first engaged ‘several gentlemen’:
to procure, by personal examination and enquiry, the fullest information upon the various subjects contemplated in the plan of the work.
He had originally conceived the dictionary as purely topographical, but then decided to include historical information, and so ‘other gentlemen’ were employed to sift out ‘notices of the most important occurrences connected with each spot’.
Nineteenth century data collection was a cumbersome business. The project began in 1825 and the initial survey, using a printed questionnaire, took place over three years. The raw material also included some 3,000 documents donated by ‘a clergyman residing in the neighbourhood of Ashby de la Zouch’ who had attempted a similar project by sending questionnaires to every parish priest in the kingdom. Not all had complied; not all the questionnaires had been fully completed, and it may be imagined that the unnamed clergyman relinquished his mountain of paperwork with some relief to the publishers. Scholars from the British Museum, the London Institution and elsewhere provided additional information. Members of the local nobility and gentry also contributed, some donating material that had not previously been published. The maps were engraved on steel plates from drawings made ‘from the best authorities’. In the copies circulating today, these maps have too often been plucked from the books and resold.
The work of compilation and editing took a further three years and Lewis estimated the entire cost of producing the first edition at nearly £48,000. Inevitably, the work attracted plagiarists, and Lewis successfully took Archibald Fullarton to the Court of Chancery in 1839 for his New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, which was published in Glasgow hard on the heels of Lewis’s work, and which was judged by the court to be ‘to a very considerable extent a piracy of the plaintiff’s copyright’.
In the early stages of the project Lewis had a business partner, George Pringle, who was still involved in 1836 when Pringle and Lewis were named as principal creditors of a bankrupt printer of Andover, Benjamin Bensley. By 1846, Pringle was referred to as his ‘late partner’. His only son, Samuel Lewis the younger (1821–1862), joined in the enterprise as a draughtsman, and also published two works on the history and topography of Islington, but died, of pneumonia, at the age of only 42.
In response to the early editions, Lewis received thousands of letters with corrections and additions with which he revised the text, and so the later editions are more reliable. By 1849 there had been seven editions, and similar volumes for Scotland, Wales and Ireland had also been published. Presumably in gratitude to the many clergymen who supported and contributed the work, in 1848 Lewis donated 100 guineas to the Society for the Sons of the Clergy of the Church of Scotland.
Purchase was by subscription and by 1846 Lewis calculated that the various editions had sold to 20,000 subscribers in all. The names of the subscribers to each volume were published as a preface, and included members of the royal family and the aristocracy as well as numerous clergymen and ‘esquires’. There was a sales team of agents, and fulfilment was a slow process: several years could pass between the signing of a prospectus and the delivery of the product. Female subscribers were few: this was a work undertaken by gentlemen, for gentlemen; and for any who defaulted upon their undertaking, the law had an answer. In 1846 Lewis took Walker Smith Esq of Brotherton, Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, to the Court of Exchequer for the non-payment of his £13 13s subscription. The court decided in Lewis’s favour, the tart verdict being that:
‘Gentlemen should not put down their names to such a work unless they intended to pay’.
Family of Samuel Lewis
Samuel Lewis married, on 18 November 1816 at St George the Martyr, Southwark, Charlotte, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Tuchin, who had moved from Warwickshire to London. Samuel’s own parentage has not yet been established but he appears to have been baptised in an Independent Chapel in Abingdon, Berkshire, on 2 June 1782: Abingdon was certainly his place of birth. His son Samuel was born in Worcester and baptised there on 29 April 1821 (at St Martin’s); he was followed by a daughter Jane, baptised at St James, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, on 22 January 1826; and by Eliza, baptised on 20 February 1828 at St Stephen, Colman Street, London. Eliza never married and lived at home until her father’s death.
Lewis & Co had business premises at 87 Aldersgate Street (1831); at 87 Hatton Garden (1842); and at 13 Finsbury Place South (1845). Samuel lived with his family in Myddleton Street, Clerkenwell, in 1826 and at 13 Coleman Street, London, in 1828, but by 1841 he had settled in Islington, where he died, at 19 Compton Terrace, on 28 February 1865. His estate was valued at under £7,000. In the census return of 1861 he was described not as a publisher but as a landed proprietor and fund holder; whatever his origins, Lewis at the end of his life had established himself as one of the English gentlemen for whom his great work was created.
Published Sources: Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 1st edn, 4 vols (London, 1831); Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of England, 5th edn, 4 vols (London, 1842); Laurence Worms, ‘Lewis, Samuel (1782/3–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; Birmingham Journal, 25 Jul 1836; The Times, 22 Feb 1838; Cork Examiner, 12 Aug 1844; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846; Caledonian Mercury, 29 May 1848.
Unpublished Sources: National Archives: Census 1841, 1851, 1861; Principal Probate Registry: National Probate Calendar 1865; Parish Registers of St James, Clerkenwell; St George the Martyr, Southwark; St Stephen, Coleman Street, London (London Metropolitan Archives/Ancestry.co.uk).
 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 22 Nov 1846.